dxw’s first ever unconference

Good unconference sessions are about having discussions with a chance for everyone to participate

Project overview

What was the issue?

It’s been a strange 3 years. While we’ve been successful at moving to remote working, we’ve not had as many chances to remind each other that there are people behind the screen. It’s – I think – a reasonable assertion that remote working works best when folk have met in person.

That, plus the number of new-starters in dxw, and Neontribe joining the family, means there’s a lot of culture to maintain and strengthen. And remote working makes that just a little bit harder. 

How we aimed to solve it

Alex Jackson (our Director of Client Services) proposed a dxw unconference in late 2022 as an experiment to remind us of who we are. 

We really liked this explanation of what an unconference is, and how it works (which is heavily plagiarised from GovCamp):

“An unconference is a participant-led event. That means attendees “pitch” topics for discussion, either online beforehand or on the day. This pitch is just a simple 20-second description of what you think would be interesting to talk about and why. A simple, open question is best. 

It’s normal to feel nervous about pitching. You can ask someone to buddy up with you for moral support or pitch for you if you have an idea but don’t feel you want to pitch it yourself.

Once the pitching’s done, we’ll create a grid of sessions. It shows which session is where and what time. You can keep coming back to the grid to decide where to go next, and should feel free to move between sessions whenever you like.”

Initial conversations about the unconference led James Darling (our Director of Technology) to iterate the idea by suggesting that sessions should be either personal or work-adjacent. The unconference was not intended to be a space for work, but for conversations around work that can help make it a better – and more effective – place to be.

Good unconference sessions are about having discussions with a chance for everyone to participate. They’re not meant for lengthy presentations (much relief all round).

What we delivered

26 ideas on a Trello board

James and I wondered if there’d be enthusiastic engagement in the pitching process. Turns out we needn’t have worried. Folk threw themselves into putting forward ideas for sessions, roughly split between short (15-minute) presentations and longer (half hour) discussions,

5 spaces, 7 slots, 30 sessions

We had some truly marvellous conversations: from “Meeting the trustee board: who we are and what we’re here to do” to “An equation that explains why it is rational to trust dxw”.

80 or so engaged people

Folk crowded round a table to talk about designing an employee owned organisation, and others shared stories of where client relationships had gone wrong. (As an aside, it was a bit of a relief to see the commonality between Neontribe and wider dxw folk’s tales.)

So many folk:

The 25 or so sessions you missed

So I wish I’d caught “I built the Fyre Festival website: it was always a horror show.” I wish I’d been at “Fandom is my fandom: raised by the Internet”, I wish I’d learned more about the actuality of employee owned trusts. It is what it is. Unconferences are always thus. 

What we need to do more of next time

Make the event more accessible

There’s no “compulsory fun” at dxw, and for what I know were a variety of reasons – some folk weren’t there. We should have thought more about the folk who can’t attend an in person event, or simply don’t wish to. I simply didn’t consider an online equivalent of the in person unconference, so great thanks to Katherine Axel (Delivery Lead) who kicked a column off on the Trello board. For an organisation who delivers accessible digital services, this was a failure, and I need to do better next time.

Give scheduling a touch more thought 

Showing hands for proposed sessions’ popularity *mostly* worked. And when it didn’t, folk just swapped tables, which was great to see. There was only one clash, which was fixed quickly.  Timings-wise, it basically worked.

Decide how best to capture, and share, what comes out of the sessions 

I’m absolutely sure there was wisdom shared that deserves a wider audience. Not sure how to surface that, and I don’t think it needs managing, but I hope folk who wrote notes will write them up and publish them, or take forward any actions that came up. 

Make the event more inclusive

There was a session for introverts on a post-it, which I don’t think made it onto the grid. My fault. Next time, I am going to put it on somewhere and if anyone wants to go, it’ll be there for them. And if there are other conversations that need to be there, I’ll try harder to make space for them.

Consider whether there should be a next time

I think it’s worth doing again. Certainly everyone, not just Neontribe folk, met new people and started to understand how they worked as human beings. 

The sessions on how trustees worked, and what participating in an employee owned trust actually means, got a lot of attention and engagement.  And it was good to understand the physical scale of the company. Reading that a company is over 100 people is one thing, seeing 80 of them in the same space is something else entirely. 

I’m a real unconference fan (but I’m also loud and extroverted). I think they’re useful in terms of cohesion and sharing experiences and helpful information as well as a load of fun. Of course, that’s just my clearly blinkered opinion. There’ll be other solutions that might work differently and/or better to give different folks the same sense of connection and belonging. And the issues we’re looking to address will change over time.