When event covenants collide—a story

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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.

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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.

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).
  • Participants who respect the covenants we’re using (Q saw a contradiction and rightly asked me what was appropriate for him to do) can be trusted 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 significantly 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 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.