Enliven Your Conference Design with a Network Mindset

The way we gather and convene people can be a metaphor and an experience of what community and networks can be. Traditional conference designs leave most of the participants listening to speakers most of the day vs. interacting with each other or discovering the latent collective intelligence in the room. Often the most energizing productive moments are in the hallways at coffee breaks. We can rethink conference design to capitalize on that energy.  As Peter Block writes, “The task of leadership is to create conditions for engagement” – any gathering is an opportunity to bring people out of fragmentation, experience their interconnections and learn and engage with diverse perspectives in new ways. In technology circles, new designs for conferences have emerged called “unconferences.” The following quote from Ryan King, the co-founder of an unconference called BarCamp, encompasses the philosophy of a why it’s time to redesign how we gather: “We figured there was much more expertise in the audience than there possibly could be onstage.”  This table highlights the different design assumptions:

Traditional Conference Design Emergent/Network Model
Experts and/or leaders at the top have the answers – Peers connect with peers on compelling questions
– Participants throughout the system each have a part of the answer
Knowledge comes from outside Latent knowledge exists in the collective wisdom in the room/community


We learn by listening – expert model We learn by talking – “Collective sensemaking”


Problem solving Iterative design – vision/action/reflection


 “Conversation, more than any other form of human interaction, is the place where we learn, exchange ideas, offer resources and create innovation.” – Art of Hosting

Examples of Convening Approaches Based on Emergent/Network Model:

  • World Café Tables of 4 discuss powerful question for 25 min. then one person stays & all others mix to new table & share conversation threads; continue conversation. Harvest key themes in the large group
  • Appreciative Inquiry Storytelling – People pair up to share personal story of what works well & distill key themes. These are shared and discussed in the larger group.
  • Fire Starter Stories with small group discussions (also see Pecha Kucha or Ignite ) – Series of brief 5-6 minute presentations (20 slides 20 seconds each) from innovators. Small groups discuss and build on what they heard.
  • Fishbowl – Several seats in the middle are surrounded by participants in circles. A host and several speakers discuss a topic with an empty chair. Audience members can take the chair and rotate through the conversation.
  • Topic Rotation – Stations around the room host brainstorms about aspects of a topic. Participants self-select to brainstorm topic of most interest. Then groups rotate around to other stations to learn and build on others input.
  • Speed Dating – People are paired up to explore a strategic question for 8-10 minutes, then sharing is done into the larger group. Can do several rotations.

In designing the event, the idea is to focus as much on the engagement among people as on the content the speakers deliver, trusting that the conversations between participants will generate as much, if not more value, than the information conveyed from the speakers at the front.

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