In the past week I have listened to a number of podcasts and one of them in particular has stuck with me, The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker who appeared in Coaching for Leaders (episode 395).

(and yes, of course I’ve already ordered the book).

In this episode, Dave and Priya discuss her new book about why we gather the way we do and how we can actually make those gatherings more meaningful.

This is something that really struck a cord with me in particular given that I attend lots of scientific meetings and conferences.


Identify your purpose

One of the core and most crucial issues that Priya notes in the episode is the question: what is the purpose of this gathering?

Often we meet and we meet because we have to but without a very clear idea on two things: 1) what is the actual purpose and 2) what is the desired outcome of this gathering.

Having done some groundwork on both of these questions is crucial because we cannot keep expecting that once we get logistics right for a conference, we get automatically the outcomes that we’d like.

Getting the desired outcomes is very much dependent on a thoughtful structure of the gathering; putting in rules that everyone shares, rules that enable genuine conversation.

This very much applies to leadership as well: knowing how to lead a gathering in a thoughtful manner is what contributes to great leadership.

She gives an example from her research where she visited a group that had gathered to discuss their start-ups.

In the beginning of the meeting people had some time to wonder around the room and talk to each other.

There were two rules: you were not allowed to talk about your work or reveal what you do.

This format made people clearly uncomfortable at first but led to deeper conversations at another level where you actually had to tell about your life, family, hobbies, interests.

The other rule was that you were not allowed to speak about your success but of your challenges in the meeting: each was asked to identify a challenge in their company that they could bring to others and get advice.

Breaking the usual norms of engagement and communication can thus lead to new ways of interaction and thinking.


Setting up people for success

Another core question that Priya recommends is: how can I set my participants up for success?

This again goes to the importance of thinking thoughtfully about the meeting structure, the spaces that we can provide to foster dialogue and learning, and being clear what the desired outcomes are.

When hosting, we need to also think about the gathering from the perspective of the least engaged participant, someone who would attend but is new.

Such people often can feel shy about approaching others, are not necessarily as embedded in the institutional or social discourse on core concepts and themes.

What would it take to make the gathering meaningful for them?

Who should they be introduced to and what kinds of spaces could enable them to get the most out of the gathering?

It’s easy to think that people will find their own way for example during a conference or workshop.

But it is up to us as hosts to be clear what potential needs there are that need to be met, how different people interact, and how we can make the gathering a success for all of the participants.


The scientific format

Most of us know the format for scientific conferences:

there are keynote speeches from important people, then there are hurried lunches or coffee breaks, and lots of sessions where people have 12 minutes to tell about their research.

Poster sessions are a bit more fun as you get to roam around usually and actually talk to people.

The number one thing that most people say that they enjoyed from a conference is…

the coffee queue (read conversations while getting coffee).

We are social animals in many ways and crave for connections.

So why are we running our meetings and conferences in a way that decreases the chances of deep meaningful exchanges and dialogue?

Some conferences have tried different formats eg World Cafes or discussion groups to facilitate such dialogue but the time is often very limited, people come in and leave, and when the session is over, the talk and ideas end.

Maybe I am from a generation who would love to actually enjoy keynotes, laugh while also gaining core insights into a topic; to enjoy the moment of communication.

Some people have said to me that this is just how scientific meetings and conferences are run, that this is our format and this way everyone is kept happy.

But I find myself increasingly unhappy going into big meetings and seeing this format repeated over and over again.

I feel guilty that I enjoy more the conversations over coffee where we explore new ideas and concepts than sitting through rushed presentations where you don’t have much space to ask questions or actually have a conversation.


Challenging the norms of gathering is ok

Listening to Priya and her knowledge of the subject has however made one thing clear: more of us should challenge the norms of gathering.

My new slogan therefore is “human connections- idea factories”.

I truly believe that if we take the time to connect with one another, not just as scientists but as people, we can foster and enable innovation.

But for that to happen, we need to create trust, an environment where people know that it is ok to voice their opinions even if they are contradictory.

To create spaces for genuine dialogue takes however courage and challenging of the norms.

I am not saying that every plenary speech has to equal stand-up comedy, especially with hard science and graphs and serious content this is obviously hard to do.

And I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable either being on that stage and having to do something or try a format that they dislike.

My message is for those who are willing and interested in trying something new, put themselves in a position where there is more uncertainty whether a new format works, and what others will think of them.

The key message from all of this to me is that we do at least need to consider the way that we as scientists communicate with each other internally.

How are we supposed to engage “the public” or “stakeholders” with our message and enact change if we ourselves are not communicating with each other in a way that is engaging?

As leaders, we also need to think how our communication style and decisions on how to run meetings reflect our brand and values:

Are we being inclusive, easy to approach, ready to take feedback and ready to at least try preparing our meetings through a mindful structure that allows time and space for deeper dialogue?


Look out adaptation peeps!

 So some of you might think that all this ranting about the way scientific conferences are run is just criticism without any substance given I have not run a major conference before.

Well, I haven’t yet but that could change in the future.

What excites me about conferences is the aspiration to change norms, to make people laugh and enjoy themselves, to foster deeper connections with each other, and flesh out innovation and ideas.

All of these processes I see at the core of doing more robust adaptation science.

But there are also other ways to change things than running my own conference.

It is about being vocal about ideas, new formats, new ways of communication, how we show up at meetings ourselves.

I do realise that not everyone will embrace change and I do find myself even sometimes reluctant and even sceptical whether a new format of gathering actually works.

We have institutionalised a lot of these things already and we are more comfortable keeping these formats because this is how it has always been done.

But in the end it is about people:

Connecting people and ideas.

As we move forward with processes like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment, there is ample opportunity to also start the internal discussion on how we communicate and arrange our gatherings.

And for any leaders out there, highly encourage listening to the episode and also starting to test and implement some of these ideas.

Who knows, you might stumble on new ideas and innovation and in the process even make new friends.