Of snowballs and speedgeeks

I love watching snowballs roll downhill. The whole unconference meme is certainly one such snowball. In many ways, geeks have taken open space meetings further and wider in the last three years than mainstream facilitators have in the last 20. Which, as someone who has tented in both camps, has been amazing to watch.

Of course, rolling snowballs rarely leave time to reflect on questions like: why is this snowball rolling? and how can we make it roll faster? The result for unconferences: few people have moved beyond the basic open space tool set. Which is okay. Open is groovy on its own. But it gets even better when you spike the punch some additional catalytic ingredients. Oh, and a pinch of flattened power dynamics also helps. Very important.

What does this mean in practice? Unconferences need to layer in a bigger diversity of engaging, catalytic, people-connecting session formats. World Cafes. Spectrograms. Fishbowls. And even (gasp!) games. Like the web itself, formats like these focus unstructured space in ways that help us make new friends, spark new ideas and run with them really fast.

I’ve put stuff like this in my events for years, as have people my like friend and co-conspirator Allen Gunn. However, most events that call themselves unconferences haven’t evolved past pure open space. Which is why I was so happy see Sarah Milstein‘s post on speed Q+A’s at O’Reilly Web2Open:

We ran small speed Q&As with the experts: we set up five tables,
one each for programmers, designers/UI specialists, marketing/community
experts, businesspeople and undeclared, and then we had five experts–Clay Shirky, Kara Swisher, Matt Cutts, Saar Gur and Tim O’Reilly–each
hold a nine-minute informal Q&A at a table. Every nine minutes, the
experts switched tables until they’d hit them all. The whole thing took
50 minutes, plus lots of lingering afterward. It had great energy, and
people were smiling the entire time.

This is akin to the speedgeek format that Gunner started using in 2004: ten presentations great presentations in an hour, with everyone roving around the room.

What excited me most about Sarah’s post was not that she was using a session format I like (which I do). Rather, I was happy to see someone reflecting out loud about ways to innovate and improve unconferences. We need more of this. And, I suspect, there is more of it going on than we know about.

Which makes me wonder: is there a simple way to capture, synthesize and share techniques people are using to make unconferences better? There is the Aspiration wiki, but that deals quite specifically with how Aspiration runs events (full disclosure: I am board member). And, there is OpenSpaceWorld, but it is religiously just about open space. I am thinking about something like a ‘making-the-unconference-snowball-roll-faster’ collective wiki of techniques.

Would this be useful? A waste of time? Does something (good) like this already exist? Should we just use wikipedia (which already has some useful entries)? I’d be interested to hear what people have to think.

A small feedback note for Sarah about the speed Q+A format: Most of the responses to your ‘what could we do differently?’ question suggest adding more time for each presentation. Having facilitated dozens of speedgeeks everywhere from CopyCamp to the iSummit to Web of Change, I would suggest the opposite. Make them shorter, and do more of them.The idea is to spark ideas and to help you radar people to talk to later. It’s hypertext. Take note of who you liked, and find them in the hallway track. Also, get beyond the ‘expert’ idea. It makes the whole experience more like television and less like the web.


  1. Misha replied on | Reply

    Mark – have you seen Kaliya Hamlin’s blog- at http://unconference.net/ ?

    From the (current) front page:

    When I design, facilitate and produce unconference 80-90% of the time at the event will be spent in open space and the other 10-20% of the time will be spent with other large group participatory processes that help meet the gathered community meet its goals. These include Fishbowls, Spectrograms, cafe dialogue processes, Appreciative Inquiry, Marketplace of Ideas, Value Network Mapping, Polarity Management, Visual Journalism/Graphic Recording, and shared community maps.

    It’s more her own site I think, than, say, a universal unconference wiki, but she’s got some good information up there and is maybe someone you should be in touch with.

  2. Mark Surman replied on | Reply

    Nope, haven’t seen that and looks great. Definitely useful piece of the puzzle. I will add to my feeds, and also ping Kaliya (who I’ve bumped into over the years).

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