Why the Lean Unconference is gaining popularity

Posted by Hazel Hollis on August 5, 2016

One of the great things about working at TOPdesk is the freedom you get to organize your own events, like the recent Pecha Kucha evening that the Agile Community held, or our annual innovation Hackathon. In this post I want to share what it’s like to participate in a Lean Unconference (a conference with no schedule), a concept I first encountered in the Leancamp Startup circle.


What is a Lean Un-conference?

The Lean Unconference started with a kick off.  Together with around thirty young professionals and entrepreneurs, the organisers gathered in the lobby. They first recapped the format and goals of the (half) day and gave everyone time to fully arrive and focus on the present.

The organisers underlined elimination of waste is at the heart of Lean. A Lean Unconference thrives on the premise that we have all come to learn or to share.  If you are not doing one or the other, you risk wasting not only your time, but the time of others who are trying to learn or share. We agreed to use the law of two feet. If a session is not as relevant as hoped, use your time wisely and join another session instead.

Instead of a passive conference experience, the Unconference organisers did a good job in activating the participants. For a short time, they said (and they were right!), we had access to a wealth of knowledge, experience and expertise. It would take weeks, or even years to share all that we had learned. We only had half a day, so let’s make the most of it! An introduction like this generated a noticeable drive among those present to make it time well spent.



An Un-scheduled conference?

When I say an Unconference has no schedule, this is not strictly true. An empty schedule posted in the central area displayed six slots of a half hour, each with a number of available rooms (say, four or five).

Before each block of three slots, participants could pitch their session to the group. We then assigned post-its to a room big enough to seat those interested. While everyone was welcome to prepare, keeping the schedule empty ensured that all proposed topics were current, relevant and interesting. It was perhaps more reminiscent of open spaces or breakout sessions than a traditional conference.



What can the sessions be about?

This is another advantage of Unconferences. Sessions can be about anything! You might follow a particular theme (Agile Testing, Customer Feedback) or simply leave your options open. To make the outcome as useful as possible, pitches should be relevant (address a current issue) and personal (based on experience).

  • You might ask a question: How does user experience fit into Agile Development?
  • You could share tips or experience: How I made Risk Poker really work for my project team.
  • Maybe you want to teach a new skill: Mind-mapping for user scenarios.
  • Or get advice: How do I get my team to talk more about unit testing?

For each session, the host could choose from a number of interesting session formats.



What session formats can you use at a Lean Unconference?

The Leancamp resources page explains the following session formats in more detail.

  • Show and Tell
  • Open Interview
  • Ask an Expert
  • Fishbowl (otherwise known as the park bench)
  • Tag Team
  • Group Advice
  • Idea Storm


Lean Unconference Session Sheet


One thing to keep in mind at this point, is that your session hosts are probably not experienced facilitators. To get the most out of your Unconference, it helps to have set facilitators who are familiar with each format. There should be one present at each session, and they should be careful not to take part in the discussion. Their only job is to support the chosen format, leaving the session host and participants to focus on maximum learning.


Why organize an Unconference?

What I think made the unconference format so powerful was the participatory nature of the event. Participants really owned their experience and the experience of others. Each individual’s intrinsic value and ability to contribute was not only recognised, it was revered. Finally, the emphasis on Lean gave people an extra trigger to really get the most out of their time and each other.

For large scale events, a predefined programme is unavoidable. But when it comes to community gatherings or an afternoon with your colleagues I feel that the unconference format really serves its purpose. If you’d like to set up a knowledge exchange for your team, community or colleagues, a Lean Unconference is effective, pertinent and above all fun.



About the author: Hazel Hollis

Agile Tester Extraordinaire. If it's fun or informative, I'll be there.

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