Generate meeting value – topical islands

The problem with "knowing what to talk about"

I often had the problem that when I finally realized that the meeting agenda didn’t meet the actual issues, the meeting itself was long time done. This raises the problem that people aren’t forthcoming at putting across issues they would like to cover or discuss in the meeting. I ended up doing a very natural thing - I tried to listen to the issues of my colleagues even more in order to further improve the content of the meeting.

Listening more certainly does a good job in improving meetings. It doesn’t solve the actual issue - which is that people simple don’t tell you everything beforehand.

Topical islands – minimum effort to maximum output

In the end, I was lucky to find a format that is so simple, almost impossible to fail - and I named it Topical Islands.

Topical Islands is a free form which allows any participant to change the agenda to which empowers great discussion as it leaves room for interpretation.

The format works in two rounds followed by open discussion. It is essential that there is no discussion before finishing round two. All you need is a board (white, cork, …​) and stickies - or a digital lookalike.

First round – define the islands

The first round of Topical Islands opens the board to define the islands. The islands are the topics to discuss later.

screenshot from the first round – define the islands on blue cards

In this picture, the blue cards describe the topics/islands.

Tips for round one:

  • Keep it short - 5 minutes are enough - even for bigger rounds

  • Keep the topics open. Use stickies or something similar where you don’t have enough space for a full explanation.

    • Explain this requirement if you are using a digital board.

Between round one and two

Only combine obviously identical topics (exact same word - don’t assume similarities!). Otherwise just move on to round two.

Second round - define actions/thoughts/ideas

The second round is still silent.

No explanation of any topic.

Interpretation is key to success!

The second round opens any topic on the board for any thoughts/ideas/actions anyone can imagine. Every participant can add anything to any topic.

screenshot from the second round – green cards with thoughts and ideas

This picture shows the thoughts/ideas/etc. added as green cards to the islands (blue) from round one.

Tips for round two:

  • Keep it short - again 5 minutes are enough.

  • Stop any discussion immediately.

  • Everything is allowed - nothing is wrong.


At this point you might think that you have enough time. I am sorry, but you are wrong.

Until now, Topical Islands was quick and simple. As the moderator, the discussion will be the challenging part for you. In case everything went as expected a lot of interpretation will be happening throughout round two. This can result in discussions which were never meant to happen.

Tips for the discussion:

  • Try to make clear what to discuss and where to start

    • Should all topics be discussed?

    • Should you only stick to a subset of the topics?

      • Maybe some dot-voting is necessary then.

      • Or use a hard timebox until discussion continues

    • Define the first topic, e.g.

      • the one with the most votes, or

      • the one in the top right corner, or

      • the one someone requests to start with.

  • Start with the first topic

    • Ask who created the topic and let her explain.

  • Let discussion flow as long as it is fruitful.

  • Try to naturally group the topics as long as it is possible.

  • Don’t stop the discussion as long as there is constant/flowing communication.

  • Try to cover as many topics as possible. Ignore the timebox.

  • Discover actions while jumping from one topic to another. Don’t wait for the last one to happen.


Topical Islands is a powerful method of discussing the right things. Topical Islands is not good at time management.

Me and my colleagues use this format in retrospectives, strategy meetings, with and without customers, with known teams as well as with foreigners - and we haven’t had a single event where this format failed.

About the author
Georg Schild is an agile mind and engineer, helping teams and organizations to leave their comfort zone in order to achieve more.

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