The myth of control

The myth of control.

myth of control

Misconception 7: Conflict is bad…The reality is that whenever you have more than one living person in a room, you’ll have more than one set of interests, and that’s not a bad thing.
—The Change Handbook by Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, and Steven Cady

Why do we cling to traditional event structure?

One powerful reason is because we want to avoid dealing with messy differences of opinion. When we give attendees the power to choose what happens at our conferences, people are going to disagree. And when people disagree, there’s the possibility of controversy and conflict. Who’d want that at their event?

Perhaps you believe that learning is some kind of linear process that happens painlessly. That’s certainly the paradigm we’re fed in school. Even though most of us struggle to learn there, the underlying message is usually “if you were smart enough, this would be easy”.

If you do believe that conference learning should be painless, I ask you this. Think for a moment about the most important things you’ve learned in your life. How many of them came to you in the absence of disagreement, pain, or conflict? And how many of them did you learn while sitting in a room listening to someone talk for an hour?

Do you want your conferences to maximize learning, even at the cost of some disagreement or discomfort? Or would you rather settle for a safe second best?

We are scared about not having control in our lives and at our events. That’s why we lock down our conferences, forcing their essence into tightly choreographed sessions. Attendees are carefully restricted to choosing, at most, which concurrent session room they’ll sit in.

The myth of control

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.

Fortunately, there are multiple ways to give up the unnecessary control exercised at traditional conferences and give attendees the freedom and responsibility to make the event theirs. All participant-driven event formats like Open Space, Conferences That Work, and Future Search treat attendees like intelligent adults.

What’s amazing to discover is how liberating these event designs are for conference organizers too. When we give up over-control, we become largely freed of the responsibility to choose the content, format, and instigators of our conference sessions, concentrating instead on supervisory, facilitation, and support roles. Yes, the result is an event that is less predictable, and often more challenging. But the richer experience, the creation of an event that reflects what participants truly need and want, and the joy of uncovered valuable, unexpected, appropriate learning make it all worthwhile for everyone involved.

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