Davos Newbies Home

Those pesky bagel thieves 

Wonderful honesty from University of Chicago economist Stephen Levitt: “Look, if I thought I was skilled enough to answer bigger questions, I would. I may just be good at catching bagel thieves.”

Arguments for un-conferences 

Dave Winer has written the first of a series on how to BloggerCon. In other words, how do you run a meeting as good as BloggerCon II apparently was (and I thought BloggerCon I was an excellent event).

The first instalment is on format, and Dave has concluded, “At BloggerCon, there is no audience, there are no speakers. There is a discussion leader, a person responsible for the flow of the discussion.”

Having been responsible in Davos for more sessions than I’d care to remember that absolutely violate Dave’s rules, I’ve independently come to the same conclusion as he did. When you have an excellent group of participants (and perhaps even if you don’t), something with a loose agenda and discussion leaders who can do the right amount of cajoling and prodding will produce something far more valuable for all involved.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a classical conference format. As I’ve recounted in Davos Newbies, there have been some utterly wonderful Davos sessions over the years. But for all the great people gathered at that uber-conference, there are still more misses than hits. I think people are ready and eager for a totally new model.

Like all the best ideas, there’s nothing particularly novel in this. Harrison Owen with his notion of open space technology has been following this path, and certainly extending it even beyond what happened at BloggerCon. I like Owen’s four rules:

  1. Whoever comes is the right people
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
  3. Whenever it starts is the right time
  4. When it’s over it’s over

Owen supplements this with one law. “The Law is the so called Law of Two Feet, which states simply, if at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing – use you two feet and move to some place more to you liking. Such a place might be another group, or even outside into the sunshine. No matter what, don’t sit there feeling miserable.”

The logic behind this is more than procedural. Think what establishing a typical conference panel involves. However open the organisers, the panelists and the participants, by making the choices of subject, framing the question, choosing the panelists, you’ve already predetermined much of the argument (which for a polemical organisation may be a good thing). You may want your participants to make an intellectual journey from A to Z, but you’re starting them on K. Why not let everyone start at A?

Last autumn I became deeply involved in an attempt to plan a major event on something approaching these lines. Sadly, the backer got cold feet and reverted to what he said he didn’t want — another conference. I’m no longer involved, but I’m sure it will be a very good conference. But it will be another conference.

I don’t turn down the right kind of work to do another conference, but I’m much more excited about the potential of an un-conference. I’m sure potential participants are, too.

Shell and the children’s disco 

John Kay in the Financial Times (subscribers only) has some important reflections on the crisis at Shell.

“Caught in the crossfire between those who see business as a purely instrumental, financial activity and those who demand that business be judged on its contribution to the public good, Shell has satisfied no one. And for a common reason. The introverted, intellectual belief that, if you go on doing a good job, people will eventually give you credit for it is no longer justified. Today, politics are governed by spin and tabloid headlines and business is accountable to investment managers judged on quarterly figures. And when rewards are based on individual performance, the mutual trust necessary for collegiate management breaks down. In accommodating itself to current fashion, Shell looks like parents at their children’s disco, courting popularity but only losing dignity.”

One thought on “Davos Newbies Home

  1. Jon Husband

    Just as soon as I saw the note and link on Dave Winer’s blog about your curiosity about an un-comnference, I thoughtI’d drop you a quick pointer to Open Space, but I see you have beat me to it.

    It works well – every time – except maybe when there’s lots of big important peoiple hanging around who don’t actually want to engage or see engagement.


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