Unconferences: How to Tap into the Power Of Your People

Are you tapping into the power of your people?

Let’s say your company starts each year with a kickoff to bring people together, review past performance, and communicate new direction and priorities. A great deal of important information will be shared by those at the top, but how do you keep every attendee engaged and participating? With your entire team in one place at the same time, you’ve got a rare opportunity for everyone to share their innovation, ideas, and challenges. How do you set up that kind of cross-pollination so everyone can learn about one another and from one another?

On Monday January 26th, Hootsuite had its first internal unconference for about 150 people from across all our technical groups: Product, Engineering, Design, IT, Operations, Security, New Product Growth, and Labs (R&D).

My take away from that afternoon?

Look to the people building your company to surface ideas and subject matter expertise – their depth of knowledge and passion about what they do and love can be truly inspiring.

What is an Unconference?

It is an exhilarating whirlwind of spontaneity in which participants pitch, select, organize, and deliver sessions all in the same day. A lack of a planned conference agenda keeps audience anticipation high – and organizers a little uncomfortable – right up until the moment it gets published.

Steve and Josh tetris an agenda

As a participant I remember thinking… What topic should I pitch? Who else is going to pitch? Maybe I should get up there and pitch first – just in case? Which session will I vote for? Will mine get selected? Whoa – my pitch got voted on to the agenda! (At this point a mild panic set in and I began immediately to prepare for my session). What’s the schedule going to be? Which sessions will I go to? What will I learn? Who am I going to meet?

As an organizer I remember thinking… I hope this works. Did I explain the concept enough? Will anyone bail out on pitching at the last minute? Who’s going to get picked? Will every session be super technical? How will we organize an agenda? How can I best publicise the agenda? Will anyone get lost? Will the sessions be fruitful?

I structured ours based on a format followed by Vancouver’s Polyglot Unconference:

  1. Candidates pitch their session ideas in 30 seconds. Their pitch contains the topic and a suggested format like a talk, panel, or roundtable discussion.
  2. The pitch ideas move to a big board where all the participants vote for their top choices.
  3. Organizers frantically tetris together an agenda from the most popular choices with themes, anticipated attendance, capacity of their venue, format of the session and audio / visual requirements in mind.

People shined in their pitches and their sessions: their passion and enthusiasm for what they do and what they care about really came through. Voting has the challenge of physical space limitations (it gets crowded at the voting area) and making a choice from so many good options is tricky. Tetrising together a schedule is the most fun because it is unlocking a puzzle with multiple variables.

What did people say about it? Let’s do it again.

I asked everyone who took part for feedback afterwards, and received 101 responses:

  • Average Return on Time Invested (ROTI): 5.2 out of 6
  • Net Promoter Score (NPS): 60 when asked “On a scale of 0 – 10, how likely are you to recommend an Unconference as a way to share information and learn from one another?”)
  • Would you like to participate in more unconferences at Hootsuite”, and 91% said “Yes”

My only wish is to to get more Unconference. :-)Informal and inclusive. they got the people talking – round table-like. I liked that.

More like this please! i.e. opportunities to network with other teams and people, and learn from each other in a supportive environment.

Totally excellent. A great way to get ideas across to different teams and to hear what people outside your team has to say on topics that are personally relevant.

Really cool format, awesome topics, and great way to get people involved. Biggest complaints were just time based – every talk didn’t have enough time.

The ideas brainstormed at the unconference are sure to positively impact Hootsuite. It’s a very rare opportunity for people from differing departments and roles to have an intimate discussion on important technical matters.

Epic. Amazing to see some of the knowledge team members have.

Tough to choose between so many great topics. Would love to see more of these.

Very useful! With a lot of new employees with different backgrounds we learn a lot from each other. Also a great way to connect different teams. Organizing unconference at hootsuite every once in a while would be very very valuable!

I would add these with a regular cadence for all the owls to learn from one another.

Here’s why I think it worked.

Conversations are More Valuable than the Sessions

I love Scott Berkun’s saying about conferences: “conversations are more valuable than the sessions,” and I repeat it like a broken record. Why? Presented material will forever live in an online archive, but opportunities to build a meaningful relationship through insightful conversations are fleeting and finite. Maybe you’ll see that person next year … maybe not.

More importantly, conversations are a more effective way to learn. Most speakers at conventional conferences deliver 80% of their material by talking at the audience, and leave maybe 20% of time at the end for conversing via questions. Unconferences blend conversations and sessions – most of our sessions were 20% telling and 80% conversing (or in some cases almost all conversing). According to the Economist: 

…lectures, whether online or in the flesh, play only a limited role in education. Research shows that the human brain accepts new concepts largely through constant recall while interacting socially. This suggests that good teaching must “de-emphasise lecture and emphasise active problem-solving,” says Carl Wieman, a winner of the Nobel prize in physics and an adviser to Barack Obama. [4]

Jan Carter

World Class is within Your Organization

Who is an “expert,” and where do you look for world class inspiration? My colleague Geordie likes to remind us to “think world class” because expertise and innovation don’t have to come from somewhere external.

Look to the people building your company to surface ideas and subject matter expertise in your organization – their depth of knowledge and passion about what they do and love can be truly inspiring. 

Critical Mass?

Vancouver’s 2014 Polyglot Unconference had ~250 participants, ~50 pitches and 44 sessions; our internal unconference had ~150 participants, 34 pitches and 18 sessions. Each timeslot had between 6 and 8 sessions. My small data set says to expect 20% of participants to pitch a session and plan for 1 session per 6-8 participants.

Unconferences work in organizations of all sizes. For smaller organizations, I suggest running a community event like Vancouver’s Polyglot Unconference or partnering with other organizations, or both. For a larger organization, Dunbar’s Number can be a guide: 150 people for a half-day conference, 300 for a full-day, and beyond that – run your events in parallel.

Will it work for you? Why did it work for us?

The unconference model fit our culture and practice of working-out-loud, social learning, and willingness to teach. For example, most of us belong to a guild and have given a lightning talk, and run an onboarding session for new hires.

Wikipedia suggests that this form of conference is particularly useful when the attendees generally have a high level of expertise or knowledge in the field the conference convenes to discuss. As for expertise, confidence about something you do and love corroborated with hands-on experience and concrete outcomes is enough to confirm it.

Does this sound familiar? Intriguing? Then this model makes your organization suitable for an unconference.

Alex Boissiere talks ReactJS and Flux

How to run an Internal Unconference

Focus on the fundamentals. Ironically, methodical preparation is the key to running an event filled with spontaneity.

  • Explain it like I’m 5: Make the concept clear and enticing to get buy in from participants and your sponsors. I started with informal conversations with trusted soundboards to gauge the acceptability of this idea; then presented the idea and reasoning to senior leadership for support; then presented a step-by-step walkthrough of the concept and its mechanics, supported with examples, to all participants.
  • Set a theme: Pick something that participants can get behind. Ours was: “What are you working on/excited about that is going to make an impact in 2015?”
  • Encourage commitment: I asked and encouraged strong teachers, speakers, facilitators to submit topics for sessions.
  • Show Social Proof: People will do things that they see others doing [8]. I asked people about two weeks beforehand to post their session ideas to an Yammer Note visible by everyone in our company.
  • Keep pitches short: I kept pitches to 30 seconds.
  • Set a session length: 40 minutes with at least 20 minutes for discussion during the ‘hallway track’ is just enough time to cover essentials and allow for conversations between sessions. Our timeline allowed for 30 minutes sessions with a 15 minute break; but participant comments came back saying that 30 minutes was too short.
  • Make the schedule mobile: Publish the final schedule and ensure participants can see it on mobile.
  • Ask for feedback: Follow-up with a survey to understand how to iterate on your next unconference.
  • Prepare your space: an easily accessible wall, gigantic sticky notes and pens to use for voting, a big room for pitches and voting, multiple breakout rooms with movable seating areas and have either whiteboards, flip charts, or A/V. Post a floorplan next to the voting station so participants can find venues.
  • Lastly, Scott Berkun has some very good resources on unconferences.

Unconference Ideas

List of Topics

  1. This thing called “culture” – How we got it and how we keep it
  2. Improving the onboarding experience and increasing conversion at scale
  3. Tests vs. types (Scala)
  4. Recruiting new owls and finding people we want to work with
  5. The Future of Front End Development (ReactJS + Flux)
  6. How Do We Take Hootsuite Multi-Region
  7. Buzz (Quickfix Engineering): Why it matters and why every team needs one
  8. Knowledge Transfer / What is Good Documentation? / Why Should We Document?
  9. Conducting Technical Interviews
  10. Moving to Amazon VPC: How and why?
  11. Hootsuite on Mesos (http://mesos.apache.org/)
  12. Hackathons
  13. [Technical] Community Involvement – Giving Back
  14. Agile maturity: How to move from “Doing Agile” to being “Culturally Agile”
  15. Hootsuite and the war on Hackers.
  16. The Intelligent Dashboard: Solving the riddle of onboarding
  17. From Research to Design, and Design-Led Product Innovation
  18. Find Out Why all Copy is Conversion Copy

Thank You

To all the technical staff at Hootsuite: thank you for making our unconference a remarkable experience. Looking forward to doing this again! To Polyglot Vancouver for the inspiration, Tavis Rudd for his timely and helpful guidance, Tea Nicola for her advice, Scott Berkun for sharing his thoughts on his blog, and Lindsay Staniforth, Ric Mazereeuw, and Kimli Welsh for editing early versions of this post.