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A free guide to creating peer conferences

free guide to creating peer conferences

The Association for Software Testing (AST) has just issued a free guide to creating peer conferences. I believe the software testing community adopted my term “peer conference” for their get-togethers after a conversation I had with pioneer software tester James Bach in 2004.

Reminiscent of my first book, Conferences That Work, AST’s guide provides a comprehensive entry-level guide to starting, preparing for, and running a peer conference. While it doesn’t offer the level of detail in Conferences That Work, it’s an excellent introduction to the key issues. Although it’s written for software testing conferences (hence the references to Lean Coffee and k-cards) first-time organizers of small conferences of any kind will learn a lot.

This short guide includes useful sections on:

  • defining the conference’s mission;
  • codes of conduct;
  • diversity;
  • dissemination; and
  • email templates and helpful checklists.

The text includes many links to more detailed explanations. As a result, the guide is a compact resource for anyone with little or no experience who wants to offer a great, well-run, conference.

So I strongly recommend this free guide to creating peer conferences. (Did I mention it’s free?)

Photo attributions: 2018 “QA or the Highway” software testing conference {top}. My old friend Fiona Charles at UKSTARConf 2019 {bottom}

The most important thing to wear for winter running

wear for winter running

What’s the most important thing to wear for winter running? Six months ago, at the age of 67, I began running daily for the first time in my life on the dirt roads that surround my rural Vermont home.

It was summer when I started, and the roads were easy to navigate. At my age, unathletic for most of my life, I’m naturally concerned about injuring myself. In winter here, there are days when our steep 600′ driveway is a patchwork of frozen ground, snow, and ice. Given these treacherous conditions, I assumed that I wouldn’t be running outdoors much of the time during winter.

Then I talked with my friend Lois Sparks. Ten years ago, she began running outdoors. Today, whatever the weather, she and a group of friends meet at 6 am and run five miles, six days a week. She runs marathons. She is kinda addicted to running.

Thanks to Lois, I learned how to dress and be safely equipped for running in the winter in Vermont. And the most important piece of equipment she told me to wear are these slip-on, instant traction Kahtoola NANOspikes.

Lois told me that she and her friends had tried everything, and these things were the best for running without slipping on icy treacherous ground. I was skeptical. She told me she and her friends had never slipped while wearing them, which was not the case with rival devices.

So I bought a pair for $50 and strapped them on.

The first day

I was incredibly cautious the first time I ventured down our steep driveway. It was covered with irregular patches of ice and snow and snow over ice. I’d normally exercise extreme vigilance walking it in my trusty winter boots. Surely those ten little studs couldn’t make much difference?
wear for winter runningAfter a few yards, my hesitant sidle became a trot. It felt like I was jogging on bare ground. I slowly speeded up. Though my running sounded noisier than pre-NANOspike days, my workout remained sure-footed: each step solid without a hint of slipperiness.

I was psyched!

Three months later

After a hundred or so runs, I’ve found NANOspikes work incredibly well under a variety of conditions, which include dry and slippery pavement too. And they’ve never come off.
wear for winter running
For some reason, the strap at the toe of my right foot shifts slightly off-center during my run. I don’t know why this happens, but the effect is barely noticeable. (I tried to wedge something in the strap, but was not able to prevent this from happening.)

Because the NANOspikes work well under all conditions, I simply leave them on my running shoes, rather than removing and replacing them. Lois says her set has lasted over four years so far (and she runs far further than me) though she cautions that if you regularly remove and replace them they may not last so long.

Conclusion

I’ll start with the usual disclaimer: I have no relationship with Kahtoola. I’m just a satisfied customer.

And while my experience with NANOspikes is limited to a few months use as a novice runner, I trust Lois and her friends’ experience over many years in recommending NANOspikes as the most important thing to wear for winter running.

Folks with a lot more experience than me may have different opinions about the best products for improving running traction on icy surfaces. Feel free to share them in the comments below!

Give meeting-goers many options!

give meeting-goers many optionsToday’s meetings need to give meeting-goers many options, not just a few. But this doesn’t mean filling the conference program with every conceivable session topic. To be enjoyable and productive, meetings need white space: free time for attendees to do what they want and need to do.

When we preschedule an entire conference program, each attendee’s only remaining choice becomes which sessions to attend. It’s like how the news industry uses of polls, as described by Jeff Jarvis:

“Polls are the news industry’s tool to dump us all into binary buckets: red or blue; black or white; 99% or 1%; urban or rural; pro or anti this or that; religious (read: evangelical extremist) or not; Trumpist or not; for or against impeachment. Polls erase nuance. They take away choices from voters before they get to the real polls, the voting booth. They silence voices.”
Jeff Jarvis, Polls subvert democracy

Predetermined meeting programs silence attendee voices in the same way.

So how do we give meeting-goers many options without taxing their stamina and powers of concentration?

Read the rest of this entry »

Why you should hire curious people

hire curious peopleWhy should you hire curious people?

Because the future of work belongs to the neo-generalist.

And neo-generalists are intensely curious.

Here’s Harold Jarche, explaining the importance of generalists:

Wicked problems need neo-generalists
Neo-generalists defy common understanding. They cross boundaries, and some break them. They see patterns before others do. They go against hundreds of years of cultural programming. I doubt this is what most employers in large organizations are looking for. But neo-generalists are necessary today — “It is through the hybridization of and cross-pollination between such disciplines [science & humanities] that we will arrive at solutions for our wicked problems.”
Harold Jarche, change takes time and effort

People who can effectively work on wicked problems — problems that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize — are in high demand. That’s because such problems involve high stakes, and significant organizational or societal consequences. They don’t succumb to the standard problem solving methods we’ve used for millennia.

An example of the successful curious neo-generalist — me!

If you had told me forty years ago, a freshly minted high-energy particle physics postdoc, that I’d go on to have four additional careers (owner of a solar manufacturing business, computer science professor, independent IT consultant, and meeting designer/facilitator) I wouldn’t have believed you.

I became a physicist because I was intensely curious about how the world works. Physics seemed clearly the most “successful” tool for understanding the world from a science perspective.

Yet as I entered the world of research and academia I realized I was also curious about the social and organizational cultures I found there. I grew fascinated by the social dynamics of large research meetings and how national educational models and cultures influenced how people interacted and behaved.

The solar energy company

When I first visited Vermont I became aware of something that I’d unknowingly wanted for a long time. Immigrating to a rural region of the United States meant that I had to give up my multinational research. So at the age of 26 I joined and became an owner of a solar manufacturing company.

The company needed a general manager. I knew nothing about business, but I taught myself bookkeeping and accounting. I began to discover the subtleties of managing employees. Though I didn’t know it at the time, these skills would turn out to be invaluable on beginning my consulting career.

While at Solar Alternative, I convened some of the earliest conferences on solar power held in the United States. My curiosity about what else was going on in my professional field at the time, would eventually lead me to the meeting design and facilitation work I do today.

Teaching

When I began teaching computer science I had never taught before. (And these were the early days of computer science as a curriculum, so there were no established models on how to teach it!) So I began to teach in the way I had been taught: lecturing with questions. Looking back, I see I was a mediocre teacher for a long time. One day I had to create an impromptu class. So I asked students some questions about privacy and ethical issues and we had a discussion. I was amazed at how much better the class was, and how much more the students got out of it. That’s when I finally started to become curious about better formats for learning than those I’d been taught.

Consulting

While teaching I had also started IT consulting, and ten years after entering both worlds I had two full-time jobs. Importantly, I had become a successful IT consultant because I was a neo-generalist in this fast-changing field. (Read the linked post for full details.)

I gave up teaching and dove into the world of IT consulting. Initially I saw myself as a nerdy provider of tech solutions, but I quickly discovered that people problems were actually at the root of the issues my clients asked me to resolve. Once more, my curiosity caused me to become fascinated by organizational culture and its influence on the effectiveness and healthiness of the organizations I encountered.

Over time I realized I was becoming more interested in people work than science. I was good at technical consulting, but felt drawn to working with people.

Meeting design and facilitation

Throughout my teaching and 20+ years of IT consulting I had continued to convene conferences in the professional and social areas that piqued my interest. How this played out can be read in my various book introductions and opening chapters. My unexpected discovery that peer conference formats could greatly increase the effectiveness of and participant satisfaction at meetings turned into a desire to get the word out to the world about these simple but unknown techniques.

When my first book was published, I was discovered by the meeting industry. Ten years later, I am happy consulting on meeting design and facilitating meetings all over the world. My curiosity and abilities as a neo-generalist have certainly paid off for me!

Hire curious people

Curiosity is a key driver of my voyage of discovery about myself. It has also led to me finding my mission, along with congruent work that I love. All this sprang from being curious.

Although I miss the resources and colleagues available when employed by organizations, I prefer to work alone with the support of a loose and widespread web of connections with resources. However, there are many neo-generalists (most of them I suspect) who prefer to work inside organizations.

I recommend you hire them!

How to facilitate a community discussion using fishbowl

What’s the best way to facilitate a community discussion? Recently, I had to answer that question at short notice. My task: design and facilitate a two-hour community discussion in response to a bombshell announcement made by the largest employer in my tiny rural hometown of Marlboro, Vermont.

The community was in shock. Consequently, I felt it was important to use a discussion format that:

  • Supported respectful dialog from a variety of constituencies;
  • Created an environment that was as safe as possible for people to share;
  • Minimized the likelihood that people would monopolize the meeting;
  • Allowed both short statements and controlled impromptu conversations; and
  • Was efficient.

I ended up designing (and moderating the first half of) a fishbowl format. To be more precise, I used what I’d call “half a fishbowl sandwich“: an opening pair share plus a standard fishbowl. (All three of these techniques are covered in detail in my latest book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need.)

The pair share

I ran a one-minute-per-partner pair share with this question. “What do you think about the proposed Marlboro College plan to close down the school and transfer the endowment and campus to Emerson?

The fishbowl format

Now, watch this three-minute meeting video clip in which I explain how fishbowl works.

Read the rest of this entry »

The first hill is the hardest

first hill is the hardest

At the age of 67, after returning from a meditation retreat, I started running daily for the first time in my life. And I soon learned that the first hill is the hardest.

Beginnings

It was summer, and I had no idea what I could do. So I began by exploring without expectations. I dressed in my regular sneakers, some shorts, and a tee shirt. I live in a rural town with 60 miles of dirt roads, so I ran out of my home and down the 600′ driveway. Wanting exercise, I turned left on the town road and started up the hill. Way before the top I was out of breath, so I slowed to a walk until I got to the top. I ran down some of the other side, decided that was enough for the first day, and turned around and retraced my path. I had to walk up most of my driveway.

The total run and walk was a mere mile.

I wondered if I’d ever be able to do better than that.

What happened

Read the rest of this entry »

Make your entire conference a braindate

entire conference a braindateWhy not make your entire conference a braindate?

One of Skift’s “10 event trends for 2020” is networking. The report predicts:

“Activities such as braindates that deliver more meaningful connections will become mainstream at events.”

The author, Julius Solaris, tweeted:

“…braindates are in our top 10 trends for 2020…Too much of an undervalued tool and approach. Time to end that.”
November 20, 2019 tweet

I like the braindate approach, but it doesn’t have to be something that’s grafted onto a conference. Why? Because good event design is about how a conference works.

Participant-driven and participation-rich meeting designs incorporate a braindate’s purpose — one-to-one or small group connection around relevant content — organically into every session. In addition, the beginning of a peer conference uncovers the topics that people want to talk about, as well as providing plentiful opportunities for participants to discover others who share their challenges and interests.

So there’s no need to add a braindate process to a well-designed meeting. Instead make your entire conference a braindate!

Photo attribution: Flickr user viejozapato

Ten years of Conferences That Work!

Ten years of Conferences That Work!Ten years of Conferences That Work! Ten years ago today, I started this website and published my first book: Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love. (A decade later it’s still selling.)

I’m proud to have written three books (the latest was published this week) and over six hundred blog posts in the last ten years. After writing each book I was sure it would be the last one I wrote. Actually, I still am. Perhaps I’ll be wrong again about that…

To my amazement, this website has had over forty-nine million page views. That’s quite a jump from twenty-four thousand in the first year. These days, this site gets about six million page views per year, making it, as far as I know, the most popular website in the world on meeting design.

Read the rest of this entry »