Last week I attended Café-Projets Montréal, a gathering of “people with projects, confirmed social entrepreneurs, management and innovation professionals and community collaborators”, organized by Julien Hivon and Projektae’s Laurence Bakayoko.
I was very eager to see how such a project-oriented event would turn out, as I have been dreaming up events following a very similar formula in my head for a couple years already.
A Social Experience Design Challenge
These musings connect to a social experience design challenge that I keep coming back to. In short, it goes as follows: You have an emerging field (in this case, social good) with new actors popping up left and right. These people have much to offer each other. However, they don’t know each other all that well. The question is: how do you convene them in a way that maximizes beneficial outcomes from the gathering?
Some of the beneficial outcomes you may want to shoot for include: creating meaningful relationships (social discovery) or reinforcing existing ones; instilling a better overall sense of the field; building community; having a good time; and directly pulling participants’ projects – and thus the field – forward.
Old-school ways of organizing gatherings, like traditional conferences, which feature a few people in broadcast mode and the others quietly sitting in rows, are ludicrously bad at this. People typically get antsy on their chairs, for good reason – they have much more to offer than a pair of ears!
Unconferences and open-space meetings are a definite step up, as they allow for many more conversations to occur in parallel without destroying the shared experience feel. Because of this, these gathering forms have been steadily creeping into pretty much every domain that has creative people in it and isn’t overly stiff.
Mastering the Art of the Ask
Now, I believe the edge of the craft, at this point, lies in finding ways to enable participants to get really sharp about how they present themselves to each other. I’m sorry, but smiles and name tags just don’t cut it. My strong sense is that intent is the most important thing that “creatives on a mission” need to convey to each other in order to connect meaningfully. This is followed closely by what they are able to offer and what pieces they are missing to make progress on their particular quests.
In my opinion, mastering the “Art of the Ask” is key to pulling off any project that requires more than one person’s contribution. It basically boils down to (1) getting crystal-clear about your intent; (2) imagining what conditions need to be created for its manifestation to happen; (3) knowing how to ask in a way that makes other people care and help create those conditions.
How Café-Projets Works
The Café-Projets formula tackles these aspects head-on, and is not shy about raising the bar on commitment from participants. As such, it is effectively a pop-up school to learn the Art of the Ask. Here’s how it unfolds, from the organizer’s point of view, in bullet-point form:
Prior to the event
- Select four or five project “flamekeepers” (my term).
- Have them fill out project descriptions (Project name, mission, development stage, envisioned impact, needs, expectations)
- Send invitations out.
- Accept participants (called “collaborators”, in a clever expectations-setting move) up to a given size limit.
- Secure food and hot beverages for collaborators.
During the Event
- Collaborators come in, chat and network.
- Organizers make introductory remarks, explain how the event will go.
- Each flamekeeper gives a two-minute pitch explaining their project and needs.
- Collaborators self-select into clusters around each flamekeeper.
- Collaborators and flamekeepers discuss (freeform) for 30 minutes.
- Halftime break. (A presentation was given, but this felt optional)
- Every collaborator moves to a different flamekeeper for another 30 minutes of discussion.
- The whole group reconvenes. Every flamekeeper explains what they have learned, how their project has moved forward, and what their next steps are.
- People network some more.
Observations and Reflections
The above is more or less exactly what I witnessed last Wednesday, over about three hours. Taking everything in, the overall experience felt very right. There was an air of creative excitement in the room. I made a few promising new connections. Everyone appeared quite happy as the event wound down.
Reflecting on it, there are a few salient features that I believe make the formula work well. First, there is an element of social curation. The flamekeepers are selected, and required to do prep work (clarify intent: check.). Second, flamekeepers are given overt permission to ask for help and people come in with an expectation of helping move projects forward (offers and asks: check.). This influences who actually shows up, creating a nice communal vibe and a bias towards people who like to get things done. Third, projects are pitched live, just prior to people choosing who they’d like to help. There is an element of competition here that likely stimulates the people doing the pitching. It also gives people a sneak preview that is more useful than a simple title or written description. Fourth, there is immediate after-action review, enabling participants (and importantly, organizers) to assess outcomes.
The experience of forming a “pop-up advisory board” with a group of strangers is quite interesting, and gives one the occasion to simultaneously add value to a worthy project and connect with new people (social discovery: check.). One thing that was missing from my experience of it was the ability to dig down on who the other collaborators were. In an ideal world, you could peruse the list of all attendees and get links to their personal websites. Also, it is quite possible that some breakout groups could use some guidance on how to conduct the discussion; guidelines or props might be made available for such cases.
Variants on this formula have probably been invented in several places, including many classrooms. I see a connection to the professional codevelopment process of Adrien Payette and Claude Champagne. And the Product Design Guild (cofounded by Xianhang Zhang, one of my favorite thinkers on social experience design), follows a similar formula.
With all that said, I left the gathering with a satisfying vicarious sense of vindication. This was actually the 5th edition of Café-Projets, and I was told more people showed up than last time, so clearly something is working here.
I can only hope that more high-engagement events like this one crop up. They seem to me like a good way of enabling a “leveling up” to occur at both the individual and collective level. This kind of loosely-choreographed project jam looks like one of the secret ingredients that carry the potential to turn loose crowds into collaborative communities.