Communication
September 13, 2012

Circle your participants: Designing conferences that connect

Open Space Technology
Harrison Owen
Berrett-Koehler, 198 pages, $32.95

Seven Rules For Designing More Innovative Conferences
Ed Bernacki
The Idea Factory, 82 pages, $34.00

On April 21, 1992, a group of 225 people gathered in Denver, Colorado for a two-day meeting to develop cooperative arrangements for the effective expenditure of $1.5 billion designated for highway construction on tribal and public land. About one-third of the participants were U.S. federal government executives, a third were Native Americans, and a third were drawn from state and local governments.

The prospects for a productive meeting seemed less than bright. The participants were all natural – if not historical – enemies. It appeared they would be lucky if the meeting simply was peaceful. But as it turned out, the results were surprisingly good. And that’s even more astonishing because the approach for the session was very unusual.

When people arrived, there was no advance agenda. Participants only knew when the meeting would start and when it would end, and that they were expected to somehow accomplish the challenging task in front of them. The set-up of the room was also atypical. There were two large concentric circles of chairs, with nothing in the middle and a blank space of wall behind.
 
But within 90 minutes, even the sceptics were hard at work, immersed in tackling the issues that brought them together. That burst of activity was sparked when everyone was invited to identify any issue related to the overall task for which they had some real passion, to write it down on a quarter sheet of newsprint, and to pin it on the wall. With that came a commitment: they would convene a session on that issue and provide a written report of the results. After all the issues were posted, the participants went to the wall en masse and signed up for the sessions they want to join. And then it was off to work.

There were 52 different task groups, which the participants managed themselves. They produced about 150 pages recording their proceedings which, thanks to computers and overnight printing, were available for them upon their departure. “During the concluding session, one of the Native Americans said that never before had he felt so listened to and so much a part of the discussions,” consultant Harrison Owen notes.

It seems like a fantasy. Certainly it breaks all the rules we know for high stakes meetings and conferences. The decision to hold the session had been taken just six weeks earlier. Despite the complexity and potential tinderbox, the meeting went from conception to completion in a very short time. There was only one facilitator for the event.

“The conventional wisdom says, and everybody knows, that creating a meeting of such size, complexity, and potential for conflict takes months of preparation and an army of planners and facilitators. Furthermore, the notion that the proceedings could not only be completed but also delivered to the participants prior to departure is going a little too far. Unfortunately for the conventional wisdom, the event did take place exactly as described, and more than that, it was not the first such event. Over the past 20 years, thousands of gatherings have taken place with similar results. While the experience may not be commonplace, it is definitely not a fluke. It is repeatable. It is called Open Space Technology,” Owen advises in his book, Open Space Technology.

At a time when governments are hesitant about the costs of conferences and participants are often suspicious of how much is truly accomplished at such events, Open Space Technology is worth considering. For the most part, it has been relegated to meetings of the counterculture. But governments and corporations that have tried it have found it a useful vehicle for planning conferences and meetings with many stakeholders.

It traces back to 1983, when Owen spent a year preparing a conference for 250 people. When he had finished with all the details, frustrations and egos – his own and others – he resolved never to do it again. His instinct was confirmed when, at the end of the conference everyone, including himself, concluded that although the total event had been outstanding, the truly useful part had been the coffee breaks.

He began to wonder: is it possible to combine the level of synergy and excitement present in a coffee break with the substantive activity and results of a good meeting? (And, of course, could it be done in less than the year of planning he had just endured?)

His thoughts turned to time he had spent in the small West African village of Balamah, where he watched a four-day ceremonial rite of passage for youngsters making their way into adulthood, an event held only once every seven years. So far as he could tell there was nothing that looked or acted like a planning committee either during the event or prior to it. Nevertheless, 500 people managed themselves for four days in a highly organized, satisfactory, and enjoyable fashion.
The village, he remembered, was laid out in a circle, which seemed to facilitate community life and the event. “My experience tells me that the circle is the fundamental geography of open human communications. A circle has no head or foot, no high or low, no sides to take; in a circle, people can simply be with each other – face to face. Circles create communication.”

To build on that as a central element of his new-style conference, he added two other features from Balamah: the community bulletin board and the village marketplace. The bulletin board provides a convenient low-tech means for identifying what people are interested in. The marketplace provides a means of bringing interests together in an orderly way. “Both mechanisms are so ancient and ingrained in the human experience that explaining the rules is unnecessary,” he notes.

Indeed, it’s so ingrained that when he facilitates a conference or meeting using Open Space technology, he makes himself scarce. His approach is Zen-like: do nothing and be invisible. Usually after introducing the topic and process, he ducks out for a nap, leaving it to participants to figure out the agenda and enact it. Then, after they create their own agenda without him, he’ll casually sit around, watching, giving them the freedom to make it work, doing his best to avoid intervening.

His book takes you through the steps of planning an Open Space Technology gathering, from arranging the room, to gathering the reports from all the sessions, to then getting the participants to turn the swarm of ideas into a workable plan. And remember: people like you have been trying it around the world, and finding it effective.

In Seven Rules For Designing More Innovative Conferences, Ottawa-based consultant Ed Bernacki offers another intriguing look at conferences. His concern is that most people return from them having had a pleasant, even inspiring time, but usually not inspired enough to implement any of the ideas they have been exposed to. So he focuses on building a learning plan for your conference rather than just devising a theme and signing up some flamboyant speakers.
 
That doesn’t mean getting rid of keynote speakers. But it does mean clarifying their role, and supplementing them with other program elements, including calling upon experts from within the conference itself to speak, to ensure good ideas come forth and get turned into action.

He also urges you to carefully construct networking activities, rather than leaving them to chance. “What strikes me as odd is that so few events actually structure their networking. Surely the chance of meeting someone should not be left to chance, such as, who happens to be walking beside you en route to the washroom!” he says. While it’s nice to meet lots of people through networking, he adds, you want to connect with “the one” person who can contribute to success, so he suggests you steal ideas from dating services that know how to get people to meet.

At a Global Business Women’s Network session in Australia, a “thought provocateur” introduced each of the three learning themes and highlighted its importance for 20 minutes. Three speakers then each contributed their perspectives, in 15 to 20 minutes, tight timing designed to keep them clear and concise. The 400 participants, seated at round tables, then had 30 minutes to discuss the topic and come to a conclusion at each table. They also were asked to come up with two questions for the panel.

Thus, instead of each conference participant effectively sitting alone listening to speakers, as is the norm, they were interacting, thinking about the ideas as a group and how those could be refined and implemented. That meant a greater involvement in the ideas – and obligatory networking.

If your conferences seem stale, either of these books may help you to re-invigorate them.

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