In the Beginning Was the Break

Marc Beckmann
Responsible Leadership

Like with many other things, the realization that breaks have a central function in a conference’s design was first made in Silicon Valley. During so-called “unconferences,” it is the participants that define the agenda, and there is an inverse relationship between content and breaks, giving new meaning to “make-or-break.” Social entrepreneur Andreas Heinecke on attending his first unconference.

People who are quickly bored at conventional conferences, who rather work their smartphones in anticipation of the coffee break, who do not enjoy being lectured to, who do not take pleasure in the fine print on PowerPoint presentations or in seemingly endless panel discussions will at least respond with curiosity to an “unconference.”

Participants know that everything that is presented at forums, symposiums, congresses, summits, or conferences has a short half-life and generally is discarded relatively quickly by one’s brain. Interactive activities to increase motivation easily slip into awkwardness, and the bestsellers “inspiration” and “innovation” are actually mental non-sellers. Things get really bad when middle-aged men in badly fitting suits drone on for half an hour and seriously expect the audience to be attentive to, intellectually stimulated or emotionally touched by their outpourings. Conferences are frequently a sheer waste of time and resources; strongly defined by content, they fail to take into account humans’ limited capacity for attention and retention.

Andreas Heinecke

Andreas Heinecke

Andreas Heinecke is a serial social entrepreneur. For his creation Dialogue in the Dark (and other exhibitions fostering inclusion of marginalized communities) he became the first Ashoka Fellow in Western Europe. Dialogue in the Dark uses exhibitions as a catalyst for change and to raise empathy for people with disabilities. More than 9 million visitors have gone through this experience, and thousands of blind guides and facilitators find employment through exhibitions and workshops. Andreas Heinecke is also a Global Fellow of the Schwab Foundation of the World Economic Forum. He has a PhD in philosophy and is a professor of social business/ innovation at the European Business School in Germany. He took part in the 6th World Responsible Leaders Forum in Mexico and is a member of the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network.

This is confirmed by Olaf Axel Burow, an educator and creativity researcher at the University of Kassel. His research focuses on big group moderation, and he very well knows that many speakers at congresses and conferences are executives and leaders who “frequently have a strong desire for showmanship.” Many wrongly assume “that speaking from up front is well suited to bringing messages across.” On the contrary, “80 percent of what a speaker up front is saying is not absorbed by the audience!” Burow thus confirms the assumption that the majority of conference participants would rather spend their time in the hallway than in the auditorium and is looking forward to the breaks where the real exchange of knowledge takes place.

Disrupting the boring and conventional

Like with many other things, the realization that breaks have a central function in a conference’s design was first made in Silicon Valley. During so-called “unconferences,” it is the participants that define the agenda and there is an inverse relationship between content and breaks. Breaks are a structural element and determine the learning process. They are no longer merely the time in between that allows people to use the bathroom (= bio break), to ingest food or drinks (= snack break), to satisfy their addictions (= cigarette break), to take a breather (= rest break), to take care of urgent matters (= telephone break), or to communicate related information (= advertising break).

Instead, they serve the informal, non-public, un-controlled, and spontaneous exchange and thus offer ideal conditions for the creative process. They disrupt the boring and conventional sequence of listening to the opening speech, surviving the presentation marathon and panel discussions, eating, and sleeping, before starting all over again the next day. The most exhausting part is the one-way communication and the lack of options for participants to actually participate. The speaker’s announcement that he or she is looking forward to taking questions from the audience at the end of a presentation is pure hypocrisy. Only very rarely is there time for that. If there are five minutes left, the time is generally monopolized by those who believe that they should have been on the panel rather than in the audience. Thus another smug monologue that goes unchecked by the moderator out of politeness or the desire to avoid conflict.

Pyramid in YucatanMaya

6th World Responsible Leaders Forum in Mexico

The World Responsible Leaders Forum in Mexico (Dec 5–8, 2019) offered a space where members of the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network could strengthen their connections with each other, reflect on Responsible Leadership and how they can contribute to the UN 2030 Agenda. As venue for the Forum, the Foundation had chosen Mérida in the Yucatán Peninsula, the center of the Americas. Participants were invited to develop a stronger sense of their shared purpose as a community that drives positive change towards a more peaceful, just, and sustainable future. This was only made possible through the participation, passion, and commitment of all Responsible Leaders who helped shape this four-day journey – and the many breaks it contained.

From what I understand, the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt was no longer in the mood for that kind of conference and thus took a bold and radical step. At the 6th World Responsible Leaders Forum in Mexico, they dared an entirely new framework, taking leave of the conventional event format with its pathological side-effects.

Einstein said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I personally took the Forum to be an invitation to rethink. And I have come out of it with some thoughts mostly on the significance of pauses and breaks and our understanding of time.

Where nothing seems to happen, most things happen

I think it has become clear that breaks, in the context of an event that considers itself, in the widest sense, to be a break, develop their own dynamics. However, breaks and pauses also have a different quality. They suspend, create a quiet space, foster meditation and contemplation. We are gaining time but at the same time are ambivalent about how to fill this space, particularly in a utilitarian way. What do we do if there seems to be nothing to do? Immediately, a tension arises, referring to one of the key phenomena of our time: we are, in fact, gaining time but we constantly feel under pressure.

Modern humans are in a state of permanent parallel processing, permanently available and expected to respond immediately. A paradox emerges: the technological possibilities make it possible for us to respond more quickly, because less time is needed for individual activities. To take a simple example: writing an email is much faster than sending a letter by snail mail. While this should make things easier for us, it actually has the opposite effect in that we permanently want to do more in the same amount of time. We have more time but constantly feel like we don’t have enough time. The time we have seemingly gained through faster communication goes hand in hand with the loss of self-determination, which, in the final analysis, has pathological consequences.

Constantly checking our emails refers ultimately to an archetype. Possessing information gives us a leg up and makes us believe that we can ward off potential dangers. To this end, we also put up with meaningless communication and undermine our own intellectual aspirations by making all kinds of banalities public. We are in permanent send mode and if we do not receive anything, we experience this as a loss of importance.

The leitmotif of modern man: mobility

This is where reality and aspirations cruelly clash. Despite technological progress and personal competencies, we are no longer in control of optimizing our time and our selves. We are helpless and forced to take the foot off the gas. Literally. Let’s take a look at the leitmotif of modern man: mobility. Getting quickly from A to B is essential to getting ahead in the race for status and self-optimization instead of getting stuck in self-doubt and self-questioning. But the most effective speed, at least in cities, is usually achieved by bike rather than by car – despite billion-dollar development programs for infrastructure projects such as multi-lane streets, intelligent traffic and street light systems, and real-time information on traffic jams and route diversions.

In Berlin, the average speed is 24 km/h – the same speed as the horse-drawn carriages of yore. So what time do we actually live in? We have an identity crisis. Speed is a must, acceleration the precondition. And yet we always lag behind – because the data transfer speed is too slow or we end up in the wrong supermarket check-out line. But having time is a privilege. It’s a privilege, however, that we have unlearned. We suffer from having lost the ability to take a break. The wisdom of the great thinkers does not help us: we are giants of knowledge, but dwarfs when it comes to putting this knowledge into practice.

The principle behind the non-principle

I believe that an unconference, too, which asks participants to unlearn, needs a theoretical framework. As we read in Genesis 1, at the beginning of creation was chaos. Yet notwithstanding our appreciation of tohu wabohu, creative destruction, breaking expectations, and overcoming the so-called confirmation bias (a concept from cognition psychology that describes how we select information in a way that it confirms and meets our expectations), clarification helps. It helps the participants focus, making it possible to quickly detect the principle behind the non-principle.

"It is all the more important to create spaces where we can enter into an inner dialogue with ourselves and into a dialogue with others."
Andreas Heinecke

In order to confront the audience with silence, John Cage conceptualized his well-known work “4’33” as a piano concert. When it comes down to it, he could have used an empty stage to generate the desired impulse of an “inner melody.” Cage uses citations from a conventional piano concert such as a pianist wearing a tailcoat, a grand piano, and familiar patterns such as turning the sheet music and exaggerated artistic postures. The unconference should begin by giving an introduction to the art and philosophy of the break to make people aware of the different explanatory models.

This could be followed by a performance of the panelists à la John Cage. A twenty-minute discussion in complete silence would certainly generate many inner images about the (non-)acting protagonists and the Foundation mission they represent. This method – creating an arc of tension through silence – is very effectively used in Harvard seminars. Compliant or non-compliant behavior such as respect, discipline, the ability to concentrate, disruption, and breaking rules can be interpreted as part of the final reflection.

Today, responsible leadership still – or once again – is in crisis. The lessons from the financial crisis have not been learned, and the curricula of economics departments have hardly changed. The focus continues to be on promoting analytical and fact-based knowledge. As a result, human beings are not viewed holistically, taking into account their complexities and motivations, their contradictions, irrationalities, unpredictability, and needs.

The half-time of knowledge is permanently shortened, and nothing is as constant as change. What we are learning today is old hat tomorrow. Therefore, it is all the more important to create spaces where we can enter into an inner dialogue with ourselves and into a dialogue with others. This will strengthen us in our task as Responsible Leaders to shape a better society.

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