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In 2009, the biologist E.O. Wilson described what he saw as humanity’s real problem. I think it’s also a meeting problem:
“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” —E. O. Wilson, debate at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, Mass., 9 September 2009
Wilson sees emotions, institutions, and technology as disjointed in time. Emotions have driven human beings for millions of years, our institutions are thousands of years old, and we can’t keep up with our advances in technology.
Emotions run us; our rationality comes in a distant second. All meeting design needs to recognize this reality.
The things we do reflect our culture. And the organizations we’ve constructed incarnate our culture. Our largest and most powerful institutions — political and religious — are also the oldest, with roots thousands of years in the past. What we think of as modern business meetings and conferences are hundreds of years old. Changes in their forms and traditions have been principally influenced by technology (see below) rather than any deep changes in human psychology.
The traditional top-down formats of meetings and conferences reflect the top-down structure of the institutions that still largely dominate our world. Traditional institutional norms discourage the creation of meetings that provide freedom for participants to steer and co-create learning and connection experiences that are optimally better for everyone involved. All too often, top-down institutional culture leads inexorably to hierarchical meeting formats.
So there’s a disconnect between what’s best for meeting participants, due to their fundamental psychological makeup, and the dictates of their institutional bosses and the organizations that organize the events.
And finally, there’s E.O. Wilson’s “god-like technology”. Even though technology is continually being redefined as anything that was invented after you were born, it’s impossible to ignore how rapidly technology has evolved and changed our culture and our meeting experiences. I carry in my pocket a phone that has more computing power and far more utility to me than a machine that filled an entire office building when I was a student. And the COVID-19 pandemic has vividly illustrated how technology has allowed us, almost overnight, to redefine what we have thought of as meetings for hundreds of years to a largely—at least for now—online experience.
The tension between emotions, institutions, and technology at meetings
Wilson’s definition of humanity’s problem resonates for me. As I’ve shared above, our emotions, institutions, and technology also frequently conflict when we are planning meetings. There isn’t a simple solution that perfectly responds to these elemental forces that affect what we do. In the meetings industry, our best meeting problem solutions recognize the effects of these forces on our gatherings and use conscious design to take advantage of them.
That means designing meetings that incorporate active learning via creating emotional experiences together, working with institutional stakeholders to convince them of the value of emotion-driven, participant-driven, and participation-rich approaches, and using the right technology — often human process technology — to make our meetings the best they can be.
Yes, humanity’s problem is a meeting problem. But we have the tools to solve it. All we need to do is to use them.
I’m noticing that event promoters are increasingly using the word “unconference” to describe traditional conferences. <Sigh>. Please stop doing this! There’s a big difference between unconferences and traditional events.
Here’s how Wikipedia defines an unconference:
“An unconference is a participant-driven meeting.” “Typically at an unconference, the agenda is created by the attendees at the beginning of the meeting.” —Unconference, Wikipedia
“In particular, the word ‘unconference’ means that you get to choose which sessions you want to attend and actively participate in. You will shape the event by taking part in discussions, feedback sessions, and similar formats that need your input.” The Search Central Unconference is back, Google Search Central Blog
Wow. According to Google, “‘unconference’ means that you get to choose which sessions you want to attend”. Umm, Google, that’s what happens at every conference! Oh, you also get to “actively participate in” sessions? Google, we call that “having a discussion” or “a breakout”.
Abraham Lincoln once posed the question: “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have?” and then answered his own query: “Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” Sorry, Google, but calling your conference an unconference doesn’t make it one.
Let’s call what you’re doing an ununconference.
Sadly, Google is not alone.
A few examples of ununconferences
Here are three ununconferences that people promoted this week. I noticed several others, but adding all those black bars to remove identifying information takes time. Twitter is full of folks who already know they’ll be “speaking” at an ununconference (e.g., the second example). The last example announces that their “unconference” is closing session proposal submissions six months before the actual event!
Conference programs that are predetermined with attendee input are not unconferences
I have been convening and facilitating unconferences for 29years. (I prefer the term peer conferences, but no one else cares.) Why? Because they provide a far better conference experience. Better, because creating the conference program in real time at the start ensures that the event optimally meets participants’ in-the-moment wants and needs.
“In my twenty years of organizing conferences, I’ve never found a program committee that predicted more than half of the session topics that conference attendees chose when they were given the choice. During that time I’ve seen no evidence that any one person, whether they are given the title of “curator” or not, can put together a conference program that can match what attendees actually need and want. —Jeremy Lin and the myth of the conference curator, February, 2012
Seth Godin puts it this way: “We have no idea in advance who the great contributors are going to be.” Just about every unconference I’ve convened or attended, has brought to light participants whose valuable knowledge, expertise, experience, and contributions were unknown to the conveners (and most, if not all, of the attendees). You can’t do this effectively at a traditional conference with a predetermined program.
Unconference is not a marketing soundbite
Marketers: stop using “unconference” as an event marketing buzzword. We’re not selling cereal here. Robert Kreitner says, “Buzzwords…drive out good ideas.” Unconferences are participant-driven, which involves building the program in real time during the event. Having (well-designed) discussion sessions during an event is great, but that doesn’t make a meeting an unconference.
I care about how people use the word “unconference” because I’ve met too many folks who believe that an event that’s billed as an unconference must be one. Then they attend and are underwhelmed. I’d hate to see unconferences suffer because marketing folks see the word as a way to make an event sound hip, sophisticated, and cool. Let’s banish the ununconference instead!
Sadly, while I acknowledge and appreciate Freeman’s significant work on the case for recommencing meeting in person, I believe this claim is misleading, and the underlying modeling and research include flawed assumptions.
I have two broad concerns about Freeman’s summary of research “Inside LIVE: The data you need to navigate the Delta variant for events” on the safety of in-person events. You can watch Freeman’s 55-minute webinar, posted on August 25, 2021, below.
1—Freeman’s overall conclusion is misleading
My first concern is that Freeman’s big picture conclusion that “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store” is a misleading characterization of the statistics they present.
Here are the statistics (from the next webinar slide).
This slide compares the mid-August, 2021 rate of COVID cases amongst the entire population in the United States with the reported rates from four recent large in-person events. The second column shows the infection rate as a percentage.
Because the statement conflates the risk of a masked visit to a grocery store with the overall risk in the United States of getting infected! The latter regrettably includes a significant fraction of the U.S. population who won’t or can’t get vaccinated, don’t wear masks to protect against airborne transmission of COVID-19, and don’t social distance. The risk of contracting COVID-19 during a grocery store masked visit is far less than the overall risk for everyone in the U.S.
The headline statement is, therefore, comparing apples to oranges. You’d expect any event that implements precautions against COVID-19 transmission to have a lower infection rate than the entire United States. That doesn’t mean that attending an event is a safe enough choice for attendees and staff.
This brings us to what’s actually important to people trying to make a decision whether to attend an event. The event modeling, performed for Freeman by Epistemix, and discussed later, suggests that those who are currently likely to attend a large in-person business event that implements mitigation strategies such as vaccination requirements, masking, and social distancing, are significantly more likely to be vaccinated (~80%). That statistic seems credible to me.
Such potential attendees, who are already more careful than the average American about how they live their lives in a pandemic, aren’t interested in whether an event environment provides a risk of getting COVID-19 comparable to the average risk of the entire population of the U.S. Rather, they want to know if attending the event will significantly (defined by them) increase their likelihood of contracting COVID-19. And that brings me to the second concern about the assumptions made by Epistemix’s event risk model.
2—The event risk model used for risk calculations is flawed and incomplete
When I heard about the Freeman webinar (thanks Julius Solaris!), I posted some initial responses. Freeman’s Jessica Fritsche was kind enough to reach out to me and arrange a Zoom call with John Cordier, the CEO of Epistemix, to walk through the data modeling used in the research. And John generously offered an hour of his time for us to talk. We were also joined by Sarah Shewey, Founder/CEO of Happily who was also interested in learning more about how infection rates at meetings could be modeled.
During our hour together, John shared an overview of the Epistemix model. This gave me a better understanding of Epistemix’s approach. The model essentially attempts to simulate the entire population of the United States at an impressive level of detail. It includes numerous geographic and social factors that affect infection risk. However, during our conversation I asked about a number of important factors that I believe Epistemix has not incorporated into their model of calculating meeting risks.
Probably the most important of these is adequately modeling the air quality at the event, given the paucity of information available about the safety of specific venues and properties from an air quality perspective. In addition, the model does not include the additive risks for travel to and from an event, and staying in a hotel during an event. Though it’s likely possible to model the increased risk during (unmasked) eating and drinking social activities during the event, it doesn’t appear that the Epistemix model does this. Finally, though the Epistemix model incorporates information about COVID-19 variants as they become known, I’m skeptical that it can accurately predict in a timely manner the impact of brand new COVID-19 variants.
In the following sections, I’ll expand on these issues in more detail.
Flaws and omissions in Epistemix’s meeting model
First, a tiny introduction to modeling human systems. All models are an approximation of reality. Consequently,
I learned to program computers in high school, over 50 years ago. Through a series of summer jobs, undergraduate and graduate work, and consulting assignments, I’ve spent years creating computer models of city traffic systems, the interactions of high energy particle beams bombarding matter, the consequences of obscure physics theories, and the functions of complicated administrative systems.
Two fundamental considerations when building and trusting computer models are:
The assumptions one makes in building a model are key to the model being actually useful rather than wrong. Computer models are very seductive. They seem precise and authoritative, and it’s hard to discover and accept their limitations and/or even their completely wrong predictions. Choosing the right assumptions is an art, not a science. One poor assumption can doom a model’s reliability.
Even if you choose good assumptions, implementing them correctly in computer code is difficult. It’s hard to be sure that an implementation faithfully reflects core assumptions. An incorrect implementation of a potentially useful model typically leads to incorrect predictions. If you’re lucky, it’s obvious that a model’s outputs are wrong. But sometimes, predictions are subtly wrong in ways that are easy to overlook.
I’m going to assume that Epistemix models faithfully implement the assumptions made to create them (#2 above). However, I’ve identified four factors that I feel Epistemix has not incorporated into their model of calculating meeting risks. Some of these factors are interlinked.
1—Adequately modeling airborne COVID-19 transmission at a specific event
While talking to John, it became clear to me that the current Epistemix approach does not adequately model the air quality—and the consequent risk of COVID-19 transmission—at a specific event. The model has some capacity to estimate risks (which are generally minimal) in very large, high-ceiling spaces like convention halls. But, of course, the typical meeting venue contains multiple meeting spaces, some of them small, and, critically, the venues do not in general have a good handle (if any) on the air quality in those spaces. (Or, if they do, they’re not talking publicly about it.)
I know such upgrades can be costly, but you’d think that venues and properties that have implemented them would love to promote themselves as having air quality that meets current pandemic-based standards.
To date, I have not been told of a single venue that is now compliant with ASHRAE pandemic recommendations. (I hope that by now there are some, and that they will let this be known.) During the webinar, Freeman said that such work has and is being done. Please share this information, folks! Meeting planners want to know!
Frankly, without this information a) being made available and b) being incorporated into the Epistemix model it’s hard to have much confidence in the infection risks Epistemix’s model predicts.
2—Additive risks for travel to and from an event, and staying in a hotel during an event
Epistemix’s model does not include the additive risks for attendees (and staff) traveling to and from an event. The main concern is air travel. The air industry has stressed that air change rates in aircraft are high (over 10 air changes/hour) and, now that masks are mandatory, infection risks should therefore be low. An excellent investigation by the New York Times “How Safe Are You From Covid When You Fly?” has tempered this assessment somewhat. Of particular interest are comments from a couple of readers who monitored the carbon-dioxide level—an excellent proxy for air quality—during their entire travel. They found that boarding and deplaning air quality was drastically reduced, as well as during the last thirty minutes of one person’s flight. Exposure at terminal restaurants, where masks must be removed, is also potentially risky.
Quite apart from the “event” itself, staying in a venue may greatly increase one’s risk of infection. I wrote about venue and property ventilation concerns in detail in April, 2021, and later articles by PCMA (1, 2) and the New York Times (1) have echoed this concern.
Again, travel risks are not included in Epistemix’s model. They can be significant, and have to be included to determine the relative risk for an event attendee who is choosing whether to participate or staff an event, or not.
3—Modeling the increased risk when masks are off for socials and group meals
Most in-person meetings include meals and socials, when masking is not possible. Unless you hold such unmasked get-togethers outdoors or in safely ventilated venues, airborne transmission of COVID-19 amongst everyone present (attendees and staff) is a potentially significant and unknown risk. Outdoor locations are only possible for limited periods in much of the U.S. As mentioned above, venues and properties remain silent on whether they’ve upgraded and certified their facilities to current ASHRAE recommendations on air quality.
We have also seen reports of numerous cases of reduced, unmasked social distancing at socials and meals. This is understandable in a world where we’ve been masked and apart for so long. But it is still a risky activity, especially in spaces where ventilation is inadequate.
My understanding (which may be incorrect) of Epistemix’s model is that masking is a global parameter for an event. The model does not handle unmasking in specific event spaces for periods of time. Even if the model does have this flexibility, the lack of knowledge of whether such spaces are safely ventilated prevents an accurate risk assessment.
4—Can Epistemix model the appearance of brand new COVID-19 variants?
But John and I didn’t have time to fully explore this issue, so this concern may be overblown.
Are in-person events COVID safe?
I really appreciate John Cordier’s willingness to share an overview of Epistemix’s infection risk model for events. Obviously, my brief introduction means there’s no way I can authoritatively review the extensive assumptions that are built into the model. Epistemix’s model is impressively detailed and, if correctly implemented (which I have no reason to doubt), seems to comprehensively cover core demographics, the data needed to model infection spread in regional populations, and most major components for predicting infection at a specific event.
When I brought up the concerns I’ve listed in this post, I felt that John largely talked past me, continuing with an explanation of the model without responding directly to what I was asking. This was somewhat frustrating. The two exceptions to this were:
My question about whether the model could accurately predict in a timely manner the impact of brand new variants. This arose at the end of our meeting. John indicated that he believed the model was able to do this, but we didn’t have enough time to explore this issue fully. I’m still skeptical, though he might well have been able to convince me otherwise if we’d had more time.
My primary concern about modeling air quality in detail. John admitted during the meeting that the model does not currently handle specific venue air quality architecture at the detail that’s necessary to simulate, say, what happens when you have a session in a smaller classroom with an HVAC system that is not up to current ASHRAE recommendations. It also omits risks due to event participants (and staff) spending time in properties that may have inadequate air quality. He wrote to me afterwards that “he’d be glad to follow up on the air-quality parameters that you think are most important”.
I’ve seen so many pretty models of systems over the decades. To a casual viewer, they look impressive. It’s only because I spent years building and validating such models that I know how misleading they can be, and the difficulty and importance of identifying the key factors and approximations that form the basis of the model and limit its scope and/or accuracy.
Leaving out detailed venue specific air quality modeling, plus the incoming and return travel risks and accommodation risks during an event, plus inadequate modeling of the risk of transmission during socials and food & beverage sessions make the outputs of the Epistemix model suspect. And I’m skeptical that Epistemix can build new variants into the model predictions in a timely fashion.
Finally, I haven’t covered in this article the feasibility of implementing the various mitigation strategies that are available to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection at meetings. Personally, I’d insist on proof of vaccination (no exceptions) and maximal masking at any event I’m likely to attend in the near future. But I’ll just add here this observation from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society‘s HIMSS21 Las Vegas conference for 19,000 attendees. Vaccination was mandatory for all attendees. There were six positive test results (0.03% infarction rate). However, this PCMA article on the event includes the statement: “…you will not be able to service your show if you require every single vendor employee, every single supplier employee, every single temp employee to be vaccinated — there’s just not enough labor out there.” Something to bear in mind.
Are in-person events COVID safe? Ultimately, each of us needs to decide the answer to this question. But, in my opinion, until the COVID-19 case count drops drastically and/or venues can show that their facility ventilation is safe, it’s a violation of our professional duty of care to mislead attendees and those who work in our industry by telling them “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store”.
What is the mix of presentation versus interaction at your meetings? What should it be?
Traditional meetings focus heavily on presentation. Interaction is limited to a few questions at the end of sessions, plus conversations “outside” the formal sessions. And this has been the norm for hundreds of years.
The written word
Let’s explore the popularity of the written words presentation versus interaction over time. If you do this, using Google Books Ngram Viewer, you’ll notice a curious thing.
In 1804, the earliest year included in the Google Books database, the word interaction barely appears. The word presentation is a hundred times more frequent. Both words slowly become more common over time, but presentation stays predominant. But, in the 1950s, something strange happens. The popularity of interaction abruptly rises. In 1964, interaction becomes more frequently used. It has remained in first place ever since.
Presentation versus interaction at meetings
Society, as reflected by books in English, now talks about interaction about twice as often as presentation. But our meeting designs, in large part, haven’t changed to reflect this shift in cultural awareness. Presenters still rarely incorporate interaction into their sessions, even though there are ample reasons why they should.
Last month, I staffed an online memorial service for E, a friend who died tragically, at age 42, of breast cancer. With over a hundred attendees, most listened as friends and family spoke. When the main service ended, I hosted one of several breakout rooms for those who wanted to stay and talk.
People were allocated to the breakout rooms randomly. A woman in my room looked quite upset, and I asked her how she knew E. She shared that they met each other in high school, and were friends for many years. They eventually drifted apart, and only reconnected when she heard about E’s cancer.
The woman looked really upset. So I asked her if she wanted to tell us more. She burst into tears. “We found out we had breast cancer at the same time, and both went into treatment.” She sobbed harder. And then she cried out, “But I survived. I’m OK.”
We talked a little about her guilt at surviving. We gave her the gift of listening. Afterwards, she looked better, and perhaps she felt a little better too.
We gave the woman an opening to share her feelings of guilt. She gained a new experience, one that I think was significant to her.
It was also a significant new experience for me. At the start of the breakout, I had no idea what would happen. I felt happy to be able to give this woman a place to voice her feelings. It’s the kind of work I love to do, my ikigai.
Providing new experiences at meetings can be as simple as this.
Creating environments and opportunities for new experiences to happen.
Fear of new experiences
To an infant, all experiences are new. Rapidly though, as we grow older, experiences repeat and they become comfortable and familiar. It’s tempting to desire to try and relive old, pleasant experiences, rather than seek out new ones. That’s understandable. New experiences can be scary. Not only for the person experiencing them, but also for society. As D.H. Lawrence said a hundred years ago:
“The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything. Because a new experience displaces so many old experiences…The world doesn’t fear a new idea. It can pigeon-hole any idea. But it can’t pigeon-hole a real new experience.” —D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
And another opportunity for providing meaningful new experiences at an event is missed.
The alternative? Be brave, and explore and implement the practical suggestions below!
How to provide valuable new experiences at meetings
There’s a simple answer to the question: “How can we provide valuable new experiences at meetings?”
It requires a shift of perspective. At traditional meetings, it’s assumed that the meeting conveners are responsible for specific new experiences. This implies that the attendees are passive receivers of the program. They have no role in its creation. At traditional meeting after meeting, the onus is solely on the conveners to provide valuable new experiences. The temptation is to come up with cosmetic changes that, while possibly entertaining to some degree, do not fundamentally change what happens at the event.
Here’s what to do instead.
Instead of dreaming up changes to the physical environment of the meeting — the F&B, decor, etc. — provide a process environment that supports and encourages appropriate new interpersonal experiences around the content they want and need.
Doing this makes the participants co-creators of experiences that matter to them.
If you want to know how well this works, take a look at the randomly chosen comments that participants have made about my events over the last thirty years, and that appear in the sidebar of this blog.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
If I can help you in any way create an environment for new experiences at your meetings, don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Clearly, online conferences can make it easier for people to attend who might otherwise not be able to do so:
…participation [at in-person meetings] can favor more privileged scientists (e.g., well-funded, connected, established) while excluding talented but less privileged scientists who may not have available funds or flexible schedules to overcome barriers such as financial resources, travel time, disabilities (De Picker 2020), dependent care responsibilities (Calisi and A Working Group of Mothers in Science 2018), or visa acquisition (Matthews et al. 2020)
Conferences are an important learning and support resource for early career scientists. Online events make it easier for them to attend.
“…a hiatus from scientific meetings would also have come at a cost, especially for early career researchers (ECRs) who rely on scientific meetings to share their work, find career opportunities, and establish a peer cohort that provides emotional, mental, and personal support in addition to professional support.”
But barriers to attending online conferences still remain:
“…the online format removed potential barriers and likely increased participation by peers unable to participate in previous years. Still, some barriers remained, and new barriers arose, such as access to a reliable computer and internet connection, time zone management for conferences with a globally distributed audience, the unexpected energy demand of sustaining online attentiveness (the newly coined term “Zoom fatigue”), and finding time for dependent care as many schools, nurseries, eldercare services, and similar facilities enacted restrictions or limited services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Nevertheless, attendance at three of the meetings was significantly higher than when previously held in-person. (The three other meetings did not share historical attendance data.)
“Attendance increased 50% over previous successful conferences with a significant portion (40%) of first-time symposium attendees.”
“The in-person meeting was space-limited to 65 participants. The virtual format opened registration to anyone. In total, 205 people had registered to access the workshop materials, with 150 individuals and 110 individuals consistently joining on days 1 and 2, respectively. Instead of the original limit of 15 in-person graduate students, the conference welcomed over 50 graduate and undergraduate students.”
“Initially planned as an in-person, ~ 50-person workshop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A., the inaugural workshop took place 18–20 August 2020, virtually over Zoom … In total, 1038 registrants from over 30 countries participated, with individual session attendance in the low-hundreds.”
The full article also describes an overall increase in diversity of attendees at their online conferences. However, expanding presenter diversity wasn’t successful at one of the meetings.
Online platforms and tools used
The six meetings used a variety of online platforms and tools: Zoom (used in every meeting), webex, Voice Thread (used for poster sessions), Slack, Whova, Poll Everywhere, QUBES Hub (an online community for STEM activities), Slido, and Google Forms. Attendees were largely happy with these tools, with only a few problems reported. Read the article for details.
There was a general consensus that socializing opportunities online were inferior to in-person meetings. This was despite the use of backchannel communication platforms such as Slack during several of the events.
“Communication software, such as Slack, could not really replace the casual “hallway chats,” but did provide more complete documentation of conversations and a forum that could continue following the meeting.”
None of the meetings used one of the online social platforms I’ve described on this blog (1, 2, 3). I suspect that incorporating such platforms into future conferences would provide a better social experience for participants.
Online program fatigue
Several meetings reported their attendees experienced fatigue:
“Aside from programmatic needs, the community learned that mental and physical fatigue are inherent to both in-person and virtual formats. Much like an in-person, session-packed meeting, virtual meetings occurring for long hours, across multiple time zones can drain energy. Although a virtual format may more easily afford attendees the chance to “log-off” from the meeting, building in diverse events, such as social hours, breakout or working group sessions, and mixed presentation formats are crucial to prevent attendees from logging off too often or feeling drained by a meeting.”
Three of the meetings added closed-captioning to pre-recorded talks, and attendees found this helpful. One of the report’s conclusions:
“Closed-captioning content benefits many, especially non-native English speakers.”
When online meetings use prerecorded videos, adding closed-captioning is an easy way to improve the viewing experience. Hopefully, real-time closed-captioning will become more accurate, affordable, and common in the future.
“GLEON is increasingly aware of barriers for meeting attendance, despite a long running sponsorship program. Hence, some form of a hybrid style meeting may offer the best way forward.”
“Hybrid models tailored to a specific society’s resources and needs could incorporate components of both the in-person and virtual experiences. One variant could be offering both the in-person and virtual components simultaneously, allowing attendees, who are not able or willing to travel, to partake in in-person sessions and panels through video-conferencing software. Here, an alternative hybrid form could consist of regional in-person meetings, to minimize travel, while still being connected to other regional meeting hubs via a shared online program. Another hybrid model could be re-envisioning the in-person conference altogether, where traditional presentation and poster sessions are conducted virtually, and a companion, asynchronous in-person conference parallels the themes of the virtual meeting but with a focus on working groups, networking, and research products.”
Although many attendees hoped to return to in-person conferences, they generally agreed that online meetings have shown their value and will remain an important option for future meetings.
Some of these insights may be familiar, some less so. Let’s thank the numerous scientists who took time to share lessons learned from holding online meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic! Such information is helpful to everyone working to make meetings better.
I’ve written frequently about facilitating change. Despite attempting to practice what I preach, I still sometimes fail to create a desired change in my life. Here are two recent examples that led me to realize that I need to achieve success one small step at a time.
1) Meditation and gratitude practice
For 25 years, I’ve been a member of a small local consultants group that meets monthly. Recently I’ve been facilitating a set of meetings to work on changes we want to make in our lives. This involves figuring out what they are, and supporting each other in making these changes a reality.
To model the process, I went through it myself first with our group. Two of the changes I wish to make are maintaining a daily meditation practice (something I’ve been struggling with for years), and creating a daily gratitude practice.
My group made two good suggestions for creating these desired changes:
To maintain my daily meditation practice, I committed to meditating for a minimum of five minutes per day without fail. This is much shorter than my old time goal. I also gained a group buddy who wanted to meditate more frequently. We would send each other an email when we’d completed our daily meditation, helping us to keep on track.
For a gratitude practice, I decided to write down daily three things for which I was grateful. I found some small cards and a box for them, and kept these on my desk.
I have been able to faithfully maintain my meditation practice since our last group meeting. Hopefully, this change will become a habit for me. However, I started to miss days for the gratitude practice. This was a little upsetting, and I kept trying, unsuccessfully, to get back on track.
I realized that attempting to make both changes simultaneously was a barrier to complete success. So I’ve dropped the gratitude practice writing. (I still try to notice moments for gratitude when they arise, and I’m getting better at this.)
My goal now is to work on maintaining my daily meditation practice until it becomes a solid and permanent change. At some point I may increase the minimum time I meditate. Once I feel secure in this change, I will begin work on maintaining a daily gratitude practice.
One success out of two is an improvement! One small step at a time.
2) Tying my shoes
Don’t laugh! OK, laugh if you want; I don’t mind.
My physical therapist recently showed me a cool new way to tie my shoes. (If you don’t want to learn it, feel free to skip the next bit.) When I was a kid, my mum taught me the most common method, as shown in the first 30 seconds of this video.
The above knot is easy to untie by pulling either lace end. However, over the years, I found that it would occasionally unexpectedly untie. So I added tying the two loops in a half knot. The resulting knot doesn’t spontaneously untie, but you can’t just pull a lace end to untie your shoe; you have to untie the half knot first.
Last month, while fitting some orthotics into my brand new running shoes, my physical therapist saw how I was tying my shoes. She suggested a better method, with one extra step. Watch it in the second half of the same video.
Changing something I’ve done the same way for 60+ years isn’t a piece of cake. But I found it fairly easy to get in the habit of tying the thick laces in my running shoes the new way.
However, the skinny laces in my everyday sneakers are another matter. For some reason, it’s much harder for me to add the extra step with these laces. I got frustrated trying to tie my sneakers in the new way, and it was affecting my running shoe tying muscle memory.
So, instead of trying to make the change in two different places, I decided to give up the new method for my sneakers. Using the new method, but only to my running shoes, is becoming more and more automatic. And I have no problem staying with my childhood method for my sneakers.
Over time, I hope that typing my running shoes the new way will become completely automatic. I’ll have successfully made one small change. Then it will be time for me to work on adding the change to tying my sneakers, achieving success one small step at a time.
Jerry Weinberg’s take
I’ve learned so much from my late mentor Jerry Weinberg. And he had something to say about achieving success one small step at a time. Jerry was a consultant to Ford on the ill-fated Edsel. As he recalls in his jewel of a book, The Secrets of Consulting, the Edsel project was a great triumph. Ford “…installed some terrific new computer systems that ultimately were adopted by the entire auto industry.”
What Jerry realized, twenty-five years later, was that the Edsel was a flop because Ford, scared of all the “better ideas” put all of them into one car. “That approach guarantees that even if each one of the individual ideas is terrific, the result will be a debacle.”
From this experience he derived The Edsel Edict.
“If you must have something new, take one, not two.”
In other words, achieve success one small step at a time.
One small step
Have you tried to make changes in your life and, like me, sometimes failed? Perhaps reducing the number of simultaneous changes you attempt may help you achieve success one small step at a time.
At a Marlboro Music Festival rehearsal last week, I heard the words entrance and layer used in a single sentence. And it made me think about meeting design.
On August 8, my wife and I attended a rehearsal of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132 at the 2021 Marlboro Music Festival. Such free rehearsals give the casual audience an opportunity to hear world-class musicians play and learn together. They are very different from a formal concert, and surprisingly, in some ways, better!
“It’s not an entrance, it’s a layer.” —Cellist Marcy Rosen
They began again.
I heard the difference.
Instead of creating a transition, an entrance to the movement, they created a shimmering context, a layer.
And, me being me, I thought about what Marcy had just said in the context of meeting design.
It’s not an entrance it’s a layer
As spectators, our lives are full of transitions.
And meetings are no exception.
The session ends. A social begins. A chime marks the end of hallway conversations, and we walk to another room to listen to someone else.
When we’re spectators, we notice transitions.
But when we are fully engaged in a meeting, we are just there, immersed in and responding to what is happening. We aren’t looking at our watches or phones. We aren’t thinking about where we’ll go for lunch. Instead, we are in the moment, living in a layer of context.
The art and craft of the meeting designer
It’s a meeting designer’s job to create these contextual layers. Each layer is an environment that supports and enables full participation in and active experience of what’s going on.
A good example of a key meeting layer is safety.
A layer of safety
We don’t hold meetings in burning buildings, on rapidly melting ice floes, or in the middle of a sandstorm. Attendees want to feel safe. But even when our meeting venues are conventionally safe places, they may not feel emotionally safe for attendees to participate in what is going on.
Designs that incorporate optimal protective process provide an important layer of safety that maximizes participants’ levels of comfort and their readiness to participate in the event.
Other important layers at a meeting
Other important process layers at a meeting include:
Incorporating event crowdsourcing which allows participants to design the event and sessions they want and need; and
The design of the conference arc, which includes everything necessary for participants to discover, learn, connect, and engage around the topics or issues that brought them together.
And the traditional layers that professional meeting planners provide:
Consistent quality of service and experience, e.g., food and beverage, decor, and production;
Reliable, timely, and clear information about the program, sessions, meals, exhibits, and socials.
A comfortable physical environment throughout the event.
Focus on layers as well as transitions
Sometime, meeting stakeholders concentrate on the transitions at meetings at the expense of the layers. It’s tempting to focus on creating dramatic build-ups to peak moments, or how we will then move participants to an outdoor social. While a session or social is taking place, we may get a little breathing space. Our planning energy switches to preparing for the next transition.
Of courser, transitions during a meeting are both unavoidable and important. But unduly focusing on them at your event can lead planners to overlook the value of creating an environment that powerfully engages participants and builds significant connections between them.
By also focusing on the meeting layers I’ve identified above, you’ll create an improved environment that will amplify value for participants and stakeholders throughout and after your event.
I’ve noticed over the years that every meeting has a budget for F&B. There’s usually a budget for decor and production—sometimes a big budget. There’s often a budget for a dramatic big-name speaker or two. If you ask about a budget for event design, stakeholders think you’re talking about decor and drama. But “there’s no budget” for core event design, which is actually about designing great meeting process. Meeting conveners have a blind spot about the importance of meeting process design: what happens for stakeholders at their meeting.
It turns out that designing good process into your meeting is cheaper than paying for special effects. For the price of a coffee break, you can make an event fundamentally better by significantly improving the realization of its purpose and its impact on participants. Learn how to do this from my books, from the hundreds of articles on this blog, or get in touch!
[P.S. In case you’re wondering, I fed the two words “meeting design” to an AI program, which generated the animated image accompanying this post.]
“Just finished a 90-min workshop that was like pulling teeth from start to finish. Visibly distracted, clearly checking emails, no engagement or dialogue during debrief. I’m exhausted! I know it’s no reflection on me, but I can’t help wondering if this is at all “telling” of the way the session was marketed to participants beforehand and/or whether it’s a sign these are not my ideal client. Am I naive or acting a martyr for asking these questions? I’d love to get a convo going around how we manage our own expectations and energy when our sessions fall flat. Thoughts? Yours truly. Shannon Hughes“
A helpful comment
Among many great comments, Edward Liu‘s stood out.
“Lot of good suggestions so far. The only thing I can add is from one of the best work trainings I ever did, where the first thing the instructor asked was, “who’s here because they want to be and who’s here because they were told to be?” The majority were “told to be,” which she acknowledged and said, “I was told to be here, too, here’s what I suggest to make our experience a little better for the 2 days we all have to be here” and then outlined her expectations and some basic ground rules. I can’t even remember what they were, because I was so struck by an instructor acknowledging that maybe we didn’t really want to be in the class.
She was good enough that we all wanted to be there after an hour or two, and also happened to teach a bunch of management techniques that I can now frame in applied improv terms. But I’d say her very first question was itself an improv technique: Listen to your partner, recognize what they want, and then do your best to give it to them. More often than not, trying to do that means they’ll reciprocate. In this case, your partner is the whole class and you can use the question to intuit what it is they actually want vs what you were hired to do, and then improv your way to ensuring you both get to group mind about the session as a whole as soon as you can.” [Emphasis added.]
Lots of good stuff! Here’s my take.
How to work with folks who don’t want to be here
1. Ask the key question that Edward shared:
At the start of your workshop, conference, or session, ask who chose to be here and who was told they had to be.
2. If there are people who don’t want to be here, then immediately sympathize with them! If possible and appropriate, gently find out why they had to attend.
3. Next, explore what you might be able to do to optimally meet attendees’ wants and needs:
Perhaps you can modify your workshop or session appropriately. In some cases, the Powers That Be may prescribe the entire curriculum, and there’s little or nothing you can do. But in most cases, you’ll have some latitude to adjust what happens while you’re together. If so, first use pair share to get participants thinking about what they’d ideally like to happen. Then run Post It! to hear what they’ve come up with and create a revised plan that takes the expressed wants and needs into effect.
This work is well worth doing, if only to let attendees know that you’re thinking about their wants and needs right from the start. But you can almost always improve your time together by simply asking Edward’s opening question and responding sensitively to the answers you receive.
A closing story
I once taught Computer Science for a decade at a small liberal arts college. Every year, I’d teach an introductory class. One year, the class felt very different. Students were more disengaged than usual. The whole classroom environment seemed different. It took me a few weeks before I was bold enough to share my experience with the students. When I did so, I learned that a third of the class was there to fulfill a degree requirement I didn’t know about, imposed by a new joint degree program with another institution. At every class I’d taught previously, all the students had chosen my class voluntarily. I was getting a crash course in teaching students who didn’t want to be here.
I wish I’d thought to ask my students at the first class why they were there. Perhaps I could have made the class a bit better for those who had no choice.
If you are leading a workshop or session and have any suspicion that some attendees may not want to be there, ask them! Your experience and theirs may be all the better for it!