Chairing a Conference – Working Out Loud Notes


Harold Jarche and I before the Edutech Workplace Learning Congress began. Photo by Shannon Tipton (@stipton)

Over the last two days, I chaired the EdutechAU Workplace Learning Congress in Brisbane.  In the spirit of working out loud, I wanted to share a little bit of the process of preparing and managing that experience. I will also share a separate post shortly on the conference itself.

Part 1 – Preparation

Any time you are presenting or facilitating, the work needs to be done before the event.  Preparation is critical to put you in the best possible position to do a good job but also to manage the likely eventualities.  The goal of preparation is not to enable you to follow the plan. The goal is to give you the capability to adjust to whatever happens on the day.

Clarity of expectations

That preparation began when I was asked to take on the role of Chair.  The first step was to answer the question “What do they expect from this role?”. Upfront I wanted to understand how I came to be offered the position and what they had been told by those who had suggested me. Understanding the role expectations involved a number of conversations with the conference organisers to understand the event, the audience, the experience that they were seeking to create, the speakers and how they saw the role of a chair. Making sure the expectations are clear up front helps both parties in the lead up to the event.

Understand the Speakers 

Bios & topics help you with the what and sometimes the how of speakers.  Mostly the audience wants to know why they are listening to someone. The more time you can spend understanding the speakers the better. I didn’t have an opportunity to brief with speakers before the event which would have been ideal. However, I devoted a weekend to reviewing the work of speakers and their accessible profiles on social channels and the internet.  That was very useful in helping develop ways to introduce the speakers with some consistency, to enrich their bios and also to anticipate the messages that speakers were likely to be reinforcing in their talks.

Plan any Panels

Planning a panel is more than putting together a list of questions on the chosen topic. You need to understand panellists’ positions, likely areas of conflict, any areas of expertise and areas where there is none. There is nothing more dull than asking a series of questions of the entire panel and running down panellist by panellist until time expires. The goal is to get the value of collaboration from the panel.  Work out where discussion, conflict and collaboration will add value to the audience’s understanding of the topic. Facilitate that debate and try to make it a cumulative and seamless experience with the design of your questions.

If your panel is going to involve a mix of questions from the chair and the audience you need to be prepared for all eventualities. How many questions is the audience likely to have? How much time do they need? To whom will you direct undirected questions from the audience? Work out when to give the audience a warning to get their questions ready. Prepare back up questions in case the audience is meek.

It is also important to think through how you will move on from audience members who want to dominate discussion and change topics when required.

Create Tools to Help

The conference organisers had supplied me with bios and a detailed runsheet. However, I needed to create a tool that I could use to guide me through the event. I settled on a simple landscape format document with three columns – times, comments and notes. The document used bullet points because I normally work to create any talk from a few guiding points of structure.


I typed the information from the bios and the runsheet into this integrated document. I didn’t cut and paste. I typed. I retyped it manually for two reasons

  • To make sure I put understood things in my own words and could express them simply
  • To help me to remember the key facts so that I could more easily speak without notes

This process of recreating my own tool helped me to sort out a few ambiguities that I needed to check with the organisers. It also enabled me to see all the speaker information in a consistent format and work on balance and integration of the story of the event.

The advantage of a simple document was also redundancy. I had the document in the cloud, printed and available on two back up devices. I also made sure I had all the key source materials with me as well. That way I was covered for power failures, late changes and any nasty technology surprises.

Understand What You Want to Say

A chair is there to facilitate the event, not to star in it. My role models were some great chairs and masters of ceremony that I had seen at similar events, particularly Colin James, Anne Bartlett-Bragg, James Dellow and the MC of DoLectures Australia in 2014 Col Duthie. You aren’t hired to draw attention to yourself or deliver long speeches. However as someone who is a continuous voice through the event, there is a chance to tell a story across the two days by drawing connections and framing the speakers. I spent some time considering how what the speakers were addressing related to key themes that I address in my work and this blog.  That helped me see that there were consistent themes of transformational change, culture, leadership and a new role for learning in the future of work running through the event.  I wanted to share some of my personal purpose & stories of making work more human through drawing out these connections

Part 2 – Creating the Experience

A good chair will help create a great experience for the speakers and the participants at the event. Not everything will go to plan. Nothing will go to time. The role of chair to to help smooth the experience and also to help the participants to weave it together into one learning and collaborative experience.

Stay in Contact with Everyone: Everyone means everyone: the organisers, the AV team, the next speaker, future speakers and audience members. Check-in at breaks and use what you learn to think ahead. Check everyone’s understanding. Get feedback. Make sure everyone is on the same page as to what is happening next. Over communicate. When I had issues with the experience, it was because I didn’t follow this simple rule.

Pay attention: There can be a lot going on. You need to be concentrating for the whole journey of the event. A speaker might make a single comment that helps you to draw together the theme of the event. Time can quickly get away from you. Paying attention helps you to anticipate the speakers who are running behind and those that are ahead. That gives you ways that you can help them and the audience.

Roll with the Issues: We lost the time for opening remarks due to late arrivals. I accidentally spoke over an introductory video. Technical issues happened. Changes & corrections were needed throughout the event. Realise that this is all part of the live theatre that is a conference event.  Adapt and move on. Whatever you do, don’t panic.

Adapt the Plan:  My tool above had room for notes. As you can see there were lots of scrawls. I knew I would need to change what I had to say as I heard the full presentations from the speakers. I knew that if we got behind or ahead then timelines would need to be tweaked to adjust. Some times you will have time to do this in advance and other times you will need to adapt on the fly.

Make connections: Connect ideas. Connect people. Use the social streams around the event to share relevant information to help the speakers and the participants. Help audience members to connect to the speakers. There’s a lot that a Chair can do to assist the event to be a successful one just by bringing people together.

Help Make Sense:  Two days of talks, discussions and panels can be overwhelming. However, your role as chair is to help everyone to take away some insight and some themes from the event.  Take notes.  Digest those notes into themes and share them back to foster further discussion.

These are my notes. What else would you add? I am keen to learn more. Please feel free to comment on twitter or in the comments below.

The Lean Startup of Me


Image: The Lean Startup Canvas from

Every career choice is a hypothesis. Test yourself on your proposition and be prepared to pivot and adapt.

Starting Myself

When I left my corporate role, my initial plans were a little vague. I knew I wanted better balance in my life. I knew I wanted to have a bigger impact on my personal purpose and I was prepared to make changes. I was deliberately taking time off to reflect but I wasn’t yet sure of whether I wanted another job or to start a business.

Because I had been involved in a startup, I had followed the development of Lean Startup thinking with keen interest. I also had ongoing conversations, with founders using the approach. As I pondered what to do with my career, I realised I had a chance to do the lean startup of me.

Expand Your Hypotheses

I had a few ideas of what I wanted to be involved in as I searched for new work and roles. These were my initial hypotheses. Some of these have proved to be valuable. Many were ruled out quickly because nobody else was interested in my offer or because the circumstances didn’t deliver the returns or impact on purpose that I wanted.

A simple example was that I initially thought I had an opportunity to work with startups or medium sized businesses. Firstly, these proved to be two completely different hypotheses with little overlap. In both cases, I found when there was money to pay mostly they didn’t want advice, they wanted outsourced management, access to my networks or some other proposition.

Also, I quickly discovered my initial hypotheses were too narrow and limited.  People also started to offer me opportunities to do things that I had never considered before. Some of those opportunities, like the chance to join Change Agents Worldwide, to go to Do Lectures Australia, or the opportunity to work on development of a corporate university helped me expand my sense of what was possible.   

Working through the hypotheses and pushing myself to consider the widest possible impact on purpose changed the work I do and the organisations that I chose to target dramatically. Along the journey I stopped looking for a job and became a consultant actively working in the future of work, customer experience and leadership (and starting up the business of me).

Relentlessly Test Hypotheses

You don’t know until you do. The only way to determine whether a proposition you have offers value is if someone is prepared to pay you enough and consistently enough to do it. There’s two points there: 

  • You need to do stuff
  • People need to pay you consistently

When you are starting yourself up, there is a phase of networking and building profile. The danger is that networking and profile can be all consuming. Coffee and conferences can become your job. Growing networks can become your only return. 

Get in and do things. Think like a startup and push yourself to do work every day. If you need to create a project to work on it, then do so. I found the best sales tool was when I was suddenly unavailable due to the volume of work.  People started calling with work because I didn’t have time for coffee.

It surprised me how many people expected me to do work without being paid for it. I have done a few of those activities, not for the much offered ‘exposure’ but to prove to myself & others the value I can bring in an activity. However, once that is proved once it is time to make money or move on. Continued offers to work for free is a failed test of a hypothesis. Some times people will only pay when you’ve said no several times first. 

Be Lean

Invest small and widely. There will be lots of temptations to put all your eggs in one basket, but remember each opportunity is a hypothesis to be tested. You don’t want to over invest in a proposition that won’t continue. I have turned down investment opportunities, jobs and partnership opportunities for this reason. I ended up deciding the best current scale for my business is me supported by amazing networks of the best talent from around the world, Change Agents Worldwide.

When someone asks me to go all in, I work with them to start with a small test instead. That way we both get to work out what is working and how much we want to invest together.

Remember time is the commodity that you have in greatest scarcity. Allocate your time to investments in your future with care. When people are wasting your time or don’t value it, allocate your time elsewhere.  

Build Platforms

The power of a platform, channels or a consistent community is the ability to run many tests at once. Startups use platforms to learn faster. You can do the same.

Your network is a platform. Strengthen it (remembering your network is not your job). Your thought leadership activities are another platform (remembering it rarely pays the bills). Work with people who have platforms to run better and faster tests on your propositions.

International Working Out Loud week was born out of some casual conversations and unmet needs. It was a fun experiment. As we work to develop the idea further, it offers a platform for additional experiments in the potential of working out loud as a proposition to help others.

Pivot or Persevere

Every day as you test your hypotheses you are going to adapt what you do. You will make small and large pivots. When things work you will persevere and work to scale them like mad. 

Recognise also that somethings that work don’t scale. For example, I have put on hold plans to work with a range of startups in favour of working on a few businesses like Sidekicker where we share a view of what it will take to realise a big potential.

I don’t see my pivots as failures. They are just opportunities to wait for better timing, a better understanding of a client segment or a better proposition. I know I will do work with more organisations in healthcare or more medium sized businesses. It is just a matter of finding the right proposition. While I wait I work still, building capabilities that will help in that eventual proposition.

Be Uniquely You

When I started my work, I wanted to be like all the other successful people. Over time, I realised my unfair advantage was being me.

My skills and experiences are relatively unique at least in the markets that I am working in. That is a very good thing. Trying to make myself more like others dilutes my unique value.

Some people won’t like your uniqueness. You also won’t enjoy working for them. If being you is not good enough for some, that is a failed test and it is time to move on and find someone who wants you for you.

The Lean Startup of You

You don’t need to quit your job, start a business or to become an independent consultant to apply lean startup thinking to your career.  Start asking yourself how you create the most value, how you can do more of that and experiment to make it possible.  You might find it requires a change of job over time but a lot can be accomplished right where you are now.

The power of a lean startup mindset is accelerated learning.  Make sure you are putting what you learn into new actions. 

Every action writes your autobiography


I came across this quote today in an exhibition of the work of the photographer Sue Ford.

We can learn from artists

For an artist it is clear that each work even a representation of another is an expression of their own potential as an artist. To make a work is to put the best of your talents on display.

We can learn a much about the future of our work from the edges explored by artists.

One of the reasons art demands this challenge is the arts is an arena of the long tail. Harold Jarche has discussed the implications of the long-tail for the future of work. We are increasingly engaged in knowledge work in a networked economy as content creators, sharers or remixers and facing the same economic effects as artists.

Every action writes your autobiography

The insight from Sue Ford’s quote above is to recognise that every action we take is an opportunity to put the best of our talents on display. We express ourselves through the big and small actions we take every day. Often the actions we don’t take are even more important when we give up the opportunity to realise our potential or to learn and grow.

We will be judged by our actions. Networks are demanding and will route around the inactive, those who fail to lead or those who fail their potential. Our reputation will be built and quickly shared through our networks. We write an autobiography in action and we are judged not for our words but the actions we take.

What do you want your autobiography to say? What potential is yours to realise? Your next action will provide an answer.

Why not make your next action a work of art?

The Art of the Unreasonable


Every day I deal with unreasonable people. I wish there were more of them.

Unreasonable clients

The unreasonable people I meet are those executives, entrepreneurs and other change makers who are trying to change their organisations, to create new products or who are trying to make the world more human. These individuals don’t want to hear that it is hard, or that success is unlikely or that they are unlikely to see rewards.

These individuals are purposeful and all they want is help to bring their unreasonable visions into being. Willingness to persist is what ensures that they will succeed. They want to know they are not alone and that there are people to help them deliver their visions of the future.

Unreasonable partners

In addition to conversations with my clients and prospects, I am exposed to the unreasonableness of Change Agents Worldwide.  It is entirely unreasonable to believe that you could form an effective consulting and thought leadership network full of smart, highly capable and rightfully busy people without any traditional forms of central coordination.  However, Change Agents Worldwide delivers, constantly challenges itself to do better and the community is prepared to engage because the purpose of a better future of work is unreasonable, but necessary.

My respect for that group and others like it is huge because the network views spreading unreasonableness as part of the mission.  You only have to look at the extraordinary Executive Change Agents who are trying to make change in some of the largest corporations in the world, often solely on their personal authority.

If your organisation does not have people like these, why not? What are you doing to champion them, enable them or hire more?

Unreasonable inspiration

Unreasonableness inspires me. Do Lectures Australia was full of people willing to believe that they could deliver the extraordinary if they just started small and they started now. Social enterprises are another haven of the unreasonable as people seek to use the levers of business to address the challenges of the world. Social movements, like Change Day, inspire me, because they ask people to seek to make a difference and are led by unreasonable people, like Helen Bevan and Mary Freer. Artist are another inspiring source of an unreasonable view of the world.

What is inspiring you to be more unreasonable? What in your organisation shows others that more is possible, new thoughts are allowed and that more can be done?

Unreasonable change

We can’t change settled management practices without unreasonableness.  We can’t create more customer centred organisations within the bounds of what we define internally as acceptable or our accountabilities. We can’t make our organisations better for customers and society on the sensible practices of the past. If we want to be more responsive, we need to be a little unreasonableness.

If we want to lead, we need to be a little unreasonable in our expectations and actions.

There are more than enough forces in our world to encourage the normal, the static, the secure and the stable. Most people find it hard enough to win the support of their boss. Let’s foster the unreasonable.

Go find someone who wants to be unreasonable. Help them. Spread the contagion. That unreasonable purpose is the best engine of change.


Note: GBS = George Bernard Shaw. 


You know the moment


You know the moment.

You know the moment when someone showed you what you were capable of achieving. That moment when another person helped you to see as possible achievements that you doubted yourself.

Someone helped you find your purpose, inspired you to tackle a challenging goal, refocused you on your strengths or helped you to find the missing piece of capability to reach new levels of performance. In that moment, someone helped you realise your potential.

That moment is a moment of leadership.

The person who led you in that moment may not have had a position of authority. It could be a colleague, a team member, a customer, a teacher, a storyteller or a stranger. Whoever demonstrated leadership did so from an interest in developing your potential, not from a position of power.

The conversation in that moment most likely did not feel like a ‘leadership’ conversation. It could have been a question, praise, a concern, feedback, mentoring, coaching, advice, suggestions, ideas, a chat or a story. Whatever the conversation in that moment, you knew they were genuinely interested in helping you to achieve what you were capable of achieving and because it would help fulfil your purpose. Whether or not, that conversation fulfilled a purpose of the other was secondary.

Leadership is the art and technology of realising human potential.

Every moment is a moment to help others find their purpose or their potential. Every moment could be one of those conversations. Everyone can make a difference.

So, how are you using this moment?

Fine Words


Hannah Cutts’ photo of welcome to country at Payne’s Hut, home of Do Lectures Australia.

Do Lectures Australia was a forceful reminder that fine words are pretty but that action counts. Thanks to Luke Pearson attendees at Do Lectures Australia were asked to reflect on Australia’s relationship with its indigenous people and what we may need to unlearn.  

The history of Australia’s relationship with its indigenous people highlights that the words are occasionally fine. Too often the actions fall short or the outcomes we seek escape us. We need to move from talking at each other to working together to make things better.

Fine Words

Last weekend I saw a reference in an article on speech making to Paul Keating’s speech at Redfern in 1992. I didn’t recall the speech but I looked it up to learn more. The missed potential of that speech and curiosity to learn more led me to a short review of other speeches on the topic.

There is no shortage of fine words in the history of Australia’s relationship with its indigenous people. To select only from notable speeches of recent Prime Ministers:

One can quibble with the politics and the policies but all the words are elegant and heartfelt. There are many more words from Prime Ministers and others. Sadly, not all of them qualify as fine words. Where there were actions associated, there was a bigger difference. Whatever the words, there is more to do.


The answer is not more fine words. The answer is not found speaking at the indigenous people of Australia with elegance. The answer will not come from convincing the people of Australia from a podium. No one speech or one action is likely to address the complexity of people, history and systems.

We need to listen. We need to learn from each other. I don’t have answers, but I have questions. We all have questions. We might benefit from asking more questions of each other. A much less elegant, but more engaging conversation might be productive of new understanding and new actions.

Most of all we need to act together. Those actions will help us to improve understanding, to better relationships, to reduce disadvantage and to improve the lives of our indigenous and all Australians. Perhaps questions asked in new conversations will help lead us find a way from fine words to better and more action.

What are your questions? Who do you need to ask to learn their answers? What actions might make a difference?

26 May is National Sorry Day and 27 May-3 June is National Reconcilation week. For a chance to learn more about Luke Pearson’s work to share the diversity of indigenous voices, follow Indigenous X on twitter.

Accelerating Trust


At the recent DoLectures Australia, many of the attendees remarked on the high levels of trust that had been built between the attendees over the four days. The high trust environment was such that speakers rewrote their talks to share more and some big dreams and surprising admissions were shared on both the stage and around the campfire.

A few key factors helped foster that environment of high trust:

Share a goal: Everyone attended the event to learn and to share in stories of actions that are changing the world. People wanted to become more effective at driving change and often to find a new path in the world. Those common goals fostered connections and trust.

Select for behaviour – especially giving: The event selected for people who were action oriented, passionate and interested in others. These are not abstract values. They come out in action, especially giving. There were a lot of givers in the community. Adam Grant’s Give and Take was a fitting gift for all the speakers (a unexpected gesture by Andy Hedges of Westfield, an event sponsor). From the first night people were sharing ideas and sharing networks in an effort to enable others to move forward. Nothing builds trust like the gift of help.

Strip away the status: when you are camping, sharing communal activities and it gets cold, it is hard to hold on to the trappings of status. Nobody looked their best and everyone’s warm clothes looked alike levelling status that might hold back conversation and connection. 

Build connections: Like any group there were some networks present among the group, but no exclusive cliques. Open networks became a way to accelerate connections as people introduced others and referred people to those who shared an interest or an ability to help. The sense that everyone could talk and understand each other fostered trust. The group left the event deeply connected as a result.

Be present: When nobody has internet or a phone connection, everyone is more present. When almost everyone is staying the whole event, including the speakers, there is time for deeper conversations. People gave themselves over to the event and the company. That presence and the mindfulness it brings gave everyone the chance to truly listen and engage in the event and the activities.

Share stories: Storytelling is a way to learn of others’ experiences, capabilities, goals and actions. Telling stories whether on stage or around a fire enables people to get a richer understanding of the other person.

An environment of trust and concern: Payne’s Hut where the event was held is a place of beauty but more than that it has been constructed and run with a concern to create a wonderful experience. The hosts of Do Lectures added to that experience by taking care to design for the little moments of the event. Trust is reciprocal and reciprocated. When you feel others trust you and show concern for you, you are inclined to follow the role model.

Trust is a critical capability for the future of increasing agile networked organisations. Fostering trust with techniques like these above is critical for the future of work in our organisations.

This post was inspired by a conversation at the event with Col Duthie, the insightful MC of Do Lectures Australia

Growing Crystals of Change


When we confront large scale transformation, the scope and beauty of the outcomes we seek can be overwhelming. Crystals grow molecule by molecule.  Bring about your large scale change action by action.

Big Change is Daunting

Discussing large transformative change you will often hear people refer to how daunting it is to consider the entire idea of the change. Richard Martin has eloquently described the work of building our future responsive organisations as like the construction of a cathedral that will be completed beyond our lifetime. Mary Freer wants to change health and social care for the better through Change Day. Eddie Harran seeks to understand the role of nomadism in shaping the lives of digital nomads. These are but a few of the large scale ideas that challenge our understanding of how to move forward.

Just conceiving of a perfect endpoint for the change can be a barrier to getting started. The pressure for perfection of this final vision can come from many sources. We want our goals to as well as ordered as a crystal and with a fine gemlike finish as well. Too many people spend their time polishing the gem of an idea and never get started.

To lead large scale change, we need to unlearn the desire to know the exact shape of the endpoint. Instead of focusing our attention on the perfect gem of an end goal, we need to focus the process by which the crystal of change gets formed.

A Crystal Grows Molecule by Molecule

The crystals that we later polish to create gems are formed when a seed attracts molecules from a saturated solution or gas to form a solid structure. There are a number of parts of this crystallisation process that apply in change as well:

Seed – First Action: There needs to be a first point for a crystal to attach. Somebody needs to begin the process of change and create the first action. This action can be as simple as declaring a need to change or organising the first connections.

Saturated solution – Ready Network: Super saturation of the solution with molecules drives the formation of a crystal. Change needs networks that are connected and rich enough in change agents to sustain connection and action. If that saturation falls between minimum levels, change stops. Action is one key way to keep change agents engaged.

Nucleation – Small Experiments: Before crystals form, the molecules connect in solution. Consider this the experimental efforts to form a crystal. Only when conditions are right to achieve stability do they connect to form a crystal. Every successful change initiative finds that there have been previous unsuccessful attempts to achieve stable change and that others are working on change in parallel. Don’t see these are barriers or disappointments. Recognise that the key is helping these experiments connect together at scale.

Crystal growth – Open Structure: Crystals form in structures because there are clear points and structures for new molecules to attach. Large scale change needs an open structure that allows those who are ‘transformation curious’ to connect and engage with the change in their own way.

Impurities – Embrace a little chaos: The dynamic nature of the process and environmental conditions when forming crystals attracts minor impurities and irregularities. These are just part of the process. Large scale change is never perfect. Accept that things will have a few rough edges, but keep working to grow the change around them.

Time: Most crystals grow gradually molecule by molecule. This gradual process reflects the process of change where people make new sense of their world and add new actions slowly step by step.

The Lesson from Crystals

Start acting now with the first experiments in a connected network of change agents and allow others to connect and shape the work as it moves forward. 

Thanks to Eddie Harran for the conversation that gave the idea of crystallisation somewhere to connect