Exhibit 1: Hours of back-to-back speakers, some using PowerPoint, some not. An audience seated in rows, able to ask questions during Q & A sessions at the end, sometimes during. The first speaker goes over time, and the subsequent speakers want their allocated time too, so…
Exhibit 2: Individuals select a photo from about 200 available, pair up, then take a walk outside and share their reflections on the photos they’d chosen. On return, they sit in a circle and share with each other their thoughts and insights.
Exhibit 3: A group of people sit at the bar, order drinks and chat, while others come and go as they wish.
These three situations (and any number of others you can dream up or describe) are all about humans interacting. They could easily sit on any number of continuums. Here’s three that come immediately to mind:
formal ———- informal
locus of control is others ———- locus of control is self
passive ———- interactive
It will be no surprise to readers of this blog that I sit at the informal/locus of control is self/interactive end of these continuums. I also recognise that it is not everyone’s preference. Some of us like to be passive, let others make decisions and feel comfortable in formal settings where we know what to expect. In fact, when I’m not actually working, this pretty much describes me – especially when I’m in unfamiliar territory or company. What a load of contradictions!
This is what makes a gathering of humans – in any situation or configuration – so interesting. We’re generally a gregarious species and have always gathered. Maybe it’s always been true, but some of us like to be ‘in charge’ of these gatherings. That’s a good thing, mostly. My sister-in-law is excited to be organising her daughter’s wedding; my friend Geoff loves organising an annual music festival; I’ve been known to organise an occasional professional conference, or weekend away for a group of friends, even the odd workshop or two.
The trap is to believe we can cover all contingencies, to keep everyone happy, to be in charge and in control all the time. We’re talking about humans interacting – bringing all the complexity that humans naturally bring.
So where does this leave facilitators, or anyone responsible for organising a gathering? Do we just let go of all pretence of control and let confusion, at best, anarchy at worst, reign? Do we design the event down to the last detail? There is *always* process. Whether we plan for it or not, when humans gather process emerges. So I’ve come up with a few ideas that I think might set the scene – to provide enough structure without constricting, and enough process without squashing spontaneity. (HT to Johnnie Moore for riffing these thoughts – in fact, I can’t really be sure they’re not his!)
Be clear about the start and finish times – and honour them. Finish when you said you would, no matter what else happens. If more work needs to be done, agree to meet at another time.
Schedule long breaks. The longer the better. A minimum of 30 minutes for tea breaks, 90 minutes for lunch. We all need time and space to process, in whatever way works for us, information, dilemmas, problems and ideas. And we probably also need time to deal with whatever else is continuing to happen in our lives beyond the gathering we are attending.
Once you have the shape of the event sorted (start/finish times and breaks in place) you can start thinking about the flow. In one way or another, I generally think about the following: connecting to each other and the topic, setting the scene, some action, a conflict or dilemma, exploration, maybe some resolution. Actually, that’s not really true. It sounds plausible, but it’s too theoretical. Here’s what really happens. There’s a reason for meeting and there’s the people who meet. There’s a container for the meeting (place and time). Altogether, this creates a field. What happens with that field can be messy, unpredictable and surprising. Our response, therefore, depends – on noticing what’s happening, on ideas for what we could do next (anything or nothing, because doing nothing is also a process choice), on status, on willingness, on bravery, on letting go.
So when facilitating a meeting we start (and in the best of improv traditions, it doesn’t really matter where a group of people start, though starting with connecting is often good), we observe and notice and see what emerges, and then do something in response to that. We try stuff. There’s no guarantees. If what we’re doing works, we do more, if not, we try something else. Sort of sounds like how any sane person would respond in a complex situation.