unPacking the 2012 unConference

Never having attended an unConference before November’s exceptional event in Boston, I thought the term ‘unconference’ was some sort of newfangled term designed to present the sense of an unconventional and slightly weird conference. To some extent, I was right. The event was unconventional. Thankfully, it was not weird.  The event did succeed though in upending every notion I had of how conferences should unfurl.

My interest had been originally piqued in the conference thanks to a tweet by Boston Globe columnist Scott Kirsner. Scott had described as the best of the year. I was curious and certainly the website listed a who’s who of attendees. So I rolled up my sleeves and pulled my old trick of volunteering to gain free attendance to the conference. I thought to myself, “unConference: Here I come”

What was so unconventional about the conference was that it took the idea of “flat organizations” and extended it to a conference. Imagine a conference with no agenda, no roster of dedicated speakers, and no hierarchy. Thankfully, the organizers weren’t so unconventional as to forego the requisite free morning coffee. If you can get your mind around this somewhat bizarre design process for a meeting, then you have Boston’s unConference firmly planted in your mind. Instead of an agenda for the conference, bold folks (which I was sadly not) proposed topics at the morning session which were then vetted by a moderator. If the topic was widely acceptable, it was put up on the agenda and given a space at the conference in which people could attend and share thoughts on the topic. Sound unconventional? It most definitely was.

For me, what the conference truly brought home was about Thinking with Your Feet, Thinking Bold, and Thinking Strategically.

Thinking with Your Feet

The notion of “think with your feet” was thrown out by Joshua Kauffman at the beginning of the conference. Joshua was the moderator of the morning session where peoples’ ideas were vetted. Joshua’s sianara to us all before letting us loose upon the Hynes Convention Center was to ‘think with your feet’. With this statement, Joshua was telling us to “go to sessions where you can be useful or where you can learn the most”. Well, theoretically one could learn from almost any of the sessions at the conference. But to Joshua’s point, it is all a measure of degrees.  If there’s a session where you won’t be able to add or won’t learn something truly useful to you as an entrepreneur, then don’t go to that session. Essentially, vote with your feet.  Being at that difficult stage of life where I want to be a sponge, I went to sessions that I could learn the most from.

Think Bold

It can be difficult, even painful  (not to mention awkward) to go up and introduce yourself to someone new, but that is just what I did … on several occasions at the unConference. The success of my endeavors has less to do with my skills as a conversationalist and much more to do with the atmosphere of the conference. The conference was unique in that way because it wanted to create an atmosphere without hierarchy and without convention. As much as my individual chutzpah, the format of the conference with its small break-out rooms and sessions attended by a dozen people makes this type of interaction possible.  With this lack of hierarchy, the conference gives people the added confidence to feel sufficiently comfortable in their skin that they can introduce themselves to anyone they want to talk to. For my part, I took that mantra to heart and introduced myself to journalist Scott Kirsner so that I could hear his thoughts on how best to write a blog. I spoke to Pixability’s CEO Bettina Hein about how her business markets itself to large businesses. I also finally met up with Dan Powdermaker who I had casually met online, but never spoken to before.

Think strategically

Thinking fast is as much about quick thought as about practical thought. There were many folks who I knew would be at the meeting that I wanted to get to know. Who they are is less important than how I approached them. Now I’d like to say that I am a brilliant strategist, both suave and a wonderful raconteur. Would that these were true. I don’t even think my parents or doting grandparents believe these to be my strong points. But what I did realize is key to thinking fast and hence, as I have noted, thinking strategically, is to consider the people you want to meet as potential friends. To illustrate this point, when is the last time you developed a great friendship by first telling this person that you needed something from them? The answer is probably never. Similarly, when meeting someone who you think can be important to you, don’t approach them by asking them for something.  To my point, and to the point made by many of the well known folks who attended Scott Kirsner’s great session at the unConference on how to get famous fast, if there’s someone you want to get to know, start reading up on them or following them on Twitter or on their blogs. Follow them strategically and then reach out to them with a question or comment. Most importantly, and this was reiterated by many of the famous folks in attendance, BE USEFUL. It’s almost like the Boy Scouts of America meet PR. The cardinal rule of getting in touch with useful, highly positioned people, is find a way you can be useful to them.

Now, my experience at the conference only dissects a small part of what was available. In contrast to my experience, people involved with start-ups could meet with VCs or CEOs to gain insight and guidance. One could also attend sessions headed by these same VCs or CEOs. As you can tell, opportunities were hanging low off the tree.

For me, the take home message of the conference was about the beauty of flat organizations. High-level spoke to low-level and vice versa. Information flow was seamless and you could learn from everyone. I wish that more organizations were run just like this meeting, where a member from the marketing team could talk about their company’s product in a small group with their VP for Product Development and an engineer on the QC team. This thought is not without merit. In fact, lean start-up guru Eric Ries writes about the necessity of this type of interaction in his acclaimed book The Lean Startup.  In his book, Ries writes how it is important to have cross-functional teams because they are key to disruptive innovation. Similarly, the unConference was disruptive in its realization that effective conferences break up the hierarchy and allow for a seamless flow of business cards and information.

I wish I could have attended more of the conference than I did.  As it was, it was great to be a part of the conference for the day. My only regret is that the conference was only one day and that I couldn’t replicate myself and attend more workshops than I did. Oh well, only another year to wait.

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