Who owns your event?

who owns an event

Who owns an event?

Who owns an event? The usual answer to this question is “the event’s sponsors”. That is, the people and organizations that decide to hold the event and contribute the resources needed for the event to occur. Sponsors typically define the context, format, scope, and desired outcomes of an event, so they are clearly owners.

But I think there are other plausible answers to this question.

Increasingly we are moving to event models that make participants generators of event value. Conferences that leverage all the expertise in the room, rather than the contributions of a few experts. Meetings that become what the participants want and need them to be, autofocusing on the topics and questions that are of genuine relevance, rather than sessions predefined six months in advance.

Yes, sponsors define an event’s boundaries and make it happen (for which we should all be grateful). But at participant-driven and participation-rich meetings, the shaping and contributions that participants provide are crucial for the event’s success. Without this input, such events are worth very little, so isn’t it fair to say that, under these circumstances, the participants are owners of the event as well?

Another way to think about event ownership

There’s another way to think of event ownership. As facilitator Dan Newman points out:

“…participants enter an event owning practically nothing, but they come out the other end owning a powerful experience constructed of things they’ve seen, heard or heard themselves say.”
—Dan Newman, From the Front of the Room: Notes on Facilitation for Experienced Practitioners

If we think of an event as the thing that happened between the moments when the first attendee arrived and the last person left, we are ignoring the changes in the knowledge, viewpoints, and connections, and the subsequent outcomes that the event created. The participants not only own their event experience, but also the consequences of their participation. The changes that result loop back on the event’s sponsors, influencing their future choices. Thus, participants are event owners because, to some extent, they control what happens next.

Conclusion

So, who owns an event? I like the idea that both sponsors and participants are the owners of events. By consciously bringing participants into the realm of ownership, we widen the community that makes the event what it is, and this benefits all the players.

A powerful question: Whom is your event for?

Whom is your event for

A fundamental question frequently arises when I receive initial requests for conference or meeting designs, because it’s often not clear whom the event is expected to benefit:

Whom is your event for?

A powerful way of thinking about events emerges from answering this question.

Here are three constituencies that could be components of your answer:

  1. Individual participants.
  2. Organizations.
  3. Culture.

(The third, Culture, is the best word I can think of to represent societal patterns and beliefs: i.e. forms to follow. Not strictly a “whom”, but still a powerful force to include.)

A Venn diagram

Looking through this lens leads me to the Venn diagram above, which I think is an interesting way to view different kinds of meetings. You may quibble about the definitions and boundaries of the event types plotted—feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Four quick observations:

  • It’s surprising how nicely most common event types fall into one of the seven combinations of the three constituencies. One exception is what I call “client conferences” which can be predominantly for an organization’s benefit (e.g. “in order to qualify to sell our products you must attend this conference”) or for both the organization’s and clients’ benefit (e.g. “learn how to sell our products better and let’s all make more money”).
  • In my work, I sometimes see tension between the needs of the organization and those of the participants. Part of my approach to event design is to make events win-win for both.
  • I can’t think of any events that are purely “for” culture. People or organizations always seem to have to be involved. (Though perhaps The Long Now or a burial of time capsules are rare exceptions?)
  • Feel free to add religious events wherever you think appropriate. I’m not going there.

I see this formulation as a work in progress, so your comments, additions, and corrections are especially welcome!