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Best of 2011: Jeff Vankooten on the Importance of Embracing Chaos and Uncertainty

The complex societal changes of generational demographics, the accelerated nature of technological change, and the competition of a global market all add up to major challenges for the meeting industry. As contemporary life has become so fluid, can we still create stable, preplanned, and programmed events?

Meetings must be transformed into new ways of delivering information and inspiration.

Typically, events have relied on choosing a theme and supporting it with preplanned general sessions and breakouts. These are led by hired experts who provide the answers to issues facing an industry. This has been a tried-and-true model perfected for an earlier societal time, with very different generational, technological, and educational realities.

Now, we need a more uncertain—and chaotic—dynamic. Space has to be made for the spontaneous eruption of topics and the collective delivery of information from participants. The emerging generations are used to actively participating in the information they encounter and collectively determining its importance and use.

Teachers are discovering they are no longer considered the subject-matter experts in their classes. Students today are armed with easy access to information and see themselves as another source of knowledge on a subject. Schools are morphing from a sage-on-the-stage model of teaching into a collection of educational hubs that work together to discover new insights. Teachers are becoming facilitators for a new participatory way of learning.

The meetings industry should follow suit. The expert providing the definitive word on a topic has to be supplemented with a more participatory model of learning. Planning an event needs to take place without an engineered feel. This can happen by building chaos and uncertainty into the very DNA of the event.

A good example of this are the gatherings hosted by Emergent. They bring together pastors and youth workers around the world with no predetermined theme, experts, or agenda. What happens there is rather extraordinary. Facilitators deftly guide the group in real time to determine what issues are the most pressing for them at the moment. This sometimes happens by polling attendees using their cell phones. The facilitators then winnow those issues down to the top five and begin the process of creating delivery and learning channels.

People have an extraordinary capability for self-organization. Leaders emerge depending on their experience with the chosen topics, and they’re present in every group. People interested in a particular topic gather and interact around it.

Opening up unplanned educational sessions initiates surprisingly relevant topics and identifies true-felt needs. It also taps into the inherent talent of attendees who can contribute to the success and effectiveness of the event. This entails giving up some control over the content and its delivery, allowing for serendipity and chaos to be woven into the entire planning process. Now, surprises are the new normal, and chaos and uncertainty rule the day.

—Jeff Vankooten, author and speaker, @jeffvankooten