Blog Post

Four Indispensable Methods for Organizing Group Attention

Over the next few weeks, I will blogging about all of the ideas and insights and keynotes and applications and everything else we took away from the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival on Learning, Freedom, and the Web (Barcelona, Nov 3-5), but, today, I want to highlight four unforgettable, indispensable lessons on attention that were used to organize the "chaordic" energies of this unusual, fabulous festival that brought together web developers, open source activists, hack bus iconoclasts, peer-to-peer learners, and even the occasional tenured academic (such as myself). How to turn such a motley crew into a productive force for good in the world?   Here are four methods I learned:


(1)  Manage Attention at the Beginning of Each Day or Session

The brilliant facilitator, Allen "Gunner" Gunn of Aspirations (, began each day with his inimitable, rapid fire, high decibel, insanely witty calling us to attention.   It went something like this, with Gunner pointing to one person in the crowd of fifty or seventy, and all caps and boldface and italices to designate the sound level:  "CAT, WHAT THREE THINGS ARE YOU PLANNING TO MAKE TODAY AMAZING?"    And then Cat stands and says one or two things and, if she stumbles at three, Gunner doesn't miss a beat before saying, "OKAY, WHO ELSE HAS SOMETHING AMAZING PLANNED FOR TODAY?"  And so forth until half a dozen people have said something they plan to do and everyone in the room (believe me, everyone) is focusing on what they will do to make their day amazing.  

I cannot stop thinking about all the ways I plan to use this in the future--in the classroom, at meetings, maybe even when giving a public lecture.   Distributing the called-out attention gives focus and energy to what comes next.  It basically says, "If this day isn't amazing, why did you let yourself down?  What didn't you do to make it amazing?"   It sets up individual contribution to the day's success as an expectation, shared and supported by all.   I don't have Gunner's stocking cap nor his wit or his booming voice and manner but I know I can adapt this technique in many situations and I know you can too.   Right?  Right!   We can do this and make our future meetings amazing.  (That's called Channeling our Inner Gunner.)  


(2)  Crowdsource Attention at the Beginning of a Meeting or Session

Another technique I learned is a variation on #1 but an important one.  In a smaller group, you ask everyone present to work in pairs and to come up with a list of three things they want to accomplish in the session.  You set a time limit.  Five minutes is ideal.   No more.   The facilitator then starts with a group, ideally not the closest at hand, and asks them to read their top three.   You make sure everyone in the room hears the three.  Then you ask, "How many people had #1?"  And ask for a show of hands.   "How many #2?"  "How many #3?"  And then, "Who has a fourth?"  And you then let individuals read #4 from their card, #5 and so forth.  Ideally, you have a partner who is keeping track.  You stop this after 5-8 minutes, and then use the list to focus the first part of the discussion.  If things peter out, you go to your prepared notes---but usually they don't peter out.   This method gives the group and pairs of individuals in the group responsibility for the success of the conversation.


(3) Delegate, Distribute, and Divert Crises of Attention


This is another one from Gunner, and I've never seen this before.  At our "Space Wranglers" pre-festival meeting of all of those responsible as community partners for running a major schedule of events at the festival, Gunner delegated himself, Mark Surman (Executive Director of Mozilla Foundation), and one other person (I cannot remember who now) as the Designated Managers of All Complaints, Traumas, and Whining.   None of these three designated people was charged with the actual managing of the myriad events of the festival.  So if someone came to any of these three designated hit-receivers, the festival could go on.  However, if complaint, trauma, and whining were heaped upon the people who were organizing it all, it could put a monkey wrench into the free flow of the festival itself.   We were also told that, if anyone else in our tent had a complaint, trauma, or just a whine, to also send them to these three very visible people . . . and not to the actual people putting on the event.   These three designated people, we were promised, would find a way to solve the problem and would do so outside the actual managing of the events of the festival.   This is again something I will use as it frees up the organizers to do what they need to do to manage the chaordic . . . while giving everyone and anyone a major, visible, responsible, important person who has pledged to solve problems and hear complaints.   Brilliant.  The show goes on because the persons responsible for making the show go on can pay attention to what they need to do for the festival as a whole while the luminaries handle a diverting side issue.


(4)   Regroup Attention at the End of Each Day


Gunner again, in the wake of keynotes and summaries and instructions by various other luminaries, came in at the end of sessions and at the end of the day to remind us of what we had accomplished by again focusing our attention.  "CAT, WHAT THREE THINGS DID YOU DO TO MAKE YOUR DAY AMAZING TODAY?"  And so forth.   As a good academic, I could have stood up and shouted, "I critiqued all the shortcomings of everything I saw today!" but, well, I didn't.   Because for all the importance of critique, the whole point of 1, 2, and 3 above is to focus attention on what I--and you-- do to make an event work.   Critique is always about standing off to the side as if one is not responsible and making comments about the failings of others.   Sometimes, as in, let's say for starters, a democracy, one feels as if one has no other role but as critique.   But the whole point of 1, 2, and 3 above was to shift the role of the attendee to that of participant, to move from the position of someone passively absorbing into the role of creator of content.   And, as we saw in #3, if something was going wrong, there were even highly important, responsible leaders charged with attending to your problem.  You had a voice.  You would be heard.   So if you had a complaint and didn't voice it, well, whose fault, exactly, was that?    If you did not have an amazing day, you were not paying attention to the task you had been given to take up.  


Of course, it's never this easy.   But the entire way that Drumbeat Festival worked to restructure attention--from not having a printed schedule but a wiki that anyone could change at any time, to having "space wranglers" who distributed authority, to the four methods I've described above--was guaranteed to distribute the responsibility for success.   One could choose not to take on the responsiblity.   Or one could, absorb the four indispensable lessons on attention, and MAKE YOUR DAY AMAZING.







That is an astonishingly good idea.  I can't wait to begin using it when my seminar starts in January.


Instead of a normal presentation of our Master's in Knowledge and Networks, at a large townhall of 50+ faculty, I used method #2 and it was fabulously successful.  I may never, ever give a conventional paper again.  It was so much lively and more engaged.   Let me know how it works for you, Barry.  


I have seen this work amazingly at Surf Lifesaving carnivals, with up to 1000 kids competing. As an offical responsible for making things happen in a competition arena, it's a fabulous thing to know there is what we call 'Competitor Liaison', where all complaints are sent. It works as described for the festival- that person has the role as their one responsibility. And it is incredible how it keeps people happy in a stressful situation.

I have been playing around with how I can integrate this approach into my class work. Although with adults there is not so much 'classroom management' focus, there are instances where there is a task that involves the entire class in which being able to split the responsibility os great. Normally this might happen between two staff, however I am planning a session in which a student may be nominated to have this role. It will be interesting to see how it goes.