“Contains active cultures.” How often have you read this on the sides of yogurt containers? Well, healthy organizations contain active cultures too.
Active cultures — not just for yogurt any more
Just as there are hundreds of different strains of probiotic cultures, there are many ways to think about organizational culture. For example, you might focus on descriptive approaches: an organization’s core beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions about “what is” and “why is”, plus customary ways of interacting. Or, you could concentrate on a behavioral approach: how an organization consistently does things.
Unfortunately, in many organizational cultures the descriptive culture isn’t congruent with the behavioral reality. Ultimately, however you define organizational culture, what interests most people is changing it, hopefully for the better.
That’s where active (aka adaptive or adhocracy) organizational cultures shine.
However, meetings have tremendous potential to change lives. Attendees have something in common: a profession, a passion, a shared experience together. They are with people who, in some way, do what they do, speak the same language, and face the same challenges.
What an opportunity to connect with like-minded souls, learn from each other, and, consequently, change one’s life for the better!
Unfortunately, most conferences squander this opportunity. Learning is restricted to broadcast-style lectures, Q&A is often more about status than learning, and attendees have little if any input into the topics and issues discussed.
Peer conferences support change
The peer conferences I’ve been designing and facilitating for 27 years are different. Yes, you can’t make people change. But, as Seth Godin points out, you can create an environment where they choose to!
Peer conferences create an optimal environment for supporting attendees in the difficult work of making changes in their lives.
Peer conferences do this by providing a safe, supportive, and participation-rich environment that includes the freedom to choose what happens.
A safe environment supports attendees taking risks: the risks of thinking about challenges and issues in new ways.
The supportive environment of a peer conference provides process tools that allow attendees to freely explore new possibilities.
A participation-rich environment ensures that attendees are likely to connect with peers who can help them or whom they can help, thus building networks and new capabilities in the future.
The freedom to choose what happens at a peer conference allows attendees to collectively create the meeting that they want and need, rather than be tied to the limited vision of a program committee or the vested interests of conference stakeholders.
These are the core design elements of peer conferences that make them so successful in creating change. Their very design maximize the likelihood that participants will choose to make useful and productive change in their lives.
“Those doing the work are often the only ones who really understand the context. Leadership is helping build the structure and then protecting the space to do meaningful work.“ —Harold Jarche, work in 2018
Almost all organization leaders today wield positional power: the power of a boss to make decisions that affect others. This is unlikely to change soon. But the growth of the network era, where leaders and workers need to connect outside the workplace in order to stay up to date professionally and to be open to new and innovative ideas, is creating a shift away from traditional hierarchical power models.
“One major change as we enter the network era is that positional power (based on institutions and hierarchies) may no longer be required to have influence in a network society.” —Harold Jarche, the new networked norm
It’s increasingly possible to have influence these days without being anyone’s boss.
Influence but no authority
As a consultant in various fields for 36 years, this is a familiar world: one where I have influence with a client but less authority than a janitor. Clients are free to ignore my advice. Sometimes they do, but clearly I have useful influence that typically leads to significant change. (Otherwise I wouldn’t continue to be hired and — usually 😀 — appreciated.)
Today, far more people work in the gig economy, which has grown in large part because the network era has made it much easier to find and hire specialized services on a just-in-time basis. This development has caused significant disruptions. Two examples: less long-term job security and the weakened ability for workers to advocate for their concerns en masse. However, there’s a positive side.
The network era
The network era is making possible a shift towards decentralized influence and power, and away from the dysfunctional features of hierarchical societal and organizational structures that have led to much suffering and misery throughout human history. Today there’s no reason to pick either positional or network era power. We can create systems that incorporate the best features of both.
Here’s Harold Jarche again:
“…it is up to all of us to keep working on new structures and systems. This is perhaps the only great work to be done for the next few decades. We have the science and technology to address most of the world’s problems. What we lack are structures that enable transparency and action on behalf of humankind, and not the vested interests of the rich and powerful.” —Harold Jarche, chaos and order
This isn’t easy work. When consulting, one of my biggest meeting design challenges is to get boss buy-in. Typically middle management are enthusiastic and on board. But the most senior decision-maker will occasionally override everyone else in the organization. They make a poor design decision based on obsolete ideas about how people learn and lack of understanding of how good meeting design can transform communities.
The network era is here. Its effect on power relationships isn’t going away. To improve the relevance and effectiveness of social structures, organizations, and meetings, it’s crucial for leaders to understand and accept the potential and value of decentralized influence.
In June I’m stepping down as President and Executive Director of edACCESS, an association I co-founded 25 years ago. This is the third time I’ve left an association leadership position, and I’m going to share some valuable lessons learned from each transition.
Wikipedia defines resource as “a source or supply from which benefit is produced“. Is this how we think of employees—as resources for a company’s benefit?
I think it’s telling that many organizations still use this term to label the office that hires, manages, and fires employees. And such organizations, at least in the IT industry where I’ve had some experience of them, often don’t do a very good job.
Nowadays I’m noticing a trend in larger organizations to rebrand Human Resources as Talent Management. This is better—we’re not classifying people as resources like steel ingots. But the m-word—management—is still there, emphasizing the role of guidance on how employees work.
So here are a couple of alternative descriptions that I like better.
The first is Talent Leadership. As I’ve written here, I see leaders as influencers and facilitators of process rather than high-ups laying down the law. Organizations need both leaders and managers, but I think that forward thinking institutions should have their talent led rather than guided.
Want an alternative? Google calls its Human Resources Department People Operations; employees shorten this to POPS. I think this neutral term is a sensible reframe of what “HR” does in a modern organization; covering the nitty gritty work while avoiding any connotation of employees-as-cattle.
I rarely use the word learning these days. Business managers hear learning and think schooling and don’t want to invest a dime in it. I’m tired of having doors slammed in my face, so I now talk about Working Smarter. I’ve yet to meet a manager who didn’t want her organization to work smarter (even though learning is a major component of doing so). —Bringing Informal Learning Up To Date, by Jay Cross
Given Jay’s experience it surprises me how often I’m asked how to justify attending participant-driven conferences that don’t have a nice neat program of sessions to show to the “I-decide-whether-you-go” boss. I’d like to think that managers are able to:
trust that the employees they hire possess the inclination and ability to learn what they need to know to do their job better.
be enthusiastic about conferences that effectively leverage the combined knowledge and experience of all participants rather than that of a few “experts”.
Sadly, it’s clear that many managers see learning as a dirty word however it’s defined in their minds: whether as schooling/training or as just-in-time, focused, relevant peer learning. Having to recast “learning” into “Working Smarter” to get management on board reveals management with a fundamental misunderstanding of modern business realities.
The industrial age, when employees trained in a static skill set generated long term returns, is over. Management needs to embrace this simple truth: continuous, self-directed learning in all its forms—experiential, social, and formal—is key to sustained business success today. To paraphrase Derek Bok: if you think learning is dirty, try ignorance.
Have you experienced push-back from management when you’re making a case for learning? Do tell!
There are many models of how people behave in groups, and each of them is useful in certain contexts. In the context of organizing and running a conference, I tend to employ an organic model, in which group members are seen in terms of their uniqueness, rather than categorized by their roles. An organic point of view allows and encourages people to find ways to work together in a variety of complex situations, and leads toward problem-solving that benefits everyone.
For example a conference steering committee I coordinated was offered the option of engaging a well-known, desired keynote speaker for a conference to be held in six months. Initially, his appearance fee was more than our budget could handle, but at the last minute he suggested appearing virtually, giving his presentation on a large video screen, at an affordable fee. We needed to quickly find out whether the conference site could support a virtual presentation.
If we had been using a linear approach to group organization, we would have already chosen the steering committee member responsible for technical issues and it would be her job to resolve this issue. If she were busy or sick, I’d have had to poll the other committee members for help and ask someone to take on additional work. In this case, our committee was comfortable with an organic approach, so I sent a request for help to all the steering committee members, most of whom had some technical expertise.
Because the committee culture was one of staying flexible in the face of unexpected circumstances, cooperatively working together to solve problems, and respecting each member’s unique constraints and contributions, I didn’t worry about treading on anyone’s toes by sending out a general request for help. The outcome: One of the committee members had some free time and immediately offered his expertise, while another, the speaker liaison, told us he thought the speaker would have the information we needed and would check with him.
How do you build this kind of culture for your conference organizing team? This brings us to the question of what leadership means in the context of organizing and running a conference. Every book on leadership has a different approach; here’s what fits for me.
Author and polymath Jerry Weinberg describes organic leadership as leading the process rather than people. “Leading people requires that they relinquish control over their lives. Leading the process is responsive to people, giving them choices and leaving them in control.” Jerry’s resulting definition of leadership is “the process of creating an environment in which people become empowered.” This is what I try to elicit when working with a conference organizing team.
I also find Dale Emery’s definition of leadership helpful. Dale describes leadership as “the art of influencing people to freely serve shared purposes.” Bear this definition in mind as you work with your conference organizing team. It ties your interactions with them to your shared goal of realizing a vision, in this case organizing and running of a conference.
Who on the team leads in this way? Unlike the traditional, role-based version of leadership, any member can help build an atmosphere that supports this kind of leadership. Once the seeds of this culture are established, I’ve found that it tends to become self-perpetuating. People like working together in this way. Experiencing a conference team coming together, with the members enjoying their interactions while creating a great event, is one of the most satisfying aspects of my work.
Although the impetus for an organic approach can come from any team member, the conference coordinator is the natural initiator of these flavors of leadership. She is responsible for keeping the conference planning on track and avoiding planning and execution snafus. She does this, not by ordering people around, but through a respectful flow of timely reminders, check-ins, questions, requests for assistance, and appropriate redirections.
Some people have little experience working organically. They may join your team with the expectation that their responsibilities will be determined by others, that a team leader will give them well-defined jobs to do. Often, given a relaxed and open environment where their ideas are encouraged, they will grow into a more active role as they become more confident in their ability to contribute creatively and flexibly to the needs of organizing and running the conference.
A helpful reminder for leaders of every kind Jerry Weinberg suggests you assume that everyone you’re working with wants to feel useful and make a contribution. He quotes Stan Gross’s device for dealing with his feelings that people are not trying to contribute: “They’re all doing the best they can, under the circumstances. If I don’t think they are doing the best they can, then I don’t understand the circumstances.”
Such a mindset will help you focus on finding solutions to people problems that inevitably arise in any group working together on something they care about.
How do you see event planning leadership? Is your model different? What can you add to these ideas?
An inconvenient truth Think back on all the conference presentations you’ve attended. How much of what happened there do you remember?
Be honest now. I’m not going to check.
Nearly all the people to whom I’ve asked this question reply, in effect, “not much”. This is depressing news for speakers in general, and me in particular as, since the publication of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, I have been receiving an increasing number of requests to speak at conferences.
When I ask about the most memorable presentations, people (after adjusting for the reality that memories fade as time passes) tend to mention sessions where there was a lot of interaction with the presenter and/or amidst the audience: in other words, sessions where they weren’t passive attendees but actively participated.
Take a moment to see whether that’s your experience too.
Social learning Conference sessions that are designed to facilitate engagement between rather than broadcast content provide wonderful opportunities for social learning: the learning that occurs through connection, engagement, and conversations with our peers.
Social learning is important, and here’s why, courtesy of Harold Jarche:
There are additional reasons why supporting social learning during conference sessions makes a lot of sense:
Active participants almost always learn and retain learning better than passive attendees.
Participants meet and learn about each other, rather than sitting next to strangers who remain strangers during a session.
Participants influence the content and structure of the session towards what it is they want to learn, which is often different from what a presenter expects.
Being active during a session increases engagement, creating better learning outcomes.
Actively participating during a session is generally a lot more fun!
A mission for conference presenters Conferences provide an ideal venue for social learning; they are potentially the purest form of social learning network because we are brought together face-to-face with our peers. And yet most conference sessions, invariably promoted as the heart of every conference, squander this opportunity by clinging to the old presenter-as-broadcaster-of-wisdom model.
Of course, there are conference sessions that routinely include significant participation. Amusingly, they have a special name so they won’t be confused with “regular” conference sessions: workshops!
In my opinion, every conference session longer than a few minutes should include significant participation that supports and encourages engagement. If you’re a conference presenter, make this part of your mission—to improve your effectiveness by incorporating participation techniques into your presentations. Your audiences will thank you!