Lessons in engagement from a collaborative conference

Exploring Innovation in Community Development Finance may seem like a dry topic but the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank’s recent conference was anything but. From the beginning the planning team laid out the objective of providing a highly interactive event that recognized the interesting experiences and ideas that each participant brings and the value in facilitating connections. The opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with other attendees has become a hallmark of this bi-annual conference. Looking back at how we planned for this interaction and reflecting on how the processes played out there are several lessons that we can draw…

Planned spontaneous conversations
Throughout the planning of the conference we looked for ways to facilitate connections between participants. All told about one third of the structured conference time was organized to bring participants together including planned discussion topics and large group dialogue processes. The structure connected people in an intentional way but participants mostly took it from there, engaging with each other easily and with enthusiasm.

High tech introductions & low tech face-cards
The planning team designed an online survey to collect participant contact information, a photo and the end of the sentence “I would like to connect with other people who…” Keynote speakers, session leaders and FRB staff also completed online introductions. This simple tool helped set expectations for a conference full of opportunities to meet with other people with similar interests and concerns.
At the conference our student volunteers turned the high tech introductions into low tech (paper) face-cards that included a photo and contact information. Arranged first by industry sector and later geography, the noticeboard of face-cards proved not so useful for the “birds of a feather” groupings that we had imagined. Instead the “affinity wall” as it was named provided a big picture of the whole group, a source of useful contact information and a place to informally connect and start a conversation.

Supper circles provide food for thought
On the evening between pre-conference workshops and the formal opening event, supper circles were coordinated with invited authors on relevant topics. Attended by about 15% of the conference participants in groups of about a dozen diners these organized supper conversations set the stage for meaningful conversations. The inclusion of well-selected and gently prepped authors provided just enough structure to bring strangers together in an interesting dialogue. The informality of supper at a good local restaurant allowed the conversation to run its own course (pun intended).

Meet me at the intersection of food and information in the Innovation Café
The layout of the hotel provided for a comfortably large area where food and beverages were served throughout the conference. The location was conveniently located at the entrance to the ballroom where plenary events took place so there was lots of foot traffic. We called this the Innovation Café and added computer terminals for email and web access, comfortable sofas and chairs, information walls about winning community development projects and the aforementioned affinity wall. With no vendor exhibit booths this became a central place for participants to meet each other. Staff and students welcomed participants each morning and the space encouraged continuing conversations as people left the more structured plenary activities.

Rule of two feet
A gently structured process of three 30-minute rounds of discussion was used for one of two interactive plenary sessions. A dozen discussion circles of 10-16 people were planned and one emerged spontaneously as a result of a keynote presentation. Once again the facilitation happened ahead of the conference through selection of discussion leaders drawn from concurrent session presenters and other industry experts and coaching of them to prepare some provocative questions to begin a conversation. I took away three key observations about the success of this event:

  • While we set up a series of 30 minute discussions we established a rule of two feet – anyone can move between groups at any time, for any reason. Giving people permission to move if the conversation wasn’t working for them also gave each person accountability for the quality of their own experience. This led to increased engagement and, ironically, less movement between groups.
  • No tables – the circles of chairs naturally lead to people leaning in and moving closer to hear each other. It is hard to be disengaged with this kind of body language.
  • Having prepared for some good discussion, a critical element was to get out of the way and allow it all to happen. As the front-of-room facilitator I needed to do little more than keep time and gently invite the possibility of movement between circles.

The tone from the stage sets the stage for the tone of the dialogue
As with many conferences this conference included several keynote addresses and a panel presentation. It was interesting to see how the styles of the speakers differed and how some tones were more effective than others in supporting collaborative interaction. The conference started with a traditional oration from an important dignitary, formally introduced by a bank official. My reaction was as an interested but not fully-engaged observer. A later keynote speaker gave an almost too casual first impression (being pregnant with twins necessitated yoga pants and flip flops) but spoke from the heart with wisdom, humility and humor. This approach seemed to encourage further conversation and created a buzz in the hallways. Later the panel moderator came prepared with searching questions for high-powered guests who were encouraged to use a conversational, reflective tone which in turn encouraged questions from the audience and got people thinking and engaged.

So what? Priorities for action
The final element of this conference was a plenary session with a focus on priorities for action. We wanted to pull together all the conversations we had been having into a “so what” dialogue about necessary actions for the future of community development finance. Again we structured opportunities for engagement with active listening in triads and consolidation of ideas in small groups. The framework explained and a conference tone well-established, the whole room quickly got down to work with very little front-of-room facilitation. Using the FacilitatePro collaborative technology to capture ideas on a shared electronic flip chart we were able to consolidate action items for three focus areas and present them back to the group for a round of voting and immediate prioritized results. Technology allowed us to maintain momentum and turn small group conversations in to whole room results. At the core of the process, however, was the opportunity for individuals to engage with each other and make discoveries and connections of their own.

Walking the talk
In reflecting on the lessons learned from this conference I would add one more – the quality of collaboration of the planning team. This is one of my favorite conference teams to work with as it blends a welcome mixture of quiet efficiency and warm collaboration. Every team member was thorough in completing their well-defined tasks and there was genuine care and appreciation for the contributions of others. This respectful, collaborative approach reflected the objectives of the conference and naturally translated into planning the elements of the program and the welcome reception greeting the conference participants.

Posted by Julia Young, Facilitate.com

To find out more about Facilitate.com’s conference planning services and collaborative technology contact MoreInfo@Facilitate.com or visit www.Facilitate.com.

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