"I realized this morning that your event content is the only event related 'stuff' I still read. I think that's because it's not about events, but about the coming together of people to exchange ideas and learn from one another and that's valuable information for anyone." — Traci Browne
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“There are worlds built on rainbows and worlds built on rain. There are worlds of pure mathematics, where every number chimes like crystal as it rolls into reality. Worlds of light and worlds of darkness, worlds of rhyme and worlds of reason, and worlds where the only thing that matters is the goodness in a hero’s heart. The Moors are none of those things. The Moors exist in eternal twilight, in the pause between the lightning strike and the resurrection. They are a place of endless scientific experimentation, of monstrous beauty, and of terrible consequences.“—Seanan McGuire, Down amongst the sticks and bones
Once in a while, a seemingly small event in our life leads to terrible consequences. The tires start to slip as you steer around an icy curve. An idle remark explodes into a screaming argument. The “minor procedure” triggers months of pain and immobility.
Such terrible consequences can happen at any time. What makes them especially difficult is that they are not preimagined — Heidegger’s dreadful that has already happened. They are a revelation, unexpected, painful in ways that are totally new.
Most of the event industry and our clients continue to assume that if you can make the meeting bigger it’s a good thing.
It ain’t necessarily so.
How we got here
The massive disruption of in-person events since March 2020 has shaken our industry to the core. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person events that weren’t canceled have seen drastically reduced attendance compared to prior years. Online and hybrid meetings have seen less drastic reductions.
One bright spot has been the normalization of online meetings for routine connection and collaboration. We have also seen the emergence of new forms of online events, supported by solid business models.
So as I predicted in 2020, we haven’t seen the old normal since the pandemic started, and it’s likely we’ll never see it again.
What we shouldn’t do
The event industry unduly focuses on large meetings. Our trade magazines mainly report on big events, the ones with big-name speakers and eye candy razzle-dazzle. Pandemic-induced smaller audiences engender hand-wringing. What to do? How can we get our old, big events back?
Some respond by increasing their event marketing. Often, however, that’s not a smart move, as Seth Godin illustrates:
Make the announcement louder. Make the logo bigger. Yell. Call more people on the phone to sell them an extended warranty. Send more emails. Hustle harder. None of it works. The problem with the fountain isn’t that they didn’t make a big enough sign. The problem is that the fountain itself is poorly designed… …If you get the design right, you can whisper instead. —Seth Godin, “Make the sign bigger!”
TLDR: Useful if Tesla Powerwall frequency shifting during outages is affecting appliances like clocks, furnaces, uninterruptible power sources (UPS), etc. Want to skip right to fixing the Tesla Powerwall frequency problem? Click here.
In February 2018, we installed a Tesla Powerwall 2.0 on our Vermont home. We get around thirty outages a year, and for the last 4 years this device has provided us with a reliable automatic backup electricity source capable of running our home through outages of up to two days. (Read more about my experience with our Tesla Powerwall here.)
Whenever there was a lengthy outage, I noticed that my old-fashioned digital clocks would run a little fast. I’d reset them to the correct time and didn’t think much about it.
Until one day…
Houston, we have a problem
Earlier this year, I reluctantly dismantled our 38-year-old solar hot water and space heating system, and replaced it with a gas boiler. (One of the system’s large, expensive solar storage tanks had sprung a leak, and I would have had to replace all three tanks. Our solar collectors were still working flawlessly, but I worried that they might not last much longer.)
The gas boiler, a high efficiency Alpine condensing boiler, was installed to heat a new stainless steel domestic hot water tank and the two existing radiant floor heating systems. After dealing with the inevitable teething troubles, the system was working well.
Until we had a power outage while the boiler was running.
Passing the small utility room that contains the heating system, I noticed a red glow that was definitely not normal. Going in, I saw that the boiler’s touch screen display had turned red. The boiler had shut down with a “hard lockout”. Looking up the displayed error message “Fault 23” told me that the boiler was unhappy with the Tesla Powerwall’s power.
This was not OK. First, the boiler would not operate during a power outage. Furthermore, it would not turn on automatically once utility power returned. That’s because you have to manually reset the hard lockout using the boiler’s touch screen.
So if we left our home for a few days and a power outage occurred during that time, the boiler would not operate until someone entered our home and reset it. Having our plumbing freeze and plants die while we were away was not acceptable.
Diagnosing the problem
It wasn’t hard to figure out what was happening, once I remembered the previously ignored clue that some of our clocks ran fast when using Powerwall power. These clocks are the old-fashioned kind that keep time based on the national electric utility frequency of 60 hertz (Hz). Clearly, the Powerwall must be providing backup power at a higher frequency.
To my surprise, a quick Google search told me that Powerwalls supply power at 66 Hz when they are at full or close to full charge! My furnace was shutting down because, unlike the rest of my appliances, it would not operate correctly at 66 Hz. But why would Powerwalls do this?
Well, it turns out that many Powerwalls are used as storage for photovoltaic (PV) solar panels. PV systems also use an inverter, like the one in a Powerwall, to generate household power. And when the house’s electrical needs are being met with the Powerwall charged to or near full, there’s nowhere for additional solar-generated electricity to go. So the Powerwall is designed to switch to 66 Hz under these conditions. PV inverters, like my furnace, see the frequency out of the normal spec and shut down. The Powerwall supplies the home until it has spare capacity to be recharged by the solar panels, and then drops its frequency down to 60 Hz. Until then, the solar inverter (and my furnace) will shut down.
Ok, so I understand the problem and the reason Powerwalls are designed this way. But I don’t have PV panels, and I want my furnace to work when there’s a power outage! What could I do?
Fixing the Tesla Powerwall frequency problem – option 1
Luckily, as you might expect, I wasn’t the first customer to have this problem. More Googling indicated that I could call Tesla and ask them to remotely update my Powerwall to reduce the frequency of power it provided under high charge conditions.
So I did. After a long hold time for Tesla Powerwall Support [(888) 765-2489], I spoke with a friendly technician, Manny. He confirmed that Tesla will make this change and placed an order for my system. Manny told me the change usually took 3 – 5 business days, and he would get back to me when they did it.
I waited. After nine days, I called back to get an update, and Andrea told me the queue was currently running 10 – 15 business days. So I waited some more.
Sixteen days after I’d spoken with Manny, he emailed me that Tesla had made the change. Great! Now, I wanted to test to see if the fix worked.
Testing that Tesla’s update worked
I didn’t want to wait until a power outage occurred while my furnace was running. So I decided to manually switch our home to Powerwall power.
I hadn’t done this before, so I investigated my Powerwall installation. It’s mounted on an external wall, so it’s easy to see the components. Please note that there are several ways to install Powerwalls — don’t assume that your configuration will be the same as mine. Here’s a photo, with the components labeled, of my setup.
Grid power flows through my utility meter through the gateway to the Powerwall disconnect, which is hooked up to both the Powerwall and my main home breaker panel.
For my setup, to switch our home to Powerwall power manually you simply have to open the gateway box and turn off the grid disconnect switch.
After flipping the grid disconnect switch, I went inside and turned up a thermostat so our boiler would fire up. Success! The Alpine now worked happily on Powerwall backup power!
I don’t own a multimeter that includes frequency measurement, but I found another way to discover the frequency that my Powerwall now generates. By logging in via your gateway’s Wi-Fi network, it’s possible to view the operating frequency of your Powerwall. These instructions provide a guide. I discovered that my Powerwall’s output is now between 62.1 – 62.3 Hz. Apparently, that’s close enough to 60 Hz to keep the boiler running.
Fixing the Tesla Powerwall frequency problem – option 2
Although I solved my boiler problem, that doesn’t mean other appliances or devices are immune from Tesla’s frequency switching technology. If that turns out to be the case for you, there is another option that should work, though you’d have to pay for it.
The trick is to use an online aka double-conversion uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to power the troublesome device. (Offline/Standby, Line-Interactive, and Automatic Voltage Regulation types of UPS don’t change the frequency of the power supplied.) An online UPS charges a battery that runs an inverter providing 120 volts, 60 Hz power independent of incoming power quality. When grid power fails, this type of UPS has no transfer time. Plug the problematic device into an online UPS that has enough volt-amp (VA) capacity and you’re all set. Note that the backup time such units provide is irrelevant since they will still be receiving power from the Powerwall.
The only drawback to this solution is the expense. An online UPS costs more than the other types. The least expensive unit I could find via a quick search, the Maruson 1000VA Online Double-Conversion UPS, costs almost $500.
Once again, I’m very happy with my Tesla Powerwall. It would be nice if an installer or owner could make this frequency change, rather than waiting for two weeks for Tesla to do it. But at least there was a fix that only cost some time for research and a couple of phone calls, and my boiler power problem is resolved.
I hope this article will help anyone else who runs into the same problem. Please share your experiences and suggestions in the comments below.
Tired of meetings that don’t end on time? Who isn’t? Things were bad enough when we held our meetings in person. Now so many meetings are online, it’s easy to saddle remote workers with back-to-back meetings. When one overruns, you’re late to the next one. Hey presto, your tardiness snowballs! (And, no, you can’t be on two Zooms at once without going through tortuous hacks.) Sure, sometimes you’re at the mercy of others. But you can stay on time at online meetings when they’re your meetings — if you follow the guidance below!
NOTE: Many of these suggestions are good practice for any meeting!
Before the online meeting starts
Apart from those rare meetings that are ritual courtly dances with every step minutely choreographed, what happens at a meeting is unpredictable to some degree.
Ideally, the only unpredictable parts should be when you’re doing useful work, like sharing ideas, discussing options, making decisions, etc. And setting expectations for the meeting before it starts is key to minimizing the time-wasting behavior that we’ve all experienced during meetings.
You have two tools to set meeting expectations: creating agreements and the meeting agenda.
I’ve facilitated meetings for decades. In my experience, the best way to reliably improve a meeting is to create and (gently) enforce agreements about how participants act there. Consensual group norms generate powerful motivation to keep meetings running smoothly and productively while discouraging unruly behavior. I’ve found that having an appropriate set of agreements eliminates the vast majority of common problems. And if someone still goes down an irrelevant conversational rabbit hole, interrupts others, or talks too much, it’s much easier to lightly redirect them.
Agreements can either be communicated before the meeting or at the start. While there’s no single set of agreements that’s optimum for every meeting, some base agreements should be familiar to anyone who regularly meets online. For example:
Signal via a pre-agreed protocol when you want to say something, e.g., by raising your hand (literally or via a platform mechanism like Zoom’s “Raise Hand”), or via text chat.
If you’ve joined by phone, say your name before speaking.
Additional agreements that are generally helpful include:
Commit to being present at the meeting unless an emergency occurs.
Don’t interrupt. Instead, use an agreed process to indicate you want to speak.
Follow the group’s discussion and decision processes.
Respect agreed time limits on speaking.
Support the meeting’s scheduled ending time.
Besides meeting-wide agreements, agreements about processes you will use during the meeting are very important. Create agreement and a clear understanding about how participants will:
take turns to speak;
discuss issues; and
The processes to use depend on the meeting’s goals (see agenda) and implicit or explicit power differentials between attendees. For example, you’ll use different procedures if a decision is going to be made by consensus, majority vote, or the presiding CEO. I’ve included some examples below.
Whatever processes you chose, be sure to explain how they work either before or at the start of the meeting. Make sure that all supporting technology, such as an on-screen timer, is available and there’s someone responsible for running it.
Providing an agenda in advance
An agenda is a vital tool for staying on time at online meetings, in fact at any meeting. Providing participants with a clear, detailed agenda in advance is respectful and smart. “In advance” doesn’t mean five minutes before the meeting. It means giving attendees enough time to read and review beforehand. This allows people to formulate questions, ideas, and positions on agenda items beforehand, saving time during the meeting. Whenever possible, include participants’ input into the agenda by distributing a draft with a deadline for questions, corrections, and additions for a final agenda before the meeting.
Timed agendas are very helpful for staying on time. Even if it turns out the written times can’t be fully adhered to, they give attendees an idea of what’s expected and make it easier to reschedule upcoming agenda items on the fly.
Be clear who is running the meeting. Online meetings often need various kinds of support. Be sure everyone knows their responsibilities for note-taking, setting up breakout groups, displaying visual aids, polling, monitoring text chat for questions or requests to speak, maintaining time agreements, etc.
Occasionally, an itemized agenda is impracticable because the meeting is preliminary and exploratory: for example, a group meeting for the first time to discuss a possible collaboration. Even under these circumstances, be sure you circulate a brief description of the meeting goals and a start and end time.
Check that everyone involved with meeting tasks and support — facilitation, note-taking, setting up breakout groups, displaying visual aids, polling, monitoring text chat for questions or requests to speak, maintaining time agreements, etc. — is present and ready to do their work. If the meeting is large, a backchannel for these folks to communicate, like Slack, can be very helpful.
Online discussions can often become messy, with people interrupting, taking up too much time, or going off-topic. To avoid this:
Expect to readjust your schedule during the meeting
If you haven’t supplied a timed agenda, it’s important for the meeting leader to share their thoughts on how the group will use the time available. Since it’s rare to precisely follow such plans, regularly recalculate the time allotments as the meeting proceeds, and update/consult with participants on any changes you think you’ll need to make.
If you complete the meeting agenda ahead of schedule, end it early! No one will complain. 😀
Finally, end on time! It sometimes becomes clear during a meeting that the agenda scope was unrealistic. More time is needed to satisfy the meeting’s goals. Asking to extend the meeting duration may be an option, but don’t just keep going. Instead, before the meeting is scheduled to end, estimate how much longer is needed and poll attendees to see if they can stay. Respect their responses and proceed appropriately. Options include:
Continue for an additional agreed-upon time (which you may need to negotiate).
Continue without one or more participants if you can still achieve your meeting goals despite their absence.
Schedule another meeting to finish what’s been started.
It’s important to stay on time at online meetings. Yes, running late inconveniences everyone attending, and some people may have to leave on time, with the consequent loss of their contributions and involvement. In addition, every corporate or community meeting that runs late reinforces the all-too-common dysfunctional cultural norm that all meetings will overrun. The resulting psychological, and emotional burden imposed on attendees who routinely experience losing control of their time is high.
Hopefully, these ideas will help you and your colleagues stay on time at online meetings. Do you have further suggestions? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!
I belong to a couple of small groups that have been meeting regularly for decades. The men’s group meets biweekly, while the consultants’ group meets monthly. I have been exploring and writing about facilitating change since the earliest days of this blog. So in 2021, I developed and facilitated for each group a process for working together to explore what we want to change, and then change our lives.
Each group spent several meetings working through this exercise.
What happened was valuable, so I’m sharing the process for you to use if it fits.
The process design outline
It’s important for the group’s members to receive instructions for the entire exercise well in advance of the first meeting, so they have time to think about their answers before we get together.
Exploring our past experiences of working on change in our lives
We begin with a short, three-question review of our past experiences working on change in our lives.
These questions give everyone the opportunity to review:
the life changes they made or attempted to make in the past;
the strategies they used; and
what they learned in the process.
This supplies baseline information to the individuals and the group for what follows.
The questions cover what:
we worked on.
was tried that did and didn’t work.
we learned from these experiences.
We each share short answers to these questions before continuing to the next stage of the process.
For the rest of the exercise, each group member gets as much time as they need.
Sharing what we would currently like to change in our lives
Next, we ask each person to share anything they would currentlylike to change in their life. This includes issues they may or may not be working on. Group members can ask for help to clarify what they want to change.
Exploring and discussing what we are currently working on to change our lives
Next, each person shares in detail which of the above issues they are currently working on, or want to work on, to change in their life. This can include describing their struggles and what they are learning, and also asking the group for advice and support.
Exploring long-term learning is important. So, after some time has elapsed, perhaps a few months, we run a post-exercise review of the outcomes for each person. This helps to uncover successes as well as difficulties that surfaced, and can also lead to additional appropriate group support and encouragement.
Here’s an example — what I shared and did
Things I’ve tried in the past to make changes in my life that didn’t work
Trying to think my way into making changes w/o taking my feelings/body state into account
e.g. trying to lose weight by going on a diet.
Denial—doing nothing and hoping the change will happen.
What I’ve learned about successful ways to change my life
Anything that improves my awareness of feeling or body state can be a precursor to change: e.g. mindful eating or emotional eating.
Creating habits: e.g. brushing my teeth first thing in the morning; setting triggers (calendar reminders, timers for meditation or breaks).
The habit of daily exercise, regular yoga, which improves awareness of my body state.
Three issues I worked on
Tidying up and documenting my complicated life before I die.
Living more in gratitude; developing a daily practice.
My post-exercise three-month review
I’m happy with the way I continue to work on the long-term project of tidying up my office, getting caught up on reading, and documenting my household and estate tasks. To help ensure that I work on it every day, I created a simple spreadsheet with columns for various short tasks that advanced my goals. Checking off time spent on one of these tasks each day shows me I’m making progress, and this feels good.
I created a buddy system with another group member who wanted to meditate more. We send each other an email when we’ve meditated. This has greatly improved the likelihood I’ll meditate every day.
After trying a simple daily gratitude practice, I decided to let it go for the time being until my daily meditation became a fully reliable habit. Sometimes, small steps are the best strategy!
Interested? OK! Here’s how to run this exercise.
First, explain the process and see if you get buy-in from the group about doing this work. It’s helpful to explain that each person can choose what personal change they want to work on. There are no “right” or “wrong”, or “small” or “large” personal change issues. Any issue that someone wants to work on is valuable to that person, and that’s all that counts.
I think it’s helpful for everyone present to participate, rather than some people being observers, but ultimately, that’s up to the group to decide.
Well before the first meeting, share the following, adapted to your needs, with group members.
Working together to change our lives – the first meeting
“We’ve decided to work together on what we are currently trying to change in our lives. As we will have about an hour for this work at each session, we’ll need two or more meetings for everyone to have their turn.
For the exercise to be fruitful, we will all need to do some preparatory work before the meetings.
Our eventual focus will be on what we are currently trying to change in our lives, and how we are going about it.
We’ll start with questions 1) and 2) below, which are about the past. Please come with short (maximum 2½ minutes total per person) answers to them. Please answer question 3) in 90 seconds or less. At subsequent meetings, we will spend much more time on questions 4) & 5).
Please come to the first meeting prepared to answer the following three questions:
==> 1) What have you tried to make changes in your life that didn’t work? What have you learned over the last 20 years?
==> 2) What have you learned about successful ways to change your life over the last 20 years?
Don’t include childhood/teen lessons learned, unless you really think they’re still relevant to today’s work.
Remember: a maximum of 2½ minutes for questions 1) and 2) combined!
==> 3) What would you currently like to change about how you live your life? (You might not be working on it. You can ask for advice if you want.)
Be as specific as possible in your answer to question 3). Your answer should take 90 seconds or less! (But we’ll provide more time if you want or need help clarifying your goals.)
Working together to change our lives – subsequent meetings
At subsequent meetings, we’ll each take turns to answer questions 4) and 5) below. You’ll have as much time as you need to answer these questions and partake in the subsequent discussion.
==> 4) What are you currently working on to change in your life?
==> 5) How are you going about making the changes you shared in your answer to question 4)? What are the struggles and what are you learning? What advice would you like?”
Running the meetings
At the first meeting, you’ll typically have time for everyone to share their answers to the first three questions. Keep track of the time, be flexible, but don’t let participants ramble. It’s very helpful for the facilitator to take brief notes on what people share. If there’s still time available, I suggest you/the facilitator models the process by sharing their answers to questions 4) and 5) and holding an appropriate discussion. Use subsequent meetings as needed for every group member in turn to answer and discuss these two final questions, and write notes on these discussions too.
The post-exercise review
When this exercise has been completed for everyone, I suggest the group schedule a follow-up review in a few months time. If your group starts with check-ins, it can be useful to regularly remind everyone about the review and ask if anything’s come up that someone would like to discuss before the review meeting.
Before the post-exercise review, let group members know that the facilitator will share their notes for each person in turn, and ask them to comment on what’s happened since.
At the start of the post-exercise review, explain that this is an opportunity to share information — discoveries, roadblocks, successes, etc. — without judgment. It’s also a time when group members can ask for ideas, advice, and support from each other.
Finally, you may decide to return to this exercise at a later date. After all, there’s mucho be said for working on change throughout our lives. The above process may be the same, but the answers the next time may be quite different!
Have you tried this exercise? How did it work for you? Did you change/improve it in some way? I’d love to hear your experience with it — please share in the comments below!
It’s easy to start working with Stooa. Registering a (free) account requires the usual information: name, email, and password. You can also add your Twitter and/or LinkedIn profiles if desired.
Once you’ve registered your account, you’re ready to create a new fishbowl.
As you can see, you can specify a discussion topic, add a description, and schedule the fishbowl start and duration (up to four hours; though that would be cruel and unusual punishment). You can also choose a language to use. Currently the choices are English, Spanish, French, and Catalan. On clicking Create fishbowl you’ll see a summary of your new fishbowl, together with a link to distribute to others so they can join it. You’ll also receive an email with the same information — a nice touch.
Starting your fishbowl
When you click on Go to the fishbowl, Stooa will ask for permission to use your camera(s) and microphone(s). (Once you’ve joined a fishbowl, you can choose which ones to use.) Enter how you’d like to display your name, and you’ll see this screen:
When you’re ready to begin, click Start the fishbowl. At this point the camera and microphone will be active just for you. Share a short introduction with the waiting attendees. When done, you’ll appear in one of the five fishbowl “seats”. Click Allow attendees to join the conversation to begin discussion.
Running your fishbowl
At the top of the screen you’ll see the remaining time for the fishbowl, a button to end it, and the number of attendees present. Clicking on the latter displays a list of people currently in the seats, followed by the remaining attendees. The list includes links to the Twitter and LinkedIn profiles of each attendee if they entered them.
At this point, attendees can enter/leave one of the fishbowl seats by clicking on the Join/Leave the conversation button at the bottom of the screen. The other buttons allow participants to choose and control their camera and microphone.
Five participants is a good maximum for a controlled and useful discussion. Stooa smoothly implements entry and departure of fishbowl participants.
When your discussion is over, use the End fishbowl button to close the session.
Stooa review — what do I think?
Here are my initial impressions from a brief look. First, I want to acknowledge Stooa’s creator, Runroom, for developing this tool and making it Open Source: software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify and enhance. Hosting the software so that anyone can use it is another Runroom gift. They explain why they did so here. Thank you Runroom!
Stooa was easy to register and use on Chrome or Safari. First time users should have little difficulty, as the entire onboarding process is designed very well. I haven’t used the tool with a large number of attendees, so I can’t say how it holds up under load. Given that the number of folks simultaneously on video chat is limited to five, I expect it will work fine.
Stooa succeeds admirably in its purpose as a single process tool that facilitates effective group discussion.
Currently, you can’t remove a fishbowl participant. This could be a problem if you used Stooa for a public fishbowl discussion, publicized via a link on social media.
In addition, with all seats filled, there’s no way for waiting attendees to indicate that they’d like to join the discussion, so a fishbowl host doesn’t know how many others are waiting to speak. To deal with this, attendees could use a backchannel tool like Slack to message the host that they’d like to join in. Alternatively, adding a hand raise option to the attendee list would help to solve this problem. And incorporating a simple text chat for all attendees into Stooa would provide even greater flexibility.
Stooa is not the only tool for running online fishbowls. In July 2020, I shared how to use Zoom to run fishbowls online. Zoom is, of course, a fee-based platform, but many organizations own a license and Zoom does many other things as well. In this situation, Zoom includes attendee text chat and hand raising. And its breakout rooms allow you to create, inside a single tool, the fishbowl sandwiches I use to facilitate group problem solving.
For better meetings, we need to focus on learning, not education.
Yes, sometimes, cultural or professional “requirements” mean we have to provide education. That’s so we can “certify” that we’ve educated attendees to some prescribed standard. But is that all our meetings should be about?
Learning, not education
After all, it’s what we actually learn that’s important, rather than the “education” we receive. As Seth Godin says:
“Education is a model based on scarcity, compliance and accreditation. It trades time, attention and money for a piece of paper that promises value.
But we learn in ways that have little to do with how mass education is structured.
If you know how to walk, write, read, type, have a conversation, perform surgery or cook an egg, it’s probably because you practiced and explored and experienced, not because it was on a test.
Seth is talking about the potential failure of online education, but his point that we need to practice, explore, and experience to learn is true for any kind of meeting. Albert Einstein and Oscar Wilde pointed this out a hundred years ago:
After our prime Thanksgiving dinner, I was sleepily washing a large turkey foil platter when I noticed its embossed central message: “Support the bottom.”
I’m going to blame the tryptophan in the turkey for causing me to muse, from a facilitation perspective, about the significance of this unexpected Prime Directive. I have no other excuse.
Support the bottom
It makes sense. We don’t want our heavy turkey to break through or slide off the tray as we’re bringing it to the feast. The manufacturer suggests we shouldn’t take for granted the strength of the thick aluminum foil holding our main course. We should be mindful that the bottom of our feast needs support.
Well, when working with a group of people, the “bottom” of the group also needs support.
During group work, it’s tempting to assume that things are going well when we’re hearing from many people. When there’s significant interaction between group members. When folks are coming up with new ideas and interesting approaches to explore.
So it’s easy to overlook some people. Without checking, you might not see them. After all, they’re not bringing attention to themselves. People who say little or nothing. People who are distracted or disengaged.
It’s important to suspend judgment of these folks. There have been many times when I’ve been understandably silent/disengaged/distracted during meetings, and I’m sure everyone else has too. Perhaps:
what’s going on is of no interest;
we’re completely lost and confused;
feeling unwell is wrecking our attention;
we’re seriously short on sleep; or
a personal crisis is all we can think about;
and you can probably think of plenty of additional unexceptional circumstances when someone may be currently incapable of doing useful work in a group. We might say they have hit rock bottom.
But then there are the border cases. Frequently, there are people who might just need a nudge. They are at a momentary personal bottom, and they could use some support. A reminder, a reason, an opportunity to engage or reengage.
So what do we do?
How can we support group members at a (hopefully, momentary) bottom?
The first step is noticing them. When working with a small group, the quiet folks are easy to spot. A good facilitator will gently check to see if they have something to say, and bring them into the work if they’re willing. With large groups noticing the quiet folks is hard, because, obviously, they’re not drawing attention. If you, as facilitator, are concentrating on the people who are contributing and interacting — an important piece of your job — it’s easy to overlook those who aren’t.
How can we avoid missing the quiet folks in large groups? By making time for you to notice them! Luckily, this is typically part of good meeting design — it’s not something that you need to awkwardly or artificially introduce. Good large group work includes short breakouts, where impromptu small groups meet, think, discuss, and share. While these activities are going on, it’s fairly easy for a facilitator to roam the room and pick up on disengaged attendees. (Unfortunately, this is much harder to do online, as I mentioned in last week’s post.)
The second step is to provide regular opportunities for the “bottom” folks to engage or reengage. Appropriate small group work, like pair or trio share, is an obvious way to do this. When working in small groups, check to see that participants who haven spoken for a while have anything they’d like to add. If you’re running a fishbowl or fishbowl sandwich, ask that people not share more than once until everyone’s had a chance to contribute. And be patient when asking people to share. Staying quiet while people are thinking about whether they want to speak and what they might want to say is a tangible form of respect. So remember to shut up and listen.
Instead, do your best to respectfully and appropriately engage as many people as you can. Yes, the “bottom” participants will generally need greater support. But focus your time and attention on maximizing the overall group energy, with as many people as possible actively on board.
You may not hear much of the resulting Thanksgiving. But you’ll know you did the best cooking you could.
“It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.”
Listening to Taylor Swift’s lament in her beautiful and evocative “All Too Well: The Short Film” I feel my own grief well up. My last in-person engagement was a wonderful two-day workshop with several hundred cardiologists in Texas. January 28 and 29, 2020. As I’m writing this, that was twenty-two months ago.
Since then, I’ve worked with many groups online. But it’s not the same.
I’m sure you can relate. Yes, it’s wonderful to be instantly connected, with video and sound, to likeminded folks, friends, and family scattered around the country or globe. So much better than the only option in my youth — the telephone. Long-distance phone calls then cost so much that speaking to someone far away or, heaven help us, internationally was a rare treat.
But it’s not the same.
I miss doing what I love to do. Facilitating connection between people around what matters to them. Creating meetings that become what the participants want and need. The magic of the unexpected that appears when you least expect it, and, sometimes, changes peoples’ lives.
Online, we meet using group-focused platforms that don’t have the power, nuance, and flexibility of in-person meetings.
We can’t touch, hug, or connect physically.
Even if an individual’s camera is on, the resolution still isn’t good enough to read their micro expressions of emotion and body language that inform our experience of and connection with them.
We can’t move to different environments online like we can in person: from sharing in a circle to learning about other participants via human spectrograms, from sharing with a neighbor to talking while walking.
The platforms themselves impose additional restrictions. In Zoom, for example:
Spontaneous side conversations are restricted to private chat — if it’s enabled.
A facilitator can’t “feel the room” during small group work, because there’s no way to simultaneously monitor breakout rooms. This important task is far easier to do in person, by simply walking around and noticing what’s going on.
Attendee attention is hard to sense. Are they listening intently, ignoring what’s going on, or browsing TikTok? Even when their camera is on, it’s difficult to tell. And if their camera is off…
Online social platforms can provide an experience much closer to that of an in-person social. Participants can see who’s “in the room” and decide whom to talk with, either one-to-one or small group, in public or private. In the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed holiday parties with folks who could never have practically got together in person, and these platforms are well worth exploring if you haven’t already.
But it’s not the same as hanging out with and making new friends in person.
And we’re back to the grief. “It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.” I see a photo of a meeting I attended with so many friends, and I miss them, and wonder if/when I’ll see them again in-person rather than on a screen.
I feel it. It’s good to remember the past, to feel the pain of its absence now, to be in touch with it, to acknowledge its presence. And then I return to working on being in the present, with my grief a part of me.
The meeting is over. Did anyone learn anything? And how would you know?
An EventTech Chat discussion
I greatly enjoy participating in EventTech Chat, “a weekly conversation about meeting and event technology, including software, hardware, and audiovisual for in-person and online events” hosted by pals Brandt Krueger and Glenn Thayer.
During last week’s chat, one of the topics we discussed was whether there are differences in how people learn online, as opposed to face to face. This led to conversations about learning styles (be careful, they’re mostly mythical and barely useful), the importance of taking responsibility for your own learning at meetings, and how meeting formats affect what people learn.
Are you a regular reader of this blog? If so, you might have guessed—correctly—that I had plenty to say about these important issues. There is plenty of solid research on the best ways to support effective learning. We know that:
Which brings us to an important question we hardly ever ask about meetings…
Did anyone learn anything?
In my book Conferences That Work, I shared a story about when I—and everyone else in my graduate class—never admitted we didn’t understand what our teacher was teaching us for weeks.
…toward the end of my second year I was understanding less and less of a mathematics course I was taking. The professor seemed to be going through the motions—he asked few questions, and there was no homework. Elementary particle physicists are either mathematicians or experimentalists. I was the latter, so my lack of mathematical understanding was not affecting my research work. But the experience was disconcerting.
And, as the semester went on, the percentage of class material I understood gradually declined.
One day, our teacher announced that we would be studying Green’s Functions, a technique used to solve certain kinds of equations. After the first 20 minutes of the class I realized that I understood nothing of what was being said, and that I was at a crucial turning point. If I kept quiet, it would be too late to claim ignorance later, and it was likely I would not understand anything taught for the remainder of the semester. If I spoke up, however, I was likely to display my weak comprehension of everything the teacher had covered so far.
Looking around, I noticed that the other students seemed to be having a similar experience. Everyone looked worried. No one said a word.
The class ended and the professor left. I plucked up my courage and asked my classmates if they were having trouble. We quickly discovered, to our general relief, that none of us understood the class. What should we do? Somehow, without much discussion, we decided to say nothing to the teacher.
The class only ran a few more weeks, and the remaining time became a pro forma ritual. Did our teacher know he had lost us? I think he probably did. I think he remained quiet for his own reasons, perhaps uncaring about his success at educating us, perhaps ashamed that he had lost us.
When I didn’t speak up, I chose to enter a world where I hid my lack of understanding from others, a world where I was faking it…
…Probably you’ve had a similar experience; a sinking feeling as you realize that you don’t understand something that you’re apparently expected to understand, in a context, perhaps a traditional conference, where nonresponsiveness is the norm. It’s a brave soul indeed who will speak out, who is prepared to admit to a conference presenter that they don’t get what’s going on. Have you stayed silent? Do you?
Silence isn’t golden
Silence during a presentation, and a lack of questions at the end does not mean that anyone learned anything. As Jonah Berger reminds us in Contagious, “Behavior is public and thoughts are private.”
If my teacher had bothered to periodically ask his class whether they understood what he was attempting to teach, or, better, asked questions to check, we’d likely have told or shown him we were lost.
So, how can we discover if anyone learned anything?
Ultimately, we can’t ensure or guarantee that anyone learned anything at a meeting. As Glenn pointed out during our EventTech Chat, the ultimate responsibility for learning is the learner’s. Attend a meeting expecting that the leaders will magically transfer learning to you without doing any work yourself? You probably won’t learn much, if anything.
Nevertheless, we can actively help people learn at meetings by implementing the principles listed above. (Check out my books for complete details.) But there’s one additional thing we can do to maximize and extend learning during our meetings.
How to help people consolidate what they learn at meetings
During our EventTech Chat, several participants shared how they consolidate learning during or immediately after an event. Folks who have learned the value of this practice and figured out the ways that work best for them may not need what I’m about to share (though even they can often benefit).
What I’ve found over decades of designing meetings is that the majority of meeting attendees do not know how to consolidate what they learn there. So I designed a closing plenary that gives each participant a carefully structured opportunity to review, consolidate, and reinforce what they have learned at the conference. They also get to develop the next steps for changes they will work on in their professional lives. It’s called a Personal Introspective, and takes 60 – 90 minutes to run. (You can find full details in Chapter 57 of The Power of Participation.)
Did anyone learn anything? There are no guarantees. But, following the above advice will make it significantly more likely that your attendees will learn what they want and need to learn. Do you have other thoughts on how to improve how you or others learn at meetings. If so, please share them in the comments below.