Control versus freedom at meetings

control versus freedom at meetings 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.”
—@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.

A bonus

For a discussion of control versus freedom in the context of event leadership, you may find this post useful…

Dealing successfully with event complexity

event complexityEvent 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. 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.

Leading and following

Gawande updates this advice for modern societies. 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

When event covenants collide—a story

collision of agreementsEver experienced a collision of agreements?

I was facilitating a one-day workshop for 24 college presidents. At the start, we agreed to follow six covenants, including the freedom to ask questions at any time, and a commitment to stay on schedule. Our program was tight and college presidents are not known for their brevity, and I was feeling somewhat apprehensive about the group’s ability to honor the latter covenant.

During our opening roundtable sharing, everybody heroically tried to stop when their time was up, but we were still running late when, at the end of one participant’s contribution, someone I’ll call Q said, “Can I ask a question?”

All eyes turned in my direction. Conflicted and flustered, I blurted out: “No.”

Everyone laughed. My self-contradiction was funny—in the same way that seeing someone slipping on a banana peel is funny.

collision of agreements

Q then asked his question anyway, which was the right thing to do. Why? Because both the question and the answer that followed were brief, and then we were on our way again. It was a challenge, but with the participants’ help we stayed on schedule for the rest of the day.

What I learned from this collision of agreements

This was an interesting learning experience for me for three reasons. I learned that:

  • A preoccupation with a long-term process goal (keeping a program on schedule) can lead me to try to block a short-term need (getting a question answered).
  • I can trust participants who respect the covenants we’re using (Q saw a contradiction and rightly asked me what was appropriate for him to do) to do the right thing.
  • I am far more capable of dealing with potentially embarrassing situations than I used to be. (The moment I realized that my aim to keep the event on track wasn’t threatened, the experience became funny to me too. In the past, I would have remained feeling uncomfortable for a while about “losing control”.)

I suspect it’s impossible to have a set of covenants that won’t occasionally clash—and I think that’s actually a good thing.

A Taoist might say that tension between opposites illuminates the underlying core. In this example, I was attempting to balance the success of the overall experience with the needs of the moment. There’s no “right” answer. After all, too many delaying questions could have disrupted the workshop flow and reduced the value of our time together. Awareness of the potential contradictions helped me to focus on a key aspect of the day’s work.

Noticing and responding as best one can to such tensions is necessary and valuable in the moment of facilitation. And, as a bonus, sometimes the outcome of a collision of agreements is amusing too.

Photo attribution: Flickr user manc72

Two principles for designing conference ground rules

I’ve written before about how to improve your conference with explicit ground rules. Though it’s interesting and enlightening to compare the ground rules embedded in conference designs—for example, Open Space Technology has five ground rules, while Conferences That Work and World Café have six—I won’t do that today.

Instead, I want to share two principles for designing ground rules.

Ground rules should increase participants’ freedom, not restrict it

  • “Don’t speak unless the teacher asks you a question.”
  • “Pay attention!”
  • “Don’t chew gum in class.”

We’re used to rules like these that restrict our actions and reduce our freedom. But, surprisingly, it’s quite possible to create ground rules that increase our freedom at an event. Here are some examples:

  • Whenever it starts is the right time.—Open Space Technology
  • You have the freedom to ask about anything puzzling.—Conferences That Work
  • Make collective knowledge visible.—World Café

Each of these is a rule that gives permission for participants to act in a way that does not generally occur at traditional meetings. By explicitly giving permission for activities that normally are not associated with Conference 1.0 events, we increase participants’ freedom.

Make ground rules measurable

  • “Listen to others.”
  • “Be respectful.”
  • “Treat people politely.”

Rules like these are superficially appealing, but they aren’t effective because they rely on unmeasurable assumptions. How can we determine whether a participant is listening, respectful, or polite? We can’t, and this can lead to unproductive, time-consuming, and ultimately unresolvable disagreements during an event.

In contrast, here are examples of ground rules that are measurable and thus far less likely to lead to disagreement and subsequent conflict.

  • “Don’t interrupt.”
  • “Stay on time.”
  • “Keep what happens in each session confidential, unless everyone agrees otherwise.”

How were these meta-rules derived?
It would be nice to be able to claim that I first conceived these meta-rules for ground rule design, and then used them to build my conference ground rules. No such luck! It took me ten years to realize that explicit ground rules for Conferences That Work would be useful, and another five to figure out the six I now use. Only recently did I notice that all six follow the two principles I’ve described above.

What ground rules do you use for your events? Can you share any other principles useful for designing ground rules?

Leadership, conferences, and freedom

Leadership at conferences

“[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:

“…perhaps the real task of leadership is to confront people with their freedom.”
—Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging

I love this expression of leadership mission.

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?

Photo by Flickr user Dunechaser.