Friday, March 6, 2009 by Dave Blum

Have you ever been to a conference where there are intentionally no plans, no programs, no designated speakers, and the agenda is made up from scratch that morning?  Well, that’s exactly the crazy/fascinating meeting I attended here in San Francisco this past Tuesday,

The event was called “LaidOffCamp“, founded by Chris Hutchins, a 20-something, “self-employed consultant”.   Hutchins billed the day as:

“An ad-hoc gathering of unemployed and nontraditionally employed people (including freelancers, entrepreneurs and startups) who want to share ideas and learn from each other. At LaidOffCamp, attendees will discuss topics in sessions that may include: living on an extreme budget, building your personal brand, how to be a freelance consultant and more.”

Given the description, I was expecting maybe 30 moping people, sitting around a large table, kvetching about the economy and their lousy job prospects.  Boy was I surprised!  Something like 500 highly-professional people showed up, bursting with energy, eager to swap ideas and present on the topics of venture capital, independent consulting, entrepreneurship, online marketing, utilizing social media, creating online resumes, etc..  And most interesting of all, the sessions were all led by volunteers!

Here’s how it worked:  Hutchins put up a board that was divided into 1/2- hour segments, with four open time slots per segment.  He then invited whoever wanted to lead a session to come up to the stage and write in their name and their topic.  If there were people interested in the same topic, they could join together and form a panel.   Within seconds, the front-stage area was packed with volunteers, jockeying for speaking slots, many of whom had brought projectors and PowerPoint presentations. Once the board was full, we attendees chose the sessions we wanted to attend and split off to the appropriate break-out rooms.  And that was it–the conference was on…no facilitation; it just happened–for the next 8 hours! Quite a scene – and they even supplied pizza. 🙂

When I got home I did a little Internet research and discovered that LaidOff Camp more-or-less followed the format of something called “Open Space Technology” (OST).  Developed by Harrison Owen in 1985, OST posits that given the chance, people will self-organize themselves according to their own interests and passions.  People have used OST in widely diverse situations, from designing aircraft doors at a large aircraft-manufacturing company to engaging street kids in defining a sustainable jobs-program.  I’d heard about Open Space before, but never in the context of the “creatively unemployed”.

LaidOff Camp has got me thinking about my own corporate team building activities.  Can I get a bunch of managers together and have them create a whole day of team building exercises, on their own initiative, according to their passions and team building ideas?   Perhaps we could create do-it-yourself scavenger hunts together?  Make-your-own treasure hunt clues?

It’s like Field of Dreams — if you build it, they will self organize.