How can we design the optimum balance between control versus freedom at meetings? First, let’s get one misconception out of the way. As I wrote in 2010:
The reality is that you never had control to begin with, just the myth of control. You’ve been kidding yourself all these years. Unless your constituency is bound to your event via a requirement to earn CEUs, members can withhold their attendance or avoid sessions at will. —The myth of control
Note that I’m not suggesting meeting professionals give up any attempt to control what happens at their events. Maintaining control of vital logistics, and having and executing backup plans when unexpected developments occur are core requirements and responsibilities of our job.
It’s when we try to tightly control every aspect of our meeting that our events suffer. Surprisingly, clinging to control is the easy way out. As Dee W Hock, founder and former CEO of VISA, put it:
Any idiot can impose and exercise control. It takes genius to elicit freedom and release creativity.
“Any idiot can impose and exercise control. It takes genius to elicit freedom and release creativity.” —@DeeWHock
To “elicit freedom and release creativity”, we need to recognize that participants are stakeholders in the event, rather than “just” an audience.
Why are they event owners?
“…participants are event owners because, to some extent, they control what happens next.” —Adrian Segar, Who owns your event?
Creating events that truly meet participants’ wants and needs
In order to create events that truly meet participants’ wants and needs, we need to provide three things:
Appropriate meeting logistics that meet participants’ bodily and sensory needs.
Content and experiences that participants actually want and need.
Maximal opportunities for participants to connect around the content and during the experiences.
Our traditional work
The first bullet point describes the traditional work of meeting professionals. Our logistical designs control the environment that participants experience. They include flexible, support (plans B – Z) when the unexpected happens. In this arena we are in control through our careful planning, which includes resources for a wide range of contingencies.
Giving up control where and when it’s not needed
To satisfy the remaining bullet points, we have to give up control. Why? To give participants the freedom to satisfy their wants and needs! To do this, participants need the freedom to choose what they talk about, whom they talk to and connect with, when it suits them. Our job is to support these activities as much as possible by providing appropriate:
Structure [participant-driven and participation-rich formats and sessions]; and
Resources [flexible physical and/or online spaces, facilitators, and a schedule that can be developed, as needed, at the event].
Notice that providing these improvements over traditional meetings doesn’t mean that your meeting will turn out to be wildly different from what took place before. It’s perfectly possible that your event will include sessions that look very similar to what you might have scheduled for a tightly controlled program. The difference is that your participants will have chosen these sessions and formats themselves, not you.
Instead of control versus freedom, choose control and freedom. Each assigned to the appropriate characteristics of your event.
That makes all the difference.
For a discussion of control versus freedom in the context of event leadership, you may find this post useful…
How can we build connection and engagement with people with whom we work?
My wise consultant friend Naomi Karten tells a short story about a client’s unexpected reaction. Frank had a bad experience with an earlier information technology project, so Naomi’s team gave him three possible approaches to a major system design and a list of the pluses and minuses of each.
“The plan was to let him select the approach he preferred in hopes that he’d gain more trust in us as a result…”
“…Frank jumped up, shouted, ‘How dare you develop options without my input!’ and marched out of the room…”
“…Instead of his seeing the options as giving him a say in our efforts, he may have seen us as preventing his input into the very idea of options. We saw ourselves giving him some control. He may have seen us as taking it away.” —Naomi Karten, The Importance of Giving Others a Sense of Control
At traditional conferences, attendees choose from predetermined sets of sessions chosen by conference organizers. Think about your experience of such events. Have you found that much of the time, none of the choices supply what you actually need and/or want? Sadly, we’re so used to this state of affairs, we accept it as normal.
Conferences don’t have to be designed this way. Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve discovered that peer conferences, where participants determine the choices, provide a much better fit between the wants/needs of the attendees and the conference program they construct on-the-fly. This leads to significantly greater connection, engagement, and satisfaction.
Sometimes, giving people a limited number of options is not enough. Giving up control over the choices at your conferences by handing it over to the participants — using proven process, of course —is one of the best ways to build trust, connection, and engagement at your events.
Friends don’t let friends give away their original content to third-party platforms I’ve been saying this for years, but do people listen? No they don’t. Don’t give away control of your content.
Let me be clear, by all means share your content for free on any of the gazillion social media platforms available. And if you can get paid appropriately for creating content for others, good for you. Otherwise, make sure that your content remains under your control. Don’t give away control of your content.
Why? Well, here are a few reminders:
Geocities was once the third most visited site on the internet. 38 million user-built pages! Nothing but a distant memory now, unless you live in Japan.
Remember when your friends saw everything you posted on Facebook? Not any more, unless you pay up.
Ah, those glorious days when you posted something in a LinkedIn group and a significant number of people would read it! Long gone.
Now the blog host site Medium announces a layoff of a third of its staff. There are millions of posts on the site. Will Evan Williams pull the plug some day? Will social journalism survive? Who knows?
Get the picture? Posting your original content exclusively on someone else’s platform puts you at their mercy. Don’t do it!
Though this route involves more work and/or money than posting on a third-party platform, you:
Control your own content. You can add, edit, delete, and control comments on it at any time.
Determine how your content is presented. Want to insert an offer for your services or products in the middle of a blog post? No problem.
Retain full rights to your content. (One example: the rights to anything you post to Huffington Post belongs to them. And they don’t even pay you for the privilege of writing for them!)
Build your own brand, authority, and SEO, not that of a third-party site.
Maintain access to your content. If your web hosting service goes bankrupt or is unsatisfactory, you can transfer your content to a new host. As long as the internet is up and you pay your hosting service, your content will be available.
Seven years ago I started the website you’re reading. As expected, hardly anyone visited initially. As I steadily added content (at least once per week) viewership grew. According to my weblogs, this site is now one of the most popular websites on meeting design and related issues, with 31 million page views to date, 25 million of which were made in the last three years.
As a result, this website is now the largest source of client inquiries for my consulting and facilitating services — something I would never have predicted when it went live in 2009. And the ever-growing body of articles on this blog and the inbound links to them continue to build my brand, authority, and SEO.
Perhaps you’re wondering: what’s the connection between facilitation, rapt attention, and love?
Why am I drawn to facilitation? I’ve often heard an uneasy inner voice that wonders if it’s about a desire or need for control and/or power. And yet I know through experience that when I am facilitating well, I have influence but no real control or power.
Then I read this:
“Freud said that psychoanalysis is a ‘cure through love,’ and I think that is essentially correct. The love is conveyed not so much in the content as in the form: the rapt attention of someone who cares enough to interrogate you. The love stows away in the conversation.” —Psychotherapist and writer Gary Greenberg, interviewed in “Who Are You Calling Crazy?”, The Sun, July 2016
Facilitation is not psychotherapy (though sometimes it may have similar results.) But they both have something in common when performed with skill: the gift of listening closely. And that gift of rapt attention is given out of love—not of the content but through the form.
Though I sometimes want to be in (illusory) control, I am drawn to facilitation out of love.
Why are you drawn (if, indeed, you are) to facilitation?
…there’s another reason Google decided to put its RSS reader to death. According to Mountain View, most of us simply consume news differently now than when Reader was launched…
…No matter what Mountain View says about changing user habits, though, both Now and Plus do one thing: They keep you in Google’s world. It’s a de-emphasis of content source. In other words, rather than reading Cat Fancy religiously, you’re reading the Animals category religiously — a category populated by the sites Google’s products think you’ll enjoy most [emphasis added].
In other words, Google says it can do a better job choosing what we read than we can. If you’re cynical, you might interpret this move to be Google’s way of keeping you in GoogleWorld, surrounded by the ads that supply most of Google’s profits. (Yes, I know there are no ads on Google Plus. Yet.)
Now I’m not disputing that Google does a fantastic job in some areas: Search and Maps come immediately to mind. But I’ve seen no evidence to date that Google (or other single source for that matter) is capable of serving me content that’s better than what I can actively discover myself.
We all need help these days to discover important content and ideas online. How we define “important” is unique to each of us. I, and I suspect most people, rely on a mix of human-curated sources. Mine cover around eighty sources on topics like meetings and events, associations, news, tools, play, facilitation, privacy, copyright, networking, business, politics, personal development, consumer issues, philanthropy, Apple news, and a number of “interesting stuff” sites. Yours will be different. Jon Udell calls this approach meta-curation.
I’ve written here and here about my skepticism of conference curation. Individual participants want different things from events, and predetermined conference programs are a poor way to satisfy attendee needs. In my experience most conference attendees, when given the power to determine what they wish to experience at an event, relish the opportunity. The tragedy is that still so few meetings these days allow attendees to make this choice.
From this perspective, moves like Google’s are a small step backwards toward a world with less control. Removing a tool that allows us to monitor online information sources that each of us selects incrementally reduces our options. In this case, luckily, there are alternatives to Google Reader available (though I still haven’t found one I like as much). But restricting choice, whether it concerns online meta-curation or conferences’ responsiveness to real participant needs is something that should concern us all.
Do conference participants want less control? I’ve found they want, and appreciate, more. What do you think?
“…if we do not change the way citizens come together, if we do not shift the context under which we gather and do not change the methodology of our gatherings, then we will have to keep waiting for great leaders, and we will never step up to the power and accountability that is within our grasp.” —Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging
Another stirring quote from Peter Block, from a chapter titled The Stuck Community.
Change citizens to conference attendees and you have a good description of what continues to happen at traditional conferences, where attendees listen to session leaders, rather than collectively reaping the benefits of co-creating an event and associated community.
“[There are] almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept.” —Ralph Stogdill, Handbook of Leadership: A survey of theory and research (1974, p.259)
I’m not going to add to the thousands of existing definitions of leadership. I believe that defining what leadership is—essentially, process that influences others to accomplish something—misses the point. What we need to understand first, is the purpose of leadership. Once we’ve decided that, we can think about what leadership qualities we need to carry out that purpose.
The task of leadership
Here’s the wonderful Peter Block musing in a recent book:
Too often our vision of leadership is clouded and restricted by 19th century ideas of leadership, emphasizing autocratic, bureaucratic, and charismatic leadership styles that are still commonly held up for us as models of what leadership is about. Even though more enlightened leadership models (e.g. servant and transformational styles) are becoming more widely used, there’s still a tendency to revert to the old models in some situations.
Leadership at conferences
For example, how do we treat conference attendees?
At most conferences, attendees have very little say in what happens. The event revolves around a set of limited preselected session choices made by the conference leadership. Such an event culture implies a default passivity. Organizers, not attendees, make decisions—organizers who are, perhaps unknowingly, using leadership styles more appropriate for young children.
It’s perfectly possible, however, to offer freedom to conference participants. Unconference designs provide structure and support for participants to determine what they want to learn, share, and discuss. Participants are then free to make the event their own.
Most of us who are asked to try something new feel a natural reluctance or wariness. First time attendees at an unconference often feel apprehensive about the prospect of taking a more active role. That’s why Peter’s phrasing confront people with their freedom is appropriate. Unconferences offer an environment that gently confronts attendees with their power to influence what happens. In my experience, once attendees experience what it is like to have a real voice in shaping their event, the vast majority of them embrace this new freedom.
What do you think of Peter Block’s musing on the real task of leadership?
Nine hundred years ago, when the world’s first universities began and prestigious libraries might contain a few hundred hand-copied books, the way you learned something was to travel to where a man (in those days it was always a man) knew it, and sit and listen to him teach it to you.
This model for learning sank deep into our culture. Today, on a computer we can hold in our hands, we can search the internet for information or watch videos of the finest presenters. Yet, even though we have amazing content at our fingertips, our meeting designs have not changed much from the classroom model required by the technologies available during the Middle Ages.
Over the last twenty years, new face-to-face meeting designs—such as Open Space, World Café, Conferences That Work, Future Search, and Everyday Democracy—have appeared that challenge the entrenched dominant learning paradigm of passive reception of predetermined information. Although each design has unique features and goals, what they all have in common is that what happens at the event is participant-driven, rather than being largely prescribed by the conference organizers. Such formats are unconferences.
Here are some of the key features of an unconference:
You can design them to work on a group problem or goal. Or as a time for individualized learning and sharing. Longer events can also include traditional sessions, keynotes, etc.
Meaningful and useful interaction between attendees is center stage, rather than something that happens in the breaks between sessions.
The culture is participatory, not passive. This has a highly positive effect on the environment, outcomes, and community created at the event.
Learning happens in small groups, rather than in large general sessions.
Teaching and learning aren’t fixed roles; a teacher at one moment may be a learner the next.
Unconferences harness the experience and expertise of the participants, rather than relying on the contributions of a few outside experts.
Participants have more input into and control over their learning and takeaways from an unconference. The event is, therefore, more likely to satisfy their wants and needs.
Interesting, unexpected things are likely to happen. While traditional conferences discourage risky learning, unconferences create an environment where participants can create sessions on the spot. Unconferences welcome questions, and encourage sharing.
It’s no coincidence that unconference designs appeared as our society responded to the increased availability of information and ease of sharing made possible by the personal computer and the internet. And yet, despite the pervasive reality of ubiquitous knowledge and connectivity, professional event planners still rarely use these new designs.
One reason is the fear that an unconference just won’t work. I’ve run unconferences for twenty years, and reviewed thousands of evaluations. I can assure you that the level of satisfaction with unconference formats is much higher than traditional events. (One of the reasons for this is that I’ve found that traditional program committees predict less than half the sessions that attendees actually want.) Other reasons include the misconception that crowdsourcing session topics before an event makes it an unconference, the understandable fear of giving up control over one’s event, and general unfamiliarity with unconference revenue models, facilitation requirements, and logistical considerations.
All these barriers to the implementation of unconference meeting designs are readily overcome with education and experience. Most event planners (and their clients) have begun to hear the rumbles of dissatisfaction from attendees who are no longer satisfied flying hundreds of miles to listen to speakers they could have watched on YouTube, or to attend a conference where a majority of the sessions are not what they really wanted. Instead, these attendees are increasingly demanding meetings that concentrate on what only face-to-face events can provide—like Howard Givner’s experience of a recent unconference:
“…one of the most innovative and eye-opening professional experiences I’ve had. Aside from coming back with lots of new tips and ideas, I easily established triple the number of new contacts, and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to.”
We know how to create these events. Our clients are starting to ask for them. So, if you haven’t already, attend an unconference in 2011 and experience a participant-driven event firsthand. Or talk to people who have. Then you’ll be ready to begin to build unconference designs into your event planning future.
“We are scared about not having control in our lives. That’s why we lock down our events, forcing their essence into tightly choreographed sessions. Attendees are carefully restricted to, at most, choosing which concurrent session room they’ll sit in.”
What messages do traditional events send to adult attendees?
You are children, unable to create meaningful learning experiences for yourself.
You don’t really know what you need to know, so we have figured it all out for you.
Your job is to pay our fee and sit in one of these rooms at these times.
These messages aren’t appropriate, even if only novices attend your event. (Though in this case, it’s a training, not a conference.) Control-centered leadership is appropriate for emergencies, not conferences. Treating adults as if they were children is demeaning and evokes an uneasy climate that brings out the worst in attendees.
Of course there are conferences for children. And it’s interesting that these events usually bend over backwards to empower the youth that attend and provide the tools for the participants to make the event their own. Adults who work with youth know that the last thing teenagers want is to be told what to do. How surprising, then, that once those teenagers grow into adults we start treating them like children again.
At the start of Conferences That Work, we tell you that we will treat you like an adult. For example, if you need a break from the full schedule we’ve co-created, take it—this isn’t school! Or, if you want to discuss a topic that didn’t make it into the crowd-sourced program, contact the other people (known from the roundtable) who want to join you and use one of the extra empty rooms we’ve reserved. And, if you want to question (respectfully of course) the process we’ve offered—do so, and know that we’ll listen and respond to your ideas and suggestions.
Participants find these simple suggestions refreshing. They encourage attendees to take ownership of the conference, and make them less likely to complain about the aspects of the event that, as we’ve reminded them, are under their control.
So try treating your attendees as adults at your next event. Even if they aren’t. Give them the freedom to challenge, to comment, to make suggestions, to question, and to influence what happens. They will thank you for the opportunity.
Do you treat conference attendees as adults at your events?