Why programming downtime is critical for your conference.
“Playing is better than working.” A simple sentence expressed by my three year old that makes more sense than she can possibly appreciate. Who wouldn’t agree? We all know it. Play is better than work. And we also know that work is better when it feels like play.
Playing is crucial, but in the world of corporate events, now more than ever, return is everything. But in the serious business of securing return on investment, are we making a loss on creativity and innovation?
Playing is what we do in that scrunched up bit of time at the dog end of a day. Playing is also what we do when our minds wander freely in a traffic queue or when we walk to work. Combinatorial play—playing with ideas and combining concepts in new ways—was recognized by Einstein as the fuel for “productive thought.”
Meetings have been described as potentially one of the best opportunities for play and learning. Collaborating and communicating about shared objectives described as the “swings and roundabouts” of the playground. It is not always like that. Creativity happens in groups, but it also happens when we are alone.
Many people report their most creative moments come to them when they least expect it, when they just begin drifting off to sleep, when they take a shower or simply ride a bus. New ideas squeeze into our consciousness when our mind takes a break. This is why downtime rocks.
But programming downtime in a conference, when delegates need to justify the expenditure, is a challenge. So what delegates get are parallel sessions, breakouts, back-to-back presentations, education workshops, networking, appointment circuits and more. Occasionally, you meet delegates who are honest enough to tell you that they escaped to their rooms before returning to the congress. But it is doubtless that in that grasped moment of peace they felt guilt for not using up the full stock of opportunities blinking at them from their real-time, relentlessly timetabled, ever connected smartphone app.
Relentless is a word that saps creativity. In a study on workday design, researchers identified relentless mindfulness as a key challenge to employee creativity. This is a concern when innovation is the engine for global business. There is a common belief that creativity thrives under pressure. This is not true. It thrives under certain kinds of pressure. Not “multi-tasking, rushing around and stressing, headless chicken” kind of pressure.
This is the kind of relentless mindfulness common in the workplace—a constant shifting between competing priorities, tasks and deadlines. Never stopping to focus and play with ideas. The relentless mindfulness that cramps our creativity in the office has leaked insidiously into our meetings and conferences. And relentless programming could well be programming the creativity and innovation out of your delegates.
So here’s the dilemma. Employers and clients might see value in a packed program of relentless opportunities to ensure their delegates are ever mindful, but what employers and clients might actually need is delegate downtime. Not an easy argument when the industry is being faced with questions on the value of meetings—but a necessary one.
Workday design studies and decades of creativity research tell us that to be innovative, staff need to be given time to develop ideas on their own and with others. In their everyday business environments—unless they are working for Pixar (or similar)—it is but a dream to think that your delegates are given time to play and think of ideas. Meetings provide the ideal place and space to do just that. Right now, the really good meetings create the playground for playing together—but additional guilt-free, mindless time for individuals seems a big ask.
In the workday study, researchers concluded that work design should combine relentlessly mindful tasks with intervals of mindless work. The ability to give people free time to just think about and think up “stuff” is difficult. It became clear, when given the opportunity, employees either found other ways to keep busy or were resented by colleagues. The solution—the equivalent of a hot shower in the office (but less upsetting for office colleagues)—was a mindless activity like walking around the shop floor. Employees looked busy, but their minds were relaxed. So how could such an idea be used to enhance delegate creativity?
Creating a downtime program could help. If you want to inspire delegates to think differently, give them time to do it. They could well return to their offices, refreshed and with a new approach or new idea that might transform their business. How? Consider individual pods to relax into when delegates need some thinking space, a permission slip to escape for an afternoon walk in the park, a chance to do a CSR activity—filling bags of unused items for local charities, mindless but mind freeing.
In your meeting place, delegates need personal space. If you don’t program mindlessness, when they get back to business, amongst all the follow-ups, they lose the opportunity to respond to the sparks that you tried to ignite. Meetings are more than networking and knowledge exchanging. Truly great meetings, now and in the future, need to inspire innovation.
But this means meeting designers being more mindful of mindlessness. As the researchers remind us, “The music of Miles Davis was great not just because of the notes but also the silences between the notes.” Silence gives us pause for thought. And all of the best ideas start here. One+
One+ July 2012,