The Making of an Un-Conference: An Interview with Kathie Lingle

In April, the Alliance for Work-Life Progress (AWLP) is holding a Work-Life Forumin Arizona that’s being billed as an “un-conference.” Since many of my readers are interested or intimately involved in the work-life field, I thought I’d devote this blog post to an interview with Kathie Lingle, Executive Director of AWLP. I asked her to tell me more about this event. We talked for nearly 45 minutes, so I couldn’t include it all, but here’s an edited version of our conversation.

Kathie Lingle

So what exactly is an “un-conference?”

We’re experimenting with turning many of the expected features of a conference upside down, in order to stimulate creative thinking. A typical conference is usually an event where a whole bunch of people sit down while talking heads present to them. It usually begins and ends with a keynote speaker who may or may not be from the same profession as the audience. In between are workshops with more talking heads who use PowerPoint slides. Some are consultants who are selling something. If you’re lucky there might be some interactivity and the opportunity to network. If you were to survey participants six months later they’d probably struggle to remember what went on. That’s a conference.

At our un-conference, the core principle is there are no observers– everybody is a participant. We don’t have keynote speakers. We don’t have workshops. We don’t have talking heads. The fact is, every attendee at our Forum could be a keynote speaker, so our goal is to structure things so the work-life profession is talking to and amongst itself, not being talked to.

We do have a storyteller who’s going to help us kick off the meeting but unlike a normal conference he’s not coming in to entertain or dazzle anyone with his own brilliance. He’s going to interview a sample of participants in advance to find out what their challenges are, then customize his storytelling tools and techniques to the real-time needs of the audience. When was the last time you had the chance to influence the design of a conference to meet your specifications?

You held an event like this last year, too, right?

Yes, this is our second year. Our first year we looked at how many elements of “conference” we could change. We thought of following the opening reception by serving breakfast food instead of dinner. We thought of playing with clothing–if we were serving breakfast for dinner, why not have everyone wear pajamas? (We didn’t end up doing this!)

We also thought about not having enough chairs, so literally some percentage of the audience would always have to be on their feet. We didn’t do that, but what we did instead, was to put “Innovation Stations” around the room. They were tall bistro tables, and they each had different things on them. One was a Creativity Station with clay, markers, paper and some other materials. Another was a Think Station where we had blocks and puzzles and things that would occupy people’s minds. We also had a Play Station with stuffed animals, toy cars, an Etch-a-Sketch…At different times people would get up and wander to one of these tables and listen to what was going on while they were kneading clay or building with blocks.

Are you going to have the Innovation Stations again this year?

Yes. This isn’t just to be silly. The perception that some of our best thinking happens in the shower is no accident. The phrase “thinking on your feet” comes from man’s origins. We were designed to run, hunt and think on the move. AWLP has always stood for innovation with our Innovative Excellence Awards and other initiatives. If you want people to be really creative and innovative, the last thing you want them to do is sit down for hours at a time and listen to other people. That violates every principle of adult learning.

I see that storytelling is a big part of the forum. Why? What do you mean by storytelling and where did that idea come from?

Well, partly it comes out of what happened last year. We spent the whole first session re-constructing the history of the work-life movement. We went back to the 60s and caught up to the current time. We had teams of work-life folks who were actually from the various decades tell us the story of what their lives and careers were like at that point in history. And we had a graphic artist with a huge room-sized sheet of paper capturing their stories as they spoke. For the first time ever we recorded as much as we could catch about the work-life story. The finished product was a pictorial work-life timeline.

At the end of that session a number of our younger people who had just entered the profession said things like: thank you so much for sharing your stories; I had no idea what it was like back then and how much all of you have led the way to the workplace I enjoy today.

We’ll have a digital image of that work-life timeline displayed as we begin this year’s forum. It’s something you can walk up to and look at and you’ll see people and companies and developments over time. It’s a way for work-life people to catch up with their own history. So that was one big reason for this year’s focus on storytelling.

The second is that those of us who have been work-life practitioners have all learned, sometimes the hard way, that the data we produce (and I believe the work-life field produces more empirical data on the impact of what it does than any other people function) is never enough. When you’re trying to get your agenda at the top of the corporate food chain, it’s not the data that wins the argument. You have to have that, of course, but you also have to have stories about the struggles and triumphs of real people that those leaders care about. It’s the combination of fact and human interest that ultimately creates change.

So we’ve turned to the professional world of storytellers and storytelling. One of our sources is Stephen Denning, who’s written a book called The Leaders Guide to Storytelling, which is all about mastering the art and discipline of business narrative. And Mark Guterman, the storyteller coming to our event, is a CEO who spends his time educating corporate leaders about the power of storytelling to set vision and create change. We’re going to be focusing on those two kinds of stories and purposes for storytelling. What we’re going to be learning is how to modulate your experience and what you know to connect with the people you need to influence in your organization and create change. How do you wrap data in the right kind of business narrative that wins your case?

But stories are not just for leaders. They’re for people everywhere up and down the line because, if you’re going to embed a family-friendly environment in your workplace, that’s culture change and you need stories to make culture change.

Absolutely. And it turns out—as we can see on the national stage right now—whoever tells the best story, wins. The really important issues are ultimately decided by the story that grabs the most attention and gets repeated most often. Another reason for doing this now is that people are absolutely drowning in an ocean of data and disconnected facts. A meaningful story can feel like a life preserver. So stories are more important today than ever before. We’re going to help people create their storylines so they can go back to work more powerful for seeing more clearly where they’re going.

Another thing I see on your agenda is an “Imaginarium.” What’s that?

I mentioned that we won’t have workshops. One of the un-conference elements we’ve worked on is a replacement for those and we came up with Imaginariums. The objective is to do a group imagining on what the future will look like for a series of  topics. In one Imaginarium last year,  people were invited to engage in thought experiments about how culture change could be taken viral within an organization. Suppose you could inject a vaccine into an organization to cause culture change. What would that vaccine consist of? How would you make that happen? People broke into teams and they figured out what they would do with that idea. Or imagine you could drive a bus up to the door of a company and out would come a self-contained culture change movement that would take over the institution. Who and what would need to be on the bus and how would the change actually be mobilized on the ground?

Out of last year’s Imaginariums we got several “Big Ideas.” Remember I said six months after you leave a conference you usually don’t remember what went on? Last year, people signed up and committed to keep working on these Big Ideas until the next conference. The Imaginariums this year are actually three of those Big Ideas that teams have been working on. They’ll come back with a bit of secondary research, more of a plan and we’ll push deeper into what the future might look like. We’ll spend time deciding how and where we can take control of our future rather than having it control us.

What are the three “Big Ideas”?

One of them is about leadership. Some research we revealed last year was a an AWLP/WFD study showing 80% of leaders in the U.S. and around the world—not just CEOs but supervisors and managers— said they “get” the work-life business case. But then in the next breath when we asked them who their ideal worker is, it’s the person who has no family commitments and basically has no life outside of work. So one of the imaginariums we’re planning for this year is pushing forward on that: using the storytelling techniques we will have learned from Mark Guterman the day before, how can we communicate and create common experience with leaders to begin to close the gap between what they know and what they do?

Another Big Idea that emerged was about taking what corporations are doing with health and wellness and trying to address the huge problem of cost and the fact that this country spends more money on healthcare than any other and yet has less to show for it. A Big Idea came up about devising a community approach to health and wellness. What can we do outside of the company that will connect with efforts going on around health and wellness in the community?

And the third one (this won’t surprise you because this is what we work-life people have been trying to do for three decades now) is how can we fundamentally change the way work is done?

You’ve said elsewhere there will be a number of work-life visionaries at this event. Who are you referring to?

Well, Ellen Galinksy, President of Families and Work Institute, will be involved in two sessions, including one about the latest and greatest in work-life research. Sandy Burud, a Principal at Flexpaths who’s leading the effort on changing work; her book Leveraging the New Human Capital is one of the most important reference sources for any of us in the work-life field. Charlie Grantham—he’s the founder of the Community Design Institute and author of the book Corporate Agility and he’s working with Sandy on changing work and just led a big conference on the topic in California. Maureen Corcoran, who has the wonderful title of VP for Health, Life and Inclusion at Prudential Financial. She’ll lead the Imaginarium on community approaches to health. Perry Christensen will be with us…

Wow. This is quite a lineup…

Yes. Perry was co-author with Stu Friedman and Jessica DeGroot, years ago, of the seminal Harvard Business Review article on work-life, “The End of the Zero-Sum Game,” which really laid out the argument for the first time of how it’s not about your life vs. your work—that you can have both. He’ll be working with another luminary in our field, Diane Burrus from WFD Consulting, co-chairing the leadership gap imaginarium. We also have the president of WFD Consulting, Debbie Phillips, and Judy Casey, director of the new Work and Family Researchers Network. The Network is having its first global meeting in June, so we’re going to be the beneficiaries of some of the advance research information for that meeting.

Of course we have Mark Guterman, our storyteller, who is CEO of America’s Next Career Center. And then we have a number of our AWLP rising stars. They’re the next generation of work-life leaders: people like Kristen McNally, Judith Finer Freedman, Casey Carlson and Kyra Cavanaugh.

Your first “un-conference,” last year, was invitation-only. Why did you open it up this year and who is this year’s forum for?

Last year was invitation-only because we wanted to keep it very small and lay the groundwork for creating the Big Ideas.  We wanted to make sure we had the people there who would stay with us after the event, so we really stuck to a lot of the core work-life practitioners who have been at the business for a long time and are dedicated to making change. We did mix that up with new talent, as well, but we put the emphasis on long-term practitioners because we wanted to get things moving.

This year it’s wide open because we’ve accomplished that objective. We have our Big Ideas pretty much fleshed out and now we want to open it up to a much broader constituency. In fact, I’m hoping that some people come who aren’t conventional work-life practitioners. We really want to push these ideas forward with the richness of all kinds of different perspectives.

So everybody is welcome?

Everybody and anybody who really cares about changing the work environment and is involved in one way or another in making every workplace a better workplace. That clearly isn’t limited to one particular group of people or any one profession.

I’m sold. I’ll be at this “un-conference” and will fill you in on my experiences when I return! (In the meantime, watch here for more posts on writing for  work-life, HR  and internal communications professionals).

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