Social engineering

How forcing attendees out of their comfort zones can lead to unexpected outcomes

yellow inflatable smiling emoji balloon in focus photography

Most meeting organisers recognise the value of informal, chance interactions. However, they tend to leave these interactions to...well, chance, thinking that it is not possible to create serendipitous encounters in a more structured way.

We disagree. We know from experience that it is possible to build serendipity into meeting programmes. Further, we believe meeting planners are missing a beat by failing to use the diversity of a group to make these chance encounters richer.

By default

Most meetings bring people together because of what they have in common. In fact, for most meetings, that’s the whole point: engineers meet with engineers, heart surgeons with heart surgeons. Specialists talk to specialists and the best specialists appear on stage. There lies great merit in holding meetings like this. It gives people with the best know-how the opportunity to offer and exchange their knowledge.

However, when exchanges are limited to people who know each other well – ‘mindset mates’ – the results are relatively predictable.

The beauty of meetings is that unexpected, unforeseen encounters can take place, between people with different mindsets and different backgrounds.

By design

The recipe to increase the chances of such fruitful encounters happening is simple: put your delegates into diverse groups and give them questions to ponder or tasks to solve. Use novel criteria to create groups (such as height or hobbies, or their preference for certain types of food etc) to break through the natural silos people tend to create by default, based around things like academic area, seniority, nationality, age etc.

You can increase the chances that ideas grow from cross-fertilization by gently forcing delegates to get together with unlike-minded individuals.

A good moment to start doing this is during breaks. You already have a flat floor and enough space for people to walk around and mingle.

Make randomly mixed groups, breaking through the self-imposed selection participants will exercise by default. Take their existing framework apart, replace it with a different one, and facilitate the interaction in the new, more diverse group.

You can ask participants to form groups with as much diversity as possible – in terms of age for example. Alternatively, you could make single-gender groups, for example, and compare the outcomes of discussions between groups. Whatever disrupts the default way in which people would normally group themselves works.

The next level

A few more tips to help create serendipity:

  • Make sure there is diversity in the content you deliver. A variety of thoughts, reflections, ideas and experiences, which should come from a mindset that is essentially different from that held by most people in the room.
  • Capitalize on the professional pride of participants. Ask them to contribute based on what they themselves consider their strengths. You might be surprised!
  • Build in restrictions when you set tasks. Stay away from broad plans and policy making. Instead tease out solutions related to stories that have human and humane dimensions.

About the book

This is an abridged version of a chapter in Meetings, by default or design. AMI will be publishing extracts from the book throughout the year. In 41 short chapters, the book acts as a reference manual, showing readers how and where they can improve the quality of their meetings. Each chapter starts by describing common practice and the opportunities planners miss when doing things this way (the ‘By default’ section). Next come two pieces of advice to improve things (the ‘By design’ section) – one, a relatively simple change that, in most cases, could be applied to already existing meeting programmes, the other - called “The next level” – altogether more sweeping and drastic.  

About the authors

Dutchman Eric de Groot is one of the first Meeting Designers: his pioneering work started in 1992. With his friend and colleague Mike van der Vijver he co-wrote ‘Into the Heart of Meetings’ referred to as the bible of the changing meeting industry. ‘Meetings by Default or by Design’ also co-authored with Mike, intends to help meeting owners to improve their meetings exponentially. ‘From Audience to Contribience’ is Eric’s design motto.

Mike van der Vijver is a meeting designer, facilitator, moderator, and intercultural management advisor. He has been for over 20 years. Together with Eric de Groot, he wrote two books on Meeting Design: Into the Heart of Meetings and Meetings, by Default or by Design