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The most popular of the in-person sessions I design and facilitate is The Solution Room (here are some testimonials). The 90 – 120 minute session, for 20 – 600 people, engages and connects participants, and provides just-in-time peer support and answers to their most pressing professional challenges. These days, wouldn’t it be great to run The Solution Room online? Well you can!
I’ve described in detail how to run The Solution Room at in-person meetings in my last two books: The Power of Participation & Event Crowdsourcing. The latter has the most up-to-date instructions, but either book should suffice. (Don’t have a copy? For the price of a sandwich you can buy either ebook.) So this post covers just the changes you’ll need to make to hold this highly rated plenary session on an online/virtual platform.
To run The Solution Room online you’ll need:
An online platform with seats for all attendees, plus a private/breakout room for each solution table. In this post I’ll use Zoom to illustrate. The number of breakout rooms will depend on the table size (typically six to eight people; see the book). For example, to run The Solution Room with 100 people and a table size of seven, you’ll need 15 breakout rooms.
A Solution Room facilitator, plus a couple of staff to assist with table groupings/support, and timing announcements.
If you’re dividing participants into heterogeneous groups (the best choice in my opinion), a method of capturing the number of participants and each participant’s number of “years of experience”. You can use a shared Google Sheet for this, like the embedded one below. The above sheet includes a formula that automatically counts the number of people who have entered their name, making it easy to determine how many breakout groups will be needed. It also calculates participants’ grand total of years of experience. Feel free to use a copy for your session, enlarged if necessary.
A way for each participant to create a mindmap or other illustration of their current professional challenge that can be shared with the other members of their table. For example, you can ask participants:
To have some paper and colored pens on hand to draw their mindmap. This is the simplest and safest option. The resulting drawing can be held up to the camera during the table breakout.
To use any drawing program on their computer to create their mindmap. Participants can then share their screen window with the drawing when it’s their turn for a consultation.
Campfire and jungle images for the comfort level spectrogram, open in windows for sharing on your online platform.
If you’d like to display participants’ before and after comfort levels with their challenge and/or the likelihood they’ll work to overcome the challenge they shared, you can use an online polling tool like Poll Everywhere. Note that you won’t be able to do the dramatic before/after move comparisons online.
How to run The Solution Room online
Opening the session
The Solution Room facilitator follows the “How?” section of the relevant chapter in The Power of Participation (Chapter 34) or Event Crowdsourcing (Chapter 23) with the following modifications.
In advance of the session, ask participants to have available a method of creating a drawing to share with their small group. Provide detailed options, so they know how they’re going to create their drawing and how they’ll share it.
Before starting, have your staff check that every participant is displaying their name in the participant list.
Introduce The Solution Room, and provide the link to the shared Google Sheet years-of-experience sheet (here’s my sample Sheet). Ask participants to think of their challenge, and then enter their Zoom name in the column headed by their number of years of experience.
Once everyone has entered their years of experience, your staff can calculate the number of breakout rooms needed. While you continue, staff pre-assigns participants to breakout room tables using the information in the Google Sheet.
An example of table assignment, using the sample Google Sheet
The sample Google Sheet contains twenty participants. So if we are using a table size of seven, we will need three breakout rooms. Your staff will, therefore, go through the Sheet from the left, down each column, and then to the right, assigning each participant a number between 1 and 3. F0r the example, the three tables will be:
#1: Julio Melia, Marvin Brentwood, Elizabeth Strong, Gurdeep Mac, Liliana Hoffman, Ivor Rennie, Zahrah Valenzuela
#2: Harold Kormann, Fergus Roth, Khi Suliman, Bayley Sims, Arian Faulkner, Alayah Hurley, Adrian Segar, Tyriq Kenny
#3: John Smith, Mario Fernandez, Selina Hatherton, Malaika Byers, Inigo Tyler
Each table contains a mixture of years of experience, from novice to veteran.
The comfort spectrogram
Run the comfort spectrogram, sharing your campfire and jungle images at the appropriate times. If you have a polling instrument, ask each participant to rate their pre-exercise comfort level on working on their challenge on a scale of 1 (extremely uncomfortable) to 10 (perfectly comfortable) and to enter their rating. No polling instrument? Simply ask them to remember their rating.
While everyone is still together, give the mindmapping instructions and give participants a few minutes to create their drawings. Ask participants to turn off their camera, raise their hand, or provide some other signal that they have finished. Tell them they can use private chat with the facilitator or staff if they have any questions.
When it’s time for table sharing to start, provide the instructions for table sharing. Answer any questions, and then move participants to their breakout room tables, or tell them their table number and have them move themselves.
Use broadcast messages to provide the midway, two-minute, and time’s up announcements. At the start of the last sharing round, remind tables with one empty seat to use the time for additional consulting.
Ask everyone to thank their table colleagues for their advice and support. Allow a couple of minutes for this, and then bring everyone back together.
Running the closing spectrogram(s)
Display the jungle and campfire images and run the second comfort spectrogram. If using a polling instrument, compare the pre- and post- comfort distributions. Otherwise you can ask people to raise their hand for three options in turn: their comfort level increased, stayed the same, or decreased.
If desired, run the likelihood that participants will work to overcome the challenge they just shared.
Finally, if you have time and the inclination, take some sharing about the exercise, using an appropriate “who goes next” protocol.
That’s it! If you run The Solution Room online, please feel free to share your experience in the comments below.
Earlier this year I reviewed (1, 2) three online conference social platforms: Gatherly, Rally, and Wonder ( the new name for Yotribe since September). Since then, the Gatherly and Rally developers have been hard at work! So here’s a review of the updated versions of these platforms, including comparisons with the relatively unchanged Wonder service.
How does what someone says about me myself influence my life. Who am I really? How can I be myself? What does it even mean to “be myself”?
The school play
Educated during our teens to be total nerds, we had little time for anything but science and math at Dulwich College. So we were thrilled when our English teacher said we could put on a play. We wrote a script and I got to act. I can’t remember what the play was about, but I recall my excitement wearing different clothes instead of our obligatory school uniform.
The play ended, and as we left the theatre I overheard my teacher talking about me to another teacher. “Oh, Segar,” he said. “He can only do Segar.”
I was crushed. I felt terrible, because I thought I had acted well. And here was my teacher saying that I was just the usual Segar he knew.
I can’t act
For the next forty-five years (!) I took what my teacher said as a declaration that I wasn’t good at acting. My self-esteem was bound up with being seen as good at doing things. I couldn’t act! So I avoided opportunities to play being someone different, and perhaps, in the process, discover something new about myself.
I dare to try improv
Sparked by years of cautious personal development, I finally dared to try some improv work. I enjoyed the improv exercises snuck into various experiential workshops, including some of the (no-longer held) annual Amplifying Your Effectiveness experiential workshops (sample). Eventually I became brave enough to take a three-day introductory improv workshop at BATS in San Francisco, and have participated in a number of improv workshops and conferences since then.
I’ve discovered that, actually, I can act! In both senses of the word! And, just like when I was a teenager, I enjoy it!
These days, I don’t see doing improv as being someone different from who I am. Rather, I see it as a tool for exploring different things about myself, playing with others, and having fun.
Can I be myself?
I now interpret what my teacher said in a positive way. He may not have meant this, but I hear what he said as a compliment. “He is who he is.” Not a fake persona, not someone trying to be someone he’s not.
That’s who I want to be, myself. Everyone else is already taken.
In 2017, I purchased an Apple Watch. It has improved my life in many ways. In particular, it’s become an essential tool for supporting my desire to exercise daily. The watch’s Workout app tracks my exercise. All I need to do is to tell it what kind of exercise I’m about to start, and leave the app running until the exercise is over.
To pick the right exercise, the watch shows a scrollable list. Here’s what I saw today when I tapped the app:
Right now I’m living at home, and the two workouts I do most often are my daily outdoor run and yoga. So it’s convenient that these options are the first two I see.
The Workout app learns my preferences, and adjusts its display to show me the most likely workouts first.
My environment changes
Almost every year, I vacation in Anguilla, typically for three weeks. My exercise program there is different. I don’t run (it’s too hot for me!) but I walk daily, followed by a pool swim.
After a few days, the Workout app unlearns my most common home-based exercises and relearns my new routine, replacing the top two items on the Workouts list with the Outdoor Walk and Pool Swim choices.
For the remainder of my vacation, these two options stay at the top of the list.
Alas, all good things come to an end. On returning home, the Workout app unlearns my Anguilla routine and relearns my home routine.
And if my exercise regime changes over time, due to circumstances or location, the Workout app will continue to use its learn-unlearn-relearn routine to display the most likely choices first.
I’m sure that Apple has incorporated other examples of unlearning into its products, but this is one I’ve noticed. Small thoughtful touches like this have helped Apple products and services become market leaders in a very competitive industry.
#2 Apple Mail
Apple doesn’t always get things right, unfortunately. Apple’s Mail program provides a classic example of what happens when unlearning is not an option.
Apple Mail allows you to file messages in folders, a useful way for me to organize the 94,000 emails I currently store. Trying to be helpful, the program learns where you tend to store specific kinds of messages, and after a while, right-clicking a message will pop up an option to move it to the “learned” preferred folder.
This is a generally helpful feature — except…
Once Apple Mail has “learned” where to file an email, it won’t unlearn that choice!
Furthermore, there’s no way to manually reset Apple Mail’s choice!
For example, let’s say you’ve been working with Marce, a client’s employee, for some time, so you’ve been moving Marce’s emails to a folder for that client. After a while Apple Mail helpfully offers to move emails from Marce to that client folder. So far, so good. Then Marce moves to a new company, and you continue to work with them. Now you’d like to file Marce’s emails in a separate folder for the new client. Unfortunately, no matter how many times you manually file Marce’s emails in the new client’s folder, Apple Mail will forever continue to suggest moving them to the former employer folder!
You will have to move email from Marce to the new employee folder manually every time, remembering every time not to choose the (wrong) default Apple Mail continues to suggest.
This is a drag, and a product flaw.
It surprises me that the Watch software incorporates learn-unlearn-relearn into its memory-limited program space, but Apple Mail on the desktop, where program size is not an issue, only includes the learn piece.
I’ll conclude with a few observations about the wider value of unlearning in organizations.
Most organizations need to innovate constantly, due to changing circumstances. Innovation doesn’t just involve coming up with new ideas. Innovation also requires a willingness and ability to cannibalize or destroy existing products or services; i.e. to unlearn what used to work, and relearn what is now relevant.
How can we work on facilitating change in our lives?
If we want to facilitate change in our lives, having a model of how change happens can be very helpful. But which model? To facilitate business change, there’s an entire industry of well-paid organizational change management consultants who use different change models. And though we may not be aware of it, we all carry around some kind of model in our head about we make changes in our life.
Some models of change are better than others
In this post I’ll describe four common change models. The first three are simplistic and sometimes misleading. In the corporate world, they have been responsible for significant employee misery. For personal use, these models have little utility.
Did I tempt you to skip to the genuinely useful change model that follows? Resist the temptation, because you may recognize one or more of the first three models in a wide variety of situations you’ve experienced. Discovering that an ineffective change model is in use can help you notice unproductive corporate and personal environments.
The Diffusion model of change is a fancy way of saying “shit happens”. Change simply diffuses into our lives somehow. The word “diffusion” implies that change propagates, perhaps via social contact or some other process, throughout a group of connected people. But this change model doesn’t really add much to our understanding of how change can occur.
The Hole-in-the-floor model of change
The Hole-in-the-floor model of change implies that a carefully designed, top-down, controlled process can create an instant change. This is a common model in organizations, where high-level executives meticulously plan a change “that will go into effect on January 1”. Here’s Jerry’s drawing of how this supposedly works.
Traditional conference designs also adopt this model. Somehow, the inspiring keynote will instantly change attendees’ lives for the better.
Obviously we can make plans to initiate change. The biggest flaw with the Hole-in-the-floor model of change is the unrealistic assumption that change can occur instantly. In the vast majority of cases, however, change takes time. The model also implies the existence of controlling changers who can instantly change the passive changees. Even if the changer and changee are one and the same, we all know how difficult it is to make an instantaneous change in our own lives.
The Newtonian model of change
The Newtonian model of change tries to improve the Hole-in-the-floor model by adding a sort of human physics, fancifully based on Newton’s first law of motion. The concept is that you can push people to change, and the resulting change will happen over a time that depends on how hard you push. The harder you push, the quicker the change will take place. Naturally, the Newtonian model assumes that to change in a certain direction, you must push in that direction
Unlike the Hole-in-the-wall model, this model at least recognizes that change takes time. But what the Newtonian model of change overlooks is that when you push people, they often push back, or move in a completely different direction. Like the Hole-in-the-wall model, this model assumes that you can control people by pushing them in the direction that the controllers want them to go.
Jerry Weinberg also describes a variant of the Newtonian model: the Learning curve model. In this model, an S-shaped curve replaces the Newtonian model’s linear change over time. The above criticism applies to both models.
The Satir model of change
The Satir model of change was developed by the founder of family systems therapy, Virginia Satir, and described in her book The Satir Model, published in 1991.
Unlike the previous models, the Satir model describes multiple major stages of change, and what each stage of change feels like. The previous three models are clearly limited when applied to understanding how personal change happens. In contrast, the Satir model is universal; it applies to both personal and organizational change. It also suggests what kinds of interventions are appropriate in each stage.
A foreign element disrupts an old status quo. Then we begin to live in chaos, and do not know what will happen next. This provokes our feeling unsettled. Such chaos continues for an unknown period of time. Eventually, a transforming idea or event allows a period of transition away from chaos, via integration and practice, towards a new status quo.
To help clarify this model, here are two examples of each of these elements, adapted from Jerry’s book.
Old status quo examples
You have a bad heart and smoke two packs a day, but play racquetball intensively once a week to compensate.
Your product development team has stagnated over the last few years, and really can no longer produce anything innovative.
Foreign elements examples
You have chest pains when playing racquetball.
A competitor announces an innovative product, and your development team has no idea how to respond.
You start playing racquetball left-handed, and only with certain opponents.
Your company’s old reliable product starts developing problems. Team members don’t show up at meetings or answer messages.
Integration and practice examples
You give up smoking and racquetball and start walking four miles a day.
The company purchases new tools to assist in product development. It also purchases training to go with the tools, and provides time for people to attend.
New status quo examples
You discover how much you enjoy walking, and how many creative ideas you get about work problems while you walk through the neighborhood.
All the development team members are using the new tools. Almost weekly, someone discovers a new way to use a feature and shares it with other team members.
The Satir model is useful because it delineates the major stages of change, and the human response to change. The model reveals that feeling unsettled is a natural response to perceived chaos. Keeping in mind that change is unsettling is key to devising change strategies that actually have a chance to work for human beings! (Conversely, noticing that I’m feeling unsettled is a reliable sign that something has changed or is changing in my life.)
Final thoughts on models of change
Until you understand how change occurs, and how it affects the people and organizations involved, you won’t be successful blindly applying prescriptive models of change, like the first three models I describe above. Yet again, I’m grateful to the late Jerry Weinberg, who taught me so much.
How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.
Is most classroom practice astrology? David Bowles thinks so.
I’ll let you in on a secret. I have a doctorate in education, but the field’s basically just a 100 years old. We don’t really know what we’re doing. Our scholarly understanding of how learning happens is like astronomy 2000 years ago.
Certainly the vast majority of my education consisted of the learn-from-lectures education model that still largely dominates schools and conferences. Was that true for you too?
We can’t even agree what kind of astrology to use
In addition, society’s three fundamental desires for children’s education drive our primitive ideas about classroom practice. As laid out in Kieran Egan’s thought-provoking book, The Educated Mind, these desires are:
making good citizens;
mastering certain bodies of knowledge; and
fulfilling each student’s unique potential.
Politicians, researchers in education, teachers, and citizens continue to argue about the relative importance of these noble goals. Unfortunately, Egan shows that you can’t satisfy all these ideals simultaneously because they’re mutually incompatible!
What we do know about effective meeting and classroom learning
Lectures are a terrible way to learn. Knowledge is not a “thing” one person transfers to another. Rather, knowledge is a relationship between the knower and the known; knowledge is “created” through this relationship.
We learn predominantly socially, not alone in our minds. Rather, we learn in social contexts, through mind, body, and emotions.
Learners create knowledge; they don’t receive knowledge.
We learn best by actively doing and managing our own learning.Not by listening and watching.
In other words, learning is a process, not a transaction. Research shows that the vast majority of our important learning occurs via self-directed activities and while interacting with others.
Astronomy, not astrology
At the end of the 19th century, astrology, a pseudoscience in vogue for over two millennia, was finally replaced by the science of astronomy. The meeting industry, as we know it today, began about 350 years ago. The research about how we learn most effectively is decades old, and still hasn’t widely infused into classroom and meeting practice.
Astronomy finally replaced astrology as the predominant way to look at our world. We need to replace the astrology of current meeting and classroom practice with the astronomy of effective learning.
The meeting industry old normal is over, and many event professionals are hoping and waiting for a new normal. [See Part 1 of this post for an introduction to this point of view.]
What will the meeting industry new normal look like?
One silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic, horrendous though its cost has been, is that it has forced us to think differently. In a July 2020 New Yorker article, Gianna Pomata, a professor of the history of medicine, “compared COVID-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—’not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.'” But the effects of these two plagues were remarkably different. (For example, the Black Death increased the power of workers because labor was scarce. In contrast, COVID-19 has forced millions of low-paid workers further into poverty.)
The meeting industry old normal
For centuries, the meeting industry has believed that the “best” and “most important” meetings are those conducted face-to-face. For most of human history, of course, this has been the only meeting option. Technology has slowly made inroads on this assumption, with the development of the telephone, the conference call, video chat, etc. Each new technology has taken away a little piece of the need to meet in person under certain favorable conditions.
The meeting industry new normal
In 2020, we have been forced to think differently. Historians regard the devastation of the bubonic plague as the end of the Middle Ages. Similarly, I think that COVID-19 will turn out to mark the beginning of the end of in-person meetings as the bread and butter of the meeting industry.
What will a new normal for the meeting industry look like? There’s no way we can know. Why? Because the future of meetings is no longer tied to the old paradigms we’ve assumed ever since the first official “conference” was held in 1666. (See my book Conferences That Work for the details.) There has been no new normal since the end of the thousand-year reign of the Middle Ages. Similarly, the forced rise of online meetings has moved us into uncharted and unpredictable territory.
Even pre-pandemic, it was risky to try new meeting ideas, because our clients, understandably, want successful events. Taking risks increases the chances of failure.
Today, with the current collapse of in-person meetings, it’s harder to find the resources, margins, and willing clients we once had, in order to conduct experiments.
Yet our industry must find the resources, courage, and willingness, to experiment with new ways of convening and meeting formats that respond to these new challenges. We are all suffering now. Those who continue to shoehorn what they used to do into our current pandemic and future post-pandemic environment will continue to suffer.
I’m encouraged that our industry is indeed experimenting with a variety of new platforms, marketing and pricing models, and meeting formats. One of the most interesting and welcome developments is the rapid growth of new platforms (1, 2) that provide online incarnations of traditional conference in-person socials. I see them as game-changers for online events, replacing the hallway conversations that have always been an essential and undervalued component of traditional meetings.
We are living in unprecedented times. Experimenting with new approaches to designing and convening meetings is essential. What may be even harder is discovering what works and adopting it, rather than staying locked in the old comfortable ways of making meetings. Meetings will continue to occur, and the meeting industry will survive. But don’t passively buy into the myth of a new meeting industry normal. That is, if you want to remain a player in one of the most important industries the human race has created.
Many event professionals are hoping and waiting for a meeting industry new normal. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated our businesses. We want to believe that, at some point, in-person meetings like the ones we’ve held for decades will return.
Yes, there are a few world regions where cases of infection are currently very low. Such areas are already holding local in-person events, but safe inter-regional meetings are not possible. Even in these places, the meeting industry is not back to the “old” normal.
Some industry members have been trying mightily to claim that useful in-person meetings can occur during this pandemic if we take severe precautions, which include social distancing and face mask use. I have written earlier why I believe that the vast majority of meetings produced under these conditions, even if they are executed flawlessly from a safety standpoint, are not worth attending.
And, as we’ll see, there will not be a meeting industry new normal.
Let’s think this through.
An optimistic scenario for a meeting industry old normal
Suppose that everything goes as well as possible in the global fight against the coronavirus. Three fundamental things have to happen.
1) Scientists develop a safe, inexpensive, effective vaccine.
2) The world mobilizes to provide the vaccine rapidly to a large proportion of the global population.
Optimistic forecasts say this could take place over 12 – 18 months. Presumably, in-person events during this period could become feasible for those who had received the vaccine. Of course, for this to happen safely, everyone involved in the event — attendees, staff, hospitality workers, and transportation personnel — must be vaccinated. Given that vaccine availability will be limited during the production ramp up, we should not assume that in-person events would quickly become feasible.
3) We overcome conspiracy-theory induced fear of vaccination.
We are in the golden age of anti-vaccine conspiracies. Creating herd immunity to COVID-19 requires overcoming such anti-scientific mindsets in a large majority of the world population. Currently we don’t know if this is even possible. Without herd immunity, leading to the virtual extinction of COVID-19, the pandemic will drag on for a long time.
Accepting the above implies that, at best, we will not be able to substantially resume old normal in-person meetings until some time in 2022.
That means we will have two or more years without substantive numbers of interregional in-person meetings.
What will happen in the world of meetings during these two or more years?
Obviously, we have already seen a sudden, unexpected, and massive shift to online events.
All of us, save perhaps the most introvert, bemoan and mourn the loss of meeting in person. We love to complain about the blandness and limitations of online meetings.
Yet, during my experiences of hundreds of online meetings over the last seven months, I’ve noticed some surprising and unexpected developments.
1) It’s possible to significantly improve the quality of online meetings from dreary webinar formats. This is starting to happen.
It turns out that, for online events it’s easy to adapt most of the in-person meeting and session participant-driven and participation-rich formats I and others have developed over the last two decades. Many meeting conveners, responding to the deadliness of watching talking heads for hours a day, are learning how to create interactive online events that maintain attendee interest, improve learning, and build connection between participants.
Over the next two years, the quality of online meeting process will improve. This will make online options more attractive to meeting conveners than they were pre-pandemic.
2) Clearly beneficial meetings that simply would not have been held formerly in-person are taking place online.
Specifically, there has been a large increase in online meetings that support the wants and needs of communities of practice. In the past, these groups, with members typically widely separated geographically, would meet occasionally in-person, if at all.
It’s much easier and attractive for busy workers to attend short, regular, and well-focused and designed online meetings of their professional community than to set aside several days once or twice a year for travel to an in-person event. As a result, I am seeing significant growth of regularly scheduled online meetings for communities. Some of these communities are brand new. Starting them by meeting online is less of a barrier than all the work required and risk involved creating new in-person conferences with unpredictable initial attendance.
Many of these meetings will continue post-pandemic. Some will replace former in-person meetings.
3) The meeting industry is investigating and planning to adopt hybrid meeting formats more than ever before.
By the time the COVID-19 pandemic is (hopefully) over, everyone will be familiar with attending meetings online. Any post-pandemic meeting is, therefore, likely to have an online component, and will use one of the two core hybrid meeting formats. Whatever mix of traditional versus hub-and-spoke hybrid is adopted, we can be sure that there will be fewer old normal 100% in-person meetings.
Like what you read so far? Read Part 2 of this post, where I conclude my explanation why there will not be a meeting industry new normal.
Are you old yet? (Click on the image to watch the skateboarding professor, who’s my age.)
I turned 69 last week. My body and mind do not work as well as they used to. Oh for the days, long gone, when I went to bed, fell asleep immediately, and woke up eight hours later feeling refreshed! My stamina starts to drop at five pm; no more long productive bouts of late night work.
Traveling extensively for my meeting industry work, I’d meet hundreds of new people every year, and used to be pretty good at remembering their names and how and when I met them. Not these days.
There are all these little aches and pains that weren’t there before. Standing up from a chair is harder than it was. Standing after kneeling on the floor is unexpectedly difficult at times.