One of the reasons that I tend to gravitate toward "influence roles" such as this one is that it exposes me to so many other disciplines and opportunities to learn. Some of these come in specific functional areas. Much of the education, though, comes more in the realm of skills and techniques that are broadly applicable to almost any job.
Take the question about whether to take the plunge and hand over control to one's audience. It turns out that this is a very scary thing to do, and many people don't do it well because they're not really willing to let go the reins.
I had two recent experiences, though - one as an audience member and one as the "let-goer" - that have convinced me it is a tremendously powerful technique to employ.
The first was at the Rio+2.0 conference in California in February. I blogged about my first day there, but the event that really blew my mind was the "unconference" on Saturday. I'd heard of uconferences, but I'd never been to one. It was terrific, and now I'm advocating them to everyone (!) who runs conferences of one sort or another.
Then on Saturday, they started the unconference. Eleven rooms had been reserved for three consecutive time slots each, for a total of 33 possible sessions. White boards were wheeled on stage with a blank schedule for the rooms and session times. Then any participant who had a topic on which she was willing to facilitate a discussion grabbed a piece of construction paper, wrote the topic on the paper, and queued up to present it to the other attendees with a 30-second descriptor. (Some people thought they deserved, and took, more airtime. They were usually wrong.)
The organizers - or "un-organizers", I guess - were absolutely resolute in resisting the pressure from some participants to exert control. For example, a couple of people suggested combining a few of the sessions. The organizers' response? "If the facilitators want to combine them, that's up to them."
And yes, I did propose a topic - eWaste and Economic Development. The question I posed was "How do we resolve the human health and environmental issues associated with eWaste without denying its economic value to workers in the informal and semi-formal economies in developing and undeveloped nations." And who showed up? Fifteen people who really, really cared about this issue - people with knowledge and experience from the corporate world, NGOs, academia, AND government. And several of us are still in conversation pursuing this important topic.
I attended another one, too - on Intractable Problems. Again, the people who were there were thoughtful, knowledgeable, interested, creative, passionate. I'm convinced that you can't get this level of determined, action-oriented participation in a traditional agenda no matter how many breakouts you offer.
Lesson #2 was at The Green Grid Forum last month. I had my second ever gig as a panel moderator. In this case, the panel was on Data Center 2025 and we had a industry experts on software and smart grids, an academic, an analyst, and a practitioner to share their thoughts on how jobs, technology, and industry will change over the next 10-12 years. One of the challenges was that there were five panelists - I really only wanted four, but honestly, it never crossed my mind they'd all accept the invitation!
I asked the first question: "Please introduce yourself and explain why the audience should be thinking this far ahead" and informed the audience they didn't need to wait for the end to queue up at the microphones. (One thing I learned from another moderator was that I should have put a hard limit on the length of the answers. Next time!) People were lined up at the mikes before the intros were complete.
I had on my iPad fourteen more questions that I'd painstakingly prepared. Never asked a one. But the session was high energy, it focused on the things that people actually wanted to hear, and it received very nice feedback.
BTW - I loved moderating, and hope to get to do it again. It is nerve-wracking, though. I had to improvise at the end when we still had people lined up while the organizers were frantically giving me the four-minute sign. I let three people ask their questions, and then went down the row of panelists allowing each to respond to any of the three questions. I suppose there was a risk that one or two questions might not get answered, but by then I'd learned - trust the crowd!