Innovating Large Conference Design

Innovating Large Conference Design

in Case Studies, Community Building
Innovating Large Conference Design

"Very innovative - not your normal sit and listen conference."

Conference Implements Innovative Methods to Build Community meeting consultants were engaged to help design and facilitate the Exploring Innovation in Community Development 2009 Conference in St Louis ( sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis.  The mission of the conference mandated a design that demonstrated innovative practices as it built community and this conference did not disappoint. Several design elements of the conference illustrate innovative ways to engage participants at a large group conference.

Conference Design Objectives

    • To highlight industry state-of-the-art policies and innovative thinking
    • To explore innovative solutions to community development issues and encourage problem solving through an interactive dialogue with all conference participants
    • To create an ongoing dialogue where input from conference participants shapes the conference content
    • To facilitate learning for conference participants through a variety of methods, accommodating diverse learning styles and teaching techniques
    • To serve as a catalyst for future discussions and dialogues around topics of significant importance to community development

    Design Takes Participant Engagement to a New Level

    FacilitatePro web meeting software was used as a platform to build continual interaction between participants and speakers before, during and after the conference.“FacilitatePro gave us the flexibility to create a variety of interactive activities in the Innovation Café and the plenary sessions,” said Julia Young, lead design consultant from “We wanted attendees to be engaged from beginning to end and be able to innovate as new ideas emerged.”

    • The Conference

      Exploring Innovaion in Community Development 2009 sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
    • The Challenge 

      Explore innovative solutions to community development issues and encourage problem solving through an interactive dialogue with all conference participants.
    • The Solution 

      Facilitation methods designed to engage large groups in a fully participative conversation coupled with collaborative meeting technology from Pod created highly interactive sessions.
    • The Result

      The interactive nature of the conference kept everyone involved--not just listening to speakers. Attendees reported that creative dialogue improved the quality of collaboration and resulted in great take-aways for development in their own communities.

    Innovation Café

    Seeking to begin building the community amongst participants ahead of the actual event, the teams created the concept of an Innovation Café – a place to get to know each other, explores innovation styles and help shape the conference dialogue.

    The Innovation Café became an interactive extension of the conference web site. Components included:

    Pre-conference Survey – a way to gather participant demographics and prioritize issues/discussion areas to help shape the conference plenary sessions.

    • Introductions – a place to post photos, bios and links to web sites as a simple way to get to know the conference community members.
    • Electronic Flip Chart – a place share ideas and requests for making this the best possible conference experience.
    • Innovation Styles Inventory – a link to Creative Advantage’s Innovation Styles Assessment survey, a benefit provide to all participants as a way to provide a common language to think about innovation styles. Find out more at:

    Collaborative Plenary Sessions Build Community and Innovative Thinking

    The first afternoon of the conference participants selected from a wide range of discussion group topics designed as a place to explore topics, share experiences and identify common issues facing their communities particularly in this time of economic challenges. At the end of the afternoon the discussion leaders met to share themes and questions that emerged from the groups which in turn helped shape the plenary discussion on the following days.

    Plenary Session (1) – Question Circle Process and Collaborative Technology

    Adapted from the Inquiry Process originated by Rashida Henry, Being & Living Enterprises, Ltd. ( this plenary session was designed to engage conference participants in a dialogue full of inquiry and exploration, rather than simply sharing what they know and have heard before. With the overarching theme of the importance of public policy in community development, each panelist spoke from his/her experience and ended with a question – “What this leaves me wondering is...” The next panelist didn’t try to directly answer the question – it wasn’t the usual arguing back and forth. Rather they began with “What that makes me think about is...” and ended again with “What that leaves me wondering is...” After hearing from the panel the moderator threw out the question to the participants sitting tables of 8-10 people. Each person spoke in turn and ended with a question.

    FacilitatePro web meeting software captured the ideas and questions at each of the tables. A “scribe” was assigned a laptop computer linked to the Internet. Each participant’s comment and question was captured and posted to a shared electronic flip chart. While the participants were busy in discussion, the panelists were able to watch the ideas as they came in, electronically. After 30 minutes the moderator brought the discussion back around to the panelist who had just “listened” or read the conversation from the 150 or so people in the room. Rather than the usual limited table report outs, the panelists were able to summarize and reflect on the range of comments and questions from the whole conversation. What’s more the complete dialogue was captured and available for review in the Innovation Café as soon as the session was completed.

    Linda Fisher, one of the conference organizers, described the process this way in her daily blog:

    “I hope everyone who had a chance to participate in the policy plenary with Mark Pinsky of Opportunity Finance Network, Alan Berube of The Brookings Institute and Ray Boshara of New America Foundation enjoyed the opportunity to have your comments and questions captured online and sent to the panel in real time! To view everyone’s comments—more than 150, altogether—click on the Innovation Café tab on the web site. These comments are being used to shape the Roundtable Discussions scheduled Friday morning.”

    Plenary Session (2) – Interviews Process, Roundtable Discussion and Fishbowl Report Out

    The second interactive plenary session again focused on ways to engage participants – getting them to explore ideas and share perspectives. Pulling from the “buzz” heard in the early discussion groups, the session leaders identified four questions to explore – each was phrased with a different innovation style in mind – visioning, exploring, experimenting and modifying. The process provided a flow of divergent, convergent and reflective thinking.

    • Interviews – Divergent Thinking and Active Listening.The four groups were paired up in three rounds of ten minute one-on-one interviews. Each participant got to ask their designated question three times and took notes. They also got to answer each of the three other questions.
    • Round Table Summaries – Convergent Thinking. The groups reconvened to share what they had heard in answer to their questions and look for themes and commonalities. Each group did this slightly differently, summarizing what they heard on a poster board.
    • Fishbowl Report Out – Reflective Thinking. The third step in the process allowed individual participants to reflect on their key takeaways from the discussion. Five seats were available on stage and four people came up to begin the process. One seat was always left open to allow others to step forward. One person gave up their seat as another person joined.

    By providing a structure for the conversation and then getting out of the way, the facilitators were able to create a space for the participants to share ideas and experiences on critical questions that they had previously prioritized as important to them. The flow of the conversation encouraged participants to think deeply about their questions and share from a point of exploration and inquiry. The result was a lot of interaction, some valuable ideas and possibilities, as well as a shared sense of community and optimism.

    After the Conference – Continuing Connection

    The process of connection continues with the conference web site and Innovation Café – soliciting feedback and ideas for the next conference as well as providing full documentation from all the conference sessions.

    Read more... download the Toolkits for Question Circle Process and Round Table Process.

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