Improve your events in 5 minutes with covenants

You can spend 5 minutes at the start of your events doing something that will significantly improve them. Something I bet you don’t currently do. To understand why including group covenants will make your meetings better, let’s eavesdrop on what’s going on in your attendees’ heads…

Common thoughts during meetings
“I didn’t understand that; should I ask her to explain?”
“I disagree, and I’m going to interrupt!”
“I’m not going to say a word in this session.”
“Why aren’t we discussing what I think’s important?”
“That makes me angry; guess I’ll just sit here and stew!”

It doesn’t have to be this way
Elementary school classrooms have ground rules posted on the walls. At the start of the school year, good teachers share the behaviors they expect from their students. Yet, apparently, in the adult world we’re magically supposed to know how to behave when we enter a meeting room.

When no explicit agreements about behavior are made at the start of a meeting, no one benefits. Most attendees default to passive behavior: not contributing or asking questions. Confident extraverts (including most “speakers”) monopolize group time, never taking advantage of the considerable experience and expertise in the room.

The power of events is weakened by the simple reality that without group agreements, each of us makes different assumptions about how we should behave at meetings.

Google, Carnegie Mellon University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology do research
Since 2012, Google’s Project Aristotle has been researching the factors that made teams successful. In his 2016 New York Times articleCharles Duhigg describes a key finding:

“…on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’ Woolley said. ‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’
What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology came up with similar conclusions:

“In two studies with 699 people, working in groups of two to five, we find converging evidence of a general collective intelligence factor that explains a group’s performance on a wide variety of tasks. This “c factor” is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members but is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.”
Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups, Science 29 October 2010 Vol 330, Anita Williams Woolley et al

Well, well, well. “Collective intelligence” improves if everyone gets a chance to talk! And it also improves by increasing the proportion of females in the group — which, for what it’s worth, has been my personal experience for years.

We can’t usually do much about increasing the number of females at an event (though improving the gender balance of invited presenters wouldn’t hurt). But, in my fifteen years experience, I can report that using good covenants at the start of an event makes it far more likely that everyone will contribute appropriately.

[What are “good covenants”? Learn more about the ones I use here.]

When good covenants equalize the distribution of conversational turn-taking at a meeting, the collective intelligence of the meeting group increases. That translates to a better overall conference experience, as experienced collectively and reported individually.

Although skilled facilitators know how to help level the distribution of attendee contributions by explicitly inviting those who have not yet spoken to contribute, I’ve found that spending just 5 minutes at the start of an event explaining and getting group agreement on explicit covenants that give attendees the freedom, the right, and the support to share appropriately is a much more effective and efficient approach that democratizes conversations throughout the event. Try it—you’ll like it, and your event and participants will reap the benefits.