Events can be strange beasts. On the one hand you need to thoroughly plan for them to be a success, but on the other, a lot of the "magic" comes from what isn't overly controlled.
This is definitely true of in-person events. Even the conversations during break outs; the casual chats while the presenter is setting up; the serendipitous meetings in the queue for lunch, these moments are often the highlight. It's been happening to a lesser extent online, although at last we are seeing an attempt to do something about it, with programmes actively integrating opportunities for conversations.
Conversations are at the core of an uncommon conference, and recently we couldn't help but wonder if others are also appreciating the benefit. So we went out to find answers to this very question by talking to people we think “get it”.
Here's an extract from a conversation with one of the people we uncovered, Jimbo Clark who is the owner of innoGreat and the creator of In & Out of the B❒X…
Jimbo Clark - So what makes your events ‘uncommon’?
Marcus Magee - Love it! That’s always the first question people ask us. In simple terms, we help communities gather in order to solve problems and drive change. The event is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. The key difference between an uncommon conference and most other events is that we don't have an agenda that minutely sets out every second of the event...
JC - So your events don't have a programme?
MM - Not quite. Every event needs an outline that indicates what’s going to happen should someone want to join. But we focus on the objectives of the gathering and the outcomes participants can expect from joining. And we discover this by speaking with stakeholders about what's keeping them up at night. Then, at the event itself, the emphasis is on participant-led discussions around those issues. That's the bit we can't and won’t prescribe. So you could say our approach is very organic.
JC - So you just let them all chat?
MM - Oh not at all. We provide guardrails in terms of topics or issues to be tackled, and create the right environment for them to divulge, discuss, debate, decide. We see ourselves as facilitators that bring communities together, help them to build trust and empathy, and then help them to flesh out their issues in order to collaborate on possible solutions.
JC - That's really interesting. We use a tool when supporting our clients with organisational change that sounds very similar. Let me share it...
Fig 2.4 Space Between model^
It's called the Space Between model^, and is designed for co-creation in the fields of design, marketing, and organisational change by Bryan Rill. It’s from his excellent book called the “The Art of Co-Creation”. I can immediately see that your events also focus on the middle.
MM - Wow - this is amazing! And yes, we are all about the middle. Meaning we view People, Environment, Process as the foundation. Because at the end of the day these elements are simply the ‘platform’ that sets the scene and encourages people to gather to solve their problems. The real value comes from doing the WORK though. That’s what’s divulged, discussed, debated and decided by the participants. So for us this would be the “Space Between”, in that, we basically set them up with a topic or task and then get out of their way!
JC - So what role does the People, Environment, Process play then?
MM - Since this is a gathering, people are obviously critical. So the people behind it and those who are a part of it determine that the issues are addressed by the right people in the right way. The environment has to support the objectives and outcomes sought, but of course what that looks like differs depending on if we’re talking about an in-person event compared to online. But the logic remains the same: it should enhance the goals we are looking to achieve. And finally, logistically speaking, staging an event is just a process. The skill lies in designing the experience and then mapping how that plays out "on the day", deploying all the necessary features that again, support the objectives.
JC - And what’s the outcome?
MM - That’s the cool thing. Beyond the promise of open and honest exchanges on the topic and potential new connections, you just don’t know what will come up. Which is why we always use facilitation and scribing. Facilitation teases out contribution and keeps the conversations on track. Scribing creates an artifact. And participants love it! They not only have the chance to “learn”, they get to have in-depth conversations, share their frustrations, and ask questions and in the process discover there are others in the same boat. Plus they have something tangible to refer back to and build upon.
JC - That’s exactly what this model is about. And it’s interesting to hear that you’ve stumbled across this yourselves.
MM - Funny thing is, we came to the conclusion after realising there is so much more to be gained from gathering people at conferences, beyond a lot of nodding and note taking. Tapping into that collective knowledge and experience just makes sense, but we realised that it’s not a simple and straightforward exercise for many.
JC - And how has the market responded to UC?
MM - Can’t lie to you, not everyone gets it. So many people have a fixed mindset around what a conference is and does. But we’re on a mission to change that perception, one event at a time, because we know from talking to people they need answers and they need help building the connections with others that might help them find them...
The best part about reaching out to and connecting with like-spirited people is that you sometimes find the words and frameworks for what you’ve been doing all along, which can be hugely rewarding (not to mention comforting!).
Stay tuned for more exchanges with our tribe and let us know if you’d like to chat about the magic that happens in the space between.
^Rill B.R., Hämäläinen M.M. (2018) Understanding Co-creation. In: The Art of Co-Creation