Principles and processes for co-designing self-organizing events

It’s easier than it sounds. If you organize events, this is for you.

The international Art of Hosting community has developed a different way to design gatherings. There is an underlying pattern that has been fine-tuned and experimented around the world for over 20 years. No matter what the convening topic, from collaboration methods to water management, to financial matters, it is possible to design, organize and meet with the flavour and feel of life, because they are the result of an underlying pattern.

Participants and conveners do not necessarily get to see this backstage, (how the hosting team works together through the design/preparation day and onwards) though everyone is sensing its existence. Over and over, it has laid the conditions for groups to experience a functional self-organizing operating system, live an enlivening experience, access deep co-learning, and do good work. A friend with decades of event organisation explains it as an update of the system software we have been working with for a long time; a 2.0 version, if you will. This is my attempt to share the pattern in a practical and helpful way, without reducing it to a simple recipe to follow. The pattern holds deep consciousness and wisdom, and I hope I am honouring it well. It begins with three principles.

It is wise that a facilitation team spends some time together just prior to a convening. The length of time will depend on elements such as the duration of the convening, the familiarity between the team members, the challenges and risks. Typically, for a three-day event, the hosting team will spend one or two days together prior to the event. For a very short meeting, the hosts will spend a shorter time.


Principle 1: Responsive design — Wait until as close to the gathering/training as possible to design the program

Certain aspects related to organizing a gathering/training can and should be done well in advance of the event, such as the venue, food, decorations, lodging, budget, registration, communication. What the team also does upfront is getting to know the context more, and getting to know each other a better, so they become a real team. As for the design of the actual program, if we want it to be acutely responsive to the context and needs that connect to the convening, to the tiny changes, local and beyond, that are forever taking place right up to the first day of the convening, then it makes sense to leave the programming to just prior to the event.

Friendly warning: We have become so accustomed to developing our event programs months in advance of an event, that waiting until just prior to the event may generate a certain level of anxiety.

Principle 2: A strong container — Give importance to the invisible field that holds a meeting

If we want power, depth and flow in our gatherings then we will need to accord time and space to build what we call, for lack of a better word, “a relationship field” or a “strong container”. This is the invisible field that holds the potential of a group. It is the collective presence and the quality of the relationships between the team members that make up the quality of this field. If this is strong and healthy, it can facilitate generative conversations, paradigm shifts and deep connections. With it, the event team will stay in healthy collaboration even if the event brings stormy weather. This can mean taking time to be together, play, sing, cook, share silence, whatever flows. This is how friendship and familiarity grows. Being in good relationship with yourself and with others helps to enjoy and benefit from the diversity of others.

Friendly warning: We have become so accustomed to time management for performance that giving time and spaciousness to being together may cause some anxiety.

Principle 3: — Learning edges, self-organisation and community of practice — Practice our own medicine

Every work session in the preparation is a micro-example of what is being created. How you are imagining the event should be showing up during this preparation time. If you want participants to harvest online, the team should start during the design days. Be in this practice with the team before the event and you will be practicing well at the event. The practice contributes to the container. If we want the event participants to experience deep learning, then the team should share their learning edges with each other. If the team is trusting and trying something new during the convening, beyond our fears, with the support of each other, then we are modelling that for the whole event. There is life in the trembling and this is being in a community of practice.

Friendly warning: We have become so accustomed to showing up with our expertise that it can be uncomfortable to reveal our learning edges.

How do we design together?

When we finally get to design the actual event our reflex is to jump in directly. Go slow and begin with the following. By doing these steps, the design that is needed will reveal itself. Embody the principles described above in the actual design time.

Need, purpose and participants

Take time to strengthen the connection to the need underlying the event and then to the purpose. Since the purpose is the invisible leader it needs to be held clearly by the whole team. The original call for the event began with this and so should the design. It is the centre of the work.

Team learnings

What is the intention or learning edges of each person in the team? If we want to facilitate learning we need to be in learning ourselves. If we embody the work we strengthen it.

Sensing in

Take time to understand the context, the people who will be coming, what is going on around to be more in tune and responsive to what is needed. Listen with all your senses, on all kind of levels.

Outputs — Acting more wisely for the world

Good work should always yields real results. The Hopi Indians say: “Will it grown corn for the people?”. What is the convening going to create that will be useful for the world?

The venue

The venue can support the quality of the convening. When it is possible spend some time at the venue? Connect and feel the flow in the space. How can the event make use of it? Are there any outdoor possibilities? Imagine the space and beauty unfolding. Embrace the constraints that come with it.

Friendly reminder: It is not either or, you need the analytical and planning capacities together with many soft skills.

How do we design for self-organization?

When the time comes to actual designing the event, the same principles apply.

  1. Clarify responsibilities/teams

If the event goes over a few days, create sub-teams. One way to approach this is a team for each day, a team for space and beauty and a team for documenting (harvesting). It can be helpful to identify how many spots there are in each team; then it is clear if people are in a single team or multiple teams. When it is time to decide who is in which team, in a self-organizing framework it is important that each person choses for herself. It can be useful to invite people to think about their offering and their learning edges before and then place pens on the table and in silence everyone writes their name where they are feeling they should be. It is important to note that the sub-team have a role of stewarding the tasks, not of executing all the activities and work of the day.

2) Clarify the flow and structure

Each team spends time designing a flow of activities for their area of responsibility. It is NOT yet time to dig into the design, only identifying the flow of activities (ex. team hosts, team coaches, participants) and the number of each. Then, to ensure that all the parts work together, the teams share their flow and activities and receive comments. Friction points and blind spots will be revealed. The teams then have a bit of time to produce a second version of their flow and activities if necessary. The group then comes back together to agree on the design. In this way everyone is aware and in support of the total design.

3) Activity designing

Only now each person identifies the activities/roles they will be responsible for, individually or in teams. Now each activity can be designed in detail. Those for day one will take priority. Some will be done prior to the event and some will be designed during the event with (some of) the participants (during breaks or evening).

4) Inviting in

During the first morning of the event, participants are invited to step in with their own activities or proposals within the scaffolding structure set up by the team. This structure holds the space so that the facilitation/hosting and documenting/harvesting can be done with the ample participation of all, in an open and flexible way. When the preparation work has been done – attending to all the details with care — the principles described above allow the loose structure to be held with quality and rigour. It can appear chaotic but the freedom is held by a container that supports coherence, alignment and freedom. It allows us to open up to what is possible and alive. This is how we organise amongst ourselves.

The Art of Hosting way creates a self-organizing operating system, an edginess of possibility, a depth of learning and a quality in human connection that often eludes us in other types of gatherings and meetings. Events all over the world are organized in this manner with great success, from the European Institutions, to local neighbourhoods, from businesses to professional networks.


Learn more about Art of Hosting and upcoming trainings.

Thank you to Ria Baeck for contribution and support in writing this article.

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