It’s an unfortunately familiar story. You’re invited to a convening on a topic that you’re interested in. When you get the agenda, you notice that the day starts with an 8 a.m. breakfast and keynote speaker, which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t 5 a.m. your time. After that it’s back-to-back sessions, some of which are good. In the others, the topics aren’t relevant or facilitation is shoddy. A working lunch, reception (with speaker), and dinner are all mandatory, forcing you to choose between skipping out for a break, catching up with colleagues, or giving away every minute of your day to the organizers. When you get back to your office and reflect on the experience, you want to connect what you’ve learned to your daily work but “135 unread emails” is screaming out in bold font.
Why does this happen? The impulse to program every minute of every day surely stems from the desire to take advantage of the unique time together, but it often ends up backfiring. People check email, skip out on sessions to talk with colleagues, or are too mentally and physically fatigued to fully engage with the content.
In a recent series of convenings I organized focused on increasing multiagency coordination and effectiveness, my team and I tried to design the kind of convenings we’d like to attend. That is to say, ones where the content was timely, relevant, and rich. The agendas took into consideration human needs such as movement, rest, and nourishment. The schedules balanced deep learning, reflection, peer-to-peer sharing, and direct application to daily work.
Here are five lessons that we’ve learned creating adult learning environments where critical work can get done:
- Design around your participants’ needs, not what you think they need. When you’re steeped in an issue or topic and designing a convening around it, it’s easy to mistake what you think participants need with what participants actually need. Designing an experience based on the actual needs and desires of the participants will ensure that the content is timely and relevant. This is not difficult to do, but it does take time. It can be as simple as having a few short phone calls with a representative sample of participants or sending out a short survey in advance of drafting the agenda. It can also take the form of deeper human-centered research methods.
- Have 1-3 objectives and stick to them. Once you’ve established your participants’ needs, you translate them into a narrow set of objectives. Having clear objectives are what you create to maintain focus throughout the planning process. Focused planning around these objectives results in a coherent participant experience. Objectives should be clear, concise, and between one and three in number. For example, below were our objectives for our first community of practice convening. We established them after talking with our participants, and they remained our sole focus for every subsequent session through the convening months later. Every minute that we spent together as a group — down to meals and breaks — was aimed at accomplishing one of these objectives.
- Mix it up. Design the day in a way that allows people to be comfortable and focused. In concrete terms that means taking into account participant travel and time zone changes, building in 15-30 minute breaks, making meals unstructured and content free, making dinner optional, and providing down time for napping or exercising. Sessions must balance presenting new content, leveraging expertise in the room, discussion, and the assimilation of knowledge into the real work of participants. All of the convenings we planned for our local leaders included team time, during which attendees could translate the day’s lessons into measurable outcomes, key activities, milestones.
- Plan hard. I’m generally a very optimistic person, but when I begin planning a convening, I turn into a doomsday prepper. What if my flight gets cancelled? What if our guest speaker gets sick? What if the venue isn’t prepared? What if there’s a massive snowstorm? The likelihood of any of these things happening is low, but preparing for them forces me to make sure that we can accomplish our objectives in a variety of circumstances. One tactic I routinely employ is to make sure there’s knowledge and skill redundancy on the planning team. While one person should know every facet of the convening from logistics to facilitation, the success of the convening should not rely on that person. Documents should be stored on a shared drive. Preparatory calls should include the whole team. Facilitation responsibilities should include lead and support roles, with the support person ready to step in as needed. Facilitator agendas should include enough detail so that someone with limited knowledge of the planning process can get up to speed quickly.
- Stay fluid. Plans are important and necessary, but so is the ability to adjust and respond when things start to go sideways. Planning a high-quality convening takes months, and a lot can change in that time. Policies change, public sentiment shifts, scandals break, and people leave their jobs. Adjusting may simply mean changing activities or getting a new guest speaker — or you may have to change your objectives or postpone the event. This lesson is particularly applicable to facilitation and is a hallmark of those that do it best. When tempers flare, the projector bulb burns out, or sessions don’t go as planned, experienced facilitators work with the resources at their disposal and stay focused on the objective, all while making it look effortless.
One participant reflected back on our series of gatherings, saying: “[The experience] has given us focus. Before we stumbled around, pretty overwhelmed. This has given us a structural foundation, focus, and purpose. Something that has sustainability to it.” In this case, our participant-centered designing, detailed planning, and flexible facilitation paid off and provided us with a strong approach to apply to future convenings.
If you’re interested in having Bellwether plan or facilitate a convening on an education strategy or policy topic for your district or organization, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.