5 ways we give power to people outside the room #commscamp13 #ukgc13

One of Harrison Owen’s principles for Open Space (on which most unconferences are based) is “Whoever comes is the right people”.  It’s there to remind us that we don’t need the boss or experts to have a useful conversation, we just need people who care enough to show up.

I’ve found that one of my jobs as a facilitator is to remind people that the event is about the people in the room, not those who couldn’t or wouldn’t make it.  The draw to give power away to people outside the room is strong, it’s expected in lots of meetings  where we’re essentially delegates for the rest of our team or organisation.

Here are 5 ways in which I’ve seen us (me included) do that:

1. Working on the agenda beforehand

Open Space and unconferences start with no initial agenda, just a purpose, a common interest that we want to talk about and a bunch of people who have something to contribute.  It’s tempting to make the day “more efficient” by having lots of conversations online setting out your stall for what you want to talk about, getting feedback, but it inadvertently gives power to people who aren’t in the room.  It sets an expectation, at least for those who have a look at this “prep work” that these are the things we’ll talk about.  It leaves the door open to people who want to influence the agenda without committing to a day in the room, because we tend to fall in with what’s already there.  If I come late to the online conversation, especially if I’m not terribly au fait with the subject area, I will look to see what norms have been established about subjects so that I can fit in well.  I don’t want to propose something that has people looking at me in a funny way.

It also gives disproportionate power to those who have, for whatever reason, more time to spend on preparation in the run up to the event than others do.  I think it probably also affects the number of people who show up ready to be “spectators”.  I can see that there are plenty of clever people with a much stronger grasp of the subject than I so I think I’ll just keep my silly little idea to myself.

2. Trying to represent your team’s wishes

They’re not here.  You are.  You’re one of the right people to be here.  They’re not (because they’re not here!) Stop worrying about what so-and-so would say if they were here and say what you want to say.  This goes too for paying too much attention to people who manage large departments or organisations.  The fact that they lead programmes employing hundreds of people costing millions of pounds doesn’t mean that they know any more about the problem in hand than you do.  They may well know less.

3. Going to sessions because “you should”

I know.   It’s really hard.  There are 10 sessions all going on at once and you want to go to three of them but you ought to go to one of the others and stay there because it’s directly related to your job – what will your manager say if she sees that this was on the agenda and you didn’t go?  I think the best way to deal with this is to remember, for today, that your job is to learn and to contribute.  Pop into the “should” session to see whether you missed anything but otherwise, keep using the law of two feet to find the places where you can best learn and/or contribute.

4. Letting technology get in the way

It’s great to have an audio or video record of a session.  It’s really cool to have a live-stream so that people who couldn’t make it can watch along in real-time.  It’s really useful to the whole community if people can live-tweet and live-blog sessions.  But.  All of these things have the possibility of becoming more important than the conversation we’re actually having.  Common adverse effects are people unconsciously censoring what they say because they know they’re being reported or recorded or people saying things deliberately to make sure that they are on record.  The other difficulty arises when the interactivity of twitter and live-streaming take over.  This can take the form of trolling from outside or something as apparently benign as people outside asking that people speak more clearly for them to hear on the stream.

5. Thinking too much about the future

In this case, the “people not in the room” are “future me” and/or “future other people”. I worry about what future me will think of what I’m saying.  I worry that future me will be somehow disadvantaged because I say something stupid.  And then I worry about what future other people will think when they get home and they reflect on the day and “oh my god what was that dickhead, Lloyd, saying???”  They’re not here, they’re not real, they don’t get to decide what gets said in the room.

PS I generally don’t like writing list-based posts but today I’ve done two – my thinking may be becoming dangerously structured! 🙂

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17 thoughts on “5 ways we give power to people outside the room #commscamp13 #ukgc13”

  1. * I agree with most of your points, but in #4, so far as I am concerned, people participating via Twitter and/ or live streams *are* “in the room, and should be encouraged to participate, positively, and not merely watch.

    * I have rendered this comment as a list, as a mark of solidarity.

    1. Andy, thank you. I understand your point, indeed as John says below, one of the great selling points of events like this is that they can include people who can’t physically be in the room.

      I’m not saying that they should be ignored or that giving them any power is of itself a bad thing, but that we should be aware of the difference – there was talk on Tuesday about people who like to talk lots in session and people who’d rather stay quiet – it seems to me that this is another case of this sort of difference, that we’re conscious of whether we’re giving disproportionate attention to people who natter on or giving it to people who are watching on the stream or via some social network.

      Thanks again though, I think there’s another blog post in this.

      (see, I can write straight prose, sure I can!)

      1. Lloyd, I do also take your point about self-censorship due to the live stream though.

        Maybe we should plan in advance which sessions will be live-streamed so people know whether they’ll need to self-censor or not

  2. I love the post, Lloyd, but I feel I have to take issue with some of it. Do I understand right that you are saying giving power to people outside the room is not a good thing?

    I agree with Andy that we should encourage people outside the room to participate (but then, given my role on Tuesday, I would say that, wouldn’t I?). I understand what you are saying about the dynamic of the people in the room potentially being upset by outside participation, but, particularly at unconferences, there are always so many people who can’t be there who have things to contribute. I often find myself in that role at other people’s events, and I get frustrated when there aren’t ways to join in. Given the ever-escalating price of travel in this country, I think we risk excluding people with differing voices if we don’t invite them in via remote participation.

    Ironically, it is often the events which are most participatory in their physical operation (like unconferences) which are also the best at enabling outside voices to take part. I wouldn’t like to see that being down-played, because, otherwise we risk such events being a self-perpetuating clique.

    I’m sorry I didn’t manage to make this comment into a list 😉

    1. Thanks for this too John,

      I’m not saying that giving those people power is a *bad* thing in itself, I’m just saying that we should be more aware and not try to treat everyone equally.

      Participating via twitter in 140 characters is not the same as being in the room, it’s just not, otherwise we wouldn’t find any value in getting together in the room, we could solve all our problems on twitter from our kitchen tables and not have to go anywhere. So I just find it problematic to then suggest that we should give those people (and yes I’ve been one of them too) “equal” access to the conversation.

      I don’t like going on and on in the comments, so I think I’ll write another post just about this subject.

  3. I simultaneously agree and disagree with your point four – where I disagree is the point that I agree with Andy and John in that the presence of a Twitter stream is indeed quite helpful to be an enabler of the people who are not physically in the room to become virtually in the room – and indeed, the people contributing from afar should be seen as being just as present as the people breathing the same air are.

    Where I agree with you is the tendency it creates for the people who are in the room to then not be in the room – because they’re concentrating on either reading or posting to Twitter, rather than what is actually being said by somebody else there; one of the things which I think is a weakness of the way ‘we as (a) communit(y¦ies)’ have been running our unconferences is that the dissemination of a lot of the learning from them has been left to just being some fragmented Twitter streams on a hashtag which may or may not be curated into a Storify, rather than something more permanent; I think it would be good if a culture could be developed of somebody in each session volunteering to be the notetaker to write it up properly (and Twitter posts can be part of the notetaking process).

    Just as a point about ‘whoever comes is the right people’ – my reading of Harrison Owen’s book also has the ‘rules’ of unconferences as being as much about saying ‘you as the organiser don’t need to stress yourself out about that sort of thing – if the event is a failure it’s the community’s failure, not yours’ as anything else.

    1. Thanks Simon, I think I agree and disagree with myself too 🙂

      I’ve just been sitting here for half an hour tying myself in knots to write another post and you’ve actually said most of it for me. So I’m going to stop and maybe write another day…

      I think the main point is that this is something for each group to be aware of and decide how to deal with for themselves, both at the plenary and session levels.

      It does remind me of another point for another day which is the balance between the comfort of ritual (doing things at this camp the way we did them last time) and the benefits of starting with a clean slate every time.

      Also I’m trying to write here as much as a member of these community(ies) as the facilitator of certain events.

      1. As you probably know myself and a couple of other people have been starting to ask questions about how we as the communities do these events, wondering if it’s a good point to learn from the successes and points of under-success – I was actually planning on pitching a session at ukgc13 to discuss the idea of a review of the format, but there’s every chance I won’t be able to be there after all; I’ll write a blog post instead!

  4. I think this debate is really important. I see that Alex Blanford has made some observations about power dynamics and ways in which participants could be self aware.

    Reflecting on this I see that I have fallen into a set of behaviours around unconferences. I tend to sit in a circle. I am a talker more than a listener. I am constantly looking for the new thing, that govcamp moment when something drops in to place.

    I’m not sure I am being as open and level in my interactions the other participants as i could be. Not because I don’t want to but because sometimes we just do what we do.

    And yet I know and use a wide range of techniques to help groups collaborate and share a process. Why do I not consider suggesting these? Because it never occurs to me. Because I follow the rules, that nobody wrote or really wants to be there

    I can certainly look at my own behaviour.

    And I’ll be delighted to work with others in the community to see if there are ways in which I can help others see these rules and ignore them when it suits them.

    That, it turns out, is my commscamp moment.

    1. Thanks Ben, yes, I was in the final session with Alex, talking about how to organise your own camp. I think it’s important that we talk about these things *at* camp as much as writing about them and talking about them here.

      I appreciate your self-reflection, we could all do better *and* I want to say that we still get amazing things done.

  5. With the live streaming, I learnt loads from John about the importance of the audio & microphones. Ditto from #AltGovCamp too. Inside the room, should someone be asked to volunteer to read out Qs from people watching online who are tweeting?

    1. Antony, I think these are decisions for anyone leading or participating in a session rather than things we want to decide on as policy. My preference would be for that not to happen unless there was a really big debate happening or people were violently disagreeing or something. Space for conversation is rare, I’d always try to protect it.

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