Trust the Process (aka Reflections from an Unconference)

 

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Thanks to Simon Heath . Loving your work as always. x

I’m an advocate of the Unconference format. This is my third go at instigating one within the @LnDConnect community and I reckon I’m just about understanding a little of the magic that happens now.

Events like this cannot happen successfully without people creating, thinking & participating… and if you want folk to create, to reflect, to participate it is important to actively seek and carve out space and time to enable this… then get out of the way and let it breathe.

Events like this don’t happen without a facilitation team who are in service to others and to each other; a team who push experiment; who are relentlessly and genuinely curious about what is happening in their chosen field; who seek to learn themselves. In this instance the Team were (in alphabetical order) Ady Howes, Fiona McBride, Kev Wyke, Martin Couzins, Mike Collins & Sarah Storm... and me.

Here are some of my reflections ( others’ are captured at the bottom of the blog)

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1. Enable conversations: I believe change happens in conversation – through interacting and sharing different opinions or experiences, new ideas and possibilities open up for people. A format like an Unconference is one way I can bring that theory to life. For me this is not about having a lovely philosophy which sounds great conceptually – it’s about rolling up my sleeves, practicing & testing what I preach.

And it’s about all types of conversation…

Mike and Ady were enthused about the possibility of using a Slack Channel (best description I can offer: sort of “contained Twitter”) as a means to start virtual conversations before the event. In all honesty, I was a little unsure about it – I’m all dialogue and face-to-face meaningful conversations & have been a little WhatsApp-ed out in my time. Who would use another Chat channel? Why? Wasn’t it too much?

And part of the process to all of this is to hang your doubts at the door. The work the guys do on a day to day basis demonstrates that sitting around in deep dialogue isn’t the only way to connect, to build community and understanding. The possibility for sharing, for curating interesting content and for welcoming people virtually, long before we welcomed them physically, was massive. … so Hello Slack Channel.

We’re about to do some investigating into folks’ experiences of Use-of-Slack prior to the event, but on the whole, I’d recommend it as a place to gather before an event like this. I know of at least one impromptu pre-event dinner that resulted from a Slack conversation. I know it was a place people introduced themselves and we did our best to make folk feel welcome. I know some discussions ran for a couple of days and moved on to other things. I know folk shared interesting articles and posed great questions. I know it’s not for everyone… but I thought it wasn’t for me at the start & I am a convert.. if change is going to happen in conversation, who am I or anyone to bind how or where the conversation takes place?

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2. “Trust the Process”. If you ever want to calmly run a facilitated event that feels slightly nailbiting, have Kev Wyke on your team. Even with the man-flu that had hobbled him, his confidence both in the Open Space process and in peoples’ willingness and ableness to get what they want or need from each other was unerring, calming and infectious. Kev’s constant invitation to me, both before, during and in the pub after the event was “trust the process” – set the scene, set some parameters and get out of the way to let the learning happen as it needs to. I am, I rediscovered, more interventionist and controlling than is perhaps always wise. People are well resourced and able to find their own learning and conclusions – just give them the chance to do so

 

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3. The Importance of Hello. The welcoming, the hellos, the reassurance part at the start of the day is, I believe, a massive part of what enables or disables groups to connect and converse. For this Unconference, we asked people to do something as they arrived – to draw a self portrait & share a motto and the shared “oh lord I can’t draw” meant people talked & nervously laughed together. Unconferencers were welcomed by Katie and Fiona, with badges and stickers and the offer of coffee and breakfast on arrival. It was designed as a welcoming experience. In the opening session, we showed there was a little structure, some times to aim for –lunch, sessions etc. Enough of a process to enable 40 people to know there was some thought and care into how their day might go.

 

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I think one of my favourite moments of the day was right at the start, when everyone was invited to stand up, take a deep breath, then find 4 – 6 people to introduce themselves to…..the noise! The explosion of sound! The immediate eruption of chat! This is the event I want to go to – not one which is stuffy or faked or staged.

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4. Risks lead to some beautiful (possibly challenging) moments – So even with the care taken to welcome people and make everyone feel comfortable, we still took risks. In the after-lunch slot, Sarah Storm stepped up to the plate to ask us all to take part in “Social Polyphony” as a re-connection. As a group, we hmmed and ahhh-ed together for a few moments. Twice. I’m sure there were some who stood there begging the ground to swallow them whole – if you are reading this, and that was you, your discomfort was never intended, and thank you if you felt the fear and did it anyway. There were others who felt uplifted, amazed, a little shy and dazed by the sounds & attunement that 40 relative strangers can achieve.

As ever in these sessions, you take your lead from the one who leads it and it was Sarah’s bold notes, sung out into the room that gave us permission to try. I’m not sure I could have set it up as pitch-perfectly as she did – again, I’m in awe of the folk who I get to work with.

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5. “There’s always a Dave in IT” – even when it is a Fiona McBride…or a Martin Couzins…or an Ady Howes….
Social Media, Social Technology, useful apps, Twitter hastags, digital capture, content curation – these were all topics of conversation over the course of the day. The Practicalities of getting to grips with tech, along with the more philosophical aspects of what Social Platforms could/should/ would do for your learning in organisations, were well covered. It’s in the smaller (in number, not importance) conversations that people often feel they can ask “daft” questions and be more truly aligned to the truth of what they do/ don’t know. When Fiona offered to evoke her inner “Dave from IT” and hosted time and conversations to enable people to get onto the tech and use it well, it opened up quieter, more private spaces for people to experiment and learn….
There is such kindness in people sharing and offering what they know. I’m always slightly blown away by that.

Ady and Martin captured content, answered questions and generally used their digital masterskills to enable future Unconferencers to understand what they are coming to & let others who are interested see what has been going on. Without their skills and willingness to capture, to edit and to share, we would have a less-rich source of stuff to share.

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6. It takes a while to Process. The following day, I was slightly spaced-out & reflective. A lot happens at events like this – Unconferences are, by nature, not passive experiences, so you are kind of “on” a lot. My learning around the event was largely focussing on refining the process, improving the experience for others, thinking about ways to increase challenge or enable experiments more – group conversations are what I use and want to use-more with clients – the welcome, enabling the conversation, the structure-not-structure, the capture of conversations…what works well?
This is dialogue in action & I seek to understand it, work with it and share how it can be done. It does require some thought and care to construct good conversational conditions, but then it also just sort of happens too….

So this is some of my learning. And the whispered question is already hanging around …

What next?..

watch this space.

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Additional Shout outs to
Tim Scott – who put together both a Storify & a Blog about the experience in super-fast time & who was relentlessly supportive for the off
Katie MacDonald – without whom none of us would have had lunch, magic whiteboards or proper joining instructions & who co-ordinated and liaised in the background so vitally. You are awesome.
Ziferblat staff – Thanks to Denise and Ben… just thanks and thanks and thanks. Warm, welcoming and unflappable. I can’t recommend the venue, or the experience of working with you highly enough.
Michelle Parry-Slater – for recommending the venue & for being MiPS
Annette Hill, Hannah Tyreman & Learnpatch for blogs and reflections in the aftermath.

 

Additional Content:

Tim’s Storify: https://storify.com/TimScottHR/l-d-connect-unconference-2016

Hannah’s reflections: #ldcu16 aka my first ‘unconference’

Embracing Change the Unconference Way – blog from Learn Patch

Annette’s Valued L&D Future Conversations blog

6 thoughts on “Trust the Process (aka Reflections from an Unconference)

  1. Really enjoyed this and then reading through the Storify of the Conference. Sounds like it was really fruitful. The tweets were tantalising at times -it left me yearning to know more about what was said. Gave me fruit for thought about a project I’m working on. Thanks.

  2. Fantastic. Thanks for sharing your “full story and pics”. If a fraction of the people looked as radiantly contented as that final photo of your good self, then you have facilitated a wonderful experience. I wish I had been there.

  3. Pingback: The Unconference Experience | L&D connect

  4. I enjoyed reading your reflections on this experience. It can be tough always being “on” in these situations, but hopefully there was a space where participants could walk away to breathe a bit, and them come back ready to jump back into the fray. There need to be more Unconferences–I can’t stand the thought of attending a regular conference after the SAS16, even though I’m attending one in New York in June to lead a session. I plan to make it very unconventional to make up for all the droning that you know will go on in other rooms! 🙂

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