Tips and Techniques
September 13, 2021

Bored with meetings? Have an Unmeeting instead

By applying some patterns from the popular ‘unconference’ format, we can all turn a regular work meeting into something much better, where we can learn from each other, and do our best work together.

I still remember my first time. Back then, I just stumbled into it, not even really knowing what I was in for. But once I experienced it, I was hooked. I mean, I wouldn’t want every time to be like this, but every now and then, doing it this way made it sort of special.

Yes, I’m talking about ‘unconferences’. Rather than having a bunch of long talks given by highly-paid speakers who have given the same talks at least 10 times before, the unconference format is more informal, and focused on peer-to-peer learning. Rather than a pre-set agenda, attendees choose the topics they want to discuss and learn about.

What is an unconference?

For the uninitiated, an unconference generally works like this: the organiser provides the venue, facilities, and refreshments, just like Marcel van Hove and Matthew Magain did with VizConf, that I enjoyed, back in 2019. They also provide a theme. Attendees then have the opportunity to post proposals for what they want to talk about, or host a discussion group about, based on that theme. All attendees then vote for the proposals they want the most, and then the organiser arranges the most-voted proposals into time slots for the rest of the day.

You probably wouldn’t want every conference to be in this unconference format. But it makes for a refreshing change. As Dave Winer from The Geek’s Guide to Unconferences says, “The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of the expertise of the people on stage”.

It’s ad-hoc. It’s unscripted. And it works.

Why? From what I’ve experienced, the most timely, relevant and resonant content quickly rises to the top. There is more time and opportunity for more meaty conversations with others. Also, each upvoted speaker generally does a great job, compelled by the privilege of being voted worthy enough to be on the agenda.

What is an unmeeting?

What does this have to do with meetings at work? Well, think about all the meetings you have in your week. How often are you discussing the most timely, relevant and resonant content? How often does the meeting leader do a great job, compelled by the privilege of being worthy enough to drive the agenda?

I’m not saying all meetings should be deep and meaningful breakthrough hugfests, but we should always be coming out of our meetings having made meaningful progress together.

An ‘unmeeting’ is just one meeting a week — a month, even — where the agenda is democratically chosen by everyone in the team, to discuss the most timely, relevant and resonant content.

An ‘unmeeting’ is just one meeting a week — a month, even — where the agenda is democratically chosen by everyone in the team, to discuss the most timely, relevant and resonant content, whatever ‘timely, relevant and resonant’ means to you and your team.

Benefits of an unmeeting

An unmeeting is everything a dull regular meeting is not:

  • They’re optional, but it’d be so relevant that you wouldn’t want to miss it
  • They’re short; 30 minutes (an hour tops)
  • The agenda is put together by the team, not the manager
  • No meeting minutes to read afterward; you capture whatever you want to capture for yourself

What can you discuss at an unmeeting?

Unmeetings are great for the things that don’t — as they say in cynical social media posts — ‘fit the narrative’. Yes, we still need the team update meetings, the retrospective and planning meetings, the ‘What are we doing this quarter, even though we’re half-way through this quarter’ meetings.

But we also need a forum to raise ideas, concerns, hopes and fears that sit outside of the industrialised churn of regular work.

Things like:

  • I want to share this great thing I learned (at an unconference) with you all
  • I have an idea for improving our way of working, and I’d like feedback
  • I want to try out a new way of doing part of our regular process, in a safe space
  • It’s been ages since we all got together properly, and we have 2 new team members
  • I don’t really understand our organisation’s strategic goals — help!

The first time my team (at the time) and I did an unmeeting, it was really born out of frustration: so much was going unsaid at the time, and so many issues were going on unaddressed, even with the regular calendar of meetings we all had. We started doing it as an online team catch-up when the pandemic first started, and it just took off from there.

We need a forum to raise ideas, concerns, hopes and fears that sit outside of the industrialised churn of regular work.

Here’s how

Doing an unmeeting is easier than you think.

Gather ideas to talk about, in one space. If you’re the meeting organiser, host a space for people to add ideas for what they want to. Your regular office collaboration platform is fine for this, e.g. Trello, Confluence, Teams, or Notion.

Ask people to size the time they’ll need
: small (5 mins), medium (15mins), or large (30 mins). Some things are important to talk about, and need more time.

Schedule the meeting
at a time where people will be reasonably fresh.

Get everyone to upvote the ideas they want to talk about in the unmeeting
a few days before the scheduled meeting. How you do this is up to you; when I’ve done this, I tend to give everyone 5 votes to ‘spend’ where they want.

Arrange the agenda according to what’s been upvoted
, with the time you have. When I’ve done it, it always tends to be a mix of a couple of small items, and then one medium or one big item. If some things have been upvoted a fair bit but are sized bigger, consider increasing the time of the meeting. Why? Because you’re optimising for what people really want to discuss, not the calendar. ;)

Let everyone know the agenda as soon as you can
, so that people whose ideas were upvoted can prepare.

And there you go.

Try it yourself

As Priya Parker writes in The Art of Gathering, “when we do gather, we too often use a template of gathering (what we assume a gathering should look like) to substitute for our thinking. The art of gathering begins with purpose: When should we gather? And why?”

Our assumptions of what a meeting even is, and what it should contain often get in our way. Holding an unmeeting with your team can help you break free of ‘template-driven’ meetings, even just once, so that together you can re-discover real intent of why you want to get together in the first place.

Like any new thing, it’s worth trying an unmeeting at least three times, to work out the wrinkles. The first time will probably feel a bit weird, but if everyone is clear on the intent of the unmeeting — a forum to discuss the timely, relevant, resonant things that don’t fit the regular meetings — then everyone will be more bought into making it work.

Project Insurance Pack

You need to set up your team to succeed. These 3 meeting guides will help you do just that. Included in the pack:

Project Kick-off Meeting Guide

Get a shared understanding before the project begins.

Project Pre-Mortem Meeting Guide

Identify what might go wrong and how you will avoid it.

Problem Framing Meeting Guide

Clarify the 'why' behind what your project is really for.

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