It’s Time to Re-energize Gatherings

I admit it. I have a pet peeve. An itch that Priya Parker’s new book scratches. That gatherings don’t often live up to the hype or their promise.

Meaningful events can happen at work, they can happen at la cirque.

They can happen in training, they can happen when it’s raining.

They can and do happen anywhere!

But they don’t always. That’s why I enjoyed reading The Art of Gathering, a book that tells stories about a rainbow of fantastical gatherings that have gone well, fallen flat or went astray, and the design skills that make gatherings really worthwhile, meaningful and memorable. Among the clever concepts she introduces us to are ‘The Passover Principle’ (getting clear about knowing why this night is different from all other nights), ‘Displacement’ (shifting people outside their habits), and doing ‘Heat Maps’ (to identify where there’s friction between individuals or groups) ahead of time.

Why talk about energized gatherings now?

There are reasons for the interest in re-energizing gatherings right now. So many conferences are bloated with large numbers of attendees in mega-sized hotels listening to presenters that make real person to person connections a challenge. Technology has distracted us from one another and social connections generally. People are spending more time in unproductive meetings. And too many groups suffer from a well-meaning desire not to offend so they avoid the risk of doing or saying anything that could matter, for the sake of keeping harmony.

Like so many, I like to host gatherings with an eye to providing an immersive experience right from setting the purpose, preparing the participant list and designing the welcome, the opening, the activities and right through to the closing. I did this when I led a group to create the first Annual Volunteer Appreciation event for a Food Bank, a summer picnic in a large Toronto park where the staff showed the volunteers, themselves recipients of the Food Bank’s services, how much they meant to them. It was moving to experience the excitement of the honoured guests when the staff served them a meal, as it was when I listened closely to the lyrics when the staff serenaded the volunteers with a song written for them. You could feel the love in the space and observe the pride of membership to this community.

The dual purpose of magnificent gatherings

Creating a series of opportunities for groups and teams to learn about disruptive innovation at an image gallery was also fun to do and produced an entirely different sensibility. Holding it in a small jewel box of a museum set a contemplative mood right from the start. Photographs taken by a large format camera told the stories of the demise of analogue photography and the companies that were once giants such as Kodak and Polaroid. People took in images of empty offices with withered plants that were left behind on the Kodak campus and saw video footage of exploding buildings in Rochester when they were being demolished. Both companies had been known internationally for their innovation and coveted for their talent and technology. In all of this and the workshop afterwards, people began to situate themselves in the face of a future massive disruption in their own industry. Each team brought their own situation to identify its market vulnerabilities and plan forward. These learning gatherings, and many more, were special because the design focused not only on exploring the theme but it shared a second purpose of building connections so that participants saw themselves as belonging to a group in a new way.

Going beyond Martha Stewart’s focus

Priya Parker believes, as I do, that gatherings can be elevated to be human-centred. She likes to say in her media interviews that Martha Stewart ruined us all. I get it. Doting over canapés and fussing over etiquette has overshadowed paying much attention to making connections among people. Parker talks through the principles and design elements essential for a leader or any organizer who runs meetings, town halls, retreats and any form of gathering.

Making it special

Despite this, not all organizations appreciate the potential of going beyond the quotidian. Some time back, I was asked by an organization to run a Give & Get series to build trust and collaboration across silos. I typically signal in every way that the gathering is special. People love it when you take care to make something out of the ordinary happen at work. Nevertheless, the client organization let me know they were unable to hold their Give & Get series off-site, or provide food for the starting activity, or let the space be decorated.  It would have been easy to let it all go, but instead, I resisted the temptation because I knew that in the 2 years of developing Give & Get, I found these elements to add far more to the process and the richness of the results. With some persuasion, we agreed to hold the gathering at a satellite office in a windowed boardroom advantaged by natural light, I arrived with a bountiful bouquet of flowers to grace the main table that signalled a festive mood, and the sponsoring leader dug into his own pockets to bring food for everyone. Let me be clear, the gathering wasn’t a success because of the location, the flowers or the food. All the design elements in total played a role shaping the experience and the meaning people gave to the event. It also impacted the participants’ sense of belonging and their identity within the group.

I’ve spent a lifetime participating and running programs of all kinds, many of them with innovative approaches and some that surprised me with their originality in just how adept they were in creating intimacy with strangers. What I am always on the lookout for is an exciting design that fulfills on its promise of learning while connecting people in a shared and immersive experience. There are so many squandered opportunities!

Creating exceptional experiences when we gather doesn’t require elaborate and fussy planning. There’s nothing here that a little smart design can’t achieve when you take a human-centred approach. Think about the best gathering you’ve experienced and what you saw, heard and felt and what the leaders did. Then go out and design something fabulous.


Being the Disruptor/the Disrupted

There on the gallery wall hung the disruptor. A tiny first-generation Apple iPhone that had a fixed-focus camera of 2.0 megapixels, no flash, no USB, little memory and no editing capability. Even a Sunday photographer could plainly see that this was a technical downgrade from the cameras that came before it.

With the rise of the new technology that made a flat digital camera possible, the analogue photography industry faltered, sputtered and then collapsed. The iPhone had won.

It was only seven years since Apple released the iPhone back in 2007 when I brought work groups through a series of guided tours and talks I was giving at an art gallery. I wanted client leaders and teams to experience the innovative disruption that shredded an industry well beyond the classic Kodak case study that makes its way to the pages of just about every MBA curriculum. The images were the evidence and immediate aftershocks of what happened. They made people take notice of the impact of market disruption. They made it real.

Younger viewers were stunned to learn how colossal Kodak had been and how far it had fallen. Mature leaders who joined me from technology companies, luxury goods, financial services, and regulators, felt the weight of responsibility to avoid insularity, risk aversion and poor decision making that doomed Kodak.

How might Kodak’s future have been re-written if it didn’t avoid the digital camera revolution, the technology which was invented by one of its own and then initially ignored by management? It wasn’t the disruptive forces of technology alone that explains why Kodak collapsed. It was their thinking. They didn’t invest enough resources to embrace the new reality and change their business model. Making that shift is what we call pivoting today.

Spotting emerging technology and adapting to it in the right ways isn’t easy, and it can’t be reduced to a single formula. So what practices are there to take on as an individual, leader or a team to do what you can so you don’t avoid the early signs of disruption?

Do a Pre-Mortum

I’m surprised when people tell me that they don’t undertake a full team pre-mortem at the start of a critical work initiative. It offers the opportunity to ask about any challenges that could derail the results. You stop and question assumptions, voice concerns and get alert to pitfalls, and share the lessons from the past. Perhaps most importantly, you are poised to be on guard for disruption by seeking and bringing in brand new information for discussion that may have only recently emerged that could have a sizeable impact in upending your plans.

Market disruption has large consequences on everyone despite our own master plan in what may be a different direction. Strong execution in ever-changing conditions requires a deliberate effort to avoid insularity. Even and especially when it contradicts our plans. Kodak didn’t expect it’s film-based business model to secede to a digital bit player. But it did. The minuscule camera that merged with the convenience of portable phones was enough to disrupt its core business. And the company never recovered because the business model didn’t change. As it turns out, online photo sharing wasn’t a means to sell more home photo printers, the world had changed and printing keepsakes of holidays and other special life moments was no longer what people wanted. They were happy to see them when they wanted on their computer monitors and devices.

What became of the analogue photo industry wasn’t a happy story for many who enjoy high quality images before digital came along. And for enthusiasts and professionals, it was a disaster. I’ll never forget the voice of the photographer whose images were on the gallery walls as he walked a few of us through the exhibit when it first went up on the walls. He asked us to imagine him as a water colourist walking into an art supplies store to shop and then being told that only 3 colours were now available. There were so few materials left in this medium.

The degradation of quality, especially at the start of a disruptive innovation is what you can expect, and certainly has been true with digital photography. In many ways, except for price and service, it can be a race to the bottom. That’s what surprised everyone. The Kodak story looms large decades later as an augury of much more disruption to come.