paint brush this one

Do Less, Accomplish More: The Art of the Un-Conference

April 9, 2015 //

Thinking forward towards a gathering TWI will be hosting this fall, I’ve been reflecting on the delicate art of the Un-Conference.  I think of these as experiences that relatively quickly cultivate authentic connection and intimacy between strangers, stimulate new learning, and are spacious enough to allow for emergence.

There’s a facilitation metaphor that fits here:  Facilitating can be like holding a paintbrush – gripping too much doesn’t allow creativity to flow and holding it too loosely drops the brush.  (#shitfacilitatorsay!)

So how does a sophisticated architect of human centered design craft an experience, particularly at a larger scale of 100 and over, which isn’t so grippy that people undergo the familiar conference claustrophobia or so loose that people’s investment drops?

I’ve had a few conversations on this topic with colleagues lately, and offer a few artful design tips:

  • Be on Purpose.  As with everything, of course it begins with clear purpose – why are we gathering people?  How might it be additive and not repetitive?
  • Invite Non-homogeneity. A new friend of mine talks about how diversity is what keeps nature adaptive.  Create as un-homogenous a participant group as possible (and aligned with purpose) because it will make for a richer and more broadening experience.
  • Structure Story Sharing. Create a sense of intimacy in large group settings with facilitated pairings or small groups that invite people to share stories or reveal something genuine about themselves.  Some say it is possible to fall in love with someone in 36 questions, I contend that it may only take 3 questions, depending on the questions. (more #shitfacilitatorsay!)
  • Share Time. When facilitating structured shares, ensure that everyone has equal time to share, whether they use it all or not. This creates a sense of equity in air time that can help even out extrovert and introvert air time.
  • Remember the Introvert. Not everyone will volunteer or feel comfortable speaking in the largest group settings. But give introverts a chance not to have to compete for air time – structured go-arounds and assigned groupings help even out the experience. Also, silence is not the enemy. Being quiet together for even a short amount of time before jumping into the next thing is incredibly helpful for us introverts.
  • Offer Alternative Modalities. Many, many conferences and retreats use verbal presentation and discussion modalities. While TWI is committed to dialogue, we are also keen on bringing new modalities into the un-conference structure. Creative expression, mindfulness, movement, walking/hiking – how might kinesthetic or visual learners be met by your design?
  • Embrace the Renegades. The truth is, no matter how carefully crafted the design, if you are truly human centered then humans will do what we do. Some will push against the design, suggest alternate routes, be the trickster illuminating unforeseen shortfalls. Love these renegades for bringing what might have been hidden from the planners – and find thoughtful ways to integrate them without losing the thread of purpose.
  • Do Less, Accomplish More.  Allow for breathing room in the event design. Walk through the timing of each element and the literal physical distance between them. Does the design create anxiety by expecting people to walk the length of the retreat center in 5 minutes? Take user experience into account, and lean towards giving people spacious breaks to metabolize learning.

There are so many more, and our network is literally teaming with Artists of the Un-Conference. We’d love to hear what’s essential in your un-conference architecture, and look forward to what the renegades among you might say to our humble list.

What do you think?


  1. Candice Jones Peelman on May 1, 2015 at 2:40 pm

    Pia, these are great thinking points. In Cincinnati, we’ve been hosting an “unconference” aptly named the 3-Day Unconference for a few years now. It’s open to citizens to simply come share their interests, passions, host a session on a topic that’s on their mind, invite strangers and friends to visit a space that’s important to them, etc, etc. We believe this artful design of letting people rub elbows, learn for one another, and dialogue are the sparks of what can be a radical change of how we see ourselves, our neighbors and our role in our communities. Additionally, we’ve learned that as “unconference-y” as we like the design to be, there is an art to behind the scenes architecture: the art of hospitality, setting the table for guests to attend comfortably and participate but also nudge people a bit out of their comfort zone. This is a great list to think about as we get ready for our 2015 “unconference”

    • Pia Infante on May 14, 2015 at 3:26 am

      Hi Candice,
      Thanks so much for reading our blog and for sharing your “unconference” model. Sounds like a powerful space for folks to connect around matters of meaning. I totally agree that hospitality, structuring enough for newbies to be as comfortable as old timers, and finding the balance of comfort and discomfort are such important elements to help create a connective common experience. Hope the 2015 uncoference goes splendidly, and please consider coming back and sharing what you all learn in Cincinnati!