As we have noted, PCDNetwork is fortunate to be attending the annual Interaction Forum for several days this week. This morning I attended a wonderful interactive “Solution Salon” organized by several CEOs from Interaction Member organizations.
In this short post, I first briefly describe the session format which is something I think many conferences could benefit from adopting. Second is to share some of key themes that emerged from the dynamic and fun session.
The solution salon is designed as a highly interactive session where participants sit at tables in groups of 6-10 and share a key challenge that they are facing related to their work. Then the rest of the members of the table then serve as an informal advisory group where they ask probing questions, provide suggestions and seek to provide the speaker with some keys and ideally a key walk away action point that they can use.
Having attended and helped organized many events, I know personally I’ve gotten very tired of attending conference where death by panel is the only or main format. I know personally I’ve attended countless conferences where 90%-100% of the format is have a group of experts who present their insights as a panel. There is usually supposed to be time left for a discussion but often the time runs out or questions are limited to a few minutes.
While panels can have a role and be useful in sharing information and keynote speakers are often inspiring, one of the main benefits I’ve found of participating in convenings is the spontaneous connections that result at events. This can happen with people working in like-minded sectors, or often the most interesting learning/conversations happen when interacting with people doing completely different things.
I dream of a day when convenings largely abandon the panel format and adapt a much wider range of engaging attendees. I am pleased that in my years attending the Interaction Forum they’ve often had in innovative formats among the sessions such as mini-trainings, workshops, open space, scavenger hunts and more.
The ideas behind the solution salon, is to provide a structured process where peers can learn from one another about common challenges, develop new connections and perhaps walk away with ways to improve their work and organizations.
After some brief introductions to the process an to each other we jumped right into the content. The main framing was to have each participant share for 1-2 minutes a bit about their work and talk about a key challenge. The facilitator at our table, Julie Green, CEO of Solar Cookers International did a great job of making sure we stayed on time and on track. In particular trying to frame one essential challenge in a narrow and actionable way can be challenging.
Some of the key themes that emerged in my group included the following (I am not attributing these to a specific organization as we have a very in-depth and frank discussion. Instead I am sharing some of the points and challenges across the group).
- Leadership Development – As a small but growing organization what is the most effective means/tools to help develop the leadership potential of staff and board members. This is particularly challenging in orgs that may have offices or staff in different parts of the world.
- Board Relations – There were many points related to board development for a number of the participants. This included the challenge of switching from an operating board (for example for smaller organizations the board may be doing a lot of the operational work) to more of a governing board (as an organization expands and brings on staff, such as an executive director) this can sometimes be a bumpy road. A related board challenge is how to ensure members stay fresh and engaged with the organization. This included how to bring on new board members from different sectors and new skill sets, to what to do when board members may stay on for a very, very long time and how to frame/navigate transitions.
- Stakeholder engagement – All organizations are working on engaging diverse stakeholders in their work. A key issue was how to engage beneficiaries throughout a process and not just do programming on people. Key suggestions including using SMS messaging as a means to engage populations in developing countries to both solicit feedback and distribute information. A second suggestion was to build advisory boards of stakeholders to provide feedback and input on a regular basis regarding organizational activities or programs.
- Going from program to scale – Social change work can be a long and difficult slog. Much of development is framed in discrete projects that may last 1-2 years. But societal change often takes much longer. There is a need to think longer term, develop innovative (and diverse) sources of funding.
- How not to take on more than you can chew or do – Many of the issues the participants are working on have deep rooted structural and cultural roots. There is a real challenge that there is always more to do than possible in terms of resources and time. But as people and organizations motivated for change, it can be difficult to say no to requests for help. Or sometimes one might start working in one area such as sanitation but then get drawn into other areas. One participant stated “We are working on filling the gaps, but there are so many gaps to fill.“
Overall this was a wonderful session as we left with new relationships, ideas, inspiration and key action points. I loved the format and told Julie and the organizing team that I would adapt this for other events I organize. At the end of the session several people shared how impactful our short time together, which led to much deeper relationships, insights and practical tips for our to advance in our common struggle for change.