About an agendaless, unconference-style meeting on the topic of women in technology.
On the potential of facilitators.
I was going to write a book about facilitation. "Yeah, yeah, yeah", you say.
I have done a fair bit of facilitating over the past 20 years and not come across a book on the subject that scratched my workshop itch (so to speak). The good thing is, I am now excused writing one cos someone else has got the job done. In some style. Johnnie Moore and Viv McWaters' book "Creative Facilitation" is really good.
I covers everything I would have said; and being honest, loads more. It made me think hard about some things I know I don't do so well and identified others I haven't thought of at all. It is hugely practical and covers both the basics and more advanced stuff. It is short, easy to read and free. Nothing not to like. Get it here.
This is the story of a successful traditional conference having a shot at 'unconferencing'. You may know that I have a hobby horse about conferences (see We must get more from conferences). For the click weary here is a snippet...
Nowadays I hear much of the need for organisations to become collaborative, innovative, agile and suchlike; and I hear that achieving these things will depend much on transformation of culture and behaviour; but I can't see how this will happen if, at significant gatherings, we do the same old things and behave in the same old ways. That so many undoubtedly smart folks spend entire days at events sitting and listening but contributing so little feels, well... a bit daft. We should, as much as is feasible, get away from the model of conferences that is about transferring knowledge from those who know to those who don't and, instead, use the valuable time at these events to generate new knowledge and grow genuine community. We must make conferences, events, meetings, workshops, gatherings of all kinds much more participative; and accept, if we really want to change how our organisations and institutions work, that this new approach is no optional extra.
See also my rant Sitting people on chairs in rows at meetings is a criminal waste.
I am keen on more open, participative styles of meeting that some call Unconferences: conferences driven by their participants. Typically, at the beginning, attendees will discuss what they want to talk about and, often with the help of a facilitator, develop an agenda for themselves and then follow it. The benefits are that everyone gets involved such that many more ideas, solutions to problems, richer connections and sometimes even new projects can emerge.
We will see much more of this type of conference in the future - for all sorts of reasons (that I may have a go at writing about another day) but here's one for now... As the use of social media becomes mainstream in organisations (over say the next 20 years) more people will be blogging, tweeting, creating audio recordings and making videos and to get their point across. We will not need to go to conferences to hear people speak or even to ask them questions. In the context of the technology that exists now, the idea of travelling miles to spend hours listening to people and not (in the end) get to ask them a question, feels well on the way to pointless. At the moment, most people that most people want to hear from just don't use these tools. But this will change.
To the story...
Last year I met Ian Bailey of Model Futures who asked me to speak at his Integrated EA conference. Integrated EA happens over two days and is a traditional conference aimed at defence/MOD folk with an interest in Enterprise Architecture. Ian has run the event very successfully for six years; it has developed a very good reputation and has a substantial group of loyal attendees.
While discussing potential subjects for my talk, I gently prodded Ian with my conference schtick (above) and suggested trying an unconference format. I wouldn't have blamed Ian for taking an ain't broke line but he was really keen to try something new. Fantastic.
A switch to an all-out unconference format (like the excellent UK Gov Camp running this weekend) would stretch things too far. We decided to start small and hatched the idea of an experimental session to run alongside a few hours of the main conference. After the initial meeting with Ian - to create a picture of how things might play out - I wrote this story. It tells of 25 people coming together to set an agenda, enthusiastically discussing things they were jointly interested in and then sharing stories of what happened. More or less, this came to pass.
I should say huge thanks to Penny Creed (who does a fantastic job of organising the event for Ian) for helping me out; not least to un-tidy a very neatly set out conference room; Penny Tweeted...
Just 'unsetting up' the room for the #IEA13 'unconference'. As an 'uberplanner' event manager it does feel like an alien concept.
— Penny Creed (@SynthesisEvents) March 6, 2013
Feedback after the session was almost entirely positive: Ian is considering taking the idea further next year.
All conferences should be having a go at this kind of thing.
This very nearly caused a serious tea-spill this morning...
It's a story about an analyst who, having read a post on the Government Digital Service blog - First Digital Leaders’ meeting, said this...
“Why did they have a physical meeting? This could have been done far more effectively using digital tools – communication and collaboration tools that would have taken ideas and automatically captured them, rather than the joys of Post It notes and pens,”
Earlier in the day, having read the same post, I had tweeted this...
— Mark Foden (@markwfoden) March 28, 2012
So how was it that we came to such different views?
Here's what I think happens when we get involved with a Post-it exercise at a meeting...
- We get engaged, immediately, in the task.
- We get to focus on the things we personally care about, which lets us get things off our chest and makes us feel involved.
- We get to stand up to stick the Post-its on the wall (or wherever), which is always better than sitting motionless on our bottoms.
- We bump into other people, randomly, which starts conversations that will perhaps develop into useful relationships.
- We experience hugely valuable, non-verbal communication.
- We get to connect, first hand in a very personal way, with people and their ideas.
- We can move Post-its around readily, which means themes can be identified quickly.
- We take away with us a colourful, unique and memorable image that represents the contribution of everyone.
- We become part of a shared experience.
- And probably a load of other stuff too.
Some of this is possible using digital tools, but not all and certainly not in the 20 minutes or so that Post-it exercises take. Doing this kind of thing, particularly in the early stages of forming a new group, is enormously valuable. Of course the conversation will continue online afterwards but it will be a very different one because of the experience of the physical meeting.
I am a HUGE FAN of digital tools but the suggestion of using them in lieu of the useful meeting these folks clearly had is, to me, unutterably daft.
Never underestimate the power of the Post-it.
Bee trapped in bonnet. Write... Quite often I go to big meetings to do with changing things. Almost invariably these meetings have lots of people sitting on chairs in rows - sometimes for hours. The people at the front talk; and the people in the rows (mostly) listen.
I struggle to think of a worse way of promoting change.
Change in organisations is about encouraging people to work with other people to do things differently. If we sit them down - doing little but (if we are lucky) listening and pretty much isolated (because rows are like that) - we just can't expect them, immediately afterwards, to leap up and start dancing a new dance.
Of course change programmes are made of more than just big meetings; but it really doesn't help if the set pieces send exactly the wrong message.
We only change our behaviour when we feel something - inspiration, commitment, connection, fear. We don't change just because we know something new or even because someone else is excited. Big meetings can be big opportunities to share understanding, to initiate connection and... to stir feeling.
We should use them differently. We should make them the change we want to see.
(Here are some ideas.)