Thursday, April 2, 2009

Thank Doyle and Strauss

All you've ever loved and hated about business meetings can be attributed to Michael Doyle and David Strauss. In the 1970s, they published a book called How to Make Meetings Work. This codified the best practices of meeting preparation, defining an agenda, selecting a facilitator, taking notes, etc. Their distinctions between types of meetings (problem-solving vs. decision-making vs. information-sharing) is useful and helpful as far as it goes.


There's been an unfortunate assumption, however, that this is all there is to meetings. We have believed that small groups can have a variety of types of meetings (best managed by the Doyle & Strauss rule-set), but that once the numbers of participants grew too large, the only possible process was the "sit & get" model of interaction -- one talking head lecturing at an audience. Now, there's been tremendous innovation in this style of meeting - from transparencies to PowerPoint to full-on spectacles with pyrotechnics and the whole nine yards. But the model of interaction is the same - one head talking, hundreds of others listening.

The arrival of Open Space is pretty exciting because it breaks that mold. Using this technique, huge groups of people can have dozens of concurrent conversations to explore ideas, test models and make decisions. It's totally uncontrolled and unpredictable, it's wildly productive and engaging, and it scares the pants off of most people who organize events. We tend to like knowing exactly what's going to happen before it happens (seriously, why does anyone hold a press conference anymore when the content is broadcast long before the meeting itself?). Open Space allows people in groups to interact, to mix it up, and for fun, exciting and scary things to emerge from those interactions.


What the conference world is just beginning to wrestle with is how big the universe of conference models really is, and how to select the right model for the right conference? Bryan Coffman has distilled a useful model for understanding meetings. I referred to this framework in my post on Conceiving a Virtual Collaboration Process.
The entire CollaborationLabs.net site is an exploration of these different types of collaboration, defined by the two axes of "Facilitator vs. Agent Controlled-Process" and "Amount of Structure Created by Emergent Rules vs. by Design". The orange arrow designates the direction we seem to be heading in.

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