The Unconference

October 20, 2009 Leave a comment

I’m writing from the Opportunity Collaboration, and anti-poverty convening in Ixtapa, Mexico.  It has been quite an experience and while we are working with powerful content, I want to write about process.  This has not been a conference!  About 260 delegates have been convened in a beautiful resort to tackle the problem of poverty from a relatively diverse set of approaches and outlooks, ranging from philanthropy to micro-finance, nonprofits and other social ventures.

Groups of 20 delegates come together 2 hours each morning in what has been titled the Colloquium for the Common Good.  This is the common conversation we are having throughout the convening as we are invited to reflect on our values and why we do this work.  I have been honored to serve as facilitator for one of these groups and I am quite impressed by the depth of our conversations.

The rest of the time is relatively self-organized.  All delegates were given the opportunity, an option, not an obligation, to host a one hour “Conversation for Change.”  We were invited to host a conversation about whatever it is that we are passionate about, and space was limited to 20 participants per conversation.  Many of these were happening at the same time and every day has had four hours dedicated to these conversations.  Delegates go wherever they are drawn.

Other social and informational events are organized, but the rest of the time is left for networking and relationship building.  This is quite the amazing format and it resonates deeply with my own understanding of networks and complexity.  Participants self-select to come here and they are here because they are passionate about their work and anxious to find creative solution to the overwhelming problem of human poverty.

Where such passion is the determinant, conveners do best by designing a space where people can connect and self-organize as they themselves see fit.  Self-motivated people will always do better than the smartest, most well meaning central planner or panelist.

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  • This seems to be quite an experience. Will be interested in hearing about the outcomes and next steps that emerge from the “unconference” conference.

  • Curtis says:


    Nice to hear from you in Mexico. In line with your post, I’ve been reading a great book called Creative Genius by Keith Sawyer, in which the author makes a case for improvisation as being the highest form and source of innovation. He also notes that improvisation is highly inefficient – many ideas are generated that go no where, it’s very time consuming. So he makes an argument for a strategic balancing of planning, structure, and improv, and also points to the fact that separating planning and improv (or play) is less effective. It is often better to plan and play (experiment) as one goes. Interesting, given our method of really holding a separate and sacred place for planning.


  • Gibran says:

    Charlie – there will be outcomes but not measurable in the traditional way. People come and connect with other people who coplement their skills or care for the same things, they make connections and take it from there. There was no intention to come up with a 10-Point plan out of this space.

    CO – I like where Keith Sawyer is going, and I’m sure there are ways we could experiment with this!

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