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RIP Conference Curator

November 16th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.
—Albert Einstein

In 2012 I challenged the concept of the conference curator: someone who somehow curates a conference program, like the curator of an art museum. Seth Godin backed me up a year later. Despite my requests, no one ever supplied a single real-life example of a successful conference curator. People thought it would be great if a conference curator actually existed—which brings to mind how Anglosphere parents talk up the tooth fairy to their kids.

I’ve never found any program committee that predicted more than half of the sessions that conference attendees actually chose when given the choice. (And I’ve been running conferences where the participants get to choose what they want to learn since 1992.)

Do you remember that moment in your life when you realized that the tooth fairy was a fantasy? Perhaps it’s time for you to give up the fantasy of the conference curator too.

I believe in the value of good meeting facilitators and designers who can create appropriate process and an environment to satisfy conference learning, connection, engagement, and action objectives, but I don’t believe in the tooth fairy or the conference curator, nice though it would be if either actually existed.

Let conference attendees choose conference content. That’s what I’ve been doing for a long time, and I can tell you, based on thousands of evaluations, it works very well. The fantasy of the conference curator is dead. Rest In Peace.

Image attribution: Flickr user storm-crypt

Scenes from a peer conference

November 10th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

A slideshow of images from the Third Annual Vermont Vision For A Multicultural Future peer conference, held at the Mount Snow Grand Summit Resort November 6-7, 2014.

Meeting Design—the big picture

November 3rd, 2014 by Adrian Segar

Here are the annotated highlights of an October 2014 etouches webinar on meeting design with Dahlia El Gazzar (host), Maarten Vanneste, and me. It’s just under an hour of video: watch the whole show or use this guide to focus on the topics that you want to hear more about—the choice is yours.

01:30 Dahlia: Introduction.

03:05 Adrian introduction.

04:10 Maarten introduction.

05:00 Maarten: A big picture description of Meeting Design.

08:10 Adrian: Two fundamental reasons why meetings must change: the rise of online, and the change in how we learn what we need to know to do our jobs.

13:05 Maarten: Meeting stakeholders.

16:45 Adrian: One way to get meeting owner buy-in.

19:50 Maarten: The steps for designing a meeting.

30:25 Maarten: A meeting toolbox.

39:10 Adrian and Maarten: Resources for meeting design—books.

44:20 Adrian, Maarten, and Dahlia: Online resources for meeting design.

47:15: Maarten: Answers “Which step do you feel is most beneficial, leading to the largest ROI?”

49:15: Adrian: Answers “Tell me about an epic fail of a meeting design and how you solved it.”

52:05: Maarten: Teasing out objectives from stakeholders.

54:10: Maarten and Adrian: Answer “Where do you see meeting design going in the next few years?”

Sometimes you CAN learn from experience

October 27th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

banana peel 1517673819_8a2720cdd1_b

People do not learn from experience. You may think you learn from experience but…People only learn from reflecting on their experience…

…This is why all education programming needs to adopt and adapt reflection and debriefing exercises during the session. If not, people will not learn.
—Jeff Hurt, Time To Face This Ironic Truth: We Do Not Learn From Experience

Jeff Hurt’s recent post makes the case for incorporating reflection/debriefing into all conference sessions. While I completely agree with him that these activities should be included, I think a small clarification is in order.

His post implies that you must debrief participant experience at events in order for learning to occur. If that were true, you would never learn anything from a lecture. While it’s true that lectures are one of the worst ways to attempt to teach people anything, there’s no question that some learning occurs via lectures for some people some of the time.

You probably discovered at school that if you took notes during a lecture (interestingly, handwritten notes seem to be more effective than typed notes) you retained more of the material than if you simply listened and tried to remember the lecture points later. This is because note-taking is a form of personal reflection/debriefing; it forces you to process, to some degree, the information you are hearing and this improves your associated memory and understanding, and consequent accuracy, quantity, and length of recall.

What this means is that it’s possible to learn from experience without external prompting or exercises—if you are capable of doing the necessary reflection yourself. One of the most powerful learning disciplines you can cultivate is the practice of regular reflection on your own experiences. I know that many impactful decisions and changes in my life have occurred through ongoing self-reflection rather than the feedback or advice of others.

During our education, we are rarely taught the value of regular honest self-reflection. By “honest” I mean self-reflection that neither avoids beating oneself up over “mistakes” or hard-to-stomach experiences nor glossing over them. Instead, cultivating your ability to dispassionately notice what is happening to you and periodically reflecting on what you have noticed allows you to learn effectively by yourself.

Having said this, I want to be clear that there is great value in learning from others. Conversation and connection with others give you opportunities to uncover and clarify your tacit knowledge: things bubbling under the surface that you don’t know you know. I think that a majority of our important learning occurs in this way. But we should not discount our significant capability to learn by ourselves.

John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” Reflection with others and by yourself will allow you to maximize your learning throughout your life.

Photo attribution: Flickr user markybon

Facilitation tool: Capture sticky notes with Post-It Plus

October 20th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

Port-it® Plus
When facilitating, I often use sticky notes as a flexible tool that allows movement from individual work => small group work => a visual summary for an entire group. 3M has just released a useful free tool for iDevices running IOS 8, Post-It Plus, that organizes and documents the results of such activities, which otherwise tend to end up as untidy rolled-up sheets of flip-chart paper or hard-to-categorize digital photographs.

I ran a quick test of the app on a year-old flip-chart sheet with stick notes scattered hither and yon. Post-It Plus quickly identified all the notes (it superimposes a checkmark on each one it recognizes.) If a note is missed you can tap on it to expand it, adjust the edges, tap Done and the note will  be added to the collection. Once you’ve captured all the notes, you can create a Board that holds them.

But that’s just the start. Each Board can contain multiple Groups. Tap and hold a note to move it to a new Group. When you’ve categorized notes as desired, you can name your Boards and Groups appropriately and share them via iMessage, email, Twitter, and Facebook, or save them to your photo library, or export them to pdf, PowerPoint, Excel, or as an image. If you link the app to your paid Evernote account, you can use Evernote’s OCR capability to make all your notes searchable. Integration with other apps, like Dropbox, are also possible, though I didn’t explore this.

Before digital photography, sticky note process was essentially an in-the-moment facilitation tool. Today, even though it’s simple to capture images of a group’s wall work, manipulating the ideas shown afterwards is tedious and rarely done (well, to be honest, I never have taken the time to do so.)

Post-It Plus makes further categorizing and analysis of notes post-session just about as simple as possible. The sharing and export functions make it easy to communicate uncovered themes to others. I look forward to using this app to extract more value from the rich information exposed by group sticky note process. Post-It Plus is a tool with great potential—and you can’t beat the price!

Want to try out Post-It Plus? Download the free app here.

Get Rid Of Human Resources

October 14th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

Human resources 6811076048_fdc9278598_o

Human Resources: what an ugly term!

Wikipedia defines resource as “a source or supply from which benefit is produced“. Is this how we think of  employees—as resources for a company’s benefit?

I think it’s telling that many organizations still use this term to label the office that hires, manages, and fires employees. And such organizations, at least in the IT industry where I’ve had some experience of them, often don’t do a very good job.

Nowadays I’m noticing a trend in larger organizations to rebrand Human Resources as Talent Management. This is better—we’re not classifying people as resources like steel ingots. But the m-word—management—is still there, emphasizing the role of guidance on how employees work.

So here are a couple of alternative descriptions that I like better.

The first is Talent Leadership. As I’ve written here, I see leaders as influencers and facilitators of process rather than high-ups laying down the law. Organizations need both leaders and managers, but I think that forward thinking institutions should have their talent led rather than guided.

Want an alternative? Google calls its Human Resources Department People Operations; employees shorten this to POPS. I think this neutral term is a sensible reframe of what “HR” does in a modern organization; covering the nitty gritty work while avoiding any connotation of employees-as-cattle.

Words have power. Let’s use the best ones we can.

Photo attribution: Flickr user olathegovnews

Alone in the woods with my MBTI

October 6th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

Vermont foliage 1425557604_b18c1c3fde_zI’ve spent the last 10 days living alone in the woods. (No, not what you might be thinking: my home is surrounded by fall foliage, and my marriage is fine.) Quite a contrast from the previous week, which featured two cities, two events, and two meetups.

If you’ve met me, you’ll know that I love to schmooze in company, and you may wonder if it’s hard to be suddenly on my own. Not at all. Although I love bringing people together, I also am comfortable living by myself for a spell, talking to no one except for an occasional phone call.

This makes sense in terms of my testing on the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®.) As I’ve shared before, I score pretty neutral on the extravert <–> introvert axis of the test. Someone testing highly extravert prefers to draw energy “from the outside world of people, activities, and things”, while an introvert prefers to draw energy “from one’s internal world of ideas, emotions, and impressions” [all quotes taken from”Introduction to Type in Organizations“, Krebs Hirsh et al.]

What the MBTI doesn’t provide is any indication of the intensity of anyone’s aspects. Because MBTI is about personality preference it’s perfectly possible for someone who tests neutral on a specific axis to have strong desires or abilities around the poles of each test dichotomy. As it turns out, I am comfortable not only when I’m socializing with others, but also for extended periods alone in creative, thinking, and feeling modes—I enjoy and need both states.

Consequently, a neutral “weak” score on an MBTI axis may indicate greater flexibility and comfort with the range of preferences associated with that axis. And those of us with a strong preference on axes (in my case, Intuition and Feeling) may have a harder time communicating and working with people whose preference lies at the other ends of the scale—for me, these are folks who prefer Sensing (“taking in information through the five senses and noticing what is actual”) and Thinking (“a preference for organizing and structuring information to decide in a logical, objective way”).

While my clear preference for MBTI’s Intuition and Feeling axes feeds my energy to pursue the congruence, facilitation, and consensus that inform my mission to improve what happens when people meet, its shadow side can be increased difficulty in relating to people who prefer sensing and thinking modes. One’s strengths invariably point to one’s weaknesses. In general, there seems to be a tradeoff between well-roundedness and drive.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to be alone in the woods. Well, until Celia returns later today…

Photo attribution: Flickr user paulmoody

Bringing people together

September 29th, 2014 by Adrian Segar


In early 2010, at the first EventCamp, I discovered the wonder and power of meeting people face-to-face whom I had previously only met online. Perhaps the wonder is stronger for me than most, living in rural Vermont, 100+ miles from any city. Nevertheless, when I travel to a major metropolitan area these days and have a few hours free I try to bring people together.

This month I spent time in Chicago and a couple of trips to Washington, DC. Before the first DC jaunt, I sent an email out to #eventprofs and #assnchat acquaintances who lived in the area. KiKi L’Italien, Lindsey Rosenthal, Angelique Agutter, Alex Plaxen, Melanie Padgett Powers, and more met up for delicious hors d’oeuvres and drinks at a private home (thank you Libby O’MalleyNancy Pasternack!) and dinner in Alexandria Old Town.

In Chicago I met with Heidi Thorne & Anne Carey for a tasty lunch.

And last week, Maddie Grant, Jamie Notter, Alex Plaxen, Brian Davis, Gina Leigh, Monica Bussolati, Moira Edwards, Brian Volmuth, Lori WoehrlePamela Strother (and probably a few others whom I didn’t get to talk to) met up at The Rooftop at The Embassy Row Hotel (big thanks to Sarah Vining who sponsored our meetup!)

I love bringing people together in ways that work for them—in fact that’s my mission. So it was a pleasure to host these three casual meetups for event and association management professionals. What was amusing, however, was how often people thanked me for bringing them together. I had to laugh—here was a guy from Vermont facilitating connection between people who all lived near each other, people who could easily arrange to meet frequently. And yet…they didn’t.

Sometimes people need permission to connect. In this case, a small outside impetus was all that was required. An hour of my time to send emails out to my local connections, find somewhere to meet, and track/answer questions from those who were coming. No big deal. And I doubt it hurt my professional life to be a connector, an initiator for the enjoyable and interesting connections that subsequently occurred.

Yes, we’re all busy. But let’s not forget that our work in the event and association spheres is fundamentally about facilitating connection between others. And that should, once in a while, include ourselves—our peers—both known and new. So, pass it forward, my friends. Once or twice a year, send out some invites for a casual get together with your peers. It needn’t be elaborate or have a specific marketing focus; just meet somewhere for drinks or a meal. Publicize the event to your local network and welcome anyone who hears about it and wants to come.

You’ll be bringing people together. Who knows what the pleasant consequences will be?

Most meetings are small meetings

September 22nd, 2014 by Adrian Segar

small meeting 2328078954_a86f4d8f92_oMeetings industry publications seem to focus on “large” meetings. This is not surprising. Big meetings require big fancy venues, command big budgets, employ lots of meeting professionals, and can command high-price speakers and opulent spectacle. Though we don’t talk about it, being responsible for big meetings is implicitly higher-status than small meetings.

So I think it’s worth pointing out that, if you take a moment to check out hospitality data, it turns out that large meetings are the exception rather than the rule. For example, here are a couple of panelists at the August 2014 Hotel Data Conference quoted by Ed Watkins, Editor-At-Large of Hotel News Now, in this article:

“Faust [VP of Sales, Omni Hotels & Resorts] said the biggest change at Omni has been the growth of smaller meetings: 65% of the chain’s meeting business comes from groups that book 50 rooms or fewer at peak. At MGM Resorts, 80% of group business is 100 rooms or fewer at peak, and 62% is 50 rooms or fewer, Dominguez [Senior VP of Corporate Sales, MGM Resorts International] said.”

The Conferences That Work meeting format described in my 2009 book works well with meetings of up to a hundred people, (and I’ve shared ways to extend it to larger meetings in a free supplement, though you’ll need the book to fully understand the update.) But what hospitality data indicates is that for around 80% of the meetings held today, if you want a participant-driven and participation-rich conference, the book’s meeting design is all you’ll need.

Sure, we’ll always have large meetings for all kinds of reasons, and we’ll continue to enjoy the unique possibilities that big events can provide (despite some significant downsides). Just remember that the beautiful large meeting facilities prominently featured in meeting magazines may be what you and your clients lust after, but, most of the time, they aren’t what your clients actually need.

Photo attribution: Flickr user caribb

A caveat on working with human “Catalysts”

September 15th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

catalyst 4267237788_2cee555179_o

cat·a·lyst

/ˈkatl-ist/
noun
a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change.

Nearly 200,000 people include the word catalyst in their LinkedIn profile. A catalyst is something that causes a change without being changed itself. For example, a gas or diesel car’s exhaust system uses a catalytic converter to reduce air pollution. The core catalytic components of the converter do not get altered or used up as they do their job.

In the competitive world of consulting, the word catalyst has become a synonym for change. Catalyst sounds sexy, mysterious, and—scientific! Not surprising then that it’s become a common marketing term for consultants. “Idea Catalysts”, “Strategic Catalysts”, “Creativity Catalysts”, “Innovation Catalysts”, and “Marketing Catalysts” abound.

But can you be a genuine catalyst—a person who facilitates change of some sort but stays unchanged in the process?

I don’t think so.

If you set yourself up as an unchangeable teacher or trainer who flies in, runs your box of process to change others in some way, and leaves unaltered, you are someone who is closed to learning while simultaneously advocating it to others. This is not congruent behavior.

I attempt to be open to learning as much as I can. I wrote my first book about participant-driven and participation-rich conference design after seventeen years refining the process first used in 1992. Four years later, I published an update that included many important improvements I’d learned from feedback and my own observations. Every conference I facilitate leads to more ideas; there will always be refinements to the Conferences That Work format for as long as I’m convening events.

In fact, if I ever run an event and feel that I haven’t learned something from it and been changed in the process, that will a sign that I’m losing my effectiveness and should consider doing something different.

I’m not sure that you can facilitate change effectively without being changed yourself—or, at the very least, being open to the reality that you may be changed.

So if you’re planning to work with someone who calls themselves a Catalyst, be cautious. They may be using the term as a synonym for change (like my friend Thom Singer who is certainly open to being changed himself), but alternatively, they may believe that they are true catalysts—they “have the answer”. The wisest and most interesting individuals I know are, despite their obvious expertise and experience, always open to learn from anyone and be changed in the process. These are the people with whom you may want to spend your time.

Photo attribution: Flickr user rustychainsaw

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