According to Guy Browning in his wonderful book Office Politics: How work Really Works, “Conferences are the business equivalent of going for a curry, in that everyone thinks having one is a great idea, but you always end up drinking too much, talking rubbish and feeling sick for days afterwards. The biggest fear in the business world is having to make a speech at a conference. This is because generally you have nothing of interest to say and no one in the audience has the slightest interest in anything you have to say anyway. For example, when you are the IT director, it’s your job to make sure the IT works. If it does work, they know that already and if it doesn’t, they don’t want to hear your pathetic excuses.”
Why are conferences so bad?
Joking aside, a lot of conferences are bad. They are expensive to arrange and take people away from work. The benefits are often questionable as you get either expert content presented inexpertly – think of that dreaded feeling when the first slide containing too many bullet points appears – or entertaining presentations with little valuable content.
Delegates become distracted by their phones and pay little attention to the presenters, dipping in and out and kidding themselves they will read the material later. The most value is generally from the networking opportunities and side conversations in the bar.
Great conferences require delegate involvement and interesting content.
Open Space is an OD technique
Open Space technology was created by Harrison Owen in 1985 as a way of engaging a large group of people in discussing content related to a theme or issue. The technique is used by industry groups, communities of interest or for finding solutions to issues. Such conferences are particularly useful when you want to engage a large cross-section of people impacted by an issue by drawing out different views on the topic. These happenings might be referred to as Whole Systems Events.
These days, organisers of Open Space events often call them Unconferences – a term introduced in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s. Open Space and Unconferences are essentially the same thing. You may also come across them in different contexts labelled Accelerated Solutions Events, Design Sprints or Design Thinking Workshops.
What is Open space?
The crucial aspect of an Open Space event is that there is no agenda until the attendees turn up. This approach overcomes some of the issues with a traditional conference as it reduces costs, minimises centralised administration and often lowers or even removes fees for attending!
How does it work?
Self-organisation is key. You will need: a large conference area; several smaller meeting areas; a large blank agenda visible and accessible to everyone; and delegates with something to say!
The event starts with a facilitator inviting delegates to propose discussion topics. That person steps up and pitches their idea. The delegates demonstrate their approval, sometimes with a vote (show of hands or more often these days with a polling app such as Sli.do) or sometimes the facilitator will take on this role on the delegates’ behalf. If agreed, the presenter writes their topic on the agenda, scheduling it in one of the smaller meeting spaces and time slots available.
This continues until you have a full agenda with multiple sessions now scheduled to run concurrently… just like a regular conference, but with no fees paid to the speakers and a guarantee that the topics are of interest.
And then you can begin. Typically, delegates are invited to go wherever they feel they have something to learn or to contribute to a discussion. And they are invited to use the “Law of Two Feet”. This means they are free to wander in and out of sessions at will – should they feel they are neither learning nor contributing, then they obey the law and go somewhere else where they will.
At the end of each session, reflections, conclusions and actions are captured and shared back with all the delegates.
Good conference organisation often means doing less so your delegates do more. The result is a creative, collaborative conference with engaged and empowered delegates. This is no jolly out of the office to get your ticket punched!
And as Guy Browning reminds us, “[Well-organised meetings] are meetings for which you have to prepare, in which you have to work and after which you have to take action. Fortunately, these meetings are as rare as a sense of gay abandon in the finance department.”
OD Thought Leader: Eddie Obeng (b. 1959)
Eddie Obeng is a Professor at Henley Business School and the founder of his own virtual business school, Pentacle.
Obeng believes that somebody changed the rules of the world. At midnight about 20 years ago. He believes the real 21st Century (the ‘New World’) operates to a whole new set of rules and that we are responding to a fantasy version of the world that we learnt in the 20th Century (the ‘Old World’).
The argument goes something like this: the pace of change is ever-increasing. The amount of information available to us has increased exponentially. It is, for example, estimated that 50% of the information on the Internet was created in the last two years. By being connected to the Internet, we are effectively at the centre of a global corporation that we no longer understand.
In comparison to this explosive pace of change, the pace of learning is effectively flat. Consider the usefulness of a business plan covering the next five years against that context. It is worthless the instant it is approved, if not before.
The moment the pace of change exceeded the pace of learning is the moment we lost our grip on the reality of the New World. This happened at midnight about 20 years ago. And nobody noticed.
To combat this, Obeng believes we must exponentially accelerate our learning. Many organisations now say to their managers, “Innovate, be creative!” Yet they mean, “Do something quirky and fail and you’re fired.” He believes we must be allowed to fail faster – he calls it Smart Failure – and be rewarded for it.
Sure, if you know what to do and how to do it then you can’t afford to fail, and you should be fired! It’s like painting by numbers – not much opportunity for failure unless you’re incompetent.
However, change these days is about achieving things when you know neither what you’re doing nor how you’re going to do it. How could you know these things when you do not understand the New World? He calls this ‘foggy change’. It requires innovation, collaboration and Design Thinking. It requires organisations protect people by encouraging smart failure.
Or you could continue to respond as if it is still the 20th Century. Continue painting by numbers. It will keep you occupied for a while longer, but it will not create anything new or innovative.
Recommended reading: Obeng, Eddie (1995): All Change!: The Project Leader’s Secret Handbook, London, Pitman/Financial Times
Next time in the A to Z o OD: P is for Psychoanalysis