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November 26th, 2015 by Adrian Segar


Thank you.

Six years ago I started this blog, one in a hundred million on the exploding internet. No one visited for a while except search engines. I posted one, sometimes two, articles each week. Slowly visitors grew, readers like you.

This is my 400th post, and this year I expect close to 10,000,000 page views of Conferences That Work. I am grateful for your support. Yes, I do the work I do from mission, a love of facilitating connection between people.

But if I hadn’t received the feedback that you’ve given me, sustaining my belief that others care about this work, that it’s important to you too, I would have probably abandoned this path and explored a different journey.

Thank you for reading, connecting, interacting, and meeting in all the myriad ways we now have at our disposal. If we haven’t met yet, let’s make a date in the future. And let’s look for opportunities to deepen existing relationships too.

With love and best wishes,

Adrian Segar

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Pair share—What’s on your mind right now?

November 23rd, 2015 by Adrian Segar
Malii Brown

Malii Brown

Here’s an effective variant of pair share—a fundamental participative technique that fosters connection and learning via discussion with a partner during a conference session—that was conjured up the other day by Malii Brown while we were co-facilitating a peer conference roundtable.

To keep participants alert during round-the-circle sharing at roundtables, I break every 20-25 minutes, either for a short bio-break or a relevant exercise involving movement. I often use pair share as one of these exercises (see The Power of Participation for a complete description) by asking participants to stand up and spend a few minutes introducing themselves to someone they don’t know.

On this occasion, Malii and I were alternating facilitation, and she got to introduce the pair share. Malii asked everyone to find someone they didn’t know, but when everyone was paired up she simply said:

“Share with each other what’s on your mind right now.”

Here’s a video excerpt of the resulting pair share. (I’ve removed the sound to maintain confidentiality, but you should know that the volume was substantial!)

I liked  the energetic conversations Malii’s suggestion triggered, and have added this prompt to my mental toolbox for future use. This is a nice example of the kind of learning that can occur when co-facilitating—thanks Malii!

Create Your Dream Conference Collectively On This Friday’s #Eventprofs Happy Hour

November 17th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

Creating the perfect conferencesubscribe_nowJoin me and my special guest Bernie DeKoven on Friday, November 20, 2015 from 4 – 6 pm EST for a unique online experience where we’ll collectively create our perfect conference. Instead of our usual Google Hangout, we’ll be hosting this show for the first time on the live-casting video platform Blab.

Bernie DeKoven is a legendary American game designer, author, lecturer and fun theorist. He is most notable for his classic book, first published in 1978, The Well Played Game “one of the most brilliant and overlooked books on games to date”, for his contributions to the New Games Foundation, his pioneering work in computer game design, and for his long-running web site, Bernie has spent the last 45 years working to teach new ways to play and create community.

Bernie is also a sweetheart.

The blab will go live at 4 pm EST. Join us before 4:30 pm, when Bernie will lead us through the first ever online version of “Did I Mention“, which we will then use to collectively build our ideal conference.

Don’t miss this unique opportunity to play with Bernie, building a collective vision of what a conference can be. To participate, you’ll need to be logged into Twitter in the browser you’re using. Simply click on the “Subscribe Now” below to subscribe to (in advance) or join the blab.
subscribe_nowHaven’t blabbed before? No worries—this post by Jocelyn Gonzalez covers everything you might need to know.

Join us!

[Added November 20, after the Blab was over.]
Here’s a recording of the resulting Blab!

Don’t believe those who tell you personal change is easy

November 16th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

change machine 3685880130_0f339f0c9d_oWe all have moments when we wish our lives were easier.

We struggle at times with change we would like to see in our lives but can’t seem to make happen.

And we are continually exposed to marketing that promises quick and easy solutions to the problems we are experiencing.

If we want to lose weight, find the right person for that special relationship, be at peace with ourselves, become rich, give up addictive behavior, or make a hundred other common changes, there are tens of thousands of speakers, books, and programs that offer a revolutionary, simple method to cure what ails you.

Just have Jim speak at your event, buy Sarah’s best-selling book, or sign-up for Esmeralda’s online course—and your problems will be over!

Over and over again we delude ourselves that the next miracle diet we try will be the one that “just works”, a new management fad will whip our recalcitrant employees into shape, or the latest event technology will make our attendees happy, wealthy, and wise.

In reality, I’ve found that only a tiny fraction of speakers, books, and programs offer real value. I’ve mentioned a few on this blog over the years, including David Allen’s Getting Things Done, PomodoroEric de Groot & Mike van der Vijver’s Into The Heart of Meetings, and a high percentage of Seth Godin’s thoughts and books.

Another barrier to implementing change is that we overlook the months or years of preparatory work we usually need to do before those aha! change moments we remember the rest of our lives. As Theosophists say: “When the student is ready the teacher will appear” — i.e. the best advice in the world is useless if we are not prepared to receive it.

In addition, even when we successfully pan the valuable flecks of gold from mountains of hype, permanently integrating useful desired change invariably requires significant effort.

For example, even after many years of use, my Getting Things Done implementation is imperfect. I flip haphazardly between several trusted systems, depending on the messiness of my desk, my mood, and—for all I know—the phases of the moon. And though, 99% of the time, my email inbox contains well below 100 items, Inbox Zero remains a fantasy, permanently out of reach.

Which leads us to a final trap: the belief that if we don’t implement a personal change perfectly, we haven’t really changed. This is dangerous if we conclude that minor slips mean that we’ve failed to change, and might as well go back to the old way of doing things. Instead, give yourself full credit for the change you’ve fundamentally made, notice when you revert to old patterns, and don’t beat yourself up when it happens (because it nearly always will once in a while.)

Given all these obstacles, it’s a miracle when personal change occurs. And yet, with hard work, it can happen!

Notice when it does. Acknowledge what you’ve done—it was hard!

And celebrate!

Photo attribution: Flickr user tracyshaun

The Reminder—a new way to obtain long-term evaluations of events

November 9th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

letter 8909849224_832820ea27_kCan conference organizers get evaluative feedback on the long-term outcomes of their events? Last week, I pointed out that short-term evaluations routinely solicited at events are unreliable. If we want to honestly learn whether our conferences create long-lasting change, we need evaluation methods that can be applied after an appropriate length of time (three months? six months? a year?—you choose!) rather than within a few hours or days of the meeting taking place.

Here’s one way I’ve devised to obtain long-term feedback. It’s based on an old technique “A Letter To Myself” (ALTM, aka “A Letter To My Future Self”) which you may have experienced at meetings over the years.

I call it The Reminder.

In the standard ALTM version, described in Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, the organizers set aside around 30 minutes just before the end of the event, supply each participant with notepaper and an envelope, and ask them to reflect on the changes they would like to make in their lives as a result of the event over the next [3 months/6 months/year/appropriate time period]. People then write letters to themselves about their changes and insert the letters into the supplied envelopes, which they then seal and address to themselves. The envelopes are collected and mailed out, unread, by the conference organizers once the announced time period has passed.

ALTM works because the recipients find value in being reminded of their resolutions after time has passed. They can note what they have accomplished, what is yet to be done, and what they may have forgotten but still have energy to pursue.

When I run a Personal Introspective at the end of a peer conference, I often add the ALTM exercise to provide a personal “tickler” reminder of the changes participants decide to make.

The Reminder
To modify ALTM to incorporate long-term feedback, add the following to the envelope supplied to each participant:

Sample feedback form to be included in the A Letter To Myself envelopeBefore the end of the ALTM session, briefly go through the feedback form with the group. Explain that completing the form on receipt and promptly mailing it back will provide the conference organizers valuable information about the long-term effectiveness of the conference, and this will help make the event even better next time.

It’s harder to implement long-term evaluations of our events because participants have less motivation to provide the information we need. The Reminder combines the effect of receiving the participant-created letter with a quick request for feedback. Motivation can be increased by adding an incentive for returning the feedback form, like a small prize or chance to win a raffle from those who return the form. In this case, name/contact information should be added to the form.

What do you think? Can The Reminder be a useful tool for evaluating your events? If you use it, share how it worked in the comments below.

Photo attribution: Flickr user gufoblu

Why meeting evaluations are unreliable and how we can improve them

November 2nd, 2015 by Adrian Segar

evaluation 5201223017_52a7453f27_o

A fatal flaw
Just about all meeting evaluations are elicited within a few days of the session experience. All such short-term evaluations of a meeting or conference session possess a fatal flaw. They tell you nothing about the long-term effects of the session.

What is the purpose of a meeting? Unless we’re talking about special events, which are about transitory celebrations and entertainment (nothing wrong with these, but not what I’m focusing on here), isn’t the core purpose of a meeting to create useful long-term change? Learning that can be applied productively in the future, connections that last and reward, communities that grow and develop new activities and purpose—these are the key valuable outcomes that meetings and conferences can and should produce.

Unfortunately, humans are poor objective evaluators of the enduring benefits of a session they have just experienced.

Probably the most significant reason for this is that we are far more likely to be influenced by our immediate emotional experience during a session than by the successful delivery of what eventually turn out to be long-term benefits. We like to think of ourselves as driven by rationality, but as Daniel Kahneman eloquently explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow we largely discount the effects that our emotions have on our beliefs. Although information provided by lectures and speeches is mostly forgotten within a week, the short-term emotional glow fanned by a skillful motivational speaker can last long enough for great marks on smile sheets. And paradoxically, the long-term learning that can result from well-designed experiential meeting sessions may not be consciously recognized for some time.

Other reasons why evaluations of conference sessions can be unreliable include quantifiable reason bias (the distortions that occur when attendees are asked to justify their evaluations) and evaluation environment bias (evaluations are influenced by the circumstances in which they’re made). These biases are minimized if evaluations are made in the environment in which hoped-for learning can actually be applied: i.e. back in the world of work. But instead—worried that no one will provide feedback if we wait too long—we supply evaluation sheets to fill out at the session, or push evaluation reminders right away via a conference app.

How can we improve meeting evaluations?
If we want meeting evaluations to reflect real-world long-term change, we need to use evaluation methods that allow participants to report on their meeting experiences’ long-term effects.

This is hard—much harder than asking for immediate impressions. Once away from the event, memories fade, our professional lives center around our day-to-day work, and we are less amenable to being refocused on the past.

While I haven’t formulated a comprehensive approach to evaluating long-term change related to meetings, I think an effective long-term meeting evaluation should include the following activities:

  • Individual participants document perceived learning and change resolutions before the meeting ends.
  • Follow-up with participants after an appropriate time to determine whether their chosen changes have actually occurred.

In my next post I’ll share a concrete example of one way to implement a long-term evaluation that incorporates these components.

Photo attribution: Flickr user jurgenappelo

Measurable work—it’s a trap!

October 26th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

It's a trap!
If you are a “professional”, doing measurable work can be harmful to your future.

For over a hundred years, management has been obsessed with measuring what workers do. The rationale was to improve efficiency, and cut out the dead wood. Until quite recently, this affected mainly factory workers. White-collar workers were relatively safe.

Not any more.

Computers have allowed scientific management principles to be applied to an ever-increasing number of professions. The result?

“What’s the close rate, the change in user satisfaction, the clickthroughs, the likes?

You can see where this is heading, and it’s heading there fast:

You will either be seen as a cog, or as a linchpin. You will either be measured in a relentless race to the bottom of the cost barrel, or encouraged in a supportive race to doing work that matters, that only you can do in your unique way.

It’s not easy to be the person who does unmeasurable work, but is there any doubt that it’s worth it?”
—Seth Godin, Scientific Management 2.0

I’ve written elsewhere about why measurable outcomes aren’t always a good thing, and my skepticism that ROI can be measured in social media.

Nevertheless, Seth’s last sentence is worth repeating.

It’s not easy to be the person who does unmeasurable work, but is there any doubt that it’s worth it?

Covenants, not ground rules

October 19th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

covenantThough I believe that adopting explicit ground rules can improve conferences, I’ve never been especially happy with the term ground rules. Language is important, and Rules are typically imposed by bosses, governments, and dictators.

So the other day, during a workshop run by Patrick Short and Alan Montague, I was happy to discover a word I like better.

Covenant“an agreement, usually formal, between two or more persons to do or not do something specified.”

Unlike rules handed down from on high, covenants are agreements, in this case between a facilitator and participants.

This may seem a little disingenuous, because I believe it’s still a facilitator’s responsibility to suggest or elicit covenants that shape group behavior. Given that facilitators typically possess more influence and authority over group process than anyone else present, they will likely shape the covenants the group adopts, to some extent.

Nevertheless, the term “covenants” describes a group’s agreements about how its members will work together, shifting the focus from imposed rules to group agreements. If contentious aspects of these agreements surface, they are the group’s agreements rather than the facilitator’s ground rules, and can be discussed, modified, or even set aside without necessarily turning the process into a challenge of something the facilitator has foisted on the group.

So for me, covenants are in and ground rules are out. It’s a small change, but I think it’s one worth making.

What do you think? How do you introduce group agreements when you’re facilitating? Comments, as always, are welcome.

The tension between improv and planning at events

October 13th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

Facilitating the closing session at AIN 2015

It began with a tap on the shoulder…
…as I stood in the lunch line on the last day of the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN) 2015 World Conference. Turning round I saw Paul Z Jackson, President of AIN. “There’s a conversation going on upstairs that I think you’d be interested in,” he said.

It seemed an innocent statement at the time.

I was about to discover the depth of Paul’s craftiness.

I filled my plate with Quebecois goodies and climbed the stairs to find Diego IbáñezGina Trimarco CligrowPatrick Short, and Betse Green lunching together. I told them that Paul had invited me to join the “conversation”, whereupon Patrick explained that the group was planning the hour-long conference closing ceremony, which began at 2 p.m. Paul joined us and, looking at me, said that the closing ceremony typically included some kind of public evaluation of the conference. I looked at my watch and gulped. We had 40 minutes!

Typically, when designing process for a session with 200 participants, I like to have some time—perhaps a day or two—to think about the best ways to achieve the desired outcomes with the available resources.

This occasion was not typical.

I was not feeling the nervous excitement I usually experience in situations like this.

I was feeling fear.

But…I was with a group of great improvisors. People who had spent decades practicing and living improv. Perhaps we could work together and create something good enough, perhaps even great, in 40 minutes?

I have a simple tool for public evaluations, plus/delta, that I’ve used many times. But how could we optimize it for 200 improvisors?

My memory of the rest of the lunch is hazy. (I was definitely outside my comfort zone.) I think that Patrick made the great suggestion that the evaluations be presented as short improvs. Others chimed in. Together, we fine-tuned the process.

Rushing to the barn where the session would be held, we discovered that the local conference organizers were also working on their plan for the closing ceremony. They had already decided to hold it outdoors—it was a beautiful day—and had lit a bonfire. A few-minute conversation determined that we would hold our evaluation in a circle around the fire, and then they would close the conference in their own way.

We started bringing out chairs from the barn. I found three scribes to capture in writing the conference insights that were about to be shared. We arranged enough chairs and set up an electronic organ for Patrick to accompany the improvs, and it was time to start.

There was no more time to plan. Diego and Gina introduced themselves and me, and I was on.

The conference evaluation
Talking as loudly as I could (there was no sound equipment and I don’t have a strong voice) I explained that we were going to do a rapid public evaluation of the entire conference and gave them an overview of the process. Then I asked everyone to form small groups of 5 or 6 people, and gave them seven minutes to:

  • share their positive experiences of the conference in their group; and
  • then create a short improv piece about the changes they would like to see in the conference to make it better.

There had been some logistical challenges during the conference—e.g. no coffee was available at breakfast on the first day…oops!—and I knew from past experience that participants tend to concentrate on such issues during the change portion of the evaluation. So I made a point to direct the groups to focus on non-logistical/obvious conference improvements while they were working on their short improvs.

Once the group work was done, everyone returned to the circle and individuals began sharing their positive experiences of the conference. I had never done this kind of sharing in a circle before, so I improvised the idea of walking slowly around the circle with my arm pointing to each person in turn. As my attention swept around the circle, people put their hand up if they wanted to say something, and I stopped for them to share. After I had gone around the circle once, I announced I would make two more circuits for sharing positive experiences. This worked well—different people spoke during each rotation and everyone had three opportunities to share or pass.

Next we switched to the change portion of the evaluation. One group volunteered to start, and we began to experience a wide variety of creative group improvs that conveyed the changes the members suggested. (Coffee delivery improvements, were, still amusingly incorporated.)

Normally, I am very aware of time issues when facilitating events. The closing session had to end on time, as one bus was leaving immediately to allow some attendees to catch flights back in Montreal. On this occasion, concentrating on the improvised flow, I was doing a poor job of managing the remaining time for the group sharing. Thankfully Gina noticed this, stepped up, and ingeniously coaxed the remaining groups to spend less time on their improvs. I doubt that anyone even noticed she had taken over on the fly. She supported me and made me look good—thank you Gina! My job was done.

After the improvs had all been presented and enjoyed, the local hosts took over and ran a brief and moving closing, tying together the Nature theme of the conference with everything we had experienced over the previous three days. The contributions of many people were thanked and recognized in humorous, yet heart-felt fashion.

As the session ended, one last facilitation task remained for me. I found the three scribes who had recorded the positive and change ideas and took safe possession of their valuable notes. Later, back at my Vermont home, I photographed the notes and emailed them to Paul so he would have a permanent record available to use for improving future AIN World conferences.

What did I/can we learn from this experience?
We are all improvisors. Every time you have a conversation with someone, for example, you invariably do not know what they are about to say, and your response is improvised. Competent facilitators, leading group conversation and/or process, are improvisors because—despite having a plan for achieving desired group outcomes—they adapt what they do from moment to moment in response to the group experience.

Fifteen years ago I would have quickly turned down the opportunity Paul offered. I saw myself as a process designer and planner, and my fear of “failing” to be highly competent when asked to improvise large group process overrode any perceived benefits. Today, I am more comfortable taking the risk of being less than perfect, of being average, as improvisors like to say. So one thing I learned on that sunny afternoon was that I am willing to step more out of my comfort zone and into the place where magic happens when responding in the moment.

I also learned about the value of trusting support. I would have turned down Paul’s offer if I had had to create the session by myself. Being surrounded by folks trained in improvisation is probably the best support structure you can have! We are all working to make each other look good, because we know that the best things happen when we work supporting each other.

Does this whole experience mean that improv trumps planning when creating and facilitating group process?

No! My experience with plus/delta as an evaluation technique was gained from much experience involving plenty of planned experiments over the last ten years. My planning experience made it easy to integrate the core plus/delta process into the unique circumstances of the AIN 2015 conference closing session. As far as I know, no one else at the event had the expertise to create this form of public evaluation, so my years of planning plus/delta sessions allowed the group to benefit from a process tool that I knew would be effective.

In addition, my very last act for the session—collecting the scribes’ notes in the hurly-burly of mass crowd good-byes, and making sure they were conveyed safely to the AIN organizers—was a reflex planning move that improvisors, improvising in the moment, might overlook. (We saw it happen; remember the absent coffee?) As meeting professionals know, a planning mind-set is essential to reap the full benefits of creative process at events.

The tension between improv and planning at events
I’ve written this behind-the-scenes look at 100 minutes of terror and wonder at the close of AIN 2015 because I think it illustrates that there is a natural tension between improv and planning at events. The tension appears because, at first sight, they are mutually exclusive ways of thinking about what “should” happen when people meet to learn and connect. The mythical planner’s goal it to make sure that everything goes according to plan, while the mythical improvisor’s goal (well, one of them) is a reality where nothing goes according to plan.

You can’t get much more tension than the difference between nothing and everything.

Yet this very tension provides the energy that we feel at the best events and experiences of our lives. From moment to moment, there is a play between improv and planning. It is the Taoist experience, the energy that arises from the tension of opposites.

And it is a tension to be embraced, not feared. That is our challenge.

Photo courtesy of Alex Tran

Improve conference sessions and workshops with Color/Advance

October 5th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

Color Advance Luncheon of the Boating Party 11005726293_f7bdd2ae6c_z

Last week in Montreal, during a pre-workshop at the fabulous Applied Improvisational Network 2015 World Conference, I realized how an improv game could be used to improve group process.

At the workshop, run by the talented Patrick Short and Alan Montague, I was reintroduced to an improv game called Color/Advance. It’s a simple game for two players, a storyteller and a listener.

At any time while the storyteller tells a story, the listener can give either of two commands: “Color” or “Advance”. Color instructs the storyteller to describe whatever she is talking about in more detail, while Advance tells her to continue with the story. The game is typically used to improve storytelling skills, using the listener’s requests as feedback for determining when more detail will spice up the story and when it’s time to continue with the plot.

It struck me that Color/Advance could be used in a different way, as a group process tool, in a conference session or workshop. Often, when I lead a meeting, I have limited information on what the participants want to get out of it. With up to about fifty participants I normally use the Post It! technique to uncover the wants and needs of the group and then tailor the session to fit as well as possible, covering a judiciously selected set of the topics mentioned.
This approach works very well, but there’s no standard way for attendees to indicate during the session that they would like more or less information to be shared on the current topic. While it’s not unusual for people to occasionally ask for more detail, few will spontaneously volunteer that they’ve heard quite enough about a topic and they’d like to move on to the next one.
So I propose that Color/Advance can be given as a tool to session participants to give them control over what is covered during a session, as follows.
After you’ve used Post It! to create an impromptu outline of the topics to be included, explain that at any point anyone can say “Color!” meaning that they want more detail of what is being said. Or, they can say “Advance!” which means “I’ve heard enough about this, please move on to the next topic.” Also explain that people can respectfully (and succinctly) disagree, so that the wishes of one person are not imposed on the entire group.
I plan to experiment with this approach over the next few months, and will report back in the comments or another blog post on how well this works. If you have thoughts about this technique or have used it in this way, please let us know in the comments!
I love discovering how to harness human process in new ways. Body voting makes preferences and opinions public. A fishbowl allows a group to have a useful discussion. And, thanks to my experience at the AIN 2015 World Conference, we have a new tool Color/Advance for conference session or workshop participants to fine tune the information shared to match their wants and needs.

Photo attribution: Flickr user ncindc

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