A story about letting go of control at a conference

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Letting go of control at a conference

The last session of Conferences That Work is called a group spective—a time for participants to look back at what has happened for the group and forward to possible futures together. During the spective, I use a variety of activities to encourage and support reflecting, sharing, brainstorming, and deciding on next steps. One process is a simple go-around. Each participant in turn answers a few open-ended questions about their conference experience and ideas about what might happen next.

When using a go-around format, the first person to speak can have a significant influence on the subsequent sharing round the circle. Others tend to pick up and echo their brevity, tone, and emphasis, in the same way a minor current at one crucial spot can greatly influence a boat’s subsequent track on a river.

My concern

I used to worry that this could pose a potential problem. What if the first person who spoke had little to say, or was very negative about the conference? So I’d often pick someone to start who I thought would provide a “good” model of how to share.

My eyes were opened at a conference where I thought we had, over the years, arrived at a close-to-perfect schedule. At the group spective, I casually chose the attendee sitting next to me to start the go-around sharing. I listened in dismay as they offered criticisms and made pointed suggestions for improvement. The overall tenor of their remarks was quite negative. Other attendees followed their lead, refining their critique and adding their own judgments. Despite my initial consternation, as I listened I heard many good ideas. Ideas that could well improve the conference format in ways we hadn’t considered. Slowly, my excitement about these new possibilities overcame my fear of the critical tone of the spective.

During the discussion that followed, it became clear that attendees were also pumped up about these potential format changes. Many felt these could make an already great conference even better. Rather than make spot decisions during the spective, we ended up using an online survey over the next couple of weeks to consider and compare the proposed scheduling alternatives.

What happened

At the following year’s conference, we incorporated several of the changes suggested at the spective. There was wide agreement that the new design was better than anything we had done before.

It’s scary to let go, to let the unexpected happen. It’s hard to find the courage to watch without interfering, as an unexpected event leads to a host of consequences. As we sit in our boat, formerly safely floating down the conference river, but now suddenly veering alarmingly towards an indistinct muddy bank, most of us have a natural tendency to want to grab a paddle and attempt to wrest the craft back into the middle of the flow. Yet, if we surrender to the current, using our facilitation paddle merely to moderate our speed and make fine course corrections, we may find that the bank, once we reach it, is full of unexpected delights and possibilities.

[Adapted from a story in Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love]

Did you ever let go of control at a conference? What lessons did you learn?

Image attribution: flickr user donaldjudge

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