A lot of smart people go on panels at a science fiction convention. Put a bunch of them on a panel, however, and you often end up with mess.
The same is true of work. Some places have a lot of smart people at them. But these people can ineffectually waste a lot of time if they are not managed properly.
Enter the middle manager (my role for some years). Underappreciated and definitely unsung, but the essential feature of bringing problems and minds together in an organized way.
In the same way, a convention panel needs a moderator. That too is an underappreciated and unsung position. I take it seriously, when I have it. Some people do. Others are pointy haired bosses who ask you ridiculous and unanswerable questions, or, on the other side, lose control and let gabby people sitting in the front row of the audience hold forth endlessly. Poorly managed panels are the devil's playground.
One important thing is not just keeping the panel on topic, allowing flexibility when an interesting and potentially fruitful side topic pops up, but making people interesting, by not allowing them to fall into default positions. It may surprise you to learn that your favorite writer is a bit of blowhard. It is the moderator's job to prevent you from reaching this realization.
I like moderating, and like to think I'm good at it. At least, I take it seriously. But at Boskone, I failed my audience by inadequately controlling my panel. The topic was Global Warming, but with an interesting and idea-generating twist: it wasn't about what to do about it, it was to assume it was going to happen and then discuss what people should do to survive and prosper. Or, as I put it, "global warming for fun and profit". Tell me, panel, where I should put my resources. What decisions should I make, what portfolio should I hold, what things should I look out for?
Fun, right? The panel didn't think so. They pretty much defaulted to discussing giant space shields and other such things. Now, just to be clear, there's nothing wrong with that topic. It just is the one people always talk about. We'd been given the opportunity to approach things from another direction.
I learned a few things about panel and audience management, so it wasn't a total loss. But I still want to know how to Profit from the Coming Disaster. I'll bet you do too.