I’m in a conversation now with several colleagues about shifting the model for designing large conferences. There is the lovely group of IONS, The Institute of Noetic Sciences, that offers biannual gatherings that seem to attract 1,000 or so participants. There is another lovely group, the Disciples of Christ, that convenes annually for general assembly, a group I’m told is 3-5 thousand. And Pegasus with the Systems Thinking in Action Conference, another annual event that attracts 1,000 or so. And PEJE, The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, at which there were 1,200 or so that gathered in April 2008. And from my previous work in an academic setting, “hybrid” conferences that mixed presentation with interaction. These are the ones I have direct experience with — and very strong learning in / with each.
Why this focus on large conferences? As colleague Sharon Joy Kleitsch of the Connection Partners spoke it with me recently, “the conference model is dead.” Her statement is provocative and when she speaks, I listen. It is a statement born from the hunger of more powerful learning and possibility. It is born from a taste, which Sharon Joy and many have had in participative events that make it hard to go back.
Large conferences are often designed from a perspective of providing expertise, usually in the form of keynote presentations and breakout groups. All of these are good of course. The content typically isn’t the issue. they are delivery models — often mostly about getting water to the end of the row. However, what is missing is the learning that comes from deep engagement, as I’ve heard Tom Hurley, Jaunita Brown and others speak it. It is the kind of learning that is interactive. The kind that is grown from most simple conditions of current adult learning theories. Rather than a model of irrigating, the model here might be making rain.
For me, the inquiry into conference design is grounded in living systems perspectives, and a bunch of what if questions. What if we start with these worldviews…
It begins with (I learned these with Meg Wheatley over many years).
– organizations are living systems (conferences too)
– living systems have the capacity to self-organize — “order for free” as Meg and Stuart Kaufman and others speak it
– if we could learn more about how life organizes itself, how might that change the way we organize human endeavor? (organize in simple ways, conditions for interactions at conferences too)
It is grounded in (a few anyway)…
– the wisdom we need is already in the room (1,000 of us as colearners and coteachers — yes, Wow!)
– if you want a system to have more health, connect it to more of itself (conversation is one form of connection and a dandy at that)
– living systems move to higher order, but use messes to get there (oh to think of how any and all of these groups can lead out on long-term views of what large conferences can be. Imagine in 10 years of large conferences couldn’t be done without deep engagement)
– living systems participate in the development of their neighbors (we are each others harvest as Gwendolyn Brooks said (to participate is to interact at conferences)
It is amplified by(principles I’ve learned and practiced with friends in the Art of Hosting community of practice…
– be present (what can this be at all levels of scale in a conference? Shared meditation? A pause to begin and transition between sessions? Open times?…)
– have a good question (speaking not only the content questions but the process questions. What are we doing here? How could we deepen into ____? Why does this matter in the world?…)
– choose a listening tool (interactive methods are all forms of listening tools — cafes, circles, open space sessions, appreciative inquiry sessions, journaling — to mix the personal with the communal, that art is you will, is oh so sweet)
– harvest (deliberately at all levels including content, process, relationships, and energy and to invite others to be interacting with that harvest. As Chris Corrigan calls it, artifacts with feedback loops. Artifacts that are portable and usable. Feedback loops that invited new meaning. Poetry, slam poetry, visual artistry — so much of how this is done).
This is an inquiry that will go on. I recognize my own intent in this is to move with more boldness, having experimented with a few tinkerings. In hearing Sharon Joy’s voice, I can feel my imagination blow wide open with possibility — with simple elegant steps that move us into the next level of what is really possible in large convenings. And with that, wow, perhaps we are able to evolve to a next significant level of deeping relations, learning, and work in ways that makes profound difference in local communities and in global learning and friendship networks.
Deep expertise. Deep engagement. Making rain.