I spent the last few days at the WPP Stream (Un)Conference in Marathon, Greece with our close business partners at Xaxis and GroupM.

First off – I have to say that Stream was hands-down the best conference I’ve ever been to.  It was perfectly executed and the 350 attendees included the most intelligent and fascinating people I’ve ever met.  In fact, I didn’t meet a single person the entire week that didn’t have an incredibly interesting story to tell.  All in all, a truly fantastic experience.

One of the things that made the experience so special was the “unconference” format.  For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, unconference has no fixed programming, no powerpoint slides, and no formal conference schedule.  Instead of panels and presentations there are discussions, and instead of a fixed roster of speakers, everyone is expected to contribute.

Here’s how it works:

At the beginning of the conference all of the attendees have the opportunity to propose a discussion topic on any subject they like.  They propose a session by writing it up on a giant whiteboard that is divided up by time slots and meeting rooms.  The discussion leaders then have the opportunity to go around and market their discussion topics to all of the other participants, encouraging people to come.  Each discussion is one hour and there are six discussion slots per day.

The discussion spaces are remarkably plain – just a bunch of chairs organized in a circle.  There are no TV’s, no computers and limited internet connectivity.  To start the discussion, the leader gives a brief 10 minute overview of the topic they’d like to discuss – and then the group takes it from there.  There is no agenda, no formal requirements, just a group of smart people talking about important topics.

Everything at the unconference is “off the record” and the dress code is casual.  It doesn’t matter if you are the CEO of a multinational corporation or a 16-year-old YouTube star, everyone is encouraged to share their thoughts and contribute to the discussion.

It’s so incredibly powerful to strip down all of the formalities, the ritual and traditional rules of business and simply have candid, honest conversations about important topics.  There are no judgments, no wrong answers, no dull moments – and practically no sleep.  I’m already thinking about ways we can incorporate the unconference format into our next big event.

 

The Magic of Unconference
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  • There are pros and cons to both approaches, I think. Well done formal “conferences” can get through lots of material in a relatively short period of time. But unconferences are better at bringing out issues that might go “unspoken” – either things that “everyone knows”, or things that people are afraid to discuss (social reinforcement in a group can really help people open up, as long as they feel safe).

    In that sense, ur depends on how you define the purpose of a conference. Is it to convey a lot of information? Or is it to bring our the wisdom of the attending crowd (more like structured brainstorming)?

    As ever, the right approach depends on your purpose and situation.

    P.S. Ritual circumscribes behavior – not good if you want to break out of the “normal.” But very useful for other things, e.g. defining a standard language.