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Welcome to the Conferences That Work blog. You're in the right place for the latest posts on conference design, facilitation, and peer conferences — or sign up for a subscription to my blog posts or RSS feed so you never miss another post.

Designing conferences to solve participants’ problems

What makes attending conferences worthwhile? As I described in Conferences That Work, the two most common reasons for attending conferences are to learn useful things and make useful connections. But there are numerous other ways that conferences provide value to stakeholders. In this post I’ll focus on, arguably, the most useful conferences we can design: those that solve participants’ problems.
solving participants problems

A useful taxonomy of problems

When thinking about solving problems, the Cynefin framework provides a helpful taxonomy of problem types. It’s useful because each Cynefin domain requires a different problem-solving approach. Cynefin describes five domains, usually named as: obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder. Check out the above Wikipedia link to learn more about them.

As we’ll see:

  • Traditional conferences support, to some degree, solving participants’ obvious and complicated problems.
  • Peer conferences improve this support by allowing participants to share their top-of-mind problems in real time and leverage peer resources to get solutions.
  • Designing experiments into our conferences allow participants to explore solutions to complex problems.

How to help solve participants’ obvious, complicated, and complex problems at conferences

Here’s a little more detail on the obvious, complicated, and complex problem domains. For each domain, I’ll include examples of meeting processes you can use to satisfy participants’ problem solving wants and needs.

Obvious problems

Obvious problems (“known knowns”) have known solutions, often called “best practice”.

For example, how do I:

  • Determine what employee data to store in the human resources system?
  • Provide frequent and timely feedback to my staff?
  • Maximize milk production on a New England dairy farm?
  • Research a potential client’s financial background?

These examples might remind you of the kinds of topics that routinely appear as the titles of traditional conference sessions. That’s because these are problems to which experts know the answers, or, at least, have plenty of good advice to share. Their expertise can, therefore, be shared with participants via traditional presentations.

Sadly, traditional lecture-style sessions are only good for solving participants’ obvious problems. What’s more, the session will be of little use unless the session content happens to match a participant’s current problem.

Peer conferences reduce problem solving limitations in the obvious domain, by allowing participants to influence the content and scope of meeting sessions in real time during the event. So it’s much more likely that participants’ top-of-mind obvious problems will be effectively addressed at a peer conference.

Complicated problems

Unfortunately, the majority of our day-to-day challenges are not obvious. (That’s why we spend much more time and energy working on them than obvious problems.) Complicated problems (“known unknowns”) succumb to expert analytical judgment.

For example, how can I:

  • Unify my business’s unique branding and marketing needs?
  • Implement a customer relationship management system for my veterinary circus animal practice?
  • Provide the best guest experience at my Airbnb castle rental?
  • Evaluate event production company abilities for a game-changing event I’m planning?

Traditional conference lecture-format sessions provide almost no time for solving participants’ complicated problems. Typically, complicated problems can only be addressed up during a question and answer period at the end of the session, when there is little time to perform the kind of analysis a session expert might be able to supply.

Interactive conference sessions allow more opportunities for participants to share specific complicated problems and get targeted advice. However, few presenters incorporate significant interactivity into their sessions, and this format is more the exception than the rule.

Once again, peer conference sessions provide significantly more ways to solve participants’ complicated problems. There are two reasons for this. First, as above, peer sessions are far more likely to address the actual problems participants are currently facing. And second, peer session formats use the resources in the room — not just the session leadership — to uncover and resolve top-of-mind participant problems. (For more information on how to do this, see my book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need.)

Complex problems

Complex problems (“unknown unknowns”) are even harder to resolve.

Here are some examples. How should we:

Such problems are complex because we:

  • Don’t really know what questions to ask to start; and
  • Cannot accurately predict what the consequences of action would be.

Unlike the obvious and complicated domains, we have to approach complex problems by doing experiments. Cynefin describes this process using the word trio [probe–sense–respond], as opposed to the trios for the obvious [sense–categorize–respond], and complicated [sense–analyze–respond] problem domains.

Complex problems have to be tackled in the same way that scientists use experiments to probe the world around us and gradually build understanding of it.

Thus exploring complex problems requires a probing experiment, from which we observe outcomes, and then, with our understanding perhaps slightly improved, we probe in an appropriately different way again. With persistence and luck, over time we may be able to formulate some helpful responses to the problem.

Conference experiments

It may seem strange to run experiments at conferences, but I’ve participated in (and designed) a few conference experiments over the years, and have invariably found them to be some of the most interesting and illuminating meeting experiences I’ve ever had.

Session-based experiments

Here are three session-based examples:

Experimental conferences

Finally, there are conferences that are entirely experiments!

In the meetings world, the most well known are the series of EventCamps that were held around the world between 2010 and 2014. These were volunteer-run, meeting experiments that explored a wide range of meeting and session formats and technologies. For example, we designed and held some of the earliest hybrid meetings, and introduced the meeting industry to peer conferences, gamification, improv, sustainability issues, and many other, now common, meeting components. These events made a profound impression on pretty much everyone who participated. Many of the people I met remain friends today.

Since 2016, I’ve been participating in the annual, invitation-only Meeting Design Practicum conferences that have been held all over Europe. A rotating crew of two or three volunteers organize these wonderful events. They plan an experimental program and ask participants to contribute in various ways, but are the only people who know the entire program in advance. Truly a unique and different experiment each year!

Conferences that are entire experiments are rare because they are risky. Experiments, by definition, have unpredictable results, which means they may “fail” to produce “desirable” outcomes. The understandable default assumption for most meeting industry clients is that their meetings are “successful”, and clients who are willing for “success” to include novel learning from innovative experiments are rare.

Nevertheless, whether held by the meeting industry for itself or for clients, meeting experiments provide the potential for the participants to work on some of their most difficult problems, those that are complex. Bear this in mind if you see an opportunity to create experimental sessions or events!

Solve participants’ problems!

Whatever kind of conference you design, remember the value of incorporating sessions and formats that solve participants’ problems. It’s no accident that the experiment-rich Solution Room is the most popular and highly rated plenary I offer. Give your participants opportunities to solve their top-of-mind problems at your meetings and you’ll make them very happy!

Image attribution: Cynefin illustration by Edwin Stoop (User:Marillion!!62) – [1], CC BY-SA 4.0

The danger of our drive to make sense

our drive to make senseIn our natural desire to predict the future and make good decisions, we must always stay mindful of the danger of our drive to make sense.

Nick Chater and George Loewenstein propose that evolution has produced a ‘drive for sense-making’. They argue that sense-making…

  • …is a fundamental human motivation.
  • …is a drive to simplify our representation of the world.
  • …is traded off against other ‘utilitarian’ motivations.
  • …helps to explain information avoidance and confirmation bias.

The under-appreciated drive for sense-making, Nick Chater and George Loewenstein, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization

Clearly, sense-making is a vital human activity. At a fundamental level, our brains are continuously, and largely automatically, making sense of our sense organ data. At higher levels of thought, we routinely attempt to make sense of situations that confront us. If we didn’t, the world would be a confusing and more dangerous place.

Our sense-making prowess allows us to build models of the present and make decisions about potential future behavior. Thus, sense-making is a key ingredient of our ability to plan and make group decisions.

The danger of our drive to make sense

There’s a flip side to our incredible ability to make sense of our perceptions and experiences. Dave Snowden, speaking about tactics used by the foresight community, says:

“The real dangers are retrospective coherence and premature convergence
—Dave Snowden, Of tittering, twittering & twitterpating

Retrospective coherence

Dave Snowden coined the term retrospective coherence, aka Monday morning quarterbacking, when talking about the behavior of complex systems. (See Dave Snowden and Mary Boone’s classic article A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making to learn more about complex systems, a domain of the Cynefin framework.) Retrospective coherence means that, in a complex environment, it seems easy in hindsight to explain why things happened. Unfortunately, applying our sense-making abilities to complex systems doesn’t work, since cause and effect can only be determined in retrospect.

For those with short memories, the danger of retrospective coherence is that it inspires a false confidence in their ability to make correct predictions. To avoid such inflation of our predictive expertise we need to scrupulously compare our predictions with actual outcomes, and admit our limitations.

Premature convergence

Premature convergence is our predilection to prematurely decide we have found the answer to a problem and stop exploring other possibilities.

Facilitators are familiar with this human tendency, and minimize it by spending adequate time in what Sam Kaner calls the Divergent and Groan Zones.

our drive to make sense
Diagram from Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner et al

Determining what is “adequate” time is one of the arts of facilitation.

During divergence, a facilitator supports the uncovering of relevant questions, information, perspectives, and ideas.

At some point, there’s a switch to the Groan Zone. Here, the participants discuss what’s been uncovered, develop a shared framework of understanding, and create inclusive potential solutions. At least, that’s how Kaner describes the process, though the Groan Zone has always seemed to me to have a lot in common with what Virginia Satir’s change model calls chaos.

People have proposed many ways to move from groan zone to convergence, and some of them are flawed. There’s no single “right” way to move to convergence. But you’re likely guaranteed to come up with a poor conclusion if you don’t spend enough time diverging and groaning beforehand.

Stop making sense?

Despite the pitfalls outlined above, we are sense-making animals and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Stay realistic about your limitations to predict future outcomes, and take your time moving through divergent & Groan Zone process, and you’ll avoid the dangers of our drive to make sense.

Mostly.

A leak in the solar system

leak in the solar systemThere is a leak in the solar system.

Actually, I discovered recently, there’s more than one leak.

While reading Bill Bryson‘s delightful book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, I came across this:
leak in the solar system

“The most remarkable part of all is your DNA (or deoxyribonucleic acid). You have a meter of it packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single strand, it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto. Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system.”
—Bill Bryson, The Body

Think of that; a strand of the DNA from a single human being is long enough to escape our solar system.

Then there’s the email Celia wrote to Scott, our yoga teacher, explaining why we hadn’t been on his Zoom class last week:

“We’ve had some impediments—sickness (not Covid!), leaks in our solar system…”

She was referring to this unwelcome development in our solar hot water and radiant floor heating system, which I installed in 1983.

leak in the solar system

To which Scott replied:

“I’m loving ‘the leaks in our solar system’ … I think I know what you mean … But it could be even more of a universal statement describing 2020 in general  :)”

And then there’s the picture at the top of this post, courtesy of NASA: an artist’s conception of the atmosphere leaking into space from a planet orbiting the star DMPP-1, about 200 light-years away. This distant solar system is literally leaking into space.

But let’s go back to Scott’s reply. I’m loving ‘the leak in the solar system’ … I think I know what you mean. 2020 has been a crazy year for just about everyone. We can’t do anything about a leaking solar system 200 light-years away (not that we need to, thank goodness). On the other hand, I can fix the leaks in my solar system perhaps with a plumber’s help.

In between, I hope that, collectively, we can fix the leaks in the world that 2020 has brought us. And, in this, my last post for 2020, I wish you a much better year in 2021.

Photo attribute: NASA — This Four-planet System is Leaking

Moderating Online Panels — Ideas and Resources

Moderating Online Panels

Last week I immensely enjoyed participating in a two-hour Zoom brain trust on moderating online panels. So good, it should be shared with a wider audience. So here’s a treasury of good ideas and resources we uncovered.

Huge thanks to the conveners and leaders: my friend, team performance and facilitation expert Kristin Arnold, and corporate innovation leader Scott Kirsner.

As you’d expect if you know these folks, the session was very well organized and facilitated. No mean task for a vocal group of 28!

The agenda

Thank you Scott & Kristin for providing an agenda and (pretty closely) sticking to it! Here it is.

15 mins: Who’s here; what sort of moderating have you been doing?

5 mins: Scott shares some recent learnings from virtual events.

10 mins: Kristin shares some recent learnings from virtual events, and a quick overview of what’s in her book.

20 mins: Breakouts (in groups of 4). What are 1-2 of your online moderating pro tips? Capture these on a shared doc (Slido).

10 mins: How did that go? Report back and bio break.

30 mins: Is panel prep different in the virtual world? Speaker recruiting? Tools and techniques for engaging the audience. Debates on burning questions (like chat or no chat, prep call or no prep call, right length.)

30 mins: Additional Q&A and discussion time (if needed).

Acknowledgements

I usually put these at the end, but because this post incorporates large, sometimes verbatim, chunks of Kristin Arnold’s excellent session notes I want to give her full co-author credit. Any errors and omissions are mine. Kristin’s name appears many times in what follows; some of the comments are hers, some are her notes on what others said.

While I’m mentioning Kristin, the best resources I know on becoming a first-rate panel moderator are her panel-focused website and short but packed book Powerful Panels. Visit the former and buy the latter!

And now the ideas…

Some of what follows is verbatim; some is edited by me slightly. Editorial additions/comments are shown in red. When the contributor is known, I’ve added their name (with a link the first time they’re mentioned).

Pre-event calls with panelists

There are two kinds of pre-event calls, though these categories can blur, and might be covered in a single call:

  • Connecting with panelists. This includes getting to know them, moderator education, defining panel and panelist scope, discussing potential topics and issues
  • Prep/production calls. This includes technical run-throughs.

“I call it a ‘production call like you would have if you were going to be on The View or Live with Kelly and Ryan



.”
Glenn Thayer

Moderating Online PanelsScott Kirsner‘s take

Pre-record panelists?

Restrict prerecorded segments to 5 minutes or less. —Adrian Segar

I think pre-recorded lessens the authenticity of the event



. —Kelley Kassa

Pre-record sponsor remarks, then the moderator manages the time of everyone else. —Glenn Thayer

What about pre-recorded pitchfests with live founder for Q&A?  I’m running a pitchfest tonight… We pre-recorded the pitches (they’re two minutes long). —Glenn Thayer

Virtual Emcee (MC)

A virtual MC is a MUST HAVE. —Thom Singer

Agree, but MC should be more than security blanket. —Jan-Jaap In der Maur

For sure, I help drive the attendee experience and engagement and deliver on the networking value of the virtual event. Much more than a security blanket. —Sarah Michel

Breakouts

We always assign a breakout room “table captain” pre-hand for who will moderate the breakout room. —Raza Shaikh

Zoom now has the feature to set a room topic too. —Kristin Arnold [I think you’re referring to Zoom Rooms, not Zoom Meetings. The latter has always allowed you to rename breakout rooms to a topic, issue, or group as desired.] • However, EVERYONE in the zoom room must have the latest version of Zoom downloaded or they won’t see the room options/topics. —Sarah Michel

At what audience size do you find that “all mics open” breaks down? —Andrew Lee Rubinger • Haven’t found a max yet. Did it up to 150



. —Jan-Jaap In der Maur

Integrate breakouts – put a panelist in each of the breakout rooms. —Kristin Arnold

On “intentionality”: I determine the story arc I want told in the session. It’s like a jazz performance – it’s all improv, but there are waypoints to hit. —Andrew Lee Rubinger

IME, well-designed problem solver panels are great and audiences love them. —Adrian Segar

To help ensure that participants know what to do in breakouts, when the breakout rooms are open, message them with instructions, time available, etc. Have this prewritten elsewhere, so it can be efficiently pasted into the platform. —Kristin Arnold

Preparation

Do your research before you talk to the panelists. —Kristin Arnold

Curiosity is key. —Adrian Segar

Record prep call – use those recorded snippets for social media marketing for live event! —Kristin Arnold [Love this!]

Goal of pre-call that they feel comfortable enough that they could mock me.



 —Kristin Arnold

What questions, issues, what are you hoping to get out of this session at the beginning in the chat



? —Kristin Arnold

Know your moderator style. —Kristin Arnold

If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested. —Daniel Seewald

General panel wisdom

Pre-empt attendee objections. For example, reduce fears about being in breakout rooms with strangers. —Demoed by Scott Kirsner during our session

Engaging the audience is not the same as involving the audience (giving them a task to do).



 —Kristin Arnold

Ensure your audience knows you care…AND your panelist knows you care. Watched a Comicon panel with Charlize Theron. Initially, she wasn’t engaged. Once the moderator asked questions that really showed she did her homework, she literally leaned in. —Kristin Arnold

I love completely crowdsourcing the panel…



 —Kristin Arnold [I often do this. See How a Fishbowl Sandwich Can Really Get Your Attendees Talking for more information.]

The best and most engaging moderated event I’ve seen was a workshop on “visual thinking strategies” at Innovation Leader’s Impact conference, where the moderator of the discussion spent about 45 min having a group discussion about a Picasso painting. She just asked questions about what we saw and what we thought those symbols meant. It was genuinely like being in school — and I think that unusual dynamic made people excited. Then, after that discussion, she shifted to talking about how that could apply to business/corporate settings, and many participants said they were going to integrate what they learned in that session that day.


 Lilly Milman

Use shared documents to seek feedback and capture insights from large groups. —Anonymous [During the session we used Slido to capture insights.]

Use object voting. For example: “If you agree, hold up something in your office that’s blue. Neutral or undecided, yellow. Disagree, red.” —Kristin Arnold

Interaction with panelists

Be about something, have a position, be honest about it. Push up against the walls.  Be kind. —Kristin Arnold

Have the panelist give us a tour, give a demo, go get an object (from a trip you have been on).



 —Kristin Arnold

Give panelists an object and ask them to provide a greater meaning to it.



 —Kristin Arnold

Coach your panelists on how to use the camera and speak authentically



. —Kristin Arnold





To share the questions with the panelists or not?

I almost always share prep questions with my panelists. Mostly because my panelists are tech people and not always the best speakers



. —Kelley Kassa

Provide a loose framework of where we want to go….some potential questions.  Any specific questions that need some vetting… —Kristin Arnold

I always try to email topics with the caveat that we’ll ask follow-ups and make it conversational



.Kaitlin Milliken

I like giving the first question so they will be comfortable AND the last question, that can be recorded and edited into a social media snack. —Kristin Arnold

You have to really listen to what your panelists are saying…and make decisions on what to probe further



. —Kristin Arnold

Ask panelists to bring one question to the panel to ask each other. —Kristin Arnold





Design for the audience & connections

There is NO panel without an audience. —Sarah Michel

In the midst of this global pandemic, people are attending virtual events seeking meaningful connections. We must design panels for that



. —Sarah Michel

The moderator is a champion for the audience. Everything has to flow from the audience. How does this make them better people? —Kristin Arnold

IME, audiences love well-designed problem solver panels. —Adrian Segar

Interview the audience before it starts



. —Kristin Arnold

Content is not king…it’s context and connections



. —Kristin Arnold

Drive to action…run a poll – who do you want to follow up with? —Anonymous





Platform

Get to know the functionality of platforms. Offer alternatives. —Kristin Arnold

Use an online poll to start the session. —Anonymous

Leverage chat. It’s gold.  Be on chat early and ask the audience to answer a question. Keep the chat open afterwards. I have a love/hate relationship with chat as neuroscience says that we aren’t focused on the conversation



. —Anonymous

Casual or Formal?

There is a whole business of a production studio in a box that gets sent to a panelist… —Anonymous

Some corporations don’t want casual they want big production. —Anonymous

I’ve gotten the box sent to me for an event. Lots of rehearsals too. —Anonymous

I ask my clients what backgrounds/level of production they want… —Anonymous

More hybrid meetings in future

Small in-person studio audience and a much larger virtual. Curate the studio audience… —Sarah Michel

More ideas from breakouts via Slido

Love asking panel members (or speakers) to change their backgrounds when you want to shift the energy or when you go to live Q&A, etc.

Set up a shared “group notes” document where people can contribute their notes from the panel. You can even give a prize for best note-taker at the event.

Whatever goes wrong with A/V last time won’t happen next time…relax over technical glitches. They are bound to happen.

Conversations don’t have scripts. There’s a road map of where I want to go but need to go with the conversations.

When clients are technologically not especially comfortable, ask for ONE thing to do vs. the world of possibilities



.

Don’t tell your clients everything you will be doing…as they will defend/say no.

Sometimes, a heads up might be appropriate so they aren’t thrown off



.

Ask panelists to stay for networking time between sessions. That way, the audience can meet them and have one on one conversations.

Have panelists ask each other questions – they usually have great questions for each other.

Fireside chats…work with speaker to cut into small pieces



.

Every 6-10 minutes switch gears, do something different



.

If an online gathering has less than 20 people, consider starting with introductions. Moderator calls on each name: 15 seconds maximum.

If you’re not a subject matter expert, ask panelists in prep calls: What matters most right now?

What would you tell me about in an elevator?

Put a pillow in your lap if you have a little sound echo in your room



.

When there’s content that is very technical in nature, ask questions like “please explain X as if you’re talking to someone completely unfamiliar with the topic”. [Me: I often open by stating that I know less about the panel topic than anyone else in the room—but I do know how to moderate panels!]

Be punchy, concise. Less is more. Provide a digestible premise that people are interested in.

Pre-record segments – edit down into more focused conversation. Or cut at key points and stop to interact



.

Use panelists as priming for large group discussions. [See my book “Event Crowdsourcing” and these articles “How a fishbowl sandwich can really get your attendees talking” and “The best way to hold a discussion online“]

To run fishbowl discussions on Zoom, have everyone turn their camera off until they have something to say. When they turn their camera on, they float to top of Gallery View 



That makes it easy for the moderator (whose camera is always on) to see who wants to talk.



 [See third link above.]

Use Zoom breakout rooms for “hallway” conversations after a panel. Put the panelists into one of those rooms after the panel is over so people can “meet” them. [Also consider using online social platforms for breaks and socials.]

Give frequent, small assignments: e.g. write down your biggest challenge. Use that as a start to the conversation.

When you do an A/V check, make sure panelists use the same equipment and time of day!

On Zoom train and teach all people to use the blue hand raise button instead of physically raising the hand



. [Depends on group size; I prefer human hand raising if the group is viewable on one screen in Gallery view.]

Ask everyone to keep their camera on as a way of showing respect and being present.

Have a 2nd device ready…like your phone…in case of wifi or Zoom problems.

Pre-record sponsor segments.

Put into chat what you want attendees to do!

Ask people to talk about one favorite object from a trip.

Practice as much as you can and prep for props/interactive elements.

Using the visuals and doing things like physically leaning in can engage people and create intimacy.

Think about the audience first.

Resources

How to touch people when your event is online —Jan-Jaap In der Maur

Love Mural, having a quick and easy task to begin with to get everyone up to speed helps.Caitlin Harper [I prefer Miro.]

Use a visual notetaker [aka graphic recorder]! —Caitlin Harper

If you wanna hear about Kristin’s brilliance with the CAPS conference last week…. we interviewed her today on Webinar Talk Show about all their ideas and how they pulled it off. 35-minute interview. Watch it…cuz she had soooo many good points about being engaging. —Thom Singer

Slido for polling and capturing participant ideas/questions/etc.

If you’d like to see what a business partner and I started for people like me who want to PRESENT rather than PRODUCE, visit livestream-denver.com. This is a work in progress and not a sales pitch as we work almost exclusively with clients in the Denver area.Mark Sanborn

How a fishbowl sandwich can really get your attendees talking —Adrian Segar

The best way to hold a discussion online —Adrian Segar

Anything you want to add, correct or, disagree with in this bounty of advice on moderating online panels? Share in the comments below!

When trio share works better than pair share

trio share pair shareOne of the best and simplest ways to build active learning and connection into any meeting is to regularly use pair share. (See Chapter 38 of The Power of Participation, or Chapter 27 of Event Crowdsourcing for full details.) I’ve recently noticed that in some circumstances, trio share — pair share but with three participants — works better.

Advantages of pair share

Pair share has a lot going for it. It’s the most efficient way to ensure that every participant periodically switches into active learning, which, as explained in The Power of Participation, provides:

Pair share duration is minimal. I commonly allow each partner a minute to share their response. Including instructions, a typical pair share might take around three minutes. Getting every participant to actively think and respond to a question or issue in this time pays rich dividends.

Comparing trio share with pair share

A trio share obviously takes longer than a pair share, given the same sharing time per participant. The example above would require at least an extra minute. I say “‘at least” because it generally takes longer (at least at in-person meetings) to create trios than pairs.

In addition, the conversational directness and intensity may be less in a trio share, since each participant is talking to two people instead of one.

On the other hand, each participant is connecting with two other people, rather than one.

None of these differences is a deal breaker. In the past, I have tended to use pair share, simply because my time with participants is limited and pair shares are quicker.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, however, I’ve noticed something new.

When trio share works better than pair share

Ultimately, you can’t force adult attendee participation. Nevertheless, at in-person meetings it’s rare to have people sit out pair sharing. The reason, of course, is unspoken social pressure. Anyone choosing not to participate is obvious to the people around them.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced meetings online, I began to see more people avoiding session pair shares. I’d allocate pairs into Zoom breakout rooms, and, quite often, one or two people didn’t join their allocated room but stayed in the Zoom lobby.

As the host, I’d gently check in with those remaining behind. Sometimes they hadn’t accepted the breakout room assignment and would do so. But more often than not, it turned out they were absent (it’s hard to tell when their camera’s off).

Their unfortunate partners who went into the breakout room had no one to talk to!

At in-person meetings, this is easy to handle. I ask anyone without a partner to raise their hand, and then pair up isolated people.

Online, this takes too much time, and those without a partner suffer.

Using trio share instead of pair share online

So I’ve started using trio share for online meetings. There are two reasons.

First, trio share reduces the impact on “orphaned” participants. If one person in a trio doesn’t join, the remaining pair can still reap the benefits of pair share.

And second, trio share gently increases social pressure for attendees to participate. Bowing out of pair share affects one other person. Avoiding a trio share affects two.

To conclude

Whatever you do, some people will opt out of small group work. Their reasons are — their reasons. We need to accept that. Switching to trio share for online work is a small tweak that seems to improve participation. And creating a meeting environment where small group work is more likely to occur is always worthwhile. 

What’s your experience of using pair share and/or trio share at in-person and online meetings? Please share in the comments!

Knowing what you’re going to draw

know what to draw
Do you know what to draw? Perhaps — if someone has told you to draw it.

Do you know what you’re going to draw? That’s a different question. It implies that you have some agency to draw what and how you like.

Beginning creation

Picasso answered the second question like this:

“To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.” —Pablo Picasso, Conversations with Picasso by Brassaï

Creating anything, there’s a moment when you begin. Picasso is saying you begin without having a completely predetermined plan of what you’re going to create and the process you will use.

This doesn’t just apply to creating what we think of as art.

Programming machines

For quarter of a century, I wrote computer software. In that time I wrote and maintained around a million lines of code. Initially, I never thought of what I was doing as creative. I was writing instructions for a machine to process. The machine did exactly what I told it to do. How creative could that be?

My first inkling that programming might be creative came when I began teaching it. When the introductory class started, I gave students homework problems that needed perhaps ten lines of code to solve. To my surprise, I discovered that each student wrote a slightly different program. What’s more, within a few weeks I could look at one of their pieces of code and know who had written it.

As the problems got harder, it became clear that some students were more creative programmers than others.

This made me think about my own programs. I realized that I was doing creative work. Many of the programs I wrote for clients solved problems in ways that I had not foreseen when I started.

Continuing creation

Another way to look at creating something is explored in my post Process, not product. All too often, we focus on a desired finished product, rather than the moment-by-moment process of creation. This is typical when we perform mundane tasks. Needing chopped onions for a vegetable stew, we automatically slice them, one more task on the list. The mindful person is one with the chopping — they “chop wood, carry water” [XinXin Ming].

Closing creation

Finally, there is a moment when you end creating something. Let’s be clear; creating something requires ending its creation. Billions of pages of never finished novels attest to this. Those novels never saw the light of day.

So, when do you know that something is finished? Before that moment, it’s almost impossible to predict! Afterwards, especially if it was a big task like writing one of my books, you may remember the moment. But don’t reinterpret that memory as something planned.

Creating something is much more mysterious than that.

Images attribution:

By <a href="//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pablo_Picasso" title="Pablo Picasso">Pablo Picasso</a> - <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" href="http://www.nationalgalleries.org/collection/artists-a-z/P/2628/artist_name/Pablo%20Picasso/record_id/2224">National Galleries, Edinburgh</a>, PD-US, Link
By <span lang="en">Anonymous</span> - <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" href="https://www.photo.rmn.fr/archive/98-021978-2C6NU0XWEWEW.html">RMN-Grand Palais</a>, Public Domain, Link

December ebook sale

I’m happy to announce a special Conferences That Work December ebook sale, featuring my lowest ever ebook prices!

My ebooks are only available from my website. I’ve never put them on sale before — and I may never again.

Here’s the deal.

During the month of December — buy any ebook for only $9.99! Or buy all three for just $24.99! Immediate delivery on payment.

This December ebook sale ends on the stroke of midnight, December 31, so don’t delay, order today!

But that’s not all…

Spend more, get more, and save more by buying any of my paperback/ebook combos (includes free shipping in the U.S.) Save the most by buying my one-of-everything combo — 3 paperbacks + 3 ebooks — for just $74.

And finally, perhaps the best deal of all, remember thirty minutes free consulting are included with any first time book purchase from this site.

 

How to run The Solution Room online

run The Solution Room online

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.

Resources

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.

Running mindmapping

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.

Gatherly, Rally, and Wonder comparative review

Gatherly Rally WonderEarlier 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.

Read the rest of this entry »

He can only do Segar

be myself
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.