Friday, August 13, 2010

Meeting Design: What would make the community more connected?

Meeting design and facilitation should help create and enhance the connectedness and community among participants.  This is as true for annual conferences involving thousands of attendees as it is for a committee or staff meeting with only a handful of participants.

People often say community involves:
  • a shared goal or common purpose
  • a challenge or crisis that unite people to act
  • respect and appreciation for others
  • agreed-upon standards for group activity
  • a commitment to work with others
  • a common set of beliefs or values
Facilitators help groups explore these characteristics and surface the individual perspectives necessary for the group to develop its own cohesiveness.  Questions are the core of this work:   (1) Who is here?  (2) Why have we chosen to come together?  (3) How do we want to be with each other?  (4) What do we want to create/achieve?  (5) How shall we approach this work and how will you contribute?

When the group experiences challenges, we should invite them to return to their original responses to these questions as guidance for whatever issues need to be resolved.  In short, we help the group become more connected to itself … its reason for being and its way of being.  It is tempting to try and fast-track resolution of these questions or to use a flashy technique or exercise to bypass the hard work of discussing what to some will seem too touchy-feely.  Doing so is misguided, as this work of "identity development" is critical to community and connectedness.

Conference and meeting design should reflect and support the possible answers that individual attendees might offer for these same questions:  (1) the demographics and lenses of participants, (2) their motivations for attending the event, (3) the rituals and rhythms and brand qualities for conference activity, (4) the learning outcomes for the experience, and the (5) formats and flows that will make it possible.  Every choice a conference planner makes can then be filtered through the various possible responses.   How will lunch be served?  Banquet-style?  Plated?  Boxed and carried out?  Family-style?  

Any choice made should be intentional and tied not only to logistics, but to how it can connect the community.  You talk to people while standing in line for banquet service, and a banquet with different stations can cause you to connect with more people.  Family-style meal service connects people at banquet rounds in ways that plated service will not.  Boxed lunches can support informal conversations among self-selected groups. Which option best supports the overall desired experience of (and for) the community?

Convening people is a necessary, but insufficient contribution to the development of community.  We must do more.  When designing or facilitating a meeting, workshop, or conference, every choice holds possibilities for creating the conditions that lead to more connectedness and community among those attending.  Every.  Single.  Choice.  As a result, we must be more intentional about our options and more vigilant in our execution.

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