Bringing Innovation To Life: Lessons in Engagement from a Collaborative Conference

July 01, 2011
By  Julia Young

"Exploring innovation in community development finance" may seem like a dry topic, but the recent conference of the same name—sponsored by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank in partnership with the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta, Dallas and Minneapolis—was anything but dry.

From the beginning, the planning team sought to provide a highly interactive event that recognized both the interesting experiences and ideas of each participant and the value in facilitating connections. The opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with other attendees has become a hallmark of this biennial conference. In looking back at how we planned for this interaction and reflecting on how the processes played out, there are several lessons that we can draw for future interactive conferences.

Planned Spontaneous Conversations

Throughout the planning of the conference, we looked for ways to facilitate connections between participants. About one-third of the structured conference time was organized to bring participants together, including planned discussion topics and large group-dialogue processes. The structure connected people in an intentional way, but participants mostly took it from there, engaging with each other easily and with enthusiasm.

High-Tech Introductions and Low-Tech Face Cards

The planning team designed an online survey to collect participant, staff and speaker contact information and photos. The survey asked participants to complete a sentence that began "I would like to connect with other people who…" This simple tool helped set expectations for a conference full of opportunities to meet people with similar interests and concerns.

At the conference, our student volunteers turned the high-tech introductions into low-tech paper face cards that included a photo and contact information. Arranged first by industry sector and then by geography, the notice board of face cards—which we called the affinity wall—proved not so useful for the "birds of a feather" groupings that we had imagined. Instead, the wall provided a big picture of the whole group, a source of useful contact information and a place to informally connect and start a conversation.

Food for Thought at Supper Circles

On the evening between the pre-conference workshop and the formal opening event, supper circles were coordinated with invited authors on relevant topics. Attended by about 15 percent of the conference participants and organized in groups of about a dozen diners, these supper circles set the stage for meaningful conversations. The inclusion of well-selected and gently prepped authors provided just enough structure to bring strangers together in an interesting dialogue. The informality of supper at a good local restaurant allowed the conversation to run its own course (pun intended).

The Intersection of Food and Information in the Innovation Café

We took advantage of the hotel's layout to serve food and beverages throughout the conference in an inviting, large and well-traveled area that was conveniently located at the entrance to the ballroom where plenary events took place. We called this the Innovation Café and added computer terminals for e-mail and web access, comfortable sofas and chairs, information walls about winning community development projects, and the aforementioned affinity wall. Because Exploring Innovation had no vendor exhibit booths, the Café became a central place for participants to meet. Staff and students welcomed conference-goers each morning, and the space encouraged continuing conversations as people left the more structured plenary activities.

Rule of Two Feet

A gently structured process of three 30-minute rounds of discussion was used for one of two interactive plenary sessions. A dozen discussion circles of 10 to 16 people were held, and one emerged spontaneously as a result of a keynote presentation. Once again, the facilitation happened ahead of the conference through selection of discussion leaders drawn from concurrent session presenters and other industry experts. They were coached to prepare some provocative questions designed to begin a conversation. I took away three key observations about the success of this event:

  • While we set up the discussions, we established a rule of two feet: Anyone could move between groups at any time, for any reason. Giving people permission to move if the conversation wasn't working for them also gave each person accountability for the quality of their own experience. This led to increased engagement and, ironically, less movement between groups.
  • Instead of tables, we used chairs grouped in circles. This arrangement naturally led to people leaning in and moving closer to hear each other. It is hard to be disengaged with this kind of body language.
  • Having prepared for some good discussion, a critical element was to get out of the way and allow it all to happen. As the front-of-room facilitator, I needed to do little more than keep time and gently suggest the possibility of movement between circles.

"So What?" — Priorities for Action

The final element of this conference was a plenary session with a focus on priorities for action. We wanted to pull together all the conversations into a "so what" dialogue about necessary actions for the future of community development finance. Again we structured opportunities for engagement, with active listening in triads and consolidation of ideas in small groups. With the framework explained and a conference tone well-established, the whole room quickly got down to work with very little front-of-room facilitation.

By using the FacilitatePro collaborative technology to capture ideas on a shared electronic flipchart, we were able to consolidate action items for three focus areas and present them to the group for a round of voting and immediate prioritization. Technology allowed us to maintain momentum and turn small-group conversations into whole-room results. At the core of the process was the opportunity for individuals to engage with each other and make discoveries and connections of their own.

Walking the Talk

In reflecting on the lessons learned from this conference, I add one more: the quality of the planning team's collaboration. This is one of my favorite conference teams to work with, as it blends a welcome mixture of quiet efficiency and warm collaboration. Every team member was thorough in completing well-defined tasks, and there was genuine care and appreciation for the contributions of others. This respectful, collaborative approach reflected the objectives of the conference and naturally translated into planning the elements of the program and the welcome reception greeting the conference participants. is a firm specializing in collaboration technology and facilitation services.

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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