A story about letting go of control at a conference

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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, where each participant in turn answers a few open-ended questions about her conference experience and her 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. Her brevity, tone, and emphasis tend to be picked up and echoed by others, in the same way that a boat’s subsequent track on a river can, in places, be greatly influenced by a minor current at one crucial spot.

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?—and I would pick someone to start who I thought would provide a “good” model of how to share at the go-around.

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—and listened in dismay as he offered criticisms and made pointed suggestions for improvement. The overall tenor of his remarks was quite negative. Other attendees followed his lead, refining his critique and adding their own judgments. Despite my initial consternation, as I listened I realized that good ideas were being expressed, 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.

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