The Power of Bringing People Together: Four Strategies for Intentional Event Design

The times we are living in and the challenges we face in both the youth sector and in society, call for more effective meetings, better engagement processes, participatory leadership, and the ability to craft strategy from collective wisdom and intelligence.

We need to move beyond the status quo towards co-learning and evolution in a way contributes to positive change. Bringing people together, and especially people with different perspectives and experiences, is important work that requires thoughtfulness and intentionality.

To me, the best gatherings are the ones where you leave feeling invigorated, connected, affirmed and hopefully, inspired. That being said, we’ve also all been to those events where the best part is not the actual planned activities but the random conversation you have with that one person during the 15 minute break. How can we capture the magic of those 15 minutes and translate it to a full event? Event design plays an important role in the youth sector. Events bring people together to share ideas and strategies and make connections. But, as anyone who’s been tasked with planning an event in the sector knows, a successful gathering requires more than figuring out the logistics, getting that one great keynote, or sending out an eventbrite link. Just as intentionality is important for youth program design, intentional event design can make the difference between a forgettable event and a transformative experience that contributes to lasting impact.

In October 2016, YouthREX held a three-day event, our Knowledge to Action Exchange, The Youth. The Work. The System (KtA2016). KtA2016 included a day of workshops, a full day conference, and a design day where we used design thinking with a group of 40+ participants to create solutions on four idea lab challenges. Through hosting these events, we learned a lot about what worked, what could be improved and what we might do differently for next time.  Based on these learnings, along with additional tips and resources I’ve collected over the years, I want to share four strategies for intentional event design with you – perhaps they can help with that meeting, workshop or big event coming up.

01. Create a living document

At YouthREX, we often create concept notes for many of our activities, including events. For us, a concept note is a two page living document that outlines key information that might include: date, location, purpose, goals (internal and external), context, desired outcomes and harvest*. Concept notes are great for helping you/the event team think through and document, the who, what, where, when, why and how’s of an event. You can send them around to inform, include and/or request feedback from other team members as needed. You can update your concept note as things change or become clearer, and also modify it to suit an external audience if you’re wanting to engage a potential collaborator – it’ll give them a quick, clear overview of what you’re trying to achieve.

Another highly useful tool for creating a living document is the Chaordic Stepping Stones. This tool outlines a series of strategic steps that can help you and your event planning team think through how to structure, implement and invite people to your gathering. I find the questions under each step extremely valuable as they can help the event planning team gain clarity, hear each other’s ideas, agree on principles for the event and land on a shared understanding from which to move forward. Examples of questions include:

“What is the need that this project can uniquely meet? If this work should live up to its fullest potential, what do you dream is possible? Who is not in the room and how do we bring them in? How might we activate our principles to do our best work?”

Perhaps this is where you’ll decide as a team that youth voice and engagement is paramount for how you plan and execute this event. Coming to this understanding at this early phase will inform all the next steps to making your event come to fruition.

This resource can be used collectively with the broader event planning team but if that’s not possible, you can still use the tool to help ground your work. I’ll often listen for answers and document them as they relate to the different steps during (or after) conversations with decision makers and discussions in planning meetings.

* What is a harvest? It refers to the tangible items you want to have after your event, such as evaluation results, pictures, notes, a recap report, a video recording of panel speakers, or a graphic recording, and intangible aspects, such as relationships, clarity and passion. For example, this report is a harvest of our Design Day – it captures what happened during the day, key points of conversation and action, images and more.

02. Align your event design with event goals

This might seem like an obvious one, and in a way, it could be. There might be a very clear event design that will help you achieve the goals you have in mind. But, if your goals include something along the lines “we want our event to be engaging and participatory,” then there are lots of ways to make that happen. Here are just a few examples of approaches and dialogue processes that might work for your event:

World Cafe: Groups of 4-6 people converse around tables on a specific issue or question. There are multiple rounds where people move tables, with one person staying behind to ‘host’ and share highlights from the previous conversation. This approach is an ideal way to find out what a community is thinking and feeling about a topic. Learn more here and here.

Open Space Technology: Participants create and manage their own agenda of parallel working sessions around the event theme or question. This approach can seem chaotic, but is actually quite structured, and works best when dealing with complexity, diverse people and ideas, and a desire to move to resolution/action. Learn more here.

Collective Story Harvest: Stories are shared in small groups with participants actively listening for key themes or ‘arcs’ during the storytelling; these are then shared back to the group and storyteller and oftentimes, a World Cafe follows to converge learnings. This approach can work well for applied learning, creating collective meaning within a system/team and linking personal experiences to a wider systemic context. Learn more here.

Design Thinking: Design Thinking can be used to solve complex problems through a solution and action-focused approach.  Activities revolve around the five steps of Design Thinking – empathizing, defining the problem, ideating, prototyping and testing – and draws on logic, intuition and systematic reasoning to explore the possibilities of what could be. This approach can work well for moving people into action, mitigating tendencies in participants to engage in for long/tangential and/or existential conversations about the topic at hand, and creating a clear picture of the current and potential context of the user at hand. Learn more here.

How do you decide? Hopefully, your concept note can help guide your decision making. Mapping out the topic(s) at hand, and the desired outcomes (decision making? capacity building? sharing information?) are key to identifying the process that’ll work for your gathering. If youth engagement was one of your key principles decided on, here’s where youth can play a key role in decision making, or where you can ask yourself what design can best highlight youth voice in a safe way.

These examples are just some options and it is important to note that for the most part, they don’t have to be used in siloes. For example, while design thinking activities can be great for moving people into action and solutions, you could carve out more time in exploring the problem by using a World Cafe. This would allow participants more time to gain a shared understanding and delve into the context and history of the topic, before moving into solutions-focused activities. I have learned that this is especially important when equity and social justice are at the forefront of participants’ minds and the topics at hand.

03. Trust your instincts while recognizing fear

Trying new approaches when bringing people together can be daunting, and even scary! Everyone’s time is precious and in a sector where people are often pulled in many different directions, you don’t want to ‘waste people’s time’. Everyone also has their own comfort zones that they might prefer to stay in and it can be tempting to play it safe rather than potentially alienate some folks. There are some people who want clear directions – and to be directed – through an agenda, and others who prefer more flexibility. That said, youth are usually open to trying new things, so as a sector that works with youth, we should be too!

Here is where I encourage you to tap into your intuition and what you know about the participants you have in mind, while also embracing the possibility to try something new or different for your event. If you (or members on the planning team) are feeling unsure or daunted, is it because the thought of pushing yourself and/or your potential participants out of their comfort zone is daunting? The Chaordic Stepping Stones asks: “What are our limiting beliefs? What makes us tremble, and what do we fear about new ways of working together? Who would we be without our old stories of old ways of working”? Similar to a program logic model that lines up processes and outcomes, you also want to line up the need, purpose and principles of your event with the process you’ve designed.

If the issue is mostly fear, or a ‘limiting belief’, try not to let worry about the unknown prevent you from creating a new experience for your participants! Trust that your planning and invitation process will unfold as it should. If you still have a nagging instinct telling you something else – that something may not work or might need to be adjusted to work for your participants, don’t let that slide. Unpack what it may mean and what modification can be made to your event design to mitigate whatever issue you might be feeling reservations about. 

For example, for YouthREX’s Design Day last October, we planned a day that included a series of quick-moving design thinking activities. During the planning, there was a part of us that was concerned that there were too many activities and that our youth sector participants would want more time to discuss and unpack the complexities of the issues at hand. We ended up keeping the same number of activities, but sure enough, on the day of, it was clear that people needed more time for discussion. This is an example where we might have followed our instincts and explored more flexible options – definitely a learning for next time!

04. Enlist help but make the values of your organization explicit.

It can be quite helpful and even transformative to work with a process designer and/or facilitator to help execute your event. This is especially true if you’re interested in trying a new approach you’re not familiar with or if you don’t have anyone on your team who can take on facilitation – facilitating means forgoing experiencing the event as a participant or as an observer, something that might be valuable for team members. I have worked from the very start of planning an event with a process designer and found that experience to be very rewarding and helpful, both in terms of helping the event team to think through not only the design but the purpose, goals, outcomes, invitation and more. I’ve also been in the situation where I’ve engaged a facilitator purely for facilitation – this means I had to provide specific instructions for activities etc. to the facilitator and their job was to show up on the day of and facilitate what was planned in-house.

What you end up going with will depend on a lot of factors – perhaps your budget, the skills/interests present on your team, your event goals etc.

The important thing to keep in mind is ensuring that whoever you’re working with, in whatever capacity, knows the values and principles that your organization represents so that when they are designing and/or facilitating, these values can be respected and hopefully, reflected in their approach, style and language. 

Having a conversation with everyone on your facilitation and event planning team, reiterating your organization’s values, providing suggestions for language to use or contextual information that could help them understand where participants may be coming from is important. Don’t assume this information is a given or that it won’t be helpful!

As an unofficial fifth strategy, I recommend a post-event reflection to look back on what you learned and compare the design intentions (chaordic stepping stones) with what actually happened, so that you can feed it all forward for your next steps or event. This is also a good time for the team to check out your event evaluation results and consider the feedback that you received. As we share in our own Framework for Evaluating Youth Wellbeing, applying a learning-focused lens to your work is essential to helping your organization grow.

Since December 2014, YouthREX has held a unique space in the youth sector, facilitating opportunities for all stakeholders to connect and engage with youth work in different ways, providing support and capacity building opportunities, and learning with and from our expanding youth sector family. Terrence Rodriguez, founder of RexPride, spoke at an early YouthREX event and shared how he felt a shift happening in the sector, saying “Times are changing, so let’s work together.” From our vantage point almost two years later, it seems clear that we are still awakening to different ways of being in leadership together, that sector stakeholders are seeking consultative processes and engagement strategies that bring out the best in our communities and foster true collaboration. I hope the strategies in this blog help inform how you can contribute to this shift at your next gathering!

Yumi Numata
YouthREX Communications and Knowledge Mobilization Manager

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