Mutiny at your workshop 

Everyone who’s convened has been there.

Sometimes it looks like a huddle of people talking at lunchtime, avoiding your eye contact. It can be a friendly chat at dinner, “you should really do x”. Or a more direct hand up in plenary, "we've been talking and we just don't think we're focusing on the right thing." 

Psychologists talk about ‘emotional contagion’. This is where one person's emotions and behaviors directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in other people. Emotional contagion means that if you don't nip it in the bud, you can have a full blown mutiny on your hands. 

In my experience, there are some important moves you can make to prevent it happening in the first place. Here they are: 

What prevents you from hosting a successful gathering? What are the solutions?  

All talk and no conversation

People get bored, frustrated, tired. Unable to remember of process all the information they have levelled at them.

Solution: Skip the presenters, allow people to talk. If it’s a technical topic people know don’t know enough about, have a punchy presenter and immediately allow time to discuss after each one.

The same people always dominate

The usual suspects, make their points first. Often these can also be the most passionate about the topic and or the most discontented, skewing the groups’ perception of the meeting.

Most of us have probably played both of these roles before. We know that both are frustrating. As the dominant person you are left feeling like you are not learning from your peers. As the quieter one, you leave having missed the chance to share your best ideas and often feeling like the dominant voice was not the most impressive.  

Solution: Always use participatory processes. If nothing else, break people up into tables of 4, ask them a simple, powerful question about the topic in hand and make sure they record their answers on paper, so they know their ideas are being listened to.

If you want to do a better job, create the conditions for people to share their ideas through different mediums. Allow people to draw, build, talk, act and write. Not everyone explains best with words.

You don’t really care about this issue your asking people to talk about

People can see straight through it if you ask them a question about something you don’t really know or care about. Or if you ask for their ideas on an issue that you already have the answer to.

Solution: Many of us host rolling events that we ‘have’ to do regardless of whether we have something to solve. It’s always worth going back to ask ‘what was the purpose of bringing this group together in the first place?’ Was it to gather intelligence from an esteemed group of people? Was it to allow them to network and connect? These insights can often get up back on track, have them top of mind when you’re picking a design. Do you genuinely want to hear their ideas on an issue? What is the question you’d really love to ask them? If you are genuinely excited and interested in a topic, then don’t be afraid to express that. Be bold and tell a story about why this is important to you and ask your burning questions, not your average ones.  

You are skating around the massive elephant in the room

If there’s dissent, it will only be amplified when you bring people together even if they don’t get a chance to speak to each other.

Solution: If someone takes a leap and brings up an issue that derails your plans, but you know if important, acknowledging it. If you have time split the group up and ask people to discuss and capture their key challenges on the topic. Even better, ask them to come up with solutions.

Your presence as a facilitator is shaky

Are you trying to do too much, overseeing the content, speakers, meeting logistics, design of the event and giving participants instructions too? Are you nervous, distracted or overwhelmed? This happens to us all, but you can make it less stressful by admitting to yourself that this is likely to happen if you don’t plan adequately. 

If this is the first time you’ve convened a group, it’s natural to feel unsure how the dynamics will play out.  

Are you asking yourself “who am I to convene this group?” This is such a common feeling for people who have taken action to convene for the first time.

Solution: Ask for help. Get better at delegation and if nothing else make sure you at least one person to help who can take control of logistics so you don’t have to think about whether you have lunch coming on time or enough post it notes.

Name your nerves when people arrive. Frame up the session by saying ‘We have never convened this group before. We don’t know what you’re thinking, what you care about, what opportunities or challenges you might face. This is an experiment for everyone. We will adapt the design to meet the needs of the group.’

If you look around and no one has taken the leadership to convene this group of people, then give yourself a big pat on the back for doing it and let that bolster your confidence. 

Finally, simplify and breathe. Make your design and instructions as simple as they can be. Try and take 1 deep breaths before you start and stand feet forward and head floating up like a balloon (HT our brilliant former Ballerina Alina Faye who taught us this at our Remarkable Events workshop in July).  

Your hosting team is shaky

This can happen for many reasons. If the core team don’t know each other very well, if there’s internal politics, if there’s a lack of preparation and roles have not been well divided up, it shows.  

Solution: Spend at least 6 weeks planning a major event. Have weekly calls, expect your event design to pivot as new information comes to light, give yourself time to sleep on it and iterate it as you go.

You have the roles and responsibilities all mixed up

The right hand isn’t sure what the left hands doing. The hosting team is picked for their role in the organization, rather than for their skillset.  

Solution: Make sure people are invited to contribute in ways they feel valued and comfortable. Someone might enjoy design more than facilitation. Others might be a confident at hosting the opening remarks. Another team member might be better at giving clear instructions or have the charisma to host the ‘fun’ sessions. Where possible play to people’s strengths no matter where they sit in the power structure of the team.

You are trying out a new event design that you’re unsure of

You feel nervous about whether it will work and you will never know until you are in the room on the big day.

Solution: Be proud of yourself that you’re learning. Spend a good 6 weeks, meeting for an hour each time, to go over and over this, refining it and making sure everyone is totally clear on how to run the session in advance. Have power point slides with clear instructions on the tables for participants and practice running through with colleagues until you feel good about it.

Yes, but

This is always one big fat experiment. Conditions are not always ideal. I have been designing and facilitating events for 10 years and I still make mistakes like these on a reasonably regular basis. The key is to have awareness about them in advance, to try to plan as much as possible and to make sure you spend time after each event thinking through:

  • What went well?
  • What would I do differently next time?

This is how we get better.