Objections to participation in conferences

I have great clients.  Most of the people who end up working with me do so because they want to work in radically more participatory ways, opening up processes to more voices, more leadership.  In conference settings this means scheduling much more dialogue or running the whole thing using Open Space Technology and dispensing with pre-loading content.

But there persists, especially in the corporate and government sectors, a underlying nervousness in doing this.  common objections to making things more participatory include:

  • It’s too risky
  • We’re not ready for it
  • I’m worried it won’t work
  • There won’t be enough structure
  • People need content
  • We need to know what the outcomes will be.

It is worth exploring these issues in a compassionate and direct manner.  What these issues are really about are trust and control and a sense that the responsibility for the experience lies with the organizers and not the participants.

This is not always the easiest thing to say to people, especially those that have hired you to deliver a conference or a conversation.  But it is important to confront these issues face on, because no matter how well you run a participatory process, without confronting the edges of control and trust, you are going to get anywhere ultimately.

These setiments originate in a couple of assumptions that are worth challenging:

  • The responsibility for the experience rests with the organizers, not the participants. This is to some extent true although it does a great disservice to most conference design.  Assuming that you as a planning committee have to deliver a great experience for everyone is neither possible nor productive.  You are never going to make everyone happy, so leave that idea behind.  And you aren’t going to get all the content right.  The best traditional conferences meet some of the expectations of participants most of the time, meaning that there are large blocks of time that don’t meet people’s expectations.  And so the default setting for most participants is to spend thousands of dollars on a passive experience, taking some interest in workshops or speeches and spending the rest of the time self-organizing dinners, coffee breaks and other chances to connect with friends old and new.  Another word for a conference that takes thousands of your dollars and leaves you finding your own way is “a racket.”
  • People need content and structure. Of course we do, but not in the way most conference organizers deliver it.  On the content side, most conference planning consists of spending a year guessing what people want to learn about, or worse, putting out RFPs for workshops, which results in conferences becoming big commercials for people’s pet processes, or ideas, without any consideration for what folks want to learn.  The conference is then marketed on the backs of these offerings.  That isn’t to say that there can’t be value, but it does constrain learning.  Similarly, with structure, conference organizers will often say to me that things like Open Space don’t have enough structure.  Open Space has plenty of structure, but it is free of content until the gathering itself populates the agenda with the questions that are top of mind.  I have worked at countless conferences where “structure” is everything.  And what this typically means is that the conference runs behind schedule and people are herded here and there, shortshrifting almost every aspect of their experience, to the point where folks just plain don’t return from coffee breaks.
  • People learn by passive listening. There is no question that a stirring keynote or a dynamic and powerful presentation can have the effect of galvanizing ideas and making people hungry for learning.  But too often the passive experience of listing to experts is built into conferences such that a key note is followed by a panel, is followed by lecture-workshops, is followed by another keynote and so on.  Participation is minimal.

What I have discovered over the years is that people want to be in a conference setting that has a variety of experience.  If there is a keynote, it is important to have that person act more as a provocateur, to set up questions that folks can dialogue around rather than proclaiming the truth from on high.  Also building a conference in part or in whole around Open Space means that people can bring their own questions and expertise to the gathering, create a marketplace to exchange ideas and perhaps even create new ways of being together.  I don’t think every conference needs to end in “action,” but I do think that many conferences could build in more explicit opportunities to start something.

the bottom line for people in understanding that giving up control is important.  A conference planning committee should focus on building a container into which participants can pour their ideas.  Creative, engaging, participatory conferences and gatherings have substantial participation undertaken by the participants themselves.  They look at how passive a conference is and break open opportunities for people to connect, to go on a learning journey together, to create something new, or simply to sit in good conversation with each other catching up and sharing their work.

Trust your participants and invite them well.  Invite them to come prepared to make contributions.  Put responsibility for their experience solidly in their laps.  Let them know that if they are taking to time and money to come to the gathering, they should also take the chance to create and contribute content to the gathering.  Bring your questions, bring your stories, look for others and see what you can create.  Challenge participants to show up to a co-creative gathering rich in conversations, connections and inspiration.  Invite them, provide a good container with tools for them to do their work, and turn it over to them.

Fearless conference planning, accompanied by excellent invitation and skilful hosting for productive self-organization and emergence creates memorable experiences.


  1. Having attended many conference in past lives and given talks at lots of them, I wonder if the old hind brain is the obstacle. Everyone wants to be “up front” and have something flashy for his/her resume. The real thrill of collaborative energy gets lost in the quest for stardom. Reward systems are partly to blame. And egos. But real hot collaborative excitement is harder to achieve than a traditional slate of presentations which is also worth considering.

  2. Spot on, Chris. Great post. At Gathering11, an event I attended as a participant recently, there was this mix of approaches and the results have been amazing – lots of follow-up conversations, connections and projects. John Hagel was there talking about “small moves, smartly made” and operating from the edges – trying to change the core is just too hard! (He’s the author of The Power of Pull) BTW, at Gathering 11 I saw the strangest open space ever – and it still sorta worked :) The bottom line is – let people talk with each other. Cheers, Viv

  3. Hi Chris, pretty much my experience too. I do think it is the conference organizers that need to learn these lessons, and therefore maintain responsibility for the experience. With the right structure or framework “organized” the participants will of course be the important part of what is then a success. Clearly a whole conference organized entirely as open-space would be too unstructured and daunting for most purposes, but the right mix of structure is key. Most intelligent participants would welcome the open-space opportunities (as they do anyway) so why not make that a feature.

  4. Ian…why do you think a full Open Space would be too unstructured and daunting for most purposes? What immediately comes up for you as a challenge to doing that?

  5. Hi Chris! Thanks for this read and a reminder of the fears that exist for folks planning conferences and events. I am reminded, again and again, when I come to read your writing, of the lessons you shared with me, thanks or bringing them back to the forefront!

  6. Chris and Ian, AIN this year was fully Open Space, I have heard different opinions on how useful it was. Some say there was a lot variation on the quality of performance and preparation and in many cases some subjects were way too popular…

  7. Jani…I found that two years ago in Portland too. I went to some breakout sessions there that were boring and poorly designed, and others that rocked my world. Some were oversubscribed and some were underattended.

    So the question is what value has Open Space in all of this?

    For me Open Space allows the possibility of surprise, spontaneous organizing for self-correction and the law of two feet. You never know what you will get when you open the agenda up to all the participants. But you can’t guarantee quality either way, so why not opt for diversity? And if things don’t work out with Open Space there is always the chance of proposing more interesting things, self-correcting the conference experience in mid stream. And of course the law of two feet can come into play as well, meaning that if you are in the wrong place, get along to somewhere else.

    Is it a perfect guarantee that everything will work out well? Not at all, but it shifts the responsibility for the participant’s experience from the conference organizer to the participant. In that sense it’s a major shift because people have to come prepared to co-create and not be entertained. When I go to a conference that’s what I prefer, but most folks have been conditioned to the passive consumption model of conference going.

  8. Thanks for sharing this insight. I am speaking at a conference in October and, after reasing this post, i will play the role of provocateur.

  9. Great Brian!