Conferences and driving events…

Lee at Headshift has a long, interesting reflection on Reboot and on why so many conferences fail to match it for engagement and value.

Lee says:

There is also I think, a misconception of the behaviours and needs of business people at conferences. In my experience, it is only in clipart libraries that business people just wear suits, shake hands and point at spreadhseets on a screen. In reality, they are much more rounded and interesting than that and, like everybody else, they crave authentic connection with other people, new thinking and inspiration.

Absolutely, I constantly find this myself. A lot of business events seem to be conducted in a kind of trance of mediocrity. Below the surface I think people are more different than on the surface, but paradoxically far better able to get along than the creators of rigid formats allow.

Lee’s criteria for success are passion, meeting real needs (something he was very eloquent about in his own contributions to Reboot), physical space (again Reboot was a winner on this, down with dreary hotels!), the right people and objects (basically, things around which we can create conversations). Dead right.

Reboot had a relatively flat structure, so that anyone who wanted could convene their own session on-the-hoof, and most of the presentations were from volunteers putting themselves forward. Reboot opens a space and invites people to fill it. And they do.

Personally, I’m really sick of conferences with publicity that lists a series of slightly hysterical bullet points begining “You will learn…” with lots of references to industry-leaders and best practice. All very patronising and top-down. There’s a feeling of compulsion and manipulation about the whole thing, as well as a hefty price tag. Such events rarely acknowledge the brains in the audience.

Lee and I have different degrees of enthusiasm for Open Space as he points out in his post.

Techniques like Open Space are sometimes helpful, but they too adopt the host culture of the event they are part of, which can sometimes result in partial, tentative half conversations instead of the intense debate, dialogue and challenge I seem to crave. I admire Johnnie Moore (I bet he doesn’t believe me!) for putting his ego on the line in his Open Space events as a sacrifical lamb to get the party going, but even then I often sense there are a lack of meaningful drivers that stimulate people to engage. Perhaps I just went to too many noisy and argumentative political meetings as a youngster.

I think the atmosphere in Open Space is essentially down to the participants. Some of the talking is tentative; I’d say that makes for some tentative conversation but not half-conversations. Maybe tentative is just what the people in them want. Tentative can be good sometimes. And one man’s passionate conversation is another’s shouting match.

If you’re not getting what you want or need, you can change how you’re engaging, find another conversation or start one of your own. If you want intensity and challenge in an Open Space conversation, you might have to take the risk of being challenging in your behaviour.

I think Open Space is in some ways quite confronting and it doesn’t particularly reward bullying or controlling behaviour (though it’s approach sometimes provokes it for people who long to be in control and find they aren’t).

It’s fine for passive reflective types but what it won’t do is create engagement without risk-taking. The idea of passion bounded by responsibility.

I think what makes Open Space challenging sometimes is exactly the kind of English politeness the Lee spots in his post. People think it would be impolite to challenge the direction of a conversation or get up and leave. The process doesn’t make people polite, that’s a choice they make. (The longer it runs, the more people seem to get this).

Lee talks about Open Space lacking passionate drivers. I don’t think the process itself drives, or should drive, anything. It’s only the participants that can do that by driving themselves. If no one does the passion/responsibility thing, not much happens. And in my experience, there seem to be plenty of people willing to take risks and make Open Space satisfying. So if you have a bad experience in an Open Space, I’m not sure the process itself is to blame.

(Caveats: There’s lots of contextual things that affect OS events. It helps if participants really want to be there, and haven’t been bussed in my organisational mandate or false promises. It helps if they’ve not been horribly misled about what to expect. But I don’t think that’s the nub of this issue. And no, I don’t think Open Space is the cure-all for conferences, though I think it has a lot to offer.)

4 thoughts on “Conferences and driving events…

  1. Viv McWaters

    “I think the atmosphere in Open Space is essentially down to the participants.” This is spot on Johnnie. Everyone seems to be looking for someone to blame for their less-than-living-up-to-expectations experiences. At ‘traditional’ confrences the organisers/committee etc are the fall guys. In an Open Space event, without any one person to point a finger at, it becomes the process of open space itself. I call it ‘open space shock’. We’ve become so used to the top-down control approach that the freedom and, yes, responsibility, that open space affords is strangely alien. Watch folks over a multi-day open space and you see them come to embrace both passion AND responsibility (and the Law of Two Feet) – and take responsibility for the content, quality, depth and authenticity of their own interactions with others. Sadly, few opportunities are provided for such connection.



  2. James Governor

    but do any “normal” people, that is “civilians” go to reboot? seems like its just web and social software mavens…

    some people do spend all day pointing at powerpoint.

    best practice, i agree, is often crapulous, but some people really do want to know how the leaders are getting things done.

  3. Lee Bryant

    Thanks Johnnie. I think the man reason I recoil slightly from Open Space events is that I was born free, and have always followed the two feet rule, so I almost feel the structure to be unnecessary.

    I think I just need to go to a really kicking OS event that produces better conversations and outcomes than a decent dinner party, and then I’ll be convinced. Seriously: please ping me when you have a recommendation and I will try to come along and experience an epiphany.

    Viv: I like the sound of a two-day OS event, because then people can get to know each other and (as you say) really start to take responsibility. I think it is the 45 min OS sessions embedded in trad. conferences that I have a problem with.

    James: Rebooters are more like the militia, emerging from the populace to sweep away the occupying forces of old skool enterprise tools 😉 Have you been to reboot? It is actually a lot less geeky than you might imagine.

  4. Johnnie Moore

    James: Yes, some people do seem to spend a lot of time apparently doing the powerpoint thing… that doesn’t mean that they really like it or that it’s the best they can do.

    Lee: Thanks too. Yes, in an earlier draft of this post I talked about the difference between shorter and longer Open Spaces. I find the longer ones create a richer context, partly because people get more familiar with how it works in practice. I’ve got one or two thoughts for a 2 day OS I’d like to help create myself, I’ll certainly keep you in the loop!

    Oh, and I would love to work with even less (explicit) structure. Harrison Owen’s mantra, apparently, is “one less thing”. I agree.


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