TR PM Unconferences: Are we nearly there yet?

Today, a typically witty, fresh, enthusiastic and undeservedly flattering contribution from the person who actullay gets all the work done, Diane Taylor Cummings (@DianeTC1).

Diane leads the PM Community in ThomsonReuters and has put together the Unconferences we have planned for London and New York in September. She kindly offered (after a little encouragement, I have a bit of track record, see below) to add to this series of blogs leading up to the events. This is about how we ended up embedding a bit of Unconference in our PM Conferences this September. This is terrifying stuff for  PMs.

She  refers to a chap called Anthony a couple of times. He is a pain in the neck, it’s like travelling with a three year old.


Around this time last year a new-ish member of the PMO Council (a GRC chap called Anthony Allinson) told me about an HR event he had been to and the rather strange event format they used.  You may have heard of Anthony.  He’s the one that keeps saying that he is not a project manager but then blogs constantly about project management!  Ever heard of a closet PM?

But getting back to the point, at this HR event, the agenda and content were not decided by a central planning team.  There were no keynote speakers.  The audience did not sit comfortably and listen to expert speakers passing down their wisdom.  Absolutely not!  At this HR event, the audience did the lion’s share of the talking and shared their own wisdom with each other. The agenda and content were driven by the audience. He called it an Unconference and said I should go to one.

I must confess that I ignored this suggestion at first, in the hope that it would go away. This Unconference sounded a bit weird.  It might be OK for these wacky HR folks (are you listening Nick Creswell) but I knew that our professional PMs liked our corporate-style annual event with keynote speakers.  It works so why change it?  But Anthony didn’t go away (the words persistence and tenacity come to mind [I really am a pain the neck, working with me is like going on along journey with a three year old in the back of the car] and so a few months later, Louise Eccles and I were travelling to a strange and distant part of London (Vauxhall) to experience our first Unconference.

We arrived.  It did not look promising.  The venue was a rather old & basic warehouse-type building hidden in a housing estate.  A far cry from the polished marble and sharp suits of Canary Wharf!  I felt overdressed even in the jeans that I had been advised to wear. Maybe I should have worn my scruffy blue jeans instead of my smarter black ones?

But what can I say.  By the end of the day my pre-conceptions were shattered.  The Unconference format was incredibly dynamic and powerful.  We didn’t “network”, we talked, shared and engaged with people. We came away exhausted but inspired and more significantly, converted.  We had become evangelists of the Unconference.

From there our journey continued. We worked with a small team of passionate PMs to bring our own version of the Unconference to our PM Community.  We are almost ready.  The London event is next week.  The NY event is two weeks later.  A few people from Eagan are coming to see it and try it out, so maybe it will go to Eagan too.

Here are a few things that I have learned on this journey.  No doubt there will more lessons once the events are over but this is a start:

  1. Think outside the box.  I thought I did this already as every year we always looked for “something new” for our Annual events.  But now I know that I was only changing the things inside the box.  This time we have thrown away the old box and found a new one!
  2. Listen and be prepared to take a risk.  Nuff said really.
  3. Don’t assume.  A ex-manager of mine told me this many years ago.  I even have it written on my desk but it can still trip me up.  It was easy to assume that the Unconference philosophy of content-from-audience would lend itself to an easy-to-implement & lower-cost event!  But the reality is that it takes far far more detailed planning to get the foundation & structure of an Unconference in place than for a traditional conference, although to be fair, some of that might be because we are beginners.  And the costs are not cheaper – just different.
  4. Don’t underestimate the value of the PM community.  We all know about Stakeholder Mgmt and getting senior buy-in.  After all, we are PMs and that is our job.  But there is more to it.  There is a whole other story to tell about our PM community, the passion of our PMs, how they get stuff done despite the organisational obstacles around them, about how the community has used to the Hub do some of this and to find a voice.

Maybe this should be my next blog? I will simply say here that top down is not enough, and that harnessing the collective PM community is the only way that we can make project management better.  We have to do it ourselves.  And that is what the Unconference is all about.  So let’s see what happens on the day…


Tenacious, moi ? Thanks Diane, I was a bit of a broken record and I did nearly gave up once or twice.

Are we nearly there yet ?  Looks that way… but this project is only 95% done and we all know what happens when a project is 95% done 🙂



4 thoughts on “TR PM Unconferences: Are we nearly there yet?

  1. Di,

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts on getting ready for the unconference. For me, the most important prep for the unconference are #1 and #3, Think outside the box and Don’t assume. In fact, I’ve been doing some of that already, getting myself into that ‘open’ state of mind without being aware I’m doing it. Anyone reading any of my @iwhitt tweets on Twitter not related to #trpm12 will know that I have been doing some ‘wild swimming’ the past couple of weeks.

    Unlike the ‘chlorine cage’ of swimming laps in an indoor (or even an outdoor) pool, wild swimming involves open water swimming, in lakes, rivers, and the sea. Here in Vermont it’s been rivers and lakes. For anyone who has done this you know that one of the things that happens when you swim in an open body of water is that you have to make all kinds of adjustments to the way in which you swim, both mentally & physically. Gone is the regular tick-tock of touching the wall and kicking off at the end of every lap, and the counting of sets (10, 20, 30). The mechanical regularity of being boxed in is replaced by a totally different, ‘open’ rhythm. Those first 5-10 minutes in the open water you are struggling to establish some kind of equilibrium, find a pace that carries you along without thinking about it, click into a groove that feels more like gliding that pulling. And then, 15-20 minutes into your swim it always happens, your mind disengages from thinking about the mechanics of your stroke and you settle into a rhythm that feels more like taking a long walk or a jog than swimming. Swimming becomes truly pleasurable rather than the rote exercise it often feels like in a pool.

    That’s how I hope to participate in next Tuesday’s unconference: find a different rhythm, think in a different way, embrace a different kind of learning experience than the usual overly-familiar PM events and webinars, and head out into the open waters of new ways of thinking, and get a different perspective on this stuff we do called project management.

    • Thanks Ian – that is a great analogy and definitely what we need to do at the Unconference. Thinking in a different way and getting a different perspective is what we are hoping for. And I’m sure that this is where some of our special external guests will be able to make a difference on the day. I can’t wait to see where this leads us.

  2. Diane,

    Thanks for writing this post. The best things about the process of extending the TR PM Community for me has been the way it has challenged us, made us think and learn, but most of all, take risks and make a lot of new friends.


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