[This is the third part of two part blog on the GovWeb wish list get together held at NESTA on December 15th 2008. Footage of presentations from the event can be found in part one and feedback from the audience can be found in part two]
You didn’t really believe me when I said it was only two parts did you? All good things come in threes after all and having covered the content from the event itself in parts one and two, I wanted to take the chance to share some of my learning from putting on the event itself:
Convene don’t control
Other than the initial think pieces to warm up the audience and provide some food for thought, I was keen to run the session in a fairly loose and open way. Having been inspired by following the recent successes of events like Amplified and V-Jam (both also run with the support of NESTA Connect), I wanted to take up the Johnnie Moore challenge and push at the edges of what we mean by a ‘productive meeting’. As Johnnie himself says (and I make no apologies for the length of this quote):
The fear of meetings not achieving anything – or not achieving what one or two people define as the optimal result – runs fairly deep in organisations.
Often, I think the efforts to make meetings productive are actually the cause of the problem. To exclude the risk of failure, a number of boxes get ticked, and action points appear to be agreed. A pleasingly large collection of post-it notes and flip charts are produced. And then not much happens. That’s because people are only half-heartedly agreeing to all these actions in order to pass the test of making the meeting productive.
And I’m sorry, the tactic of really eyeballing people on their commitments doesn’t work well either.
There are no universal solutions, but I often encourage people to get less attached to instant results and more interested in the quality of conversation. And if the fact that meetings aren’t productive is really a big issue, then perhaps what’s needed is a more honest and reflective conversation about why that keeps happening.
I’ve discussed this point with Johnnie a fair amount recently, and the challenge remains how you resist trying to make something more ‘useful’ from the session, be it action plans or whatever. Can you create a session that is a sufficient end in itself based on relationships formed and the sparking of some embryonic ideas. Well this time round the conversation was great,contacts have been made, and much of the session is now mostly shared more widely – now let’s see how people take it forward for themselves as only those things that are worthwhile will emerge from the session of their own accord (that being the theory at least!). As Roland Harwood recently wrote, it made clear the amazing possibilities of bringing together crowds of people in this way, “connecting the dots, people and networks for the wider societal and economic good”.
Cementing social networks
In future we will create value not on the basis of our knowledge, but on the basis of how we can leverage our relationships or social networks to capitalise on the information that we all have access to. This will not be easy but I would argue that those unable to make the shift will be left behind.
Roland Harwood, Connecting Dots and Valuing Networks
Facilitating this session once again brought be back to James Governor’s idea of the social bridgebuilder, playing the role not necessarily of a specialist but rather a synthesiser. And in this role it is important to create the context and conditions to enable people to be at ease with each other and feel capable of opening up, putting ideas out there, taking some risks.
And it is equally vital to be confident in the people you bring together. In many ways your job is 90% done by the time you stand up to introduce the session, having put the work into recruiting an interesting and interested bunch of people, seeded the debate with interesting speakers and made sure there’s a roof over their head and teas and coffees aplenty. I have no doubt now more than ever that the ‘art’ of finding the right people, bringing them together and letting them loose is an end in itself! Chaos at times it may be, but creative chaos nonetheless. This time round ideas sparked, passion flowed and as close to being as openly hostile as it did at times, the group always brought itself back from the brink with good humour.
As Seth Godin writes in his recent book Tribes, the fear of failure is overrated. Why should we not try something interesting, different and a little scary, something a little out of our control (like anything can truly be controllable after all). Whether its an untested or unfamiliar group of delegates, an edgy topic or an event that is run to an unconventional agenda, what’s the worst that can happen? You’re criticised. But at least then it was worth criticising rather than unremarkable. As Seth puts it:
“Lean in, back off, but don’t do nothing”
Or as Nathalie MacDermot put it at the session, boys are the problem!
Valuing diversity within a group isn’t just about being PC or ticking boxes, but it can really matter when trying to generate a rounded, interesting and productive debate. As Roland Harwood neatly summarises:
There is considerable value in setting up cross-cutting networks or spaces where people from difference organisations, disciplines or sectors can come together, make connections, nurture unusual collaborations and develop them to create significant commercial or social value.
Having said that, diversity comes in many forms and can be a state of mind as much as a social cateogory. Despite the apparent lack of diversity in the room on the face of things, the diversity of experience, background and viewpoint was vast. Diversity is certainly more than skin deep.
Stay on your toes
No event EVER runs as you had expected it. People are unpredictable and the way they interact with each other even more so. Single issues are seized upon, individuals jump in and dominate discussions, you forget as the facilitator forget certain “key” elements of the agenda (this time round I managed to bypass the whole asking people to introduce themselves at the start of the session etiquette which caused some consternation later on).
Given this is the case what is important above all else is to remain sensitive to the crowd. We’ve all been there in the audience of an event wishing things were different, whispering in the ear of the person next to us or airing our (often strong) views on Twitter, frustrated at the lack of responsiveness from the event organiser who is intent on ploughing on regardless. Its never easy as an organiser to manage the agenda keeping things to time and schedule, while ensuring everyone has their say and allowing discussions to flow only stepping in to nudge and prod where absolutely necessary. But it is a must.
And above all else remember…
“Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, German Philosopher and Inventor, 1770-1831