Anti-agile conferences

Let’s start by looking at what a conference is…


Definition: “a formal meeting of people with a shared interest, typically one that takes place over several days.”

Agile On The Beach Conference (2013)

The features:

  • Topics shape the audience
  • Rigid program
  • You know what you are getting
  • Often high profile expert speakers
  • Accessible for old-school thinkers
  • Can be expensive for participants



Definition: “A loosely structured conference emphasizing the informal exchange of information and ideas between participants, rather than following a conventionally structured programme of events.”

Manchester BarCamp 7 (2016)

The features:

  • Audience shape the topics
  • Flexible (unknown) program
  • Lean
    • Not so much preparation for speakers
    • Law of two feet: If a session is not useful to someone they will leave, which is less wasteful
  • Variable quality speakers
  • Everyone participates, which is more effective for learning
  • Often cheap/free for participants

Which is more agile?

I will now attempt to show that agile conferences are a paradox. I know it may seem odd applying agile (for software development) to something like a group of people communicating, but let’s give it a go. Perhaps we can compare some traits of Conferences and Unconferences to the Agile Manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
    • Unconference is more agile, since unconferences are attendee-led
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
    • Arguably both styles similar with an Unconference perhaps slightly better, since conferences often document lots in their preparation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
    • Unconference is certainly better here, since unconferences are attendee-led (and the law-of-two feet means that “customers” don’t get what they don’t want)
  • Responding to change over following a plan
    • Unconference is massively better here

I put it to you that as agile evangelists, we shouldn’t be encouraging traditional conferences, which are prescriptive, irresponsive, contractual and process-driven.

Instead, we should support unconferences, perhaps by organising, participating or sponsoring them.


One thought on “Anti-agile conferences

  1. Interesting post Guy. I’m finding it hard to put my figure on quite why it is that I disagree… But let me try:

    The key idea behind the agile manifesto is that writing software is a creative process. Therefore, whilst it is indeed possible to apply the four agile principles to other aspects of life, the justification for doing so will become more tenuous the further removed we get from the creative sphere. One could argue quite easily that growing food in a collective is more agile than going to the supermarket, but that doesn’t mean that software developers should all go out and invest in a pair of Wellies!

    So what then of conferences? Are they hotbeds of creativity or simply places that people go to learn things in ready meal sized portions? From my experience they can be both. However, I don’t see why the creativity is something that needs to be actively planned. Instead the creativity happens as the collective forages for coffee and seeks out its dinner – forming new relationships and collaborating as they go…

    But people go on a conference to learn things too, and that – I would argue – is not really a creative process. Instead one just needs to choose her seminars, caffeinate up and digest. But to do that one needs to have structure, and sometimes structure is exactly what a room full of bean bags just doesn’t have!

    What do you think?


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