The planning grid at an unconference is the centre of the event. The grid is where people present themselves to the community. It is also something participants come back to regularly, to check their schedules, or to change their selection. All coordination for the day is channeled through the grid.
As a facilitator, you have a key role in getting things planned on the grid. That gives you influence on the flow of the unconference: a pretty powerful position. In this post we'll provide some grid facilitation tips on how to effectively wield this power to create an inclusive, and exciting event.
This is not a popularity contest!
As mentioned in an earlier post on steps to introducing the unconference, participation is not about headcount. Large groups are actually counterproductive for the unconference. You want to get people together in smaller dedicated groups to go deep. As a facilitator, emphasise the power of intimate groups, and close conversation, over 1-to-many broadcasting. Size doesn't matter, personal progress does.
Do a practice round
Particularly with groups that are new to the unconference, the practice round is an effective way to demonstrate how the unconference will work. You can arrange some of your pre-planned speakers to jump in here, and get the flow going. But prioritise making room for a first-timer to take the stage. There are usually one or two brave souls in the audience who are prepared to do this. So, call out for sessions. Wait for a while to trigger them to stand up. Then, if no one steps up, ask one of your pre-planned speakers up, and catch momentum that way.
You're going to create the appearance that a great schedule can magically appear, but in reality, you should be a curator, familiar with who's in the room and what they have to offer each other. Know the big names, the different challenges and the interesting stories in the room. Then, when you're up in front of the grid, you can act as a Connector.
"Aline, did you have a similar experience? Anything to offer this session?"
"I think a few people here might struggle with something similar. Anyone got a related challenge?"
Nudging the schedule
First and foremost, letting people just put their session anywhere is a great way to imbue the magic feeling that "we're building this by ourselves." That'll create a sense of excitement and ownership among the participants. If done well, you'll be a kind of "invisible facilitator" where you'll have shaped the schedule well, but nobody will have noticed. This can be done in subtle ways, like "that would be fun after lunch", or "I think you'll need a bigger room, so let's put that here." Sometimes, you can even just take their session card from them, in a helpful gesture as they're speaking, and post it for them - then ask, "is it good there?"
Encourage the first timers: offer yourself as their facilitator
First-timers might be reluctant to come up in front of the audience to pitch. Often, not having a strategy for structuring a session is also a barrier for them to step up. The facilitator in front of the room enjoys some respect from the audience, as she is putting herself out there, making it happen. The facilitator can utilise her position to encourage first timers to come up front. Call out specifically for people that haven't done it before. Offer yourself as a facilitator during their session. Lets team up!
Boost first-timer session pitches
Ask for a volume vote before posting the session card. If this is not received warmly enough, then try rephrasing the title in your own words. Make it catchy and on-point. Also try to call out some of the influencers in the audience to help out in the session if you see the relevance of their help. Influencers, in turn, will pull in some more people, and; hey presto! Your first-timer is set to go.
Abstract session topics?
There's always someone who proposes a session topic that isn't concrete, or a PhD-level research question, which is hard to turn into something actionable within a 30 minute timespan. The room then lights up with confused faces. In this case there are 3 things you can do:
- Ask clarifying questions to help find analogies "Is this like X?". Alternatively ask the audience who has experience on this topic, and get their voice in to help filter out something actionable that is worth a session.
- Propose a facilitation tactic for during the session like a post-up with the question. Affinity mapping always leads to something interesting: "Lets note everything we know about his idea". And then cluster.
- In case there's no salvation in sight, then intervene, and offer to help clarify this session during the break. Be sure to call out this person again, at the next planning session.
Strategically place your veteran speakers
There are certain to be veterans to the unconference format participating at the event. They're eager to take slots, even taking multiple ones if they get the chance. To prevent them from taking over the grid, the facilitator has to channel their enthousiasme.
Veterans tend to propose topics that are in vogue. Spread these topics out over the program, so that each time slot has one of those, instead of concentrating them in a limited number of time slots. That keeps the audience activated to participate the whole day. It increases the likelihood the audience will also join sessions throughout the days that are not in vogue, but more edgy, and upcoming.
If there are too many sessions, you can always easily merge veteran sessions if there is a connection between them. Alternatively, turn a veteran into an expert for first-timer that proposes a session that relates with the one that the veteran proposed.
Some veterans might propose multiple sessions. If the board becomes congested, then make the audience choose for either of their pitches. It creates a nice new spot.
The Grid is never out of options
When you design the grid you're going to show the session rooms, and available timings. But also be aware of options to create additional spaces for sessions, additional to the existing rooms. If sessions slots on the grid are filling up too quickly, and you still have some people who want to pitch, then you can instantly bring these option-spaces to life. You open up a new unconference track, and give more people the opportunity to pitch!
Don't stop the flow of filling the grid
If momentum picks up with pitching, don't break it. Technically you would have 2 planning sessions during a full-day unconference, one in the morning, another after the lunch break in the afternoon. But this doesn't mean that you should stop the planning session if your morning session is fully planned. If there are people waiting in line to pitch, let them pitch. My experience is that not a lot of people will come back if they are asked to hold their pitch for a later planning session.
Build a "red thread"
For the day to be great, there needs to be a high-quality session at any time. You don't want a time slot where every session is weak, or else everyone will feel trapped at a bad event. So as the board is filling up, when the strong sessions are suggested, encourage them to be placed in time slots that are either empty or don't have a known strong session.
Build tracks based on experience level, but not on discipline
If you have beginners in the room, ask for an experienced volunteer to run an "Intro to X" session at the beginning. Consider that other intro topics should be spread out throughout the day. Don't put them all in the same room - that's too obvious and also takes away from the excitement of jumping from room to room. If you build out a beginner track, the more advanced tracks just work themselves out.
Don't build tracks based on discipline or category. That just gets cliques to stick together, and there's very little inter-disciplinary learning. One time at Leancamp, the UX topics ended up as a track (there was one UX topic each time slot) so the UX people all chose those topics, and their feedback wasn't great: "this was just a UX meetup." So from then on, we started to group topics from similar disciplines in the same time slot, forcing everyone to learn other things.
Avoid trade-offs in scheduling (as much as you can)
There will be moments during the session planning when somebody in the room will make a soppy face, and say that they don't want to choose between 2 session scheduled in parallel. Ask if there are more people that feel the same way. If there are more then make an attempt to solve the scheduling conflict. Always solve this in presence of the plenary audience. Don't offline discussion of this conflict, as it is guaranteed to then oil-spill into more scheduling problems.
A trick you can apply is by taking one of the conflicting session cards, and then slowly hovering it to other scheduling options. Ask the audience to take a deep breath, and "yes" or "no" as you pause it over scheduling options. If the volume vote remains no, then apologise to the complainer. Emphasise they have every right to vote with their feet, and change during sessions if they feel like it. That's the dynamic of the unconference: go to where you can obtain or contribute the most value. And of course, the bottom line is that life is full of trade offs.