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Our first unconference and what we got from it

Here in PDS, we’re constantly looking for new ways to solve (old) problems and to engage staff in different ways. So we recently held an unconference and if you’re wondering what an unconference is, so were we.

Still, nothing deters us so a small but perfectly formed team set about organising an unconference for our SMT+ group. SMT+ is made up of staff across PDS who have volunteered to help change and improve our capability and culture. We hoped the unconference would unlock some innovative ideas, provoke discussion, and open up new opportunities for collaboration outside the usual team structures.

What there wouldn't be

Rather like an anarchist society, there’s a fundamental question about how much organising effort you should put into an unconference before it becomes a regular conference.  With this in mind we agreed that there would be no:

  • agenda
  • keynote speakers
  • presentations or PowerPoint
  • mandatory attendance

But there would be:

  • a request asking delegates to give some early thought to what they might like to talk about. To help with this we suggested people think along the lines of "if I could change one thing it would be...."
  • some background info on what an unconference is and isn’t, and the point of holding one
  • some facilitators and note takers armed with the usual array of flip charts, stickers, pens and so on

There were no biscuits but that’s a separate issue.

Everyone sets the agenda

On the day, attendees were given a whistle stop guide to the process for defining the agenda where everyone was invited to write down no more than three topics for discussion.

Over 40 topics were listed including some “old chestnuts” that we still haven’t resolved entirely:

  • less form filling
  • improving the induction process
  • better cross-team working

and some completely new ideas like:

  • not allowing technology in meeting rooms so that attendees aren’t distracted by their phones, emails, or messages
  • changing the way the work of programmes and projects is communicated

Attendees then voted for their top three topics using the trusted method of sticky dots. The six topics with the most stickers were then discussed in depth. All very democratic, though there was talk of some people voting for their own ideas, which is allowed in elections so that was okay.

The chosen six

Unconference topics written on cards

The six topics were:

  • How to kill tribalism and siloes?
  • How can we start saying no to things to make prioritisation possible and realistic?
  • How can we have more fun at work?
  • How about having a coding day for kids?
  • Having a clear vision for PDS as an organisation
  • Stopping referring to jobs by grade and referring to career pathways instead

We had two rooms booked so we could discuss three topics in each, up to 20 minutes per topic. Delegates were free to attend whichever discussions for however long, or not at all.

The discussions I attended were filled with ideas, lively chat, and information sharing, with participants bringing expertise from different areas and even previous jobs. It was interesting that many of the ideas generated went beyond the bounds of PDS.

Notes taken at the unconference have been circulated to the group with people free to self-organise into small groups and take forward some of the suggestions. We also asked for feedback on the format and whether attendees found it a good use of their time.

On my part, I’m interested in a coding event for kids and if it happens you’ll definitely hear about it on this blog.

Read more about the work we're doing on our cultural values

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