The myth of control

by Adrian Segar

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Misconception 7: Conflict is bad…The reality is that whenever you have more than one living person in a room, you’ll have more than one set of interests, and that’s not a bad thing.
—The Change Handbook by Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, and Steven Cady

Why do we cling to traditional event structure? One powerful reason is because we want to avoid dealing with messy differences of opinion. When we give attendees the power to choose what happens at our conferences, people are going to disagree. And when people disagree, there’s the possibility of controversy and conflict. Who’d want that at their event?

Perhaps you believe that learning is some kind of linear process that happens painlessly. That’s certainly the paradigm we’re fed in school. Even though most of us struggle to learn there, the underlying message is usually “if you were smart enough, this would be easy”.

If you do believe that conference learning should be painless, let me ask you this. Think for a moment about the most important things you’ve learned in your life. How many of them came to you in the absence of disagreement, pain, or conflict? And how many of them did you learn while sitting in a room listening to someone talk for an hour?

Do you want your conferences to maximize learning, even at the cost of some disagreement or discomfort? Or would you rather settle for a safe second best?

We are scared about not having control in our lives and at our events. That’s why we lock down our conferences, forcing their essence into tightly choreographed sessions. Attendees are carefully restricted to choosing, at most, which concurrent session room they’ll sit in.

The reality is that you never had control to begin with, just the semblance. You’ve been kidding yourself all these years. Unless your constituency is bound to your event via a requirement to earn CEUs, members can withhold their attendance or avoid sessions at will.

Fortunately, there are multiple ways to give up the unnecessary control exercised at traditional conferences and give attendees the freedom and responsibility to make the event theirs. All participant-driven event formats like Open Space, Conferences That Work, and Future Search treat attendees like intelligent adults.

What’s amazing to discover is how liberating these event designs are for conference organizers too. When we give up over-control, we become largely freed of the responsibility to choose the content, format, and instigators of our conference sessions, concentrating instead on supervisory, facilitation, and support roles. Yes, the result is an event that is less predictable, and often more challenging. But the richer experience, the creation of an event that reflects what participants truly need and want, and the joy of uncovered valuable, unexpected, appropriate learning make it all worthwhile for everyone involved.

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  • My name is Cd

    Adrian, this is a great post. I am sometimes approached after an event and asked “Did it go perfect?” No event goes perfect because there are humans and technology involved. And I love your opening quote — paraphrasing, if have more than one living person in a room — there will be more than one set of interest. Conflict isn’t bad — creating conflict where there shouldn’t be any is bad. Events will always run out of coffee, the room will always be too hot or too cold. And sometimes Wifi will not work properly – but as long as the attendees walked away with their expectations met — for me the event went well.  Not perfect, but well.

    You ROCK ASegar!

    • Cd, love the passion! And the acknowledgement that we’re human, not perfect, unique & therefore different, and we’re going to disagree.

      All I know is that year after year, the vast majority of the people who participate in my conferences are very happy they came. Even though, through the lens of traditional events, what happened was messier, more less predictable, and therefore scarier for the organizers. Giving up the illusion of control and getting comfortable with that fear is hard—but so worth it!

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