The Art of Convening

By Dr. Geri McArdle

Take a guess at what these apparently disparate events have in common: weddings, holidays, association annual meetings, workshops or conferences. And there are more, but what these have in common is that someone in charge invites people to these events. Some person or persons design the event, invite the people or groups, and bring the invited together for a specific purpose and that is called convening.

Designing a convening is a conscious activity and requires a mix of art and science. The art is in finding the best time to convene and being able to articulate a clear and bold statement on why it is being held. The science is in being smart in the details, as in who will be on the design team, who will be invited, what the agenda is and what will be the results. The design building blocks to use to plan and manage the event are as follows:*

First is choosing to convene. You need to decide whether convening is the right tool for your situation at this time.

Second, you need to define your purpose. You need to ask what the point of convening is.  What is your convening’s “North Star” purpose and how co-creative or traditional design you want for the event.   

Third is forming a team. To do that you need to understand how the work of conventional design is typically divided, and chose a team structure that fits the job. For example, millennials tend to prefer working in collaboration and using social media. So called Baby Boomers not as much.

Fourth is assembling the participants.   For your convening, consider who will be interested, then decide who to invite and how it’s in their best interest and to their benefit to attend.

Fifth, is structuring the work. What will the participants do together? You need to develop a set of activities that will help the group achieve the intended purpose. For example, a group of people in direct sales who are scattered across the country join in monthly webinars to discuss methods for improving their businesses. There is an agenda, a facilitator, each person has a say and all receive a transcription of the event.

The sixth step is planning the follow through. As with the group in step five, the transcription they receive includes an assessment of how well the convening went and what action is required if any on important next steps.

In addition to these six steps, those in charge of the convening need to define what issues need to be addressed. They need to create a series of activities and develops meeting materials. They need to arrange the gathering timing, venue, travel, meals, materials and technology and insure that project management tracks and moves forward the work teams, deadlines and budget monitoring.

The managing team’s final task is to assess the impact of the convening, which can be challenging. To help, here are some commonly used strategies:

  1. Survey participants at the conclusion or immediately after the event.  Ask them simple questions that ask them to relate the quality of their experience.
  2. Debrief the convening process with all the organizers using open ended questions. Assure them that candor is paramount for continuing improvement.
  3. Follow up personally with participants and especially key stakeholders.  If you cannot meet face-to-face, a phone call will yield more thoughtful responses or use face time if it’s available. Finally, pay back what you heard about the event’s effectiveness

According to one source, convening is used to define a gathering that is different from those common formats in the distinct ways the event is laid out. This includes the duration of the event, and how the attendees are participating in a collective effort that serves a specific shared purpose. Convening is not a regular, internal meeting focused on administrative, process-related topics, solely for delivering information or a single point of view, such as a training or a media event. Remember, convening is designed for special circumstances. 


About the Author

Geri McArdle has been a practitioner in the human resource field for 25 years. She has published nine books on human productivity and numerous juried research articles in professional journals... a founding member of our Chapter, an international trainer and consultant, she now spends her time in Fort Myers. 

You can read more by Dr. McArdle in our monthly chapter newsletters.

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