Why take a chance on an unconference day?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 8, 2013
How do you avoid people leaving your event without the content they needed? By turning the final day of the show into an unconference.

The first year of the SAP Controlling conference, the final feedback session indicated people were leaving home with too many loose ends.

In 2013, we did something about it. How? By turning the final day of the show into an unconference structure, kicking off with only a white board and an Internet connection.

For anyone who wants to ensure their event attendees hop on planes with more knowledge and fewer regrets, there are good lessons here.

I had experimented with unconference events before, but never with a group quite as 'enterprisey' as SAP Controllers (I've already written about how the 100 customer attendees reacted to HANA). I knew that those who participated in the final unconference day had already been to either two or three days of sessions and networking events.

Hopefully by that point in the conference they had already formed relationships that would be useful to them going forward. My concern was the content. If you put on an event, you don't want anyone to head home missing topic knowledge they need for their project.

That happens more often than you'd think. Example: someone attends a session late in the final day that doesn't provide them with the info they were looking for. Or: a session they needed was simply missing from the schedule (we had that problem the first year with analytics content, and by the final feedback session, it was too late to act).

The core team that put on the final day had a simple goal: no one leaves with unanswered topic questions.

Organizing principles

In reality, we didn't intend to have a totally unstructured day. We believed that our spreadsheet-fluent attendees would not be comfortable scribbling outside the lines all day. The top priority? Quickly establish a loose structure that addressed their biggest needs and gave them a comfort level with the day's agenda.

We had one main room with white boards, Internet connections and a projection screen.There was a spillover room for ad-hoc sessions. And there was sunny San Diego with plenty of restaurants for those who wanted to break off and talk amongst themselves.

For the 40+ that gathered for the day, the agenda was to get everyone talking and involved early and often.

We did that with a facilitated white board exercise based on the following:

What do you most want to learn today?

What expertise can you share with the group?

The questions are simple but the exercise is potent. The first question seems straightforward until you consider that 40 people might have 40 different topic agendas. The second question ups the ante because aside from speakers, most do not attend a show thinking of themselves as experts with content from their projects to share. In order for the day to be successful, we needed a skills inventory of the participants.

The risk was that the kick off session would descend into chaos or become a cumbersome chore. But during our planning, we decided that each person needed to chime in on the two questions. Through gentle prodding if necessary, everyone needed to speak up, and by doing so, start taking ownership of the day (One of the big risks of an unstructured day is that 'alpha' participants quickly take over at the expense of quieter voices. Getting everyone talking early is one way to move away from that scenario).

While I played the role of gentle prodder, conference organizer Alice Adams (pictured left) was at the white board, writing down topic requests. As we progressed, we tried to group the topics into logical categories where they were obvious without slowing down the exercise. Conference founder and Controlling expert John Jordan was in the audience. We hoped that by participating just like any other attendee, John would set a tone that everyone has content to share and learn from.

We were prepared to devise as many small group breakout sessions as needed to hit on the issues surfaced, but in this case, the vast majority of the topic interests fell into several main categories such as product costing. As we moved from the initial 'go round', participants chimed in on which topics could work as sub-topics during the main sessions.

In a little over 30 minutes, we had charted out a schedule for the main room with several sessions blocked out until the early afternoon. A poll of the room determined that for each of the topics, we had several speakers, consultants, and/or attendees who were willing to share on particular themes.

With the main room schedule hammered out, the riskiest part of the day was complete. The biggest challenge remaining? To be facilitators as needed, but only as much as the attendees required. And: to monitor the day's events to ensure that this time around, people got their questions answered.

What worked

Looking back on the day (and the evaluations), we know that the unconference day was successful. By the time the day ended, there were a couple of questions remaining, but it was clear from the customer-specific nature of those questions we were entering into the realm of an on-site training or consulting engagement. There is a limit to classrooms or workshops when it comes to solving a very customized set of problems.

What didn't work

The morning sessions were crackling with energy and invaluable peer-to-peer shop talk. But the afternoon sessions dragged a bit, and that was reflected in the attendee feedback. Next year, we will need to find a way to tighten up the afternoon sessions. I suspect we needed to mix up the format a bit. Having been in a large group session all morning, the afternoon would have been a good time to encourage some smaller group breakouts.

The afternoon discussions also got bogged down in a few specific issues attendees were having. You could sense the room getting restless and smaller breakouts would have helped solve that. After a morning packed with interactive content, we were reaching a point of diminishing returns. One option on the table is disarmingly simple: end the day earlier.

Conclusion - what to watch out for

In our case, we were lucky to have experts in the room to cover virtually all the topics raised -but just barely. In a couple of cases, we had experts heading to the airport just in time to make it all work. For specialized enterprise events, if you don't anticipate the topics and have the right folks in-house to answer them, such a day could become an exercise in frustration. There are ways to combat this - in our case, we had deep survey knowledge of what attendees were looking for and the benefits of last year's feedback sessions to help us corral the right people.

I would also be wary of allowing an unconference day to become a gripe session about how the event could be improved. We intentionally held a separate event feedback session the day before where people had full license to air any and all concerns (that was an excellent session also, but with a very different tone and purpose). For the unconference day, you need folks to be stepping up and creating the day they want - that means getting them out of 'critic mode'.

Beyond subject matter experts, the most important skill you need on a day like this is expert facilitation. By that I mean folks who are willing to intervene as much as possible, but also shut the heck up and listen when the sessions are humming along under the attendees' leadership. Vigilance about including those who might have great content, but who feel sidelined from the discussion or resentful about 'alpha' participants hogging airtime is vital.

The appeal of 'unconferences' is spreading, but as far as I know, the use of an unconference day to wrap an event is not utilized. We have our work cut out for us improving this day and the risks are obvious, but knowing that (almost) everyone returned home with the content they needed for their projects was a terrific and unprecedented result.

Bonus video: I shot a video with unconference participant Ross Christoph  about his experience. It is neat to hear the immediate reactions of an attendee from a big, highly structured SAP project:

Image credits: all photos by Kimo Lee of Azurelink, Controlling conference core team member. In the feature photo is Janet Salmon of SAP, who played a vital role addressing attendees' roadmap and HANA questions.

Disclosure: ERP Corp (the provider of the SAP Controlling conferences) is a client and paid for the bulk of my travel and expenses to Controlling 2013 in San Diego.

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