Empower the Audience

The traditional panel has real limits.  Experiments are required for new formats to address disruptive, adaptive and emergent issues.

Yesterday at Disrupt.SydneyBen Gilchriest, Mani Thiru and I ran an experiment with an Anti-Panel.

Why hold an Anti-Panel?

The traditional panel format is broken when the questions being considered are adaptive, complex or emergent.  A traditional panel can be:

  • Disengaging:  The panel supposedly has all the power, expertise and knowledge.  They deign to answer questions from a large group of supplicants.  The audience sits, listens and watches.   A facilitator often shapes the whole event and dominates the discussion. One person speaks at a time.  The tendency is for people to seek to hold everyone’s attention.
  • Lacking collaboration:  Panellist may or may not build on others’ views.  Debates rarely occur or get explored.  The audience has little chance to collaborate with the panel or each other.
  • Lacking diversity:  Only panellists views get heard. Questions are rationed.  Questioning may be intimidating in a large group. Group think can occur with few views on offer. Panels are often very chosen from a limited demographic of expertise.
  • Narrow in contributions: Discussion is limited to verbal questions and answers.  Other forms of interaction are limited and usually very formal.  Feelings and intuition is disdained.  Shallow, concise and entertaining answers dominate discussion.
  • Focused on a correct answer: Panels are heavily dependant on technical expertise.  There is no room for creativity or experimentation.  Reflection time is not available to any participants
  • Linear:  Panels are always ‘moving on in the interest of time’.  Iteration is limited. 
In line with the spirit of Disrupt.Sydney we set out to disrupt the panel model with something more connected, more collaborative, more adaptive and more open to diverse contributions.

How do you hold an Anti-Panel?

The first change is to make the anti-panellists servants of the conversation.  Instead of an audience, there is a room full of participants working together.  The role of anti-panellists is to facilitate the participants to discuss the issues.

Then you need to open up the format.  We used a structure which ran from the personal to the group, explored a number of contributions (visual, emotional, allowed for movement in the room, etc) and iterated the discussion across:

  • opening: to set a common context, understanding and a little role modelling by the anti-panellists of the openness, flexibility and informality of the approach.
  • individual reflection by the anti-panel & other participants to draw what they found significant.  This used drawing to engage another perspective of reflection and to speed later sharing.
  • small group sharing and discussion of the drawings to draw connections & similarities, explore doubts, questions and differences.  
  • a full room discussion of insights, lessons, actions, new thoughts and other connections.  Explicitly in this conversation we asked and encouraged questions to introduce a discussion of feelings and concerns to explore and to widen the conversation to include domains that had not yet been discussed.
  • closing reflections from the panel of any points of synthesis or intuitions that they have drawn and an open invitation for the participants to share their insights.

I suspect each anti-panel would need to be different to be tailored to its participants, time allowance and topic, so I have deliberately left out further details of time allocation, questions, etc.  We found ours changed as we learned what the participants needed.  We would have liked to have included more leverage of digital capture and sharing in the discussion.  That remains an opportunity for a future anti-panel.  

The anti-panellists played a role as participants in discussion, timekeepers, facilitators through open questioning to draw in additional views and tried to keep a perspective of the whole conversation.  Adaptive leadership questions that explore purposes, concerns, circumstances and that drew reflection on elements of the system proved valuable.

At Disrupt.Sydney, this format worked very well for the discussion on the topics of disruption.  The participant feedback was very positive.  We drew a rich range of perspectives from the participants, allowed the participants to shape the discussion and presented many opportunities to build, draw connections or add other elements to the topic of discussion.

More Experimentation Required

Our experience was a worthwhile first experiment.  More will be learned as others leverage a fundamentally different approach to sharing the expertise of a room full of talented people with the passion to engage in a topic.

Let us know what you change and what you learn from your anti-panel.  Post your experiences in the comments.  Open experimentation, collaboration and iteration can only improve the results.

Credit: Credit for the idea of the anti-panel belongs with Matt Moore who helped us plan the session and was sadly unable to join us in bringing it to life.