Two Tweaks for Generative Seminar Practices: Notes from Harvard Business School Digital Initiative

by cv harquail on November 19, 2014

Two weeks ago I traveled up to Cambridge to talk about Generative Business Practices with the folks of Harvard Business School’s Digital Initiative.

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So much happened, and so many ideas were shared, that I can’t summarize them in one blog post — not even a super-long one. Instead, I’m going to take pieces at a time and see if I can blog these ideas together.

Until I get there, you might enjoy the live blog of the talk that David Weinberger created.

I’ve never been liveblogged before, and it’s a wonderful gift to have someone respond to your talk in real time, in a way that captures the spirit of what you wanted to share. Here’s David’s post.   david weinberger live blog

Next, perhaps my smallest reflection on the seminar:

Giving a Seminar Is A Generative Practice

An academic seminar– especially one open to the community– is set up to be a generative event. Idea sharing, after all.

Sometimes the norms of the seminars emphasize ‘performing’ and ‘dazzling’ and ‘proving’, which dampen the generative capacity of the event as well as the individuals participating.  Luckily, the expectations of the HBS Digital Initiative are much more welcoming.


What you (or I) bring into a seminar as a presenter makes a difference in what kind of spirit unfolds.

With this seminar, my own focus was on sharing and learning. So–I made sure that:

  • My slides were on the ‘pretty’ side of professional,
  • The story I aimed to tell shared some of my own curiosity and excitement and frustration, and
  • I was ready for any questions any time after the third slide. (You’ve got to get through the basic definitions first.)

There were two other tweaks that I made to increase the generative potential of the seminar.

Taking Names

As usual, I tried to meet most of the folks personally when they came into the room– but at some point fear of a/v failure diverted my attention.

My small innovation was that, as each person introduced her/himself, I wrote down their first names on a little seating chart.  I was then able to respond to people and refer back to points they’d made using their names.  You’d be amazed at how much warmer a seminar is when you can address someone by name, and one of the participants thanked me for this.

Taking “Notes”

The other tweak was that, at the end of the presentation and the general Q & A, I asked each of the participants to ‘give me notes’ about how I might continue to pursue the topic.

I’d put index cards around the table before folks came in, and at the end of the conversation I asked people to use the cards to write down any question they had, connections they made, ideas they thought I might pursue, or whatever they wanted to say.

I got such great comments — including a few that I’d never expected.

For example, one participant told me that he was such an introvert he never spoke in seminars. And, even though he intended to email people afterwards with questions, he seldom did. Having a card to write questions and ideas on made it easy for him to feel like he had contributed. Indeed, he gave me two cards, filled up on both sides.hbs digital initiative

This little business with the cards turned out to be a mutually-useful action.

Here I thought I’d get all sorts of ideas (and I did) while the participants thought that I’d done it to help them (which it had).

I’ve written up many of the questions (forthcoming), and I’ll aim to answer the in a series of upcoming and smaller blog posts. I’m going to take the advice of Gina Trapani, via David Weinberger, and invite myself to write some short posts (short for me being, under 750 words. heehee).

Interestingly, neither of these two tweaks took much effort on my part.

Yet, they made the seminar feel significantly different — not just for me, but also for the participants.

Are these sorts of tweaks rare? Why don’t we do things like this more often?


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