In the past couple of years I have done quite a bit of speaking at various events and conferences large and small. Pulling off a successful event is akin to cooking an award winning meal.
Time and time again the conferences we remember and return to are those that manage to create a context that is conducive to making connections, those that build a bridge between attendees and speakers with creativity, and through collaboration.
It's not an out of the box recipe
For years I organized events, in many cases working with cross functional teams and volunteers. The most satisfying event were by far customer conferences -- I helped organize three major ones in Dublin (Ireland), Bermuda, and Edinburgh (Scotland), shaping the program, selecting and inviting speakers and connecting the dots during and after the event.
It takes a lot of planning and of adapting. The event doesn't run itself while it's happening, it takes some coaching and live facilitating and brokering to loosen up some of the rules enough to allow participants to make it theirs.
Over the years, I also enjoyed developing conversation formats for hundreds of professionals who had the ability to attend 100+ free events. These took various forms. From intense discussions to book launches, fireside chats, and behind the scenes conversations with CEOs and presidents of companies large and small.
Many became opportunities to test ideas and business models -- for example, we tested a new PDA ordering system by having the event in a restaurant.
Which is the reason why I know how striking the balance for a productive and memorable experience is not magic. It's done on purpose.
Prized organizers have all the ingredients every organizer has. In some cases, they even have more constraints -- like no or little budget and fewer sponsors and volunteers. Yet, like famous chefs, they manage to produce fabulous results.
What's the difference?
As I was thinking about a way to help conference organizers move from good to great, I kept going back to great directors and their ability to create a wow experience for diverse audiences and a vehicle for artists to give their best on stage or on camera.
So here are seven shoulds -- seven beliefs that stand at the root of how groups process information and live experiences (in the US), regardless of their level of skill and knowledge. My argument is based on the framework developed by the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis who uncovered the 7 cultural assumptions that drive American choice.
As Jamie O'Boyle and Dr. Margaret King have written, Americans share the unconscious assumption that the base unit of American culture is the individual, not the family, clan, tribe, or nation. Which means we are not by and large building a tribe for the members -- we are building it for the individual person or brand. Big difference.
How do you choreograph that group experience when you're starting from individualism?
7 shoulds of conference organization
(1.) Determining your own destiny -- the belief that individuals should determine their own destiny needs to be interpreted. Indeed, how people choose to approach an experience is self-driven. However, to provide the richest environment for attendees and speakers to connect, this experience needs to be carefully choreographed. Which means that both groups have a loosely scripted role to prepare for and play. This will reset expectations.
(2.) Control over social and physical environment -- by attempting to provide control to individuals, organizers are spending less time exploring group experiences, which is where the richness often resides. A group knowledge flow approach involves a counter intuitive move. That of having fewer, smaller, and more intimate spaces to congregate in. More cafe'-like than big convention.
(3.) Authority or “bigness” should be viewed with suspicion -- this continues to perpetuate the scarcity mindness cycle. And by virtue of that, it forces the belief that the answers reside outside attendees and only some speakers have them. A conference should be fertile ground for exploration and dialogue among all with some in a facilitating role, and not a popularity contest.
(4.) Actions should be judged in a moral light -- and I'm not talking just about philanthropy or ethics, although they are both very valid considerations. Walking the talk is a marvelous test when in a group situation where culturally the outcome for the group is rarely considered. A better leadership format is validating the group's vision and helping support it.
(5.) You should have as many choices as possible (not) -- you have so many answers available today and fewer good questions. Learning is with the questions, especially as a group experience. There are two factors that put the experience at risk here: a) analysis paralysis at a personal level and herd response as a result; b) which leads to individual conformity that looks like choice. Does the director give you a choice when she makes a movie?
(6.) Anything can and should be improved -- "this is the way we've always organized our conference" is not a good enough reason to keep going through a broken process that has not kept up with the times and how people absorb information and participate in the knowledge flow.
(7.) The present should be lived and experienced fully -- before we go ahead and look for the future to hold all answers. And we know already it's about the questions. As William Isaacs wrote, so far the digital revolution is giving us connection but not contact... one simple touch of a human hand could far exceed all the impact of all the digital libraries in the land.
What real time learning means
Real time learning doesn't mean using Twitter and Facebook to comment on sessions, speakers, and the program. For all the points outlined above, real time learning means formatting the conversation in a way that is conducive to drawing out and harnessing the collective knowledge and experience in the room and using the dialogue to move to a new place -- together.
I'd love to be part of that conference, and we have been on our way there several times in the past. It's a format that requires a different mindset and personal availability to become a true member of the group. Conference organizers and volunteers have an opportunity to create this kind of experience with participants.
How is your identity being shaped by derivative values (I'm cool because I'm attending this conference) vs. reflective values (this conference is cool because I'm attending it)? Answer that question in the privacy of your mind, and you'll know what kinds of events you'll continue to have...
[image by DannyMcL]