I attended a meeting a number of years ago that has remained in my mind as the ideal meeting where new thinking can emerge. I want to describe that meeting and then tease out the design characteristics that led to such memorable results.
The Monieson Centre at Queen’s School of Business in Ontario Canada hosted an invited meeting held over two days. The invitees were twenty-five recognized thought leaders in the field of knowledge management, both academics and practitioners. The stated goal of the retreat was to “push the boundaries of what we know about creating and managing knowledge-based organizations.” That sounds pretty ordinary so far, but here is where it started to get interesting. The invitation said:
"Attendees will be requested to submit an original “thought-piece” in advance of the retreat to be shared among the group. We are not looking for neatly packaged research articles. Rather, we hope you will share the leading edge of your best thinking on some important aspect of managing knowledge-based organizations. Your thought-piece should be in the form of a graphic poster accompanied by explanatory text, altogether no more than one page. We will use the posters to create an “idea gallery” as the means for exploring and linking ideas during the retreat."
I wrote my thought piece about a topic I was exploring at the time - the relationship between knowledge sharing and democratic organizations. I posed it as a chicken or egg question, "Does knowledge sharing thrive in egalitarian environments OR does knowledge sharing promote egalitarian environments?" The thought pieces were posted on-line and attendees were encouraged to read others' pieces before they came. The authors' names, however, were withheld, which provided the opportunity to consider the ideas without being biased by who wrote them, but which also created a bit of intrigue, prompting almost everyone to read the posted pages before they came to the meeting.
When we arrived on Friday evening each of our thought pieces had been made into large posters that displayed the main ideas of our one-pagers. The posters acted as a valuable reminder of the ideas we had already read on-line. We started with a dinner that first evening and were provided a brief explanation by the organizers James McKeen and Michael Zack, of what we were going to be doing.
The next day was simply a series of conversations. The organizers had grouped the ideas on the posters into themes and we were assigned to small groups of 6-9 that met to talk about that theme. After an hour a second set of themes was announced and we re-grouped and were again back in conversation. And so it went, with time out for snacks and meals.
Each of us carried our poster from room to room. The meeting rooms were cozy, with overstuffed chairs and small tables for a cup of coffee. Each time we entered a room we placed our posters in a circle around the conversation area so the posters were always in view. As interesting ideas sprang up from the discussion, attendees would write the idea on a post-it and stick it on the appropriate poster. By the end of the two days, our posters looked like they had the measles. A couple of the post-its on my poster are still relevant to me:
● Knowledge sharing and egalitarianism is a loop
● We have to be bound by some notion of the common good
We held a full group meeting the last morning in order to discover the themes that had emerged across all the conversations.
The initial papers were interesting but it was, of course, the conversations where the knowledge got exchanged and learning happened. The idea I had come with grew through the discussions as others suggested lines of thought that had not occurred to me. I caught myself frequently thinking, if not saying, “Ah ha!” as insights came together for me. Others offered the names of books and articles that, long after the retreat, have continued to expand my thinking. Recently I have found myself re-visiting the implications of those ideas as a result of work I have been doing for several months in a communist country, China.
I found the topics others brought to the retreat equally stimulating and was able to contribute ideas to their work, which felt very affirming. It was, hands down, the most intellectually stimulating conference I have ever attended.
I have tried to think why this meeting has stayed with me as the ideal of what meetings ought to be. Some of my conclusions are:
• There were no presentations to sit through at this meeting. Often when I attend a conference, less than ten percent of what the presenters offer is either new for me or fits my current needs and interests. I know I am not alone in this regard, because I often overhear others at conferences proclaim that, “If I get one new idea from a conference I’m happy.” But at this meeting I would put my applicability meter at least at 80%. After all, in a small group, the group members influence the direction of the conversation. At Monieson I could delve deeper into areas that peaked my interest by requesting that the speaker elaborate a point or I could get multiple views on what a speaker offered by asking what others in the small group what they thought about that idea. As a group we tailored the conversation to our immediate interests.
• That 80% percentage may also reflect that we were all well versed in the topic. We had the absorptive capacity to learn from each other as we explored innovative ideas that required a thorough understanding of knowledge management as a foundation.
• No one was trying to impress anyone else or sell others on their services as happens all too frequently in conferences. That was refreshing in and of itself, but more importantly it meant attendees were willing to reveal doubts about their own ideas and to test their thinking rather than just making declarative statements about it.
• The conversation groups were the right size for participants to inquire, challenge, elaborate, and clarify - in short, all the indispensable types of interaction that serve to deepen conversations.
• The retreat was built on the idea of reciprocity – Jim and Mike assumed everyone was there both as learner and teacher, so they carefully designed the meeting in a way that both could occur.
• We were asked to write about our new ideas, those that were half formed and not yet ready for prime time. That meant we were still open to others' thinking about what we had written; no one felt a need to defend their current thinking.
• The group was small, twenty-five. That was large enough for there to be cognitive diversity but small enough that we could build connections between our ideas.
• The dinner on the first night provided the opportunity to renew acquaintances before we started the hard work of content - connection before content as Peter Block says.
• The setting was informal with easy chairs, lamps on the small tables where you could also rest a cup of tea. There was no head of the table or podium that drew our eyes away from each other during the conversation.
• The themes that formed the small groups were pertinent to the attendees’ interests, given that they were constructed from the thought pieces attendees had written, rather than being predetermined by a conference agenda.
The Monieson Centre meeting was designed to engender new thinking. Of course, all meetings are designed; it is just that for most meetings we give little thought to our choice of design elements, rather we simply relying on the familiar presentation format. We would be well served if we took the time the Monieson Centre staff did to match the meeting design to the desired outcome. That care would create a great deal of change in how we use space, furniture, the size of groups, who is learning from whom, how we interact, and of course what we are able to learn.