1: “We need more heat,” Priya Parker‘s client nervously whispered into her ear, she shares in her book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.
An architecture firm had hired Priya to facilitate a discussion about the firm’s long-term vision: “Did they want to remain a bricks-and-mortar architecture firm,” Priya writes, “or did they want to morph into an experience-design firm?”
The problem? While there were many strong opinions about this important topic, the emotions were not surfacing. The tone of the conversation was tame. Tepid. “Everyone around the table was smiling, friendly, and polite. Each time a partner would go out on a limb and dip a toe into the underlying controversy, she would quickly withdraw,” she observes.
Priya attempted to direct the dialog to what divided rather than united them. “Let’s get back to Anne’s point,” she would suggest. “But they were a sophisticated group and were well practiced at what I realized was one of the firm’s dominant norms: avoiding anything that could stir the pot.”
“What had been planned and billed as a contentious conversation about the future of the firm slip into a polite, cheerful discussion,” she recalls.
When we prioritize harmony over all else, we make our meetings and get-togethers dull. And that’s not the worst of it: “The goal of harmony burrows its way into the core of the gathering and becomes a kind of pretender purpose, hampering the very thing the gathering was supposed to be about,” Priya observes.
2: Priya knew she had to do something new and different to achieve the meeting’s purpose.
“So with the help of my extremely open-minded client, an executive who was not an architect himself but worked for them, we began to scheme at lunch, while everyone was away,” she writes.
When the group returned after lunch, there were two giant posters. “One extolled a character called the Brain, the other a character called the Body. Each poster featured an actual wrestler’s body, onto which one of the architects’ heads had been hastily photoshopped,” she writes. “We had chosen two architects we knew to be charismatic, playful, and eloquent. Both of them immediately erupted in laughter when they saw what we had put up.”
Then, she turned on the Rocky music. This meeting was now a cage match: The “Rumble in the Architecture Jungle.”
Priya stood in the middle of the room and laid out the rules: “In Round 1,” she announced, “each wrestler will be given three minutes to make the strongest argument for their side. The Body will argue why the firm should absolutely remain focused on the physical bricks-and-mortar architecture – building buildings for the next hundred years.
“The Brain will make the case for becoming a design firm, taking on jobs like crafting the signage within a hospital or organizing the flow of processes in an airport without necessarily building things.”
The audience had a vital role to play, too: “Everyone will listen to each fighter’s argument and then choose which side you are most convinced by,” Priya declared. “Neutral is not an option. You have to pick a wrestler to back.”
There would be a five-minute period after every round where wrestlers could ask for advice for their next round of arguments. In Round 2, once again, each wrestler would have three minutes to make their next argument.
Once Round 3 was complete, each person would choose which wrestler to stand behind. Priya appointed three executive assistants to play the role of independent judges to decide the winner.
As the Rocky music played, the excitement started to build. Priya encouraged the crowd to cheer and jeer and make some noise. The Body got into the act, flexing his muscles and motioning toward the Brain.
“For the next twenty minutes, thanks to the willingness of the two wrestler-architects, this stuffy, buttoned-up, conservative, genteel group barked, hissed, laughed, taunted, and listened as two architects made two strong, interesting, sharp, and radically different cases for two very different futures,” she writes. “The match was confrontational, heated, and argumentative, and it was exactly what we needed.”
3: We tend to fear and avoid conflict, yet the “responsible harnessing of good controversy—handling with structure and care what we normally avoid—is one of the most difficult, complicated, and important duties for a gatherer,” Priya writes. “When it is done well, it is also one of the most transformative.”
Seeking “the heat” in any gathering is risky. “When we put some process or structure around that heat-seeking, though, there is a chance for real benefit,” Priya writes. “Still, that doesn’t mean heat-seeking should be part of every gathering. I bring good controversy to a gathering only when I believe some good can come out of it.”
What is the gift? And what is the risk? These are two questions design strategist Ida Benedetto asks herself when planning a gathering. She defines risk as “a threat to one’s current state that could destabilize the way things are.” The risk is what allows for the possibility of the gift. “No true gift is free of risk,” Ida tells Priya.
Reflection: How might I inject some intentional conflict or controversy into an upcoming meeting or gathering?
Action: Discuss with my team or with a colleague. Do it.