What’s an Unconference?

Currently involved in organizing the first Agile Unconference in Denmark (Agile Coach Camp Denmark) I regularly get the question: ”What’s an Unconference?”.

When I first attended a conference on Agile back in 2003 (XP/Agile Universe in New Orleans), I was excited about the scheduled talks and mainly used the breaks to fill my depots. I was an Agile newbie, and the sessions at the conference was a great way to be introduced to the principles and practices of Agile. As I got more experienced in practicing Agile, I found the scheduled talks less and less giving and often found more inspiration and value in talking to other participants during breakfast, breaks, lunch or over dinner.

I think a lot of people have had the same experience. Recognizing this is one of the reasons why today’s conferences on Agile have an Open Space track where the participants make up the agenda as they go along. But why is it that many attendances at conferences find these Open Space sessions more inspirational than the traditional talks?

A standard speaker/audience talk can explain the basic rules of the game. But knowing the rules doesn’t necessarily mean that you can play the game. Successful implementation of Agile is about people, and context and since the rules are not rocket science you will quickly go from learning the rules to start thinking about how to apply them in your environment. During standard talks, there is no room for asking questions like “I have a guy on my team who … and he is not …”. In Open Space sessions or hallway discussions, you are much more likely to find the help/inspiration you need to solve the issue.

Secondly, the quality of a traditional talk is dependent on only one (or very few) people, namely the person on stage. If the speaker is nervous, ill-prepared, bad at communicating his ideas, has a bad day or is just not as experienced as expected, then the audience will not get the expected benefit from the talk. I think there is a good chance that there will often (if not always) be one or more people in the audience who has more experience with the topic discussed than the people selected to be on stage. Unfortunately, the traditional conference format does not support these variations. Even worse they are often not also identifies and you, therefore, don´t know who to track down in the hallways or over lunch. Sure there is a Q&A session at the end of most talks, but by then most people are eager to have a break, find a restroom before the next session or the speaker is running out of time.

An unconference organizes the hallway and lunch discussions by promoting the audience to participants. There are no “bosses” on stage dictating the direction of the conference with their PowerPoint remote control. There are no keynotes or traditional talks. Every participant is equal and is encouraged (and expected) to share their experience and ideas, be prepared to have their idea challenges and to challenge and learn from others experience.

Unconferences are often conducted using some different facilitation styles including Fishbowl, Lightning Talks, Knowledge Café, Open Space and Dotmocracy. The basic idea is that the participants make up the agenda together and in collaboration decide how much time and effort to spend on the different topics. Unconferences apply some of the basic Agile principles to organize the discussions. The participants collaborate on creating a backlog of issues on arrival or shortly before, regularly prioritize what topic has the highest value, time box each session and so forth.

For more information on the Agile Coach Camp Denmark to be held in late October 2012 in Copenhagen please check back regularly at www.agilecoachcamp.dk or follow the #ACCDK keyword on Twitter. We will post more details as they are available and registration will open up in late July.

I Hope to see you at ACCDK.

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