Getting Better Results at Events and Meetings

Kathie Doty and Brittany Kellerman

The Hennepin-University Partnership (HUP) was created to expand and enrich connections between the State’s largest unit of local government, Hennepin County, and the State’s premier research institution, the University of Minnesota. One of the functions of the HUP office is to identify areas of mutual interest, then design and implement projects and programs that connect government practitioners with University faculty, staff, and students. There are several ways we do this including events such as symposia, forums, and workshops, as well as creation of a community of County middle managers who extend the purpose of the HUP into their respective departments. Since the HUP office became introduced to The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”), we have applied the philosophy of Art of Hosting as well as used specific techniques to significantly enhance efforts to catalyze meaningful connections that lead to active partnerships. This has made a noticeable difference to us—we now have more engaged conversations and we’re getting more positive feedback from both County and University collaborators.

There are three implications of the Art of Hosting that the HUP is actively uncovering for our work:

Asking Powerful Questions

In March 2012, the HUP hosted a half-day forum about what it means to effectively engage communities from the viewpoint of governments and universities, specifically Hennepin County and the University of Minnesota. More than 150 County officials and staff, and University faculty, staff, and students participated in the forum that was held at the University’s McNamara Center. This forum catalyzed important discussions:

  • Why engage communities?
  • What do we hope to accomplish?
  • What is community engagement?
  • Can we work together to achieve better results?

Doty_AoHphoto1In first planning the event, the HUP team started with selecting the event topic and identifying speakers. We didn’t give much consideration to how the participants would be engaged as we did our initial planning. As the planning progressed and we learned more about Art of Hosting, we reached out to the University’s Art of Hosting community of practitioners to see if people would volunteer to help us. We were delighted to hear from 18 staff and faculty who volunteered to be part of our event. We then set up a planning meeting with these volunteers and learned that there was more to what Art of Hosting-trained individuals could offer than facilitating conversation. As a result of their input and suggestions, we revised our table discussion questions to make them more powerful and set aside more time on the agenda for table discussions. For example, in order to get participants to think about themselves as part of the community, rather than separate from the community, we first asked: Can you think of a time when you were asked to participate in an engagement activity as a community member? How was that experience? Each question was crafted with the goal of producing meaningful conversations that would allow participants to take the time to reflect upon how what they were hearing applies to their work.Doty_AoHphoto2

We were very pleased with the results—not only did it appear that participants were more engaged than at past events, but the feedback we received via the end-of-event evaluation cards included comments expressly stating that the “facilitators” performed their role skillfully and made the entire event more productive.

Energy and Flow

The HUP hosted an event in May 2013 that was attended by more than 200 participants, primarily County employees who are on the frontline of working with families and children in need. These individuals must manage a range of stressful situations as they serve the public, and the turnover rate for many of these positions is quite high. The event focused on offering these valuable staff access to some of the latest research on infant brain development by two premier University researchers, Professors Megan Gunnar and Ann Masten.

Keeping in mind what had been learned from the Art of Hosting approach, we planned for table discussions after each speaker. We also engaged members of the University’s community of practitioners to assist us in planning the session, reaping considerable benefit from the great ideas generated at that session. We focused on powerful questions to engage participants and attended with more care to meeting logistics. We decided that in the welcoming comments, we would invite the participants to be present in the moment. This invitation was meant to be a positive way of bringing people’s minds into the room by asking them to let go of any distractions, including cell phones/devices.Doty_AoHphoto4

Table hosts were asked to arrive a few minutes early to welcome participants as they arrived. This gave off the subtle message to participants that this event was planned well and that any effort they put into engaging in dialogue would not be wasted. It also encouraged participants to be actively engaged from the beginning, within group discussion.

Table hosts guided the conversations and used markers to write on large sheets of “butcher paper” that covered each table. Not only was this a more engaging layout for the event, but we harvested many comments that the County’s Department of Human Services could take away for analysis (also, students working with the University’s Center for Early Education and Development did a fabulous job of translating the table comments to a summary piece that is being used by the County to determine next steps). Follow-up activities are being planned to improve how the County interacts with and supports families in need.Doty_AoHphoto5

Changing the Dynamic

In addition to using Art of Hosting philosophy, techniques, and resources at major events, the HUP tapped into Art of Hosting thinking to explore ways to improve the effectiveness of regular meetings of a group of Hennepin County staff as well. Starting in 2011, the HUP began meeting quarterly with a group of middle managers representing each of the County departments to extend the reach of the HUP office into County departments in a way that was not possible previously. These leaders agreed to learn more about how to work with the University, act as liaisons within their departments to catalyze productive collaborations, and also act as a resource for colleagues who are thinking about tapping into University resources. Prior to this approach, we had focused our attention on communication with elected Hennepin County officials, department heads, and key program leaders.

Initial meetings were structured to educate members about the University and the HUP office, and included a tour of the Minneapolis campus. Over time, meetings continued to include an educational component, but we also wanted to engage these leaders so they felt able to initiate connections with the University. We realized that the passivity at our quarterly meetings could be caused by our own facilitation and we decided to change our practices. We knew each leader had passions and wisdom. After consulting with members in the University Art of Hosting community of practitioners, we identified a number of ways we could change our meeting dynamics. We adopted a number of new elements—leaders presenting information, taking turns sharing with each other their “elevator speech” about their interest in the partnership, re-arranging our table formation (from a large rectangle to small pods), and setting aside time on each agenda for check-in/check-out questions.

The changes were instantaneous. At our first meeting with these new approaches, the leaders were much more engaged, and ready and eager to “grab the ball.” The check-in/check-out questions alone invited members to bring their thoughts into the present around the topics of discussion for the day and reflect on how they plan to bring what they learned/discussed back to their departments. They encouraged more interaction between cohort members, which naturally lead to more collaborations and shared understanding of the work of different departments. In retrospect, we feel that our original ways of running the meetings unconsciously communicated that we expected them to be passive recipients of information although it was the complete opposite of what we wanted. These changes not only improved the meetings, but we have now seen our members taking on more leadership roles within their own departments as well.


These three examples demonstrate the impact that the HUP has experienced by implementing Art of Hosting approaches. While we see opportunities for even greater improvements, we have been pleased with the results of the changes to date in both the engagement of participants at events and in building communities of collaborators.