Two hundred people arrived for the opening breakfast at a 2015 Canadian conference to discover There Was No Coffee. The young first-time volunteer staff had forgotten to brew it.
Three days later, people were still grumbling about CoffeeGate. I bet that even today, if you asked attendees what they remembered about the event, most would immediately recall the There Was No Coffee moment. A memorable moment, yes, but not a good one.
Experienced meeting planners know that every meeting has its share of unexpected surprises. While some thrive on the adrenaline rush of dealing with them, most of us work to minimize surprises by anticipating potential problems and developing appropriate just-in-case responses.
Minimizing surprises like CoffeeGate is default behavior for meeting planners. We do not want poorly planned and/or executed events, because the inevitable result will be unhappy attendees and chaos of one kind or another.
But not all meeting surprises are bad. Because meeting professionals want to minimize the likelihood of unexpected surprises during execution of the events, there’s a tendency to unconsciously minimize planned surprises for the attendees. And that’s unfortunate — because planned surprises are one of the most wonderful ways we can improve attendees’ experience of the event!
I was about to discover the depth of Paul’s craftiness.
After filling my plate with Quebecois goodies, I climbed the stairs to find Diego Ibáñez, Gina Trimarco Cligrow, Patrick Short, and Betse Green lunching together. I told them that Paul had invited me to join the “conversation”, whereupon Patrick explained that the group was planning the hour-long conference closing ceremony, which began at 2 p.m. Paul joined us and, looking at me, said that the closing ceremony typically included some kind of public evaluation of the conference. I looked at my watch and gulped. We had 40 minutes!
Typically, when designing process for a session with 200 participants, I like to have some time—perhaps a day or two—to think about the best ways to achieve the desired outcomes with the available resources.
People who had spent decades practicing and living improv. Perhaps we could work together and create something good enough, perhaps even great, in 40 minutes?
I have a simple tool for public evaluations, plus/delta, that I’ve used many times. But how could we optimize it for 200 improvisors?
My memory of the rest of the lunch is hazy. (I was definitely outside my comfort zone.) I think that Patrick made the great suggestion that the evaluations be presented as short improvs. Others chimed in. Together, we fine-tuned the process.
Rushing to the barn where the session would be held, we discovered that the local conference organizers were also working on their plan for the closing ceremony. They had already decided to hold it outdoors—it was a beautiful day—and had lit a bonfire. A few-minute conversation determined that we would hold our evaluation in a circle around the fire, and then they would close the conference in their own way.
We started bringing out chairs from the barn. I found three scribes to capture in writing the conference insights that were about to be shared. We arranged enough chairs and set up an electronic organ for Patrick to accompany the improvs, and it was time to start.
There was no more time to plan. Diego and Gina introduced themselves and me, and I was on.
The conference evaluation
Talking as loudly as I could (there was no sound equipment and I don’t have a strong voice) I explained that we were going to do a rapid public evaluation of the entire conference and gave them an overview of the process. Then I asked everyone to form small groups of 5 or 6 people, and gave them seven minutes to:
share their positive experiences of the conference in their group; and
then create a short improv piece about the changes they would like to see in the conference to make it better.
There had been some logistical challenges during the conference—e.g. no coffee was available at breakfast on the first day…oops!—and I knew from past experience that participants tend to concentrate on such issues during the change portion of the evaluation. So I made a point to direct the groups to focus on non-logistical/obvious conference improvements while they were working on their short improvs.
Once the group work was done, everyone returned to the circle and individuals began sharing their positive experiences of the conference. I had never done this kind of sharing in a circle before, so I improvised the idea of walking slowly around the circle with my arm pointing to each person in turn. As my attention swept around the circle, people put their hand up if they wanted to say something, and I stopped for them to share. After I had gone around the circle once, I announced I would make two more circuits for sharing positive experiences. This worked well—different people spoke during each rotation and everyone had three opportunities to share or pass.
What would you change?
Next we switched to the change portion of the evaluation. One group volunteered to start, and we began to experience a wide variety of creative group improvs that conveyed the changes the members suggested. (Coffee delivery improvements, were, still amusingly incorporated.)
Normally, I am very aware of time issues when facilitating events. The closing session had to end on time, as one bus was leaving immediately to allow some attendees to catch flights back in Montreal. On this occasion, concentrating on the improvised flow, I was doing a poor job of managing the remaining time. Thankfully Gina noticed this, stepped up, and ingeniously coaxed the remaining groups to spend less time on their improvs. I doubt that anyone even noticed she had taken over on the fly. She supported me and made me look good—thank you Gina!
After the improvs had all been presented and enjoyed, the local hosts took over and ran a brief and moving closing, tying together the Nature theme of the conference with our experiences over the previous three days. The contributions of many people were thanked and recognized in humorous, yet heart-felt fashion.
As the session ended, one last facilitation task remained for me. I found the three scribes and took safe possession of their valuable notes. Later, back at my Vermont home, I photographed the notes and emailed them to Paul so he would have a permanent record available to use for improving future AIN World conferences.
What did I/can we learn from this experience?
We are all improvisors. Every time you have a conversation with someone, for example, you invariably do not know what they are about to say, and you improvise your response. Competent facilitators, leading group conversation and/or process, are improvisors. Despite having a plan for achieving desired group outcomes, they adapt what they do in response to the group experience.
Fifteen years ago I would have quickly turned down the opportunity Paul offered. I saw myself as a process designer and planner, and my fear of “failing” to be highly competent when asked to improvise large group process overrode any perceived benefits. Today, I am more comfortable taking the risk of being less than perfect, of being average, as improvisors like to say. So one thing I learned on that sunny afternoon was that I am willing to step more out of my comfort zone and into the place where magic happens when responding in the moment.
I also learned about the value of trusting support. I would have turned down Paul’s offer if I had had to create the session by myself. Being surrounded by folks trained in improvisation is probably the best support structure you can have! We are all working to make each other look good, because we know that the best things happen when we work supporting each other.
Does improv trump planning?
Does this whole experience mean that improv trumps planning when creating and facilitating group process?
No! My experience with plus/delta as an evaluation technique was gained from ten years of experience involving plenty of planned experiments. This experience made it easy to integrate the core plus/delta process into the unique circumstances of the AIN 2015 conference closing session. As far as I know, no one else present had the expertise to create this form of evaluation. My years of planning plus/delta allowed the group to benefit from an effective process tool.
In addition, my very last act for the session—collecting the scribes’ notes in the hurly-burly of mass crowd good-byes, and making sure the AIN organizers received them—was reflex planning. Improvisors, improvising in the moment, might overlook this move. (We saw it happen; remember the absent coffee?) As meeting professionals know, a planning mind-set is essential to reap the full benefits of creative process at events.
The tension between improv and planning at events
Why did I write this behind-the-scenes look at 100 minutes of terror and wonder at the close of AIN 2015? Because I think it illustrates that there is a natural tension between improv and planning at events. The tension appears because, at first sight, they are mutually exclusive ways of thinking about what “should” happen when people meet to learn and connect. The mythical planner’s goal it to make sure that everything goes according to plan. The mythical improvisor’s goal (well, one of them) is a reality where nothing goes according to plan.
You can’t get much more tension than the difference between nothing and everything.
Yet this very tension provides the energy that we feel at the best events and experiences of our lives. From moment to moment, there is a play between improv and planning. It is the Taoist experience, the energy that arises from the tension of opposites.
And it is a tension to embrace, not fear. That is our challenge.