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Monday, 28 September 2009

Rehearsing the unplannable

After my post about planning the LIANZA 2009 un-workshop I'll be facilitating, I met with Erin Kimber, who's going to be chairing the session, and we talked and brainstormed some more. She gave me some really great ideas including one that will probably be obvious to people who've actually been to unconferences: that, instead of dividing the time up among the topics, I should divide up the space so there can be three simultaneous conversations going on.

So this afternoon I ran a practice session at my workplace and that's how we did it. We got just enough people (about a dozen) to make this viable. I started off by going over the 'groundrules' and explaining where I was coming from and what we were going to do, except I babbled a bit so that wasn't entirely clear. Lesson learned: I need to write a script. Word-for-word scripts aren't for everyone - they can make you sound like a robot sometimes - but I know how to write in speaking-language, and can memorise sufficiently well, and the alternative for me is to babble for twice the time with half the sense.

We did introductions, but even with only 12 people it took too long. So far apparently 86 people have registered interest in the session itself (I deliberately didn't put an upper limit on numbers. 86, or 100, or whoever turns up, sounds like <gulp>, but if 86 people are interested then it'd suck to turn away 56 of them. Besides, I think the format really is that flexible) so I'll go with a kind of "Mexican Wave" of first names, as a warm-up, instead -- which gives me the opportunity to add on a few more Mexican Waves of increasingly challenging questions.

The "50 Reasons" exercise worked okay but probably won't scale up without me providing more guidance - I'm thinking of a variation on Mitch Ditkoff's suggestion, of answering each excuse with a question: in this case eg "I don't have the authority" -> "Who does have the authority?"

We divided into three topics, with a spare table in case of break-out topics. With only 12 people, one of the groups dissolved about halfway through; with 86, we'll probably need 10+ topics to start with.

It wasn't always easy to follow the "keep it positive" rule, so I'll focus on that more in the warm-ups. Also in the real thing I'll be wandering around instead of being a part of any group, so I can intercede and help encourage turning problems into questions.

Other than the one group dissolving and splitting among the other two, there wasn't any movement between topics. This isn't deadly because there's only a short time anyway and people might well want to stick with a single topic -- also it might partly have been because the groups were so small -- but someone suggested it'd be good to remind people of the opportunity by blowing a whistle (or, less martially, ringing a bell) every ten minutes.

I ended by passing around a sign-up sheet for the mailing list (again, with 86 people, this will be too time-consuming -- I'll go instead with a box for people to put in their email addresses if interested) and then a very brief wrap-up. People suggested it'd be good to have a takeaway, eg come back to the larger group at the end with a bullet-point list of tips - they also pointed out that having "Come up with some bullet-point tips" as a goal would help keep conversation on track. So I'll do this in the conference session too.

So that's where I am at the moment. Having that kind of dress rehearsal was 1000% value for money, and has got me even more excited about the conference session itself in two weeks.