Behind the Scenes: ‘An Uncomfortable Position’

Author: Michelle Russell       

Tech ethicist David Polgar is founder of the All Tech Is Human Initiative, which seeks to better align technology with our own interests. “The irony of the digital age,” he said in a recent Fast Company article, “is that it’s caused us to reflect on what it is to be human.” Which is exactly what we were aiming for when we introduced this year’s Meetings Industry Forecast with Deputy Editor Barbara Palmer’s interview with Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.

Technology plays a larger-than-life role in any industry forecast, and it was certainly the dominant force shaping this year’s outlook in the travel, lodging, and exhibitions sectors. And while we welcome the ways tech can streamline the planning and execution of events and enrich participants’ experience, Parker reminds us that the act of bringing people together is a deeply human one. It requires creativity and an intuitive sense that AI can’t mimic (yet).

What Parker recommends that you program into the design of your event is also fundamentally human — and may surprise you. We should be thinking of ways, she says, to incorporate “good controversy” when we bring people together. Good controversy, she writes in The Art of Gathering, “helps communities move forward in their thinking. It helps us grow.”

360 Live Media’s Don Neal shared a similar thought in his column this month. What’s missing from almost every association meeting is debate and “intellectual friction,” he writes. Meeting designers should open up their program format for more controversy and provocation, and he suggests asking a “team of people from outside your industry [to] put forth topics that make your leadership uncomfortable.”

Discomfort is something most of us avoid. Our industry’s stock in trade, after all, has been to bring like minds together. But we should come around to the idea that if your event’s intention is to help solve issues in innovative ways, you need diversity of thought and conflict. That’s what Harvard professor Linda Hill calls “creative abrasion.” She describes it as “the ability to establish a marketplace of ideas to generate, refine, and evolve a multitude of options through discourse, debate, and even conflict,” in an i-cio.com post. It’s in this process, she says, that potential solutions emerge.“The issue is that many leaders don’t want conflict or indeed a great deal of diversity in the way people approach particular problems,” she continues. “And that puts them in an uncomfortable position when it comes to innovation.”

It may seem like I’m taking Hill’s insights out of context — that she’s talking about how heads of organizations should lead their teams and the kind of internal company culture they should foster. But in light of Barbara’s conversation with Parker, Hill’s approach is central to an event strategist’s role. Parker said: “And so I would say to the event planners, your purpose, more and more, is going to be helping lead leaders” and reminding them “that gatherings are actually a form of transformative leadership.”