Distilling actions

The months and weeks leading up to the NY consultation included many skype calls and iterations of the agenda – we were retrofitting activities into a solid design. It was just-in-time, with the finally pieces falling in place just hours before the end.

We nearly always called each other from different continents – often late at night or early morning for at least one of us. Some of these late night skype calls took place during my vacation in Thailand and Vietnam. There were times I regretted to have accepted the assignment.

It’s hard to join a design team in midstream, especially with people whose comfort zone is with the traditional format of individual presenting alone or on panels followed by Q and A’s or when the organizers feel not entirely in charge.

The traditional format (powerpoints followed by individual questions and then answers from the presenter), especially with 80 people in the room can be deadly. Individual agendas can easily hijack the usually few remaining minutes in a session. Everyone has experienced this more than once. And yet, unfamiliar with alternatives, most public health experts I know repeat the pattern of the old format over and over. It is what they known and what keeps them in their comfort zone, even though such a format is hardly engaging. When I ask about such experiences they sigh, as if this is an inevitable course to follow.

I love to show alternatives, what is possible, and how to get to the action – which is what people always say they want. But unreflected action is worse than no action. There has to be a process for meaning making and culling and vetting. This is why we need structures for meaningful interaction. And just as with physical structures, conversation structures also needs architects.When we select speakers and let their activities design the event we are putting the cart before the horse. And when we attach ourselves too much to narrowly described pre-set outcomes that may not be shared by all those invited, we are also unlikely to get value for money.

I am always struck about how much fear there is that ‘things will get out of control, that dominant people will hijack the meeting or minorities don’t feel safe to voice their opinions.’ The irony is that without structure, this is eactly what will happen.

There is always wisdom in the room but that this wisdom is either unrecognized or unfiltered. The process of coming to shared insights is a distillation process, with lots of impure stuff being heated (talked about with passion), then run through a cold water pipe (the realities, conditions on the ground) until the really good stuff comes out in small drops. And that is finally what we did. I was really happy after all to help make that happen.

We celebrated the end of the event at a small tapas place next to Central Station after which we all went our ways. I walked to Penn Station which was way too frantic for me and must be very intimidating for innocent tourists. I couldn’t wait to get into the train, have my dinner and a beer. Four and a half hours later I tumbled exhausted into bed.

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