The In-house Unconference

Communication, Inspiration, and Collaboration


“Although people are social animals, the skills for working cooperatively don’t come naturally. Many people prefer to work independently even when they see the business need to collaborate.” — from Designing Dynamic Organizations (AMACOM 2001)

The Challenge

As clients and agencies evolve their expectations around the ways teams work together, workplaces continue shifting toward more collaborative environments. Brainstorms, innovative team structures, and open work spaces are just a few of the techniques companies employ to foster collaboration. But collaboration goes beyond just working together on a project or account team — it requires a change in behavior that includes sharing information, communicating across departments, and building relationships. New ideas emerge from the connections and conversations we have with our co-workers — especially the ones we may not work with every day.

Truly effective inter-departmental and interdisciplinary information sharing is harder than it sounds. Most day-to-day communication is department- or client-specific, and crammed into schedules that are filled with deadlines. An hour here, an email there — it keeps projects moving, but it doesn’t give people the luxury of real, quality time dedicated to thinking versus doing.

The Experiment

Four years ago, I was a skeptical unconference attendee (at the inaugural She’s Geeky Twin Cities). As a project manager, the concept sounded like a hot mess— a recipe for confusion and wasted time. In reality, I had some of the most inspiring and high-quality conference conversations of my career.

So, as we at Clockwork talked about ways to foster communication internally, inspiration struck: why not apply the unconference format as a longer-form way to really build the kind of relationships necessary for effective collaboration? Thus was born a bold experiment: The Clockwork Unconference—an entire day of nothing but information sharing, both personal and professional, between Clockworkers.

The Risks

From an organizational standpoint, it’s expensive—(Hourly rate x 8 hours) x (# of people in your agency) = OMG—but the expense bears real value. It can be easy to consider heads-down time as the time when real work happens. But thinking and communicating are real work. In fact, not only are they work, they’re crucial to every other type of work. Thinking of an idea and communicating it effectively are often more difficult, and more taxing, than executing a concept.

Another risk? Conventional conferences — or even annual meetings and staff retreats — are typically created by a committee who decides the agenda, content, and presenters. The burden is on the organizers to create value for the attendees. Conversely, an unconference format puts the burden on audience to make it effective. Our job as organizers is to provide the space, time, and ground rules — but the content comes from the attendees. In a more traditional company, the risk is that the audience would be unfamiliar with (or skeptical of) the concept, and reluctant to participate. For us, the risk was almost the opposite: that in a company filled with smart, independent thinkers the unconference would be seen as some kind of forced “team-building.” (Trust me, I heard lots of jokes about trust falls.)

The Pro Tips

Plan your agenda. Traditionally, an unconference schedule is built the day of the event. We cheated by gathering session ideas and setting the schedule ahead of time. This allowed presenters time to gather their thoughts, and people who weren’t presenting to think about what sessions they wanted to attend.

Both years, we set aggressive agendas: staff meeting, breakout sessions, lightning talks, and 10-15 minute breaks between sessions so people could check messages and respond to urgent client requests if needed.

Our 2014 Agenda
9:00 — Opening remarks & kickoff
9:15 — Four simultaneous 30-minute sessions
10:00 — All-company seminar
11:15 — Four simultaneous 30-minute sessions
12:00 — Lunch/staff meeting
1:15 — Lightning talks
2:30 — All-company 30-minute session (communication workshop)
3:15 — Four simultaneous 30-minute sessions
4:00 — Lightning talks
5:00—Social hour (optional)

Have long- and short-form sessions. In 2013, our long-form sessions were 60 minutes; in 2014 we shortened them to 30 minutes. This allowed for more — and more focused — presentations. The short-form (lightning) sessions, which are 5 minutes each, allow rapid-fire sharing that introduces a topic or concept.

Pick a far future date. No matter the day, someone will be on vacation or maternity leave or sick; it happens and you can’t avoid it. What you can avoid, though, is deadlines or client meetings on unconference day. Plan many months in advance. Consult with project and account teams on the date, and communicate the date early and often. Put it on all the calendars, and block out every meeting room in the building. Hang posters around the building. Help your account and project teams set expectations with clients for this day, and the impact on projects will be minimal.

Aggressively recruit presenters. A handful of people in any organization will be eager to talk. That’s great, but don’t stop there. Reach out to people who you know have experience or knowledge to share. If you overhear a conversation that would make an insightful session, ask them to present. This will help ensure that you get a mix of presenters — some of whom will surprise their colleagues with their insight, experience, or humor.

Make content available afterward. When sessions run simultaneously, people will always want to go to (at least) two that happen concurrently. Ensuring that content from every session is accessible after the event makes attendees happy and makes the decision far less stressful. We recorded sessions on Ustream, and posted videos, and slides, to our intranet.

Let people talk about anything. The purpose of the unconference wasn’t just knowledge sharing about our industry, we also wanted people to learn more about each other. From electronic music to Google Analytics to bike repair to QA tools, seeing what other people are enthusiastic about helps spark inspiration in us.

Have people provide input on presentations before the conference. Many presenters will feel better if they’ve reviewed their content with someone who is objective and helpful. Input helps refine content, and gives the presenter an opportunity to rehearse (however informally). Both years, we named an internal resource that people could go to for input, editing, proofreading, and practice runs.

Encourage the in-between. Don’t get hung up on whether people go to scheduled sessions or not. If a couple of people are having a valuable conversation in the hallway and want to keep going, that’s fine. The point of an unconference is for people to create—or find—value on their own; some of that will happen between (or on top of) agenda items.

The Rewards

As an agency, we are in the business of coming up with ideas that help solve our clients’ problems. Innovation and creativity thrive on exposure to new ideas and knowledge — and an internal unconference focuses on exactly that.

Agencies are also in the business of selling ideas to clients; the more people on your team who can effectively pitch ideas, the better. An internal unconference is an opportunity for people to face their fears of public speaking, and hone their presentation skills.

Collaboration is an essential part of every process; it’s easier and more effective when teams care, not just about the work but also about each other. An unconference provides opportunities to build new and stronger connections across the company, often between people who don’t have an opportunity to work together directly.

The Takeaway

The best ideas are ridiculously simple, and this proves it: spending eight uninterrupted hours just talking to each other is a low-tech but highly effective way to build the connections that are critical to collaboration.

This is an expanded version of a post originally published on Clockwork Active Media’s blog.