Activation on Steroids

After designing and facilitating a 200 person meeting in Europe last week, intended to be the kick off of a larger change process, I am much clearer about the potential of Groupaya. I’ve been saying that we are OD (organizational development) on steroids. I now see we are simply “Activation on steroids.”

I’ve always loved designing large group meetings, because of their potential to bring a system alive, to tap into the collective intelligence of everyone and to create a highly aligned and committed group of people, ready for whatever change is in store for them.

Many conferences and internal large group meetings rely on keynote speakers and panels, thus limiting the interaction between participants to breaks. Why does this matter? Isn’t there value in learning from an expert or a trail blazer? Absolutely! We always can get ideas and be inspired by those on stage. However, in conversation with a peer or small group of peers, it is much more likely that we will further our own thinking. Instead of being left with thinking how great the speaker is, we will be left thinking how great our life is – excited about our own insights and the next thing we now see we want to do.

Simply put, it tends to be much more empowering, not to mention more effective, to develop insight in conversation, and less so in one-way forums in which we are a silent listener, having a conversation in our own head about what is being said.

In our meetings, while we may bring in an outside speaker or two to act as a provocateur to stretch the thinking of the group and while we certainly encourage the presence and active participation of the formal leaders, more than anything, we focus on creating a design that gets people talking: thinking in new ways about old topics, imagining the future they want to create, together. Everyone becomes a leader.

As soon as you walk into the room of one of our meetings, you realize this meeting is going to be different. Instead of rows of immovable chairs side by side, facing the stage, the room is set up in small circles of chairs, inviting 6-8 people to sit, facing each other. When we face each other, it is uncomfortable not to talk. The room is set up to invite conversation.

Once the small groups get started, the room gets louder as the conversations warm up. Within a few minutes they are into the work, the world drops away, and they are writing and drawing on their flipcharts. Some groups even leave their chairs and have the whole conversation standing up, focused on one another and the flipcharts. The energy in the room is palpable.

Inevitably, after the first session, many people are jazzed. They are delighted with themselves and the people they are interacting with. They are excited about the quality of conversation and insight. They realize this is may be the most productive and interesting meeting they’ve ever been a part of. They see that individually and collectively, they really have the potential to make a difference.

In spite of the fact that it is relatively uncommon, it is not a new idea to design a highly interactive meeting. I have been designing meetings like this for 20 years. Others have been doing it for 30+ years. What was new for me in the meeting we did last week was bringing in technology and social media to activate not only those in the meeting, but also those who were not able to attend. We set up an internal microblog (Salesforce Chatter), similar to Twitter, but not limited to 140 characters, which enabled the people in the room to write about how they were feeling about the meeting, to post new insights and questions as well as to highlight quotable moments.

Not only did it give the group a greater sense of itself, it also enabled their colleagues, who were not at the meeting, to feel connected and to contribute. Those who had not been invited were so appreciative of having a window into the meeting and said they felt like they were there. While we didn’t realize the full potential of this extra channel, I saw it!  What if we designed a meeting with an eye toward encouraging conversation between those in the room and those not in the room? What if explicitly framed the channel as a way for people to practice collective sensing? What if we framed the channel as a way to practice organizational learning?

Though I have not been an active participant on Twitter to date, I now see the potential of a Twitter-like channel to help groups more skillfully and more joyfully create their future.

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11 Responses to Activation on Steroids

  1. Susan says:

    Love the hope and optimism this blog conveys. Real, thoughtful, participatory communication is so essential to individuals, organizations, communities and
    countries. Go to Washington!! Thanks for sharing.

    • I would love to have the opportunity to work the folks in Washington. We would need to get them off-site, far away from DC, in the mountains, with no access to internet, advisors or the media. The invitation would be to show up as human beings ready to design a future that will work not just for today but for our grandchildren’s grandchildren.

  2. Katja says:

    Yes, at a meeting w 200 people there will inevitably be many experts present and leveraging that potential is of value. The format you are describing also lets a variety of knowledge and thinking come to the surface, a treasure to be harvested.

    • Hi Katja,
      You are pointing to a word that I didn’t explicitly use in this posting. Innovation! Yes! When groups of diverse people, from different professional backgrounds, functions and levels in an organization are brought together in a highly participatory process it is so exciting to see the innovative thinking that emerges. When I had the opportunity a year plus ago to talk with a group that was wanting to re-invent economics, the first advice I had for them was to expand their participant list to include people who were NOT economists. Expanding a participant list in a strategy or innovation process is often challenging for leaders. Those who work up the courage to do it are rewarded with more innovative ideas and directions.

  3. Deborah says:

    Love this one Kristin. Akin to some of where I’m thinking of moving our faculty to next year in our prof. development time. This year’s p.d. time is accounted for – dealing with anti-bullying and other school issues. All good, keep writing!

    • Thanks Deb! It there are particular topics/questions you want me to write about, let me know! I’d love to explore with you in this written, documented, iterative format! It occurs to me that I’d much prefer this blog to be a two-way and multi-way conversation, just like participatory meetings instead of speaker led meetings. Is that possible with the blog format? Let’s figure it out together!

      • Deborah says:

        I just reread what Katja said and your reply. So apt and it so applies to schools: How to move a faculty, and perhaps more importantly its leadership team, to understand the value of and innovation that can result from leveraging all the experts ALREADY in the schoolhouse? Leadership often quietly fears that they’ll unleash dragons if we let faculty become too ‘participatory’. How to keep structuring participation so it looks forward and new learnings emerge?

      • Just yesterday I was telling someone about how much hand holding of leaders is usually required to help them get comfortable with truly inviting participation. What they don’t realize is how much easier their jobs can become if it is not exclusively up to them to come up with new ideas and to own and drive change. Thanks for your question – I will add it to my list of potential blogging topics. Of course, I’d love to hear your answer as well! 🙂

  4. Gwen Gordon says:

    Thank you, Kristin, for making the benefits of interactive meetings so vivid. It’s great to hear from the frontier in meeting design. I still find myself working with people in the expert trainer mindset, looking for ways to scale these traditional training experiences. I would love to explore how these interactive meetings can really scale behavior change through an organization. Any thoughts?

  5. Maura says:


    This posting and this blog are a real gift. Thank you for the inspiration it offers. Keep writing and sharing your wisdom and insights with us. I would love to hear how you’ve gotten a group to come alive through a scenario planning process if you are looking for future topics.


    • Hi Maura,
      Thanks so much for the encouragement to keep writing! I love the idea of writing bring a group alive through a scenario planning. I will add it to my growing list of topics to blog about. And I look forward to seeing you writing, as well! 🙂

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