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Three ways to create truly surprising meetings

CoffeeGate
One sunny morning in 2105, two hundred of us arrived for the opening breakfast at a Canadian conference to discover There Was No Coffee. The young first-time volunteer staff had forgotten to brew it.

Three days later, people were still grumbling about CoffeeGate. I’ll bet that even today, if you asked attendees what they remembered about the event, most would immediately recall the There Was No Coffee moment. A memorable moment, yes, but not a good one.

Experienced meeting planners know that every meeting has its share of unexpected surprises. While some thrive on the adrenaline rush of dealing with them, most of us work to minimize surprises by anticipating potential problems and developing appropriate just-in-case responses.

Minimizing surprises like CoffeeGate is default behavior for meeting planners. We do not want events to be poorly planned and/or executed, because the inevitable result will be unhappy attendees and chaos of one kind or another.

Surprising Meetings
But not all meeting surprises are bad. Because meeting professionals want to minimize the likelihood of unexpected surprises during execution of the events, there’s a tendency to unconsciously minimize planned surprises for the attendees. And that’s unfortunate — because planned surprises are one of the most wonderful ways we can improve attendees’ experience of the event!

Read the rest of this entry »

The declining influence of leadership positional power in a network society


Almost all organization leaders today wield positional power — the power of a boss to make decisions that affect others — and this is unlikely to change soon. But the growth of the network era, where leaders and workers need to connect outside the workplace in order to stay up to date professionally and to be open to new and innovative ideas, is creating a shift away from traditional hierarchical power models. Harold Jarche writes frequently about this:

“One major change as we enter the network era is that positional power (based on institutions and hierarchies) may no longer be required to have influence in a network society.”
Harold Jarchethe new networked norm

In other words, it’s increasingly possible to have influence these days without being anyone’s boss.

As a consultant in various fields for 35 years, this is a familiar world: one where I have influence with a client but less authority than a janitor. Clients are free to ignore my advice (and, yes, sometimes they do), but clearly I have useful influence that typically leads to significant change since otherwise I wouldn’t continue to be hired and (usually 😀) appreciated.

Today, far more people work in the gig economy, which has grown in large part because the network era has made it much easier to find and hire specialized services on a just-in-time basis. While this development has caused significant disruptions — two are the virtual disappearance of long-term job security and the weakened ability for workers to advocate for their concerns en masse — there is a positive side.

The network era is making possible a shift towards decentralized influence and power, and away from the dysfunctional features of hierarchical societal and organizational structures that have led to much suffering and misery throughout human history. There’s no longer any reason to pick either positional or network era power; we can create systems that incorporate the best features of both.

Here’s Harold Jarche again:

“…it is up to all of us to keep working on new structures and systems. This is perhaps the only great work to be done for the next few decades. We have the science and technology to address most of the world’s problems. What we lack are structures that enable transparency and action on behalf of humankind, and not the vested interests of the rich and powerful.”
Harold Jarchechaos and order

This isn’t easy work. When consulting, one of my biggest meeting design challenges is to get boss buy-in. Typically middle management are enthusiastic and on board, but the most senior decision-maker, to whom I sometimes don’t even have access, will occasionally override everyone else in the organization and make a poor design decision based on obsolete ideas about how people learn and lack of understanding of how good meeting design can transform communities.

But the network era is here, and its effect on power relationships isn’t going away. To improve the relevance and effectiveness of social structures, organizations, and meetings, it’s crucial for leaders to understand and accept the potential and value of decentralized influence.

Image attribution: Flickr user thomwoo

One reason I like science fiction

The other day I was rereading Idoru by William Gibson, and the following passage spoke to me. It’s a conversation between two teenagers: Chia McKenzie from Seattle who is visiting Mitusko Mimura in Japan in the near future…

Mitsuko was getting her computer out. It was one of those soft, transparent Korean units, the kind that looked like a flat bag of clear white jelly with a bunch of colored jujubes inside. Chia unzipped her bag and pulled her Sandbenders out.

“What is that?” Mitsuko asked.

“My computer.”

Mitsuko was clearly impressed. “It is by Harley-Davidson?”

“It was made by the Sandbenders,” Chia said, finding her goggles and gloves. “They’re a commune, down on the Oregon coast. They do these and they do software.”

“It is American?”

“Sure.”

“I had not known Americans made computers,” Mitsuko said.

I thought about why this passage stuck a chord, because I’ve found that noticing such responses can be useful, or at least interesting.

I realized that science fiction is especially rich with possibility for introducing cognitive dissonance: the mental discomfort we feel when aware of two contradictory ideas at the same time. When we notice this discomfort we tend to unconsciously reduce it in various ways.

In the above passage, the reader casually discovers that a near-future Japanese teenager has no idea that computers are still made in America [“It is by Harley-Davidson?”, “I had not known Americans made computers.”]. Reading fiction, it’s easier to notice and put up with cognitive dissonance because — well, because we know it’s just fiction.

One reason I like science fiction is that it’s easier to notice sneakily introduced, provocative ideas about how the world could be different — and then, perhaps, start to wonder what it would be like if the world really was that way.

Why you should run The Solution Room at your next event

The Solution Room is rapidly becoming a popular meeting plenary. Invented at MPI’s 2011 European Meetings and Events Conference, the session fosters active meaningful connections between attendees, and provides peer support and solutions to the real professional challenges currently faced by participants.

I’ve facilitated many Solution Room sessions, and it’s been consistently rated one of the most effective and appreciated formats I use. Participants really enjoy the opportunity to meet a small group of peers in a safe, intimate, and relevant manner, and be both a consultant and a consultee on current professional challenges that each group member chooses. Here are some testimonials from an MPI session:

Unlike many participatory formats, The Solution Room scales beautifully, whether there are 30 or 1,000 people in the room. Apart from the preliminary table set up (small rounds covered with paper tablecloths), the resources needed are modest: colored Sharpies, sound reinforcement, and a good facilitator.

Although the format was originally conceived as a closing session, I’ve found it to be a great opening plenary, especially if time or space constraints prohibit running The Three Questions roundtables. By ensuring that each small group contains a mixture of newcomers, experienced, and veteran professionals, first-time attendees get to know peers with industry experience (and the veterans often learn a thing or two from the younger folks at their table).

You can tell that Solution Room sessions are a success when they end — and no one leaves. Instead, the small groups go on talking about everything they’ve discussed; they don’t want to stop sharing. I see a lot of enthusiastic business card swapping at the end, and participants have told me later that they made valuable long-term connections through the meeting and sharing that took place during the session.

Want to learn  more about how to incorporate The Solution Room into your next event? You’ll find everything you need to know to run The Solution Room in Chapter 34 of The Power of Participation. Or contact me — I’d love to facilitate a session for you!

Nine conference mythodologies

Mythodology 3564715180_40dc1bb7f8_oLong ago, consultant Tom Gilb coined the term “mythodology” to describe erroneous but commonly held beliefs about how something should be done. Here are nine mythodologies about conferences.

Mythodology: We know what our attendees want to learn about.
Reality: No, you don’t. At least half the sessions programmed at traditional conferences are not what attendees want.

Mythodology: Event socials are a good way to meet people.
Reality: People tend to stay with people they already know at event socials. Participant-driven and participation-rich events provide far more opportunities to meet people you actually want to meet.

Mythodology: A “conference curator” can improve the quality of your conference content.
Reality: Sadly, conference curators don’t exist. But discovering the content wants and needs of participants at the event and satisfying them with the collective resources in the room is routinely possible and significantly improves the quality of your conference content.

Mythodology: Learning occurs through events.
Reality: Learning is a continual process; formal events only contribute a small percentage to the whole.

Mythodology: Conference programs should be stuffed full of sessions so there’s something of interest for everyone.
Reality: Downtime is essential for effective learning and connection, so providing conference white space is essential. (Trick: Stuff your program if you must, but give attendees explicit permission to take their own downtime when they need it.)

Mythodology: Adding novelty to a meeting makes it better.
Reality: Novelty is a one-time trick. Next time it’s old. But making your meeting better lasts. Go for better, not just different.

Mythodology: Big conferences are better conferences.
Reality: Better for the owners perhaps (if the meeting is making a profit) but not better for participants. Today’s most successful conferences are micro conferences. (And, by the way, most conferences are small conferences.) 

Mythodology: We know what attendees like, don’t like, and value about our meeting.
Reality: If you’re using smile sheets or online surveys, you’re learning nothing about the long-term value of your meeting. This is the meeting industry’s biggest dirty secret. Use long-term evaluation techniques [1] [2] instead.

Mythodology: We can contract a venue for our meeting before we design it.
Reality: Sounds silly when put like that, but it happens all the time. Designing your meeting and then choosing a venue that can showcase your design will improve your meeting experience (and can save you big bucks!)

I bet you can think of more mythodologies. Share them in the comments!

Image attribution: Flickr user dunechaser

The tragedy of wasting valuable meeting time having experts presenting to “learners”

Ask attendees why they go to meetings and their top two responses are to learn and connect. Remember kids that ask a question, and when you answer it they say “why?”

“Why can’t we go outside?”
“Because it’s raining.”
“Why?”
“Well, water’s coming out of the sky.”
“Why?”

Be that annoying kid for a moment and ask: “Why do you want to learn and connect?”

If you play enough rounds of the why? game, and ignore the unprofessional but possibly truthful answers — for example: “I’m hoping to get to know an attractive colleague better”; “My boss said I had to and I need a pay raise”; “It’s been too long since I ate fresh Maine lobster” — you will find that the core motivation to go to meetings is to change in some useful way. Change how you see things, and, most important, change how you do things: i.e. behavior change.

So now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s review what Harold Jarche, a veteran educator in the Canadian Armed Forces and now a leading consultant on workplace learning, has to say about the value of public speaking [emphasis added]:

I do a fair bit of public speaking. But I doubt that much of it has changed anyone’s behaviour. I may have presented some new ideas and sparked some thinking. With a one-hour lecture, you cannot expect more. Yet a lot of our training programs consist of an expert presenting to ‘learners’. Do we really expect behaviour change from this? That would be rather wishful thinking. Learning is a process, not an event.”

To learn a skill or get better at one you have to practice. Deliberate practice with constructive feedback is the key for long-term success.

“I conduct face-to-face workshops as well as online ones. For my on-site sessions, usually 1/2 or a full day, I try to cover the basics and the key concepts. We do a few exercises to get people thinking differently. But I don’t expect significant changes in performance as a result of one day together.”
Harold Jarche, no time, no learning

Like Harold, after years of running meetings and workshops I’ve learned that the likelihood creating permanent valuable behavior change increases as a power of the time spent together. By “together” I don’t mean listening passively to an expert talk. I mean working together as a group to learn new skills and approaches and ways of thinking and practicing with constructive group and expert feedback.

We’ve all heard we should be doing these things to maximize the value of our valuable time together — but very, very few of today’s meetings involve even a smattering of facilitated deliberate practice with constructive feedback.

When you think of all the expensive time we continue to waste doing things we’ve been doing for hundreds of years which we now know don’t work — well, I think tragedy is an accurate description of what routinely passes as a “meeting”.

Change is hard. We now know that social production is the way to maximize learning that leads to significant, valuable, long-term change. At meetings, the instantiations of social production are facilitated workshops run by and/or with content experts. That’s what we should be doing.

Not lectures from experts. Stop wasting valuable time at meetings doing that!

The creative event design tool that all #eventprofs should use

Here’s a powerful tool you can use to generate creative event designs.

You can use this tool for every aspect of event design. Stylists working on the look and feel of an event often use it to stimulate fresh thinking about the venue, the décor, the lighting, the food and beverage, entertainment, and so on.

Rarely, however, is this tool used to design events that creatively incorporate, illuminate, and support core desires and outcomes for the meeting.

With this tool, you can generate something truly original — like in 2009, when Jill and Kevin Heinz invented a brand new trope: the wedding entrance dance.

What’s the tool? Seth Godin gives us a clue:

Read the rest of this entry »

Are SMART goals stupid?

Neil Morrison thinks that SMART objectives are stupid.

A quick reminder from Neil:

SMART stands for:

Specific
Measurable
Achievable/Attainable
Realistic
Time-bound/Timely

The idea being that if you want to set a goal/objective then it should be all of these things…”

So far, so good.

“…which is cute, but wrong.”

Which is where I disagree.

Why? I’ve spent years running personal introspectives: conference sessions for developing plans for personal change that incorporate SMART objectives. Having experienced the development of thousands of these plans, I’ve found that most people struggle to build SMART change goals.

For example, people will say:

“I want to stay in touch with the lab managers in my region” rather than “I will schedule a weekly visit to the private lab community website from now on, review the updates, and participate appropriately.”

Or

“I want to treat my staff better” rather than “In the next two weeks, I will implement weekly one-on-ones with my direct reports, and give them my undivided attention during our meetings.”

Or

“I will get over my fear of public speaking” rather than “I will join my local Toastmasters club when it starts up again in the fall.”

Bearing this in mind, let’s go through Neil’s points:

“My major issue is, that by the very nature of their construct, they’re limiting. They focus you on committing to do one thing, when another – which you may not have come across yet – might be three, four or five times better.”

Um, SMART is not about developing the “best” objectives. You need a separate process for that. Once you’ve come up with relevant goals, SMART becomes a valuable tool to check to see if those goals are actionable. [OMG, I used “actionable” in a post, but it seemed like the right word to use at the time.]

The evidence to this is in the million plus performance conversations that happen each year when an employee is explaining that they didn’t do the five objectives they agreed, but have delivered x amount of other things that have added greater value.”

The problem described here is nothing to do with SMART but with managerial process that develops goals for employees but doesn’t include any feedback mechanisms to ensure goals remain relevant. SMART is a tool for testing proposed objectives to see if they’re actionable [did it again]. Period. Blaming SMART instead of poor managerial practices that ignore the reality that continual organizational and environmental change requires timely evaluation of responsive employee goals is like blaming your sneakers for being uncomfortable because they’re red.

“[SMART goals are] entirely left brain and play to a Taylorian vision of business and process. They are the antithesis of creativity, innovation, and the search for exponential value add. It is hard to get passionate, emotional or excited about a SMART goal, because they’re intended to lock down your energy, rather than unleash it.”

Nope. Nothing in SMART prevents you from developing goals that are creative, innovative, and capable of exponential value add. If you decide that having Bono spearhead your product launch going to make your company the next unicorn, SMART is simply going to remind you that your bold objective should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. While it may be a downer to realize you’ll need a million bucks you don’t have to get Sting involved, you could otherwise waste a lot of time chasing an impossible dream.

“Finally, [SMART goals are] linked to a performance management culture and approach that we’ve all pretty much decided is dead, done and buried – I know, I’ve been writing about it for ten years. The idea that there are such things as performance cycles, that we have the level of predictability and that we can improve organisational performance by setting a bunch of spurious goals and having a bad conversation once, twice or even four times a year through a “performance” review is nothing more than a hopeful, collective misnomer.”

OK, it should be clear by now that I’m separating the limited applicability of SMART goals from the dysfunctional cultures Neil describes where they’re “used” inappropriately. All objectives are developed and exist in a context. Contexts change continuously, so a goal that’s relevant and useful one day can become obsolete overnight. To remain effective, employee and organizational goals need to be responsive to circumstances. Like Neil, I’ve no problem criticizing inflexible performance cycles, spurious, outdated goals, and ineffectual fixed performance reviews.

Just don’t lump SMART goals in with all the dysfunctional managerial gobbledygook. SMART goals aren’t stupid when they’re 1) personal 2) the outcome of effective strategy & analysis, and 3) evaluated, modified, and discarded when appropriate. The sole function of SMART is to check that goals — developed by good process and continually reviewed and updated — are actionable. [Third time’s the charm.]

Image element attributions: Tor Refsland and Your Dictionary

The UnExpo Experiment

During my 20+ years as an IT consultant and developer, I fell in with a delightful international crowd of software testers: those all-important people responsible for the impossible task of making sure that software works the way it’s supposed to. (Fun fact: the testing community often uses my term “peer conferences” for their get-togethers, due to a chat about meeting design I had with tester James Bach at the 2004 Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference.)

Software testers are especially conscious of the processes they use in their work, so it’s not surprising that when they get together they experiment with meeting formats. A recent experiment is a good example of how creative folks can look at a 50-year-old meeting format, try out something fresh and innovative, and — this is so important — learn from the experience.

Here’s the abstract of a long post written by Sarah Deery of The Ministry of Testing about their UnExpo experiment:

During the 3 breaks of TestBash Brighton 2018, The Ministry of Testing (MoT) trialled a new experimental conference engagement method named The UnExpo. The aim of the UnExpo was to boost the awesome community feels that are present at every TestBash and to provide a space in which software testers could converse deeply on topics of interest. Our results suggest that The UnExpo created an environment where software testers felt free to discuss their inner thoughts and feelings on the craft of software testing and their lives working in software development. We believe maximum feels were reached and attendees were highly engaged on a wide range of topics throughout The UnExpo. We intend to run a more streamlined UnExpo at future TestBashes and encourage other conferences run them too!
—Richard Bradshaw, Rosie Sherry, Heather Reid, Áine McGovern, and Sarah Deery, The UnExpo: A Novel Approach to Increase Conference Attendee Engagement and Maximise Community Feels

The entire post is well worth reading as a detailed and candid account of the development and testing of a meeting format. Here are a few extracts that illustrate the development and evaluation process:

“We received feedback from the community that they would like more engagement and structured opportunities to confer with other attendees during the breaks of TestBash.”

MoT started with a core component of (any kind of) process improvement: soliciting and receiving feedback from prior experiences. Most meeting conveners concentrate on feedback about meeting content (“great speakers!”) or logistics (“the food could have been better”) and shy away from feedback that suggests the meeting format and processes should be changed or improved.

Identifying their Expo (trade show) as a place where engagement and conferring could be improved, they explored using some kind of poster session format:

Our hypothesis: if poster sessions can engage and encourage scientists to converse, they can do the same for software testers too.

However, we felt that the scientific poster session format was too rigid, passive and formal. To maximise the engagement and fun, we encouraged the software testing community to submit to run poster stands that were interactive. Posters could be on any topic attendees were currently interested in; be it technical topics or the human aspects of working in software development. Other attendees armed with post-its, pens and awesome tester brains would then walk around The UnExpo and interact with posters of interest.

Having developed an overview of what would happen during The UnExpo, MoT then designed a detailed implementation, including logistical resources — a Poster Creation Station and appropriate room set — and a schedule of when the posters would be made and installed for interaction during the three conference breaks. (See the post for full details.)

MoT then describes in detail what happened during the experiment — and they don’t avoid critical observations:

The UnExpo set off to a shaky start during the first break of TestBash Brighton…
…it was a logistical pain for TestBash helpers to do the poster swap during the TestBash talks…

Nevertheless, the vast majority of the observations were positive, and the post nicely conveys, with numerous pictures and quotes from participants what the UnExpo experience was like.

The day after the event, MoT ran a Twitter poll for 24 hours, receiving 58 votes with 91% of the voters agreeing that The UnExpo worked.

Did the #testbash #unexpo work?

— Ministry of Testing (@ministryoftest) March 17, 2018

The post also documents more detailed feedback from Twitter, both positive and constructive.

Finally, the post’s conclusion offers commentary on the UnExpo experiment, a list of the format’s benefits for individuals and the event, a commitment to run UnExpos at future TestBashes and a description of planned format improvements.

Our findings support our hypothesis and suggest that poster sessions can engage and encourage software testers to converse with one another. We believe our tweaks to the poster session format led to highly engaging, interactive and fun conference break sessions where testers could have deep discussions around a variety of topics of interests…

We identified multiple benefits for running a stand at an UnExpo and attending an UnExpo:

  • Poster presenters got to practise their communication and presentation skills.
  • Those running stands were able to gather community feedback on their topic.
  • Posters acted as a handy medium enabling TestBashees to easily engage with others interested in the same subjects as themselves.
  • The UnExpo led to genuine connections and potential future collaborations being made.

…At future UnExpos, we will run a more streamlined format with a higher number of stands that will run all day. We will also have a small section of stands that are exclusively for those inspired folk who want to book a slot on the day, these stands will rotate each break. We believe this strategy will allow for attendees to continue conversations but also keep the energy and topics fresh!

My conclusion? This post is an excellent example of how to invent, explore, evaluate, and improve new meeting formats that respond to your attendees’ needs and wants. For our industry to improve the quality and effectiveness of meetings, this is exactly the kind of focus and work we need!

Photo attribution: Samantha Cooper