How to amplify Agile Enterprise collaboration: The Internal Unconference how-to guide

  • Are you having trouble getting inter-team cooperation going?
  • Is it difficult to attack issues that require people from all over the organisation?
  • Do you find decision making to be difficult and slow?
  • Do you find it hard to just knuckle down and get things done?
  • Do you want to remind people in your organisation how many brilliant people they work with?

In that case, you might consider running an “Internal Unconference”.

Internal Unconference is an exclusive blog post by Jeff Campbell, author of Actionable Agile Tools, a book that includes 19 practical tools with step-by-step guides for Scrum Masters. Actionable Agile Tools is now available on Amazon.

What is an internal unconference?

An internal unconference is an event where people from all over the company meet, discuss, learn, and solve real problems that they face in their daily work. I like to do them as a mix of conference talks, discussion groups, and working sessions. This “unconference” approach allows flexibility in the schedule and for the programme to emerge as it progresses.

An unconference itself is a conference with no pre-set agenda. Rather, the agenda is set by the attendees every day and is continually revised throughout the event.

This might sound chaotic to you, and if you’re not practiced in running them, it can be. However, with a bit of structure and the right preparation, it allows a group of people to continually respond to changing situations and new information.

Think of it like this: At a traditional conference, you attend a talk with a cool new idea or technology and you really want to try it out. Since the rest of the conference is already planned, you need to wait until it’s over to dive deeper into the subject. But at an unconference, you can plan a working group with those who are interested, and even the speaker, later that afternoon!

You can run an unconference any way you like, but I will lay out how we do them for the ones I have run them in the past. We have tried this format with 80+ people, but I see no reason it can’t scale much higher than that.

Internal Unconference Preparation

If you’re just planning to have a discussion or working groups then no preparation is needed except logistical items: booking space, tickets, lunches, dinners, etc. If you also want to have conference talks, then something more is needed.

We’ve prepared a checklist to get you started on the right foot organizing the Internal Unconference. To receive the full checklist Jeff uses, click here!

In order to deliver a talk, people need to be able to prepare and practice. So a while before the event we start by gathering topics people want to talk or hear about. We have people express their level of interest in a specific, or several, topic(s). For topics that get a lot of interest, we ask the people who have offered them to prepare or try to find someone to take the topics which people have requested. We don’t actually plan the times of these talks, so there is a risk that someone will prepare a talk that never actually gets delivered, but this is one of the costs of the flexibility of the format (also I don’t think it has ever actually happened).

We also set up work areas for our working sessions, or as we call them “get shit done sessions”. With large monitors, keyboards, mice, adapters, power, etc. You don’t need to do this, but anything that reduces the session setup time is a win in my book.

Send out information to help those who have never attended before so they understand the format and arrive with some level of comfort with it. I also help by hosting video calls for those who have never attended to allow them to ask questions about how it all works.

You also need to prepare a planning area. This consists of a large whiteboard (a wall will do in a pinch) with a specific layout and a lot of space for people to move around.

Along the X-axis you have time slots for sessions to take place in. The sessions can have any duration you like, but keep in mind it’s easier to take two slots than half of one. I tend to start out with 45-minute slots and adjust them if the attendees want to as the day progresses.

Along the Y-axis, you have the various rooms/spaces you have available to hold sessions. I also like to list what is available in various areas, like the number of people they fit, if they have TV and such.

If you have different kinds of sessions a color-coded legend can be very helpful to help read the program board.

Add slots for planning, lunch, breaks, replanning in the afternoon. Put it all together, and draw some lines and you now have a planning board ready for your unconference!

Internal Conference Execution

On the day of the event, start by explaining the entire format to people and any rules you have around how the process works, things like following the legend or planning times.

Topics

Have people generate a list of topics they want to talk about on Post-It notes.

  • Write down the topic with your name.
  • Stand in line to intro the topic to the room.
  • Give a short introduction of your topic to everyone.
  • Stick it on a wall with some free space to create a backlog.

Repeat this until no one is left standing in the line, or you run out of the allotted time for the first session presentation – you will be able to present more sessions the next day or after lunch (you can decide).

Planning during the Internal Unconference

Then ask people to start planning!

  • Have people move things they find interesting into the open slots.
  • Encourage people to discuss and negotiate when there are conflicts.
  • After the schedule stops moving around we like to place a “locked” icon on it so that people know where they are going.
  • Repeat the same process another time after lunch to replan the afternoon based on the morning’s learnings, and open up the floor for more sessions to be suggested if you ran out of time in the morning.

Improvement through Daily Retrospectives

End each day with a retrospective to figure out what has been working well and what hasn’t. With this, we identify improvements we can make to the system to make things run smoother.

My facilitation suggestion for this retrospective:

  • Ask people to stand in groups and have a quick 10-minute discussion about issues they encountered during the day.
  • After that, ask them to take 5 minutes and propose possible solutions.
  • Present the changes to the entire group.
  • The facilitator should also mention these changes again the next morning so everyone remembers them.

Perform a longer retrospective on the last day of the event. This focuses on the entire event including the time leading up to it whereas the previous ones just focus on making the days run smoother.

And that’s pretty much it in the area of execution!

Wrap Up

We ask everyone to spend some time on the last day writing up their accomplishments from the event.We also send out a survey asking:

  • How likely is it that you would recommend the conference to your team or colleague? (0-10 rating)
  • What did we do well?
  • What could we improve?
  • Share a success story

These things are not just important to help us improve the event for the next time but to help us show the value to the entire Meltwater organization and assist in justifying its existence.

We further use this information to create a company-wide email describing what was accomplished, highlights of the event, and links videos and documents that were created during the event, that help people that could not participate to get value from this as well.

We’ve prepared a checklist to get you started on the right foot organizing the Internal Unconference. To receive the full checklist Jeff uses, click here!

How was the Internal Unconference received? – Testimonials from participants

Some people are initially skeptical of this format, but I am happy to report it is always received VERY positively by those who attend. Here are some quotes from attendees of ones I have hosted:

“The best tech event I have ever attended!” – Ashley “Ash” Jeffs – Software Developer

“[the internal unconference] reminds me how cool a company this is and how many great people I work with” – Petter Remen – Software Developer

“For a globally distributed software organization, [the internal unconference] presents a phenomenal opportunity to bring people and teams together in order to synch up on goals, learn new technologies, and build the kind of true camaraderie and teamwork that lasts far beyond the event itself. [The internal unconference] is an investment in the health and happiness of our organization. And it’s amazing how energized and engaged people are both during and after attending! “ – Mike Ruggieri – Executive Director

“The unconference format is pivotal to the success of our developer gatherings. The Engineers look forward to the gatherings because the format allows THEM to create and derive the most value out of their collaborative time together.” – Scott Rosenblatt – Senior Director of Engineering

Internal Unconference facilitation tips

Here are a few things I’ve learned that will help you get maximum value out of the event.

  • Cater lunch into the venue. It becomes complete chaos having all those people leave the office for lunch and always ends up with a lot of people returning late and throwing off the entire rhythm.
  • Have a good wide open space for the planning board. It makes it very cumbersome to plan and negotiate sessions otherwise.
  • Have a quiet area for people who have to take meetings or other normal work related things.
  • Have a team of people to plan it. It’s a lot for one person to take on. Also, having a representative in each office has helped us a lot in communication and soliciting participation in the early days when not a lot of people knew what it was and if they should attend. (If you want some help planning the event contact: jeff@rebelalliance.se)
  • Coordinate at least one evening dinner early in the week. This gives people a chance to get to know others and get comfortable which will increase collaboration throughout the week.
  • Have a chat room where you can post updates and images of the schedule so people can access it without coming back to the planning board.
  • If you have a lot of people who don’t know each other, it is worth getting name tags or lanyards to remove the awkwardness of people whose name you’re supposed to remember but don’t 😉
  • Some other tips are available here: https://opensource.com/life/16/3/unconference-survival-guide



About Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell is the author of Actionable Agile Tools, a book with practical tools and practices to help you amplify your impact as a coach and Scrum Master

Jeff is an Agile Coach who considers the discovery of Agile and Lean to be one of the most defining moments of his life and considers helping others to improve their working life not to simply be a job, but a social responsibility. As an Agile Coach, he has worked with driving Agile transformations in organizations both small and large.

Jeff is also involved in the Agile community and is one of the founding members of Gothenburg Sweden’s largest agile community at 1500+ members www.scrumbeers.com, and he also organizes the yearly conference www.brewingagile.org.

You can link with Jeff Campbell on LinkedIn and connect with Jeff Campbell on Twitter.

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