Dealing successfully with event complexity

In 1975, I was stricken with viral meningitis while attending a conference in the former Yugoslavia. While spending ten unexpected days recovering flat on my back in a Split hospital, my only reading matter was an English translation of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering the circumstances, that Taoism stealthily and permanently insinuated itself into my psyche.

Reading Atul Gawande‘s unexpectedly excellent book The Checklist Manifesto recently, reminded me of Lao Tsu’s advice on dealing with complex issues:

“Ruling the country is like cooking a small fish.”
Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching (Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English translation)

Ruling a country surely qualifies as a complex undertaking, and Lao Tsu’s ancient wisdom suggests we approach such a task — whether it’s a well-cooked meal or a well-governed country — with a mindful attention to detail and action that simultaneously encompasses the big-picture desired outcome.

Gawande updates this advice for modern societies, where, when working on complex tasks, we have largely moved from the ancient single ruler/leader model of Lao Tsu’s era to organizational models that, to be successful, require many people to be both leaders and followers. As he says:

“…under conditions of true complexity—where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns—efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals, either—that is anarchy. Instead they require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation—expectations to coordinate, for example, and also to measure progress toward common goals.”
—Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto

 Atul’s “seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation” — surely a classic Taoist paradox — is at the heart of what I believe to be the best approach to the design and facilitation of events: those complex amalgams of numerous complex human beings brought together in time and space for complex and often unknown or unconscious ends.

As I’ve shared in Leadership, Conferences, and Freedom, the best events I have been involved in offer an environment that gently confronts attendees with their power to influence what happens coupled with the support and expectation that they will exercise the freedom they have been given.

In my experience, once attendees experience what it is like to have a real voice in shaping their event, and what happens when they speak up and collectively build the event they want and need, the vast majority embrace this new approach to define and satisfy their personal and collective desired outcomes.

Photo attribution: Flickr user 127130111@N06