As an example, here’s what I recently learned while leading a workshop.
Trying new things and noticing what happens
During the workshop:
I used a projected countdown timer and a 90-second piece of music to get participants back in their seats on time at the end of a short mid-workshop break. Outcome? It worked really well!
While facilitating body voting (aka human spectrograms) I verbally stated each question we were exploring. Outcome? It seemed like a few participants didn’t hear or understand what I’d said until I repeated myself. Verbal communication didn’t work so well.
I wore a red hat when I was explaining/debriefing, and took it off when I was facilitating experiences. Outcome? This was the second time I’ve tried this approach, and I’m still not sure whether it’s effective/useful or not.
When you pursue risky learning, some things work while some don’t — and for some, the jury is still out. Whatever happens, you can learn something!
Soliciting and being open to observations and feedback
During the workshop:
Some of the questions I asked during body voting asked individuals to come up with a numeric answer, and then join a group line in numerical order. Someone had the bright idea of showing their answer with fingers raised above their head, so it was easy for others to see where to go in the line. Many participants copied the idea, which sped up forming the human spectrograms. I’d never seen this done before, and will adopt this simple and effective improvement.
I love to use a geographic two-dimensional human spectrogram to allow participants to quickly discover others who lives/work near them. The wide U.S. map I projected did not correspond to the skinny width of the room. A participant suggested that we rotate where we stood by 90º. I tried her suggestion and found that it was easy for people to move to their correct positions. Duly noted!
At the end of the workshop, I solicited public feedback at a group spective. One participant shared frustration with my verbal statements of the body voting questions, and suggested that the questions also be projected simultaneously. An excellent refinement that I will incorporate in future.
Notice how participants were able to point out deficiencies in processes I used, and simultaneously came up with some fine solutions. Peer learning in action!
I’ve been designing and facilitating participant-driven and participation-rich meetings for 25 years, and many participants have been kind enough to share that I’m good at what I do (check out the sidebar testimonials).
But I don’t want to rest on my laurels. I’m no Casals, but, like him, I keep practicing, learning, and — hopefully — making progress.
So many conferences are a collection of unrelated sessions. But the June 2015 PCMA Education Conference in Fort Lauderdale showed how a coherent set of meeting goals can be embedded in a congruent conference arc, improving learning and connection amongst attendees. Here’s what PCMA did.
Although PCMA asked me to be the “conference facilitator” and “connect the dots” for EduCon, most of the credit for the conference design goes to the PCMA team. Pre-conference collaboration with the team was a pleasure.
My consequent jobs over the three days of conference sessions—which boasted a record 675 attendees, plus several hundred following the live stream of portions of the conference—were to:
open and close the conference;
interview John Medina on stage and at a “deep dive” breakout;
facilitate a closing public evaluation of the conference.
Being up on stage so much, interviewing, and providing event continuity for as many as a thousand people was a new experience for me—definitely risky learning! Connecting the dots immediately after presentations is hard when you don’t know what presenters are going to say!
When I accepted the offer of facilitating the conference, I only had a rough outline of the presentations, and I wondered about the content/learning arc of the event. To my pleasant surprise, as the event design unfolded, EduCon delivered a coherent set of sessions that shared common themes around predetermined goals.
At the opening I told a story and shared the EduCon design goals: experiential learning, risky learning experiments, and meaningful engagement. I’ll use [EL], [RL], and [ME] respectively to indicate how these three themes were woven throughout the event.
John Medina’s opening session immediately touched on some of these themes. He described how prospect-refuge theory suggests that a mixture of private and public spaces provides an optimum environment for events, balancing the needs for safety [RL], frankness, growth and confidentiality with the openness required to spread content.
John also spoke about the importance of high Theory Of Mind—the ability to reason about the mental states of others, what some might call empathy—for creating effective work teams that have high collective intelligence. (There’s a great test of your Theory of Mind ability Reading The Mind In The Eyestake it for free here!) It turns out that women have better theory of mind than men, which is perhaps why there are so many female meeting professionals—empathy is important in our industry [ME].
Interviewing John—who must surely be the easiest person in the world to interview—was a blast! I had 15 minutes with him on stage, followed by 75 minutes in a breakout. For the breakout I simply had the audience sit in curved theater seating facing John and me plus a couple of empty chairs, and had audience members with questions come up to the front of the room and talk with him. We could have easily spent another hour with John.
Read my earlier post to learn more about the session crowdsourcing experiment I facilitated the following morning, which incorporated all three goals for the event [EL] [RL] [ME]. A few of the sessions chosen: women’s leadership in the event industry (described to me afterwards by several participants in glowing terms), cultural issues in international meetings (run by Eli Gorin, who seemed very pleased), and selling sponsorship (held in the round). This 26-second video gives another perspective.
After lunch I facilitated a personal introspective breakout session [EL] [RL] [ME], which provided participants the opportunity to think about what they had experienced so far, how their experiences might impact their life, and what changes they might want to make as a result. Afterwards, I received the same feedback independently from many people—they had gone into the session thinking they had little to say, and discovered during the process that there was a lot to talk about and get excited about. I have heard this kind of feedback for many years now, but it’s still gratifying to hear the conversation volume rise steadily and observe the palpable reluctance of people to leave their small groups when the session is over.
I attended a few of the other breakout sessions during the conference, and observed a good mixture of [EL], [RL], and [ME] in all of them. Though I can’t be sure that those I missed followed the same path, the interactivity of the sessions I witnessed was unusually high for a meeting industry conference, and all the presenters I talked to had incorporated trying something new during their sessions.
The second plenary speaker, Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise, spoke to several themes related to the “gift of failure”:
the “deliberate amateur” who avoids the traditional route of learning [RL];
the need for “private domains” that allow creativity to flourish [EL]; and
the “supple grit” needed to know when to keep working on an idea and when to stop before the work becomes dysfunctional persistence [EL].
On the final day of EduCon I ran a public evaluation of the conference in 45 minutes using plus/delta. Having attendees publicly evaluate a conference they have just experienced was clearly an [RL] activity! I think it went well; the scribes’ Google doc summary (projected in real time as the session took place) gives a taste…
The first question Sarah was asked at the conclusion of her talk was on overcoming fear [RL], which segued nicely into the subject matter of the closing session by Mel Robbins, author of Stop Saying You’re Fine. Mel delved deep (and interactively) [ME] [EL] into our fear of change and introduced her 5 second rule—if you have a game-changer impulse, act on it within five seconds or else it dies [RL]—another formulation of improv’s “say yes”.
Mel closed with a powerful call to action, a key component of a compelling conference arc, to take ownership of our lives. After such a powerful session, I kept things short with my closing remarks, pointing out specifically how PCMA’s conference goals had been achieved, and then asking the audience to stand and applaud themselves, as the people who, collectively, through their own interactions, risk taking, and engagement had made the achievement of those goals possible.
It felt good!
Awesome photo of me at 2015 PCMA EduCon taken by and licensed from Jacob Slaton!
Right after the 2015 PCMA Education Conference Tuesday breakfast, I facilitated an experiment that allowed 675 meeting planners to choose sessions they would like to hold. In 45 minutes, hundreds of suggestions were offered on sticky notes A small team of volunteers then quickly clustered the topics on a wall, picked a dozen, found leaders, and scheduled them in various locations around the Broward County Convention Center during a 90 minute time slot after the lunch the same day. The experiment was a great success; all the sessions were well attended, and, from the feedback I heard, greatly enjoyed and appreciated. Many people came up to me afterwards and told me how surprised they were that such a simple process could speedily add 50% more excellent sessions to the 21 pre-scheduled sessions.
All of us who plan meetings have an understandable desire for everything to be perfect. We strive mightily to not run out of coffee, comprehensively rehearse the show flow, allow for rush hour traffic between the day and evening venues, devise in advance alternative plans B -> Z, and anticipate a thousand other logistical concerns. And every planner knows that, during every event, some things will not go according to plan, and we pride ourselves on dealing with the unexpected and coming up with creative solutions on the fly. That’s our job, and we (mostly) love doing it—otherwise we’d probably be doing something less stressful, e.g. open-heart surgery.
Aiming for perfection is totally appropriate for the logistical aspects of our meetings, but when applied to other aspects of our meeting designs—little things like, oh, satisfying meeting objectives—we end up with meetings that are invariably safe at the expense of effectiveness.
Perfect is the ideal defense mechanism, the work of Pressfield’s Resistance, the lizard brain giving you an out. Perfect lets you stall, ask more questions, do more reviews, dumb it down, safe it up and generally avoid doing anything that might fail (or anything important). —Seth Godin, Abandoning perfection
We took a risk on a less-than-perfect outcome at our PCMA Education Conference crowdsourcing experiment. “What if hardly anyone suggests a topic?” “What if one or more of the participant-chosen sessions turns out be a dud, or nobody shows up?” “What if we underestimate the popularity of a session, and the scheduled space is too small to hold it?” (In fact, due to the limited locations available, we had to hold several sessions in one large room, and there was some auditory overlap that had to be minimized by a quick seating rearrangement. Lesson learned for next time!)
This is a superior kind of learning—risky learning. We try new things with the certainty that we will learn something different, perhaps something important that we would not have learned via a “safe” process, and we are prepared for the possibility to “fail” in ways that teach us something new and fresh about our process.
I’ve been running crowdsourcing of conference sessions for over twenty years, so I was confident that there would not be a shortage of session topic suggestions. But I had never before run crowdsourcing with 600+ participants. Could I get their input in 45 minutes? Would a small group be able to cluster all the suggestions in another 30 minutes, pick out juicy, popular topics, and then be able to find session leaders & facilitators and schedule all sessions before lunch? We took a risk trying new things, and I appreciate the conference committee’s support in letting me do so. The end result was a great learning experience for the participants, both in the individual sessions offered and the experience of the process used to create them. And we learned a few things about how to make the process better next time.
So how much risky learning should we incorporate into our events? There’s no one right answer to this question. Ultimately, you have to decide what level of risk you, your clients and your participants are willing to accept—and a healthy discussion with all stakeholders will help ensure that everyone’s on board with what you decide. But, whatever your situation, don’t aim for perfection, or playing it safe. Build as much risky learning as you can into your events, and I think you’ll find the resulting outcomes will surprise and satisfy you.
Johnnie Moore wrote about this sketch: “I think it captures very succinctly the perils of retrospective coherence – the myriad ways we tidy up history to make things seem more linear.” And: “I think learning needs to be messier; amid all those twists and turns are the discoveries and surprises that satisfy the participant and help new things stick.”
Great points, Johnnie, and I’d like to add one more. Models of success and learning like the one on the left lead to tidy, simplistic conference models (with those deadening learning objectives). When we embrace the reality of messy and/or risky learning, embodied by the sketch on the right, we become open to event designs that mirror this reality and provide the flexibility and openness to address it.
Sketch attribution: Babs Rangaiah of Unilever (“& learning” added by me)
The last session of Conferences That Work is called a group spective—a time for participants to look back at what has happened for the group and forward to possible futures together. During the spective, I use a variety of activities to encourage and support reflecting, sharing, brainstorming, and deciding on next steps. One process is a simple go-around, where each participant in turn answers a few open-ended questions about her conference experience and her ideas about what might happen next.
When using a go-around format, the first person to speak can have a significant influence on the subsequent sharing round the circle. Her brevity, tone, and emphasis tend to be picked up and echoed by others, in the same way that a boat’s subsequent track on a river can, in places, be greatly influenced by a minor current at one crucial spot.
I used to worry that this could pose a potential problem—what if the first person who spoke had little to say, or was very negative about the conference?—and I would pick someone to start who I thought would provide a “good” model of how to share at the go-around.
My eyes were opened at a conference where I thought we had, over the years, arrived at a close-to-perfect schedule. At the group spective, I casually chose the attendee sitting next to me to start the go-around sharing—and listened in dismay as he offered criticisms and made pointed suggestions for improvement. The overall tenor of his remarks was quite negative. Other attendees followed his lead, refining his critique and adding their own judgments. Despite my initial consternation, as I listened I realized that good ideas were being expressed, ideas that could well improve the conference format in ways we hadn’t considered. Slowly, my excitement about these new possibilities overcame my fear of the critical tone of the spective.
During the discussion that followed, it became clear that attendees were also pumped up about these potential format changes. Many felt these could make an already great conference even better. Rather than make spot decisions during the spective, we ended up using an online survey over the next couple of weeks to consider and compare the proposed scheduling alternatives.
At the following year’s conference, we incorporated several of the changes suggested at the spective. There was wide agreement that the new design was better than anything we had done before.
It’s scary to let go, to let the unexpected happen. It’s hard to find the courage to watch without interfering, as an unexpected event leads to a host of consequences. As we sit in our boat, formerly safely floating down the conference river, but now suddenly veering alarmingly towards an indistinct muddy bank, most of us have a natural tendency to want to grab a paddle and attempt to wrest the craft back into the middle of the flow. Yet, if we surrender to the current, using our facilitation paddle merely to moderate our speed and make fine course corrections, we may find that the bank, once we reach it, is full of unexpected delights and possibilities.
Think of the last time you were with a group of people and made a stretch to learn something. Perhaps you admitted you didn’t understand something someone said, wondering as you did whether it was obvious to the others present. Perhaps you challenged a viewpoint held by a majority of the people present. Perhaps you proposed a tentative solution to a problem, laying yourself open to potentially making a mistake in front of others. These are all examples of what I call risky learning.
Whatever happened, was the learning opportunity greater compared to safe learning—the passive absorption of presented information?
Traditional conferences discourage risky learning. Who but a supremely conﬁdent person (or that rare iconoclast) stands up at the end of a presentation to several hundred people and says they don’t understand or disagree with something that was said? Who will ask a bold question, share a problem, or state a controversial point of view, fearing it may affect their professional status, job prospects, or current employment with others in the audience? People who brave these concerns are more likely to be exhibiting risky behavior than practicing risky learning.
Yet it is possible to provide a safe and supportive environment for risky learning. Here’s how we do it at Conferences That Work.
First, and perhaps most important, is the commitment attendees make at the very beginning of the conference to keep conﬁdential what is shared. This simple communal promise generates a level of group intimacy and revelation seldom experienced at a conventional conference. As a result, participants are comfortable speaking what’s on their minds, unencumbered by worries that their sharing may be made public outside the event.
Second, because Conferences That Work are small, there is an increased chance that attendees will be the sole representatives of their organizations and will feel comfortable fruitfully sharing sensitive personal information to their peers, knowing that what is revealed won’t ﬁlter back to coworkers. Even when others are present from the same institution, the intimacy our conferences helps to develop amity and increased understanding between them.
Third, our conference process makes no presuppositions about who will act in traditional teacher or student roles during the event, leading to ﬂuid roles and learning driven by group and individual desires and abilities to satisfy real attendee needs and wishes. In an environment where it’s expected that anyone may be a teacher or learner from moment to moment, participants overcome inhibitions about asking naive questions or sharing controversial opinions.
Finally, Conferences That Work facilitators model peer conference behavior. When they don’t know the answer to a question they say “I don’t know.” When they need help they ask for it. When they make mistakes they are accountable rather than defensive. Consistently modeling appropriate conduct fosters a conference environment conducive to engaged, risky learning.
Ultimately, each attendee decides whether to stretch. But Conferences That Work, by supplying optimum conditions for risky learning, make it much easier for participants to take risks and learn effectively.