Blog

Welcome to the Conferences That Work blog. You're in the right place for the latest posts on conference design, facilitation, and peer conferences—or sign up for our RSS feed so you never miss another post.

How to change an organization’s culture

April 24th, 2017 by Adrian Segar

Is it possible to transform dysfunctional corporate culture like that of United Airlines into the employee engagement of Southwest or the indifferent customer service at Kmart into the customer-first approach of Wegmans?

After over thirty years working with organizations, I think that it’s possible to change organizational culture — but it’s far from easy.

First, many organizations are in denial that there’s any kind of problem with their culture, and getting leadership to think otherwise is an uphill or hopeless battle.

Second, if an organization does get to the point where “we want to change our culture”, there’s rarely an explicit consensus of what “needs to be” or “might be” changed.

Third, culture is an emergent property of the interactions between people in the organization, not a linear consequence of deeply buried assumptions that can be challenged and “treated” in isolation. Prescriptive, formulaic approaches to culture change, are therefore rarely if ever successful.

Finally, organizational culture self-perpetuates through a complex web of rules and relationships whose very interconnectedness resist change; even if you have a clear idea of what you want to do, there are no uncoupled places to start.

So, what might we be able to do? For concise advice, I recommend Chris Corrigan‘s excellent article The myth of managed culture change. Read it!

In particular, this excerpt caught my eye:

“Culture is an emergent set of patterns that are formed from the interactions between people. These patterns cannot be reverse engineered. Once they exist you need to change the interactions between people if you want to change the patterns.”
—Chris Corrigan, The myth of managed culture change

This is why process tools like those included in The Power of Participation are so important. Imposed, top down culture change regimes attempt to force people to do things differently, a process that Chris describes as “cruel and violent”. Participation process tools that allow people to safely explore interacting in new ways allow organizations to transform through the resulting emergent changes that interaction tools facilitate and support.

Image attribution: Animated gif excerpt from “Lawyers in Love” by Jackson Browne

Children shouldn’t sit still in class — and neither should adults

April 17th, 2017 by Adrian Segar

It’s amazing that established research on ways to improve children’s learning is ignored when designing adult learning environments.

Some examples. We know that kids shouldn’t sit still in class. Short bursts in physical activity are positively linked to increased levels of attention and performance. Watch Mike Kuczala’s TEDx talk “The Kinesthetic Classroom: Teaching and Learning through Movement.” Michelle Obama’s 2010 “Let’s Move” initiative works to increase movement and healthy eating in schools. Classroom movement programs like GoNoodle are now used in more than 60,000 elementary schools in the United States. [More links to research can be found in Dr Ash Routen’s and Dr Lauren Sherar’s article “Active lessons can boost children’s learning and health“.] Read the rest of this entry »

Associations exist only in the mind

April 10th, 2017 by Adrian Segar

Professional, trade, and public interest associations are significant businesses. In the United States alone, associations employ more than 1.6 million people, and generate an annual payroll of ~$50 billion.

Yet, ultimately, associations exist only in the mind.

Stay with me, and I’ll tell you a story that may convince you of the value of this strange point of view.

Fifty years ago, every business that wanted to offer credit to its customers had to have its own independent system to do so. Individual banks were trying to encourage merchants and customers to adopt newfangled things called “credit cards”, but they failed to solve the chicken-and-egg problem that consumers did not want to use a card that few merchants would accept and merchants did not want to accept a card that few consumers used.

Then in 1966, a man named Dee Hock had the vision, determination, resources, and a little luck to break this logjam. Dee described his journey in a fascinating book he wrote after his retirement in 1984, intriguingly titled: Birth of The Chaordic AgeDee was the first CEO of what became the mammoth multinational financial services corporation VISA, a company with a current market capitalization of over $200B.

What has this to do with associations? Well, you may be surprised to learn that VISA has never issued cards, extended credit or set rates and fees for consumers. The company is, in structure if not in capitalist terms, an association of tens of thousands of member banks who offer VISA-branded credit, debit, prepaid and cash-access programs to their hundreds of millions of customers. These banks, while competing with each other for customers, agree to honor each other’s trillions of dollars in transactions annually across borders and currencies.

At its core, VISA is a set of agreements between its members. The company’s value to its owners and customers is created from the mutual agreements its members have made. Without those agreements, VISA would not exist and we would return to the pre-VISA world when every financial entity had to have its own independent system of offering credit to its customers.

Although VISA is an atypical kind of for-profit organization, its core purpose is essentially identical to that of trade and professional associations. Associations are society’s instantiations of communities of practice, groups of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and agree to actively engage around what they have in common. That leads us to Dee Hock’s (and my) view of organizations like VISA and associations:

“…organizations exist only in the mind; they are no more than the conceptual embodiments of the ancient idea of community.”
—Dee Hock, Birth of The Chaordic Age

This perspective is extremely important because it’s easy for associations to forget their initial and continued reasons for existence. Every association is created when at some moment in time a group of people with something in common wants to further a particular profession and/or the interests of those engaged in a profession and/or the public interest. Typically, the community already exists informally, and its “members” want to create a formal, legal structure to support, deepen, and widen its reach.

Associations can, however, lose sight of this primal and ongoing purpose. When this happens, they concentrate on self-perpetuation and/or expansion at the expense of supporting the community of practice for which they were created. Remembering that an association is, at its core, a set of agreements in people’s minds about the instantiation of a community that is important to them is key to keeping the association relevant to the community it serves.

The architecture of assembly

April 3rd, 2017 by Adrian Segar

“Architecture sets the stage for our lives; it creates the world we inhabit and shapes how we relate to one another. In a time in which democracy is under increasing pressure in different parts of the world, it is time to rethink the architecture of assembly.”
Max Cohen de Lara and David Mulder van der Vegt, “These 5 architectural designs influence every legislature in the world — and tell you how each governs, The Washington Post, March 4, 2017

How do room sets imply and influence what happens at meetings? Can room sets affect the quality of democracy, sharing, and equality experienced by participants? Read the rest of this entry »

Dealing successfully with event complexity

March 27th, 2017 by Adrian Segar

In 1975, I was stricken with viral meningitis while attending a conference in the former Yugoslavia. While spending ten unexpected days recovering flat on my back in a Split hospital, my only reading matter was an English translation of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering the circumstances, that Taoism stealthily and permanently insinuated itself into my psyche.

Reading Atul Gawande‘s unexpectedly excellent book The Checklist Manifesto recently, reminded me of Lao Tsu’s advice on dealing with complex issues: Read the rest of this entry »

Charles, Lawrence, David Bowie, and me

March 20th, 2017 by Adrian Segar

My first public gig as a musician was at David Bowie’s Beckenham Arts Lab. Read the rest of this entry »

Three ways to make it easier for attendees to participate

March 13th, 2017 by Adrian Segar

How do we get people to participate at meetings?

We know that participants — people who are active learners — learn more, retain more, and retain more accurately than passive attendees. They are also far more likely to make valuable connections with their peers during the event.

Seth Godin describes a desirable meeting mindset:

What would happen…

if we chose to:

…Sit in the front row

Ask a hard question every time we go to a meeting…

All of these are choices, choices that require no one to choose us or give us permission.

Every time I find myself wishing for an external event, I realize that I’m way better off focusing on something I can control instead.
—Seth Godin, What Would Happen

This is all very well, but it begs the question: what can meeting designers do to make it easier for attendees to participate more at meetings? Here are three things we can do. Read the rest of this entry »

“Less Meetings, More Doing?” Nope!

March 6th, 2017 by Adrian Segar

Many believe that meetings are an unpleasant evil that sucks time and energy away from getting things done.

That’s unfortunate, because meetings — when done right — are one of the most powerful business tools for creating the action outcomes that stakeholders and participants want and need.

Over the years I’ve learned through painful experience that blindly doing something, anything, before thinking through what I could be doing and how I might be doing it, was invariably a recipe for wasting a lot of time and energy. Such deliberation becomes even more important when we are working collectively with others on a common project. This is because today, 70 – 90% of what we learn is learned socially, and much of this learning occurs during formal and informal meetings.

Much has been written about how to run great business meetings (for example, this, this, and this.) Far less has been shared about how to create the right action outcomes at large meetings, aka conferences, that professionals attend. Perhaps that’s because the focus at conferences is typically on learning and connection, which hopefully lead to relevant personal outcomes rather than group outcomes.

Personal change at conferences is important. After all, if you attend a conference and nothing significant changes in your life, why did you go? Uncovering and working on group outcomes, however, is one of the best ways to build community at a conference, which increases the likelihood that participants will see the conference as professionally valuable and makes it more likely that they will attend future events.

So how do we uncover and work on personal and group outcomes at conferences? I’m so glad you asked! Check out the personal introspective and group spective (including the action outcome version) processes I’ve been designing and facilitating for years. For full details, see my book The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.

How to live your life

February 27th, 2017 by Adrian Segar

Two important truths from Stephen Jenkinson:

“…it’s the awareness of death — and not happiness or positivity or stoicism — that allows us to live fully in the time that we have.”
—Stephen Jenkinson in the 2008 documentary Griefwalker

and

“…live your life as someone who has an enduring obligation to that which has kept you alive.”
—Stephen Jenkinson, in an interview in The Sun, August 2015

Photo attribution: Flickr user x1klima

Lessons from Anguilla: What meeting designers can learn from religious services

February 20th, 2017 by Adrian Segar

On my daily vacation walk to Island Harbour, I hear singing. As I turn the corner onto Rose Hill Road, the sound swells. It’s 7:30 am, but the morning service at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church is in full swing and, as I pass, a familiar hymn from my youth washes over me, sung by a hundred enthusiastic voices. And yes, I admit it, during the second day of my vacation while enjoying the harmonies I hear, I’m jolted to think about religious meeting design…

Religious services are thought to be around 300,000 years old — by far the oldest form of organized meeting that humans have created. We know little about prehistory religious services, but the meeting designs used by the major world religions today date from the Middle Ages. Over the last thousand years, religious meetings developed a number of important features in order to maximize the likelihood that people would attend.

What’s interesting is that these features are largely absent from modern secular meetings!

So what can we learn from religious meeting design? I confine my observations to Christian and Jewish services, as they are the faiths familiar to me.

Don’t let any one person talk too long
The most frequent preaching length in Christian churches is 20 to 28 minutes. Although some pastors take more time, their number is decreasing. And in 2014, the Vatican recommended that sermons be limited to eight minutes or less!

While people joke about the length of boring sermons, contrast this relative brevity to modern conferences, where speakers typically speak for an hour. We know that listener attention drops sharply after ten minutes unless a speaker does specific things to maintain it. Religious institutions know this, and deliver short bursts of emotional content. Most meetings don’t, and attendee learning suffers as a consequence.

Include lots of communal activities
Singing is one of the most powerful fundamental, communal human activities; right up there with eating together. The oldest written music is a song, the Sumerian Hymn to Creation, dated before 800 B.C., and communal singing likely predates this by tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

Jewish and Christian religious services are filled with singing and praying. These are communal activities — each congregant contributes to a common endeavor. Some people have good voices, sing in harmony, and add pleasure to everyone’s experience. Even those who can’t carry a tune very well become part of something, a common endeavor, while they are singing a familiar and often beautiful hymn or prayer.

Communal activities are powerful because they align participants in a common experience: creating something beautiful and uplifting together. When was the last time you did something like that in a meeting?

Breaks aren’t communal activities
Most meeting organizers assume that the human interaction they’ve been told should be incorporated into their meetings is provided by breaks and socials. But breaks and socials aren’t communal activities — everyone is doing something different! The post-service Church Suppers and Jewish Kiddish give congregants time to meet socially, thus strengthening the communal experience provided by the service. In contrast, modern conferences expect attendees to bond after having primarily listened to lectures.

Keep ’em moving!
People don’t sit still at most religious services. They stand to sing and pray. In some congregations, dance is a normal component of the service. Physical movement during events is important because blood flow to the brain starts to decline within ten minutes of sitting still, leading to decreased attention. Sadly, it’s rare for meeting sessions to include any kind of body movement.

Provide an emotional experience
Whatever opinions you hold about religious services, it’s clear that they are designed to create an emotional experience. Given a choice between emotional and “book learning” experiences, people will invariably choose the former. Religious services offer the kinds of experiences that people prefer, served up in a safe and familiar way. Most conferences offer little emotional experience directly related to their content and purpose; instead such experiences — entertainment and socials — are glued onto the program as unintegrated extras.

Conclusions
I’m not suggesting that we turn all our meetings into gospel revivals. But think about it — how would your meetings be improved if they incorporated some of the religious services features I’ve shared here?

Church service photograph courtesy of The Anguillan

Book covers

Thirty minutes free consulting included with book purchase on this site!

Download five free chapters here!

Where To Buy

Purchase eBook ($11), paperback ($26) or both ($32) at lowest available prices via PayPal on this site. Signing and U.S. shipping included. Paperback versions are also available from online bookstores everywhere.

Twitter LinkedInGoogle+

Subscribe to my posts

Testimonial

…events need engagement and participation and @asegar is the lead authority on the subject.

— Julius Solaris, Editor of Event Manager Blog, https://twitter.com/MeetMontreal/status/609033079802462208
Event Pro Update
  • Blog Post Archive

  • Cart

  • Meta