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But there are times during the event when I’m not working. While the sessions I helped participants create are taking place. During breaks when I’m not busy preparing for what’s to come. And during socials.
Why? Because, though I may have facilitated and, hopefully, strengthened the learning, connection, and community of participants present, I’m not a member of the community.
In the breaks and socials I see participants in earnest conversations, making connections, fulfilling their wants and needs in real time. But I’m hardly ever a player in the field or issues that have brought them together. (Usually, as far as the subject matter of the meeting is concerned, I’m the most ignorant person present.) So I don’t have anyone to talk to at the content level. I’m physically present, but I don’t share the commonality that brought the group together. It’s about participants’ connection and community, not mine.
I may have made what’s happening better through design and facilitation, but it’s not about me.
Every once in a while, participants might notice me and thank me for what I did. It doesn’t happen very often—and that’s OK. My job is to make the event the best possible experience for everyone. My reward is seeing the effects of my design and facilitation on participants. If I were doing this work for fame or glory, I would have quit it long ago.
If you’re at a meeting break or social and see a guy wandering around who you dimly remember was up on stage or at the front of the room getting you to do stuff?
It’s probably me.
No lonely breaks online
Paradoxically, when I facilitate online meetings there’s no “invisible man” lonely time. Whenever we aren’t online, we’re all alone at our separate computers. We can do whatever we please. We were never physically together, so we don’t miss a physical connection when we leave.
If I had to choose…
The loneliness of the long distance facilitator is accentuated at in-person events by the abrupt switches between working intimately with a group and ones outsider status when the work stops.
At online events, we are all somewhat lonely because no one else is physically present. Our experiences of the other people are imperfect instantiations: moving images that sometimes talk and (perhaps?) listen.
It wouldn’t be a no-brainer choice, but if I had to choose between facilitating only in-person or online meetings, I’d choose the former. The intimacy of being physically together with others is worth the loneliness when we’re apart.
Well, listen to and consider this June 11, 2021 quote from New York City Mayoral frontrunner Eric Adams:
“With new technology of remote learning, you don’t need school children to be in a school building with a number of teachers. It’s just the opposite. You could have one great teacher that’s in one of our specialized high schools teach 300-400 students…”
When the leading candidate for the Mayor of New York City has this take on how people learn, perhaps it’s not so surprising that we’re still sitting through endless broadcast-style sessions at meetings and conferences.
Until we elect leadership that has a basic understanding of how great teachers actually teach, and how their students can effectively learn, we’re going to continue to live in a world of meetings full of ineffective lectures.
What is humans’ true superpower? [Hint: We’re not more intelligent than other species.] We can make a strong case that humans’ true superpower is social learning. Why am I writing about social learning on a blog that’s (mainly) about meeting design? Because social (uncovered) learning is the best learning model for conference sessions. Which means, to create the best meetings we need to maximize the social learning that takes place.
Humans’ true superpower
I’m reading Dutch historian and author, Rutger Bregman‘s absorbing and optimistic Humankind. The book presents a ton of evidence that — despite the torrent of bad news that daily floods our media — “humans are hardwired for kindness, geared towards cooperation rather than competition, and more inclined to trust rather than distrust one another.”
Early in the book, is this passage:
“What makes human beings unique? Why do we build museums, while the Neanderthals are stuck in the displays?”
“Chimpanzees and orangutans score on a par with human two-year-olds on almost every cognitive test. But when it comes to learning, the toddlers win hands down.”
“Human beings, it turns out, are ultra social learning machines.“
“…humans have another weird feature: we have whites in our eyes. This unique trait lets us follow the direction of other people’s gazes…Humans, in short, are anything but poker-faced. We constantly leak emotions and are hardwired to relate to the people around us. But far from being a handicap, this is our true superpower, because sociable people aren’t only more fun to be around, in the end they’re smarter too.” [emphasis added, illustration based on this research] —Humankind, Rutger Bregman
Or, as Seth Godin puts it:
“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.” —The revolution in online learning, Seth Godin
We aren’t superior thinkers. Humans don’t remember stuff better or longer or more accurately that other species. We aren’t better at causal reasoning. The one characteristic — our superpower — that distinguishes us from the other life on our planet is how we learn from and with others. (And how they learn from and with us.)
Social learning is how humans learn. We’re great at it, compared with other life forms. (Yes, there’s always room for improvement.)
So, for pity’s sake, don’t lecture and test. Eliminate all the one-hour (or longer) lecture sessions. Instead, build social learning into your meetings as much as possible.
So, how can I incorporate the power of social learning into my events?
It’s not hard to unleash the power of social learning at your events! Simply implement the participant-driven and participation-rich processes I’ve described and taught in my books and workshops for over thirty years.
Are you stuck in a career or life that you are reluctant to leave because it would involve ignoring sunk costs? I frequently meet people who are, and I certainly understand the temptation. Here’s the story of how I liberated my life by ignoring sunk costs. Perhaps it will inspire you to do the same?
The first twenty-five years of my life
My early education environment fed me a fire hose of information that my schools decided I should learn. Somehow, I maintained an intense curiosity to understand the world. So it’s not surprising that I gravitated to studying physics. I ended up with a Ph.D. in experimental high-energy particle physics at the tender age of 25.
I could have stayed in the field, probably got tenure, and been a physicist the rest of my life.
Instead, having fallen in love with Vermont, I left the world of high-energy particle accelerators and multiyear Big Science experiments, never to return. Although some of my experience prepared me for subsequent careers in computer science and consulting, I spent perhaps five to ten years of my life studying and working in fields I have, by now, largely forgotten. Five to ten years of sunk costs.
But no regrets. Although nothing to do with my absence, the field of experimental high-energy physics yielded little interesting progress over the last forty years. I’m glad I left it.
A visit to Korea
In 1996, my family and I visited Korea. Everywhere we went, people asked my profession. They were astounded when I told them I had recently given up being a college professor to concentrate on information technology consulting. In Korea, being a college professor was the highest status you could have. (The two college professors with whom we were staying had their graduate students pick us up at the airport and ferry us around.) The idea that I would give up college teaching to pursue a different career was incomprehensible.
Perhaps if I’d been born Korean and followed the same educational path, my high status would have seduced me, and I would never have left academia. Status is a big reason why people cling to jobs that they hate. Knowing more about myself now, I’m glad I escaped such a fate.
Solar, teaching, and consulting
New careers followed. Abandoning each one required ignoring my associated sunk costs. Yet, in retrospect, there was always learning that fed my future. Managing a solar manufacturing company taught me much about business, which proved vital to my later consulting career. And teaching computer science for ten years helped me slowly become a better teacher, eventually discarding the broadcast-style teaching modalities I had experienced and unconsciously assumed.
Meanwhile, in my spare time…
Ever since I was a graduate student, I’ve felt drawn to bring people together around topics and issues they had in common. I spent most of the next thirty years doing this as an unpaid volunteer in my spare time. My only reward was the mysterious pleasure of feeling good about what I was doing.
What I didn’t realize was that, during these decades I was learning a great deal about successful and unsuccessful ways to facilitate group connection and fruitful learning. Figuring out ways to make the fundamental human act of meeting better, motivated by nothing more than the pleasure it gave me, led me to write a book about what I had learned.
To my surprise, when I published Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love in 2009, I found myself professionally involved in the meeting industry.
It took me half a century, but I finally figured out (for now) what I love to do. And organizations pay me to do it!
Are you stuck?
Are you stuck in a career or life choice that you are reluctant to leave because you would have to ignore sunk costs? Ultimately it’s your choice, of course. For me, being able to walk away from the learning, experience, and status I’ve achieved in various realms has been worth it. If my story hasn’t convinced you, I’ll close with Seth Godin’s thoughts on the subject:
“‘Ignore sunk costs’ is the critical lesson of useful decision making…
…Creativity is the generous act of solving an interesting problem on behalf of someone else. It’s a chance to take emotional and intellectual risks with generosity.
Do that often enough and you can create a practice around it. It’s not about being gifted or touched by the muse. Instead, our creative practice (whether you’re a painter, a coach or a fundraiser) is a commitment to the problems in front of us and the people who will benefit from a useful solution to them.” —Seth Godin, Sunk costs, creativity and your Practice
Have you ignored your sunk costs, and walked away from a career or life choice? Share your story in the comments below!
Here’s a summary of the research findings from the abstract of the article:
“We show that…the presence of visual cues surprisingly has no effect on CI; furthermore, teams without visual cues are more successful in synchronizing their vocal cues and speaking turns, and when they do so, they have higher CI. Our findings show that nonverbal synchrony is important in distributed collaboration and call into question the necessity of video support.” —Speaking out of turn: How video conferencing reduces vocal synchrony and collective intelligence. Maria Tomprou, Young Ji Kim, Prerna Chikersal, Anita Williams Woolley, Laura A. Dabbish
Translation: in the experimental setup used, the researchers found that online meeting participants were:
better able to avoid interrupting each other; and
shared the available time more equally.
There’s good evidence that both of these factors improve CI. How? Theory of Mind (ToM) research shows that a group’s CI is correlated with members’ scores on a remarkable test: Reading the Mind in the Eyes (RME). Google’s Project Aristotle research on creating high-performing teams—i.e. teams with high CI—found that teams with high RME scores also displayed these two behaviors.
I don’t have the background to evaluate the experimental methodology and protocols used in the CMU research. But I have no problem accepting their results.
Where I disagree, however, is how the researchers extend their experimental findings to everyday online meetings.
Can we conclude that turning off video increases collective intelligence during online meetings?
I don’t think so. Why?
Because the vast majority of online meetings provide a significantly different environment than the CMU researchers used.
From the research article:
“…our findings were observed in newly formed and non-recurring dyads in the laboratory…”
“Each session lasted about 30 minutes. Members of each dyad were seated in two separate rooms. After participants completed the pre-test survey independently, they initiated a conference call with their partner. Participants logged onto the Platform for Online Group Studies … to complete the Test of Collective Intelligence (TCI) with their partner. The TCI contained six tasks ranging from 2 to 6 minutes each, and instructions were displayed before each task for 15 seconds to 1.5 minutes.”
Artificial online meetings
My first objection is that all the CMU experiments were conducted with only groups of two participants, neither of whom had ever met before.
This hardly describes the make-up of most online meetings. And, perhaps more important, when we are meeting with people for the first time there is a lot more to process than in subsequent meetings, when we already have some familiarity. An initial phone call with a stranger may be more comfortable than a Zoom video chat because it is less intimate.
My late mentor Jerry Weinberg encapsulated the overloading that occurs during an initial (consulting) meeting in his Five-Minute Rule:
“Clients always know how to solve their problems, and always tell you the solution in the first five minutes.”
Unbelievably, I’ve found this is true. Unfortunately, the problem is listening well enough, despite the initial sensory overload, to hear what needs to be heard.
Working as a team
My second objection concerns the brevity of the research exercises. “Six tasks ranging from 2 to 6 minutes each” simply doesn’t reflect what people with more than a passing relationship do in real-life meetings. In my experience, it takes time to build a sense of someone through their facial expressions and body language. It’s unrealistic to extrapolate from what occurs during a series of brief interactions with someone you’ve never met before to how a larger group will function during a longer meeting or series of meetings.
The following story may illustrate this point. In 2016, I experienced my first escape room. Two teams competed to escape two identical rooms. Both teams included people I hardly knew. (This occurred during the first Meeting Design Practicum in Utrecht, The Netherlands: more details here). One thing I noticed was that my impromptu “team” of strangers spent no time on body language cues while working together. As we explored the room, we would call out things we’d discovered, and other team members would gather and look at what we’d found. We communicated to each other by voice, and used our vision to concentrate on clues.
If I had stayed with the same team and continued to play escape room games, over time we would have picked up the body language of other players and been able to use it to improve how we worked together.
My experience of the value of seeing participants during online meetings
In addition, I think the CMU research actually supports my experience, when applied to longer and longer-term meetings with more participants. The article’s discussion includes this passage:
“we did find that in the video condition, facial expression synchrony predicts collective intelligence. This result suggests that when visual cues are available it is important that interaction partners attend to them.”
I would argue that the negative effect on CI that the research found when video was available is due to the overloading effects I described above. When team members become more familiar with each other, overloading disappears and visual clues are not a distraction but a positive influence on CI.
The CMU researchers acknowledge the points I’ve made above.
“Our study has limitations, which offer opportunities for future research. For example, our findings were observed in newly formed and non-recurring dyads in the laboratory. It remains to be seen whether our findings will generalize to teams that are ongoing or in which there is greater familiarity among members, as in the case of distributed teams in organizations.”
So, are online meetings reducing our collective intelligence?
I hope my perspective will turn out to be valid, counteracting the initial, IMO overblown, interpretations of the CMU research. Although we all hope things will change, right now, we can’t universally meet safely face-to-face without social distancing and wearing masks. Both these requirements significantly reduce our ability to “read” others. Given the ease of meeting online, and the fact that we can actually do decent eye contact there, I’d argue that online meetings with video have the advantage right now.
P.S. Bonus tips! It can be hard to figure out who should go first or speak next during an online meeting with multiple participants. Check out my posts “Who goes first?” and “Who goes next?” for ideas!
Do you think online meetings are reducing our collective intelligence? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Image attribution: Business people having online meeting by Jacob Lund from Noun Project
Why do people overlook the importance of integration and practice? Well, the hero’s journey is a common way we picture how change occurs. A hero goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed.
At the end of the hero’s journey, everyone involved, just like in fairy tales, “live happily ever after”.
Integration and practice is absent from this monomyth version of change.
Integration and practice is a vital component of change
In reality, integration and practice are vital components of change. You’ve probably experienced moments in your life when you realized that something was or was about to be different: the fourth stage transforming idea/event of Satir’s model of change. I certainly have.
Typically, however, such moments of insight or awareness do not lead to instantaneous change. Think about the times you’ve realized you can/have to/want to make a change in your life.
Some stories about working on change
Here are three stories about working on change in my life:
Each story includes the awakening moment(s), followed by integration and practice.
Even when we incorporate integration and practice, successful change isn’t guaranteed. Though eating mindfully has maintained my weight loss for 5 years, and I’m now good at asking for help, I still struggle to meditate daily.
That same day, it took me just thirty minutes to get a gut feeling that this man could not be trusted. I’ve worked in and with non-profits—in board member, volunteer, and consultant roles—for decades. When I asked Seth about Democracy Builders’ missing 990’s, the reports that every federally tax-exempt organization has to file with the IRS every year, he was clearly evasive and kept trying to change the subject. (In retrospect, now knowing that Seth is alleged to have stolen government funds the year before and transferred them to the exact non-profit I was asking about supplies a new perspective to his reactions.)
I considered adding this illustrative tale into my presentation. But, with ten minutes until showtime and a promise that the talk would take fewer than 21 minutes, I reluctantly omitted this remarkable story about trusting my gut response to Seth Andrew.
Regardless, my presentation includes other personal stories about how trusting my gut has worked out for me.
2 • How to trust your gut
How did I come to be giving this presentation in the first place? Well, a couple of months ago, my friend, the warm and oh-so talented association maven Kiki L’Italien, invited her Association Chat community members to share anything they wanted to talk about — in just 21 minutes. While reading her invite, “How to trust your gut” somehow popped into my head. I’ve never spoken on this topic before. Nevertheless, trusting my gut, I immediately signed up for a presentation.
3 • When your gut leads you astray — the story of vaccine hesitancy
As I share in the presentation, sometimes it’s not a good idea to trust your gut. A good example of this is the current issue of vaccine hesitancy: folks delaying acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite the availability of vaccination services.
Such gut feelings can be very strong, and it’s hard to override them using facts and scientific findings.
Unfortunately, relying on such gut feelings and passing up opportunities to receive a COVID-19 vaccine can have deadly consequences. There are countless stories of COVID-19 deniers dying of COVID-19. Here are a few: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
Don’t ignore your gut feelings, but test their veracity!
My presentation includes suggestions on what to do to check the accuracy of your gut feelings.
How to trust your gut—the presentation
Last week, I went on Kiki’s show. In 20 minutes, I shared everything I’ve learned (so far) about how to trust your gut, how trusting your gut can change your life, how to get better at doing it…and when you shouldn’t. The presentation includes illustrative personal stories, the four qualities you need in order to trust your gut, how to learn when you shouldn’t trust your gut and two things you can do about it, plus a section on avoiding getting “stuck”.
I hope you enjoy it!
Additional presentation resources
Finally, here are two resources I mention during the presentation for learning about the importance of our gut responses. These excellent books explain in detail why our feelings, rather than our cognition generally drive us to act.
Attention, meeting planners! Safe meeting venue ventilation for COVID-19 is critical. As we start thinking about returning to in-person events, it’s crucial to check that venues are upgrading their HVAC systems to handle potentially virus-infused air.
There has been little public discussion on this important topic. In this post, I’ll explain why questions about venues’ HVAC safety should be at the top of your site visit checklist.
Before we start, I need to make clear I’m not an HVAC engineer. My (perhaps) relevant background is an ancient Ph.D. in high-energy particle physics, and two years spent exploring ventilation systems—specifically air-to-air heat exchangers—when I owned a solar manufacturing company in the 1980s.
Since the pandemic began, the science on COVID-19 transmission has evolved rapidly. Because early theories turned out to be inaccurate, current preventative measures are frequently misdirected. So I’ve included a short history of theories of COVID-19 transmission that shed light on the reasons we’ve underestimated the importance of ventilation in creating safe environments for indoor events.
Next, I’ve outlined what current research indicates venues and properties should be doing.
Finally, I’ve aired my concerns about how well venues and properties are responding to the safety concerns I’ve introduced.
Chapter 44 of my book The Power of Participation explains how facilitators use participatory voting to provide public information about viewpoints in the room, and pave the way for further discussion. In particular, we often use participatory voting to assess consensus.
It’s often unclear whether a group has formed a consensus around a specific viewpoint or proposed action. Consensual participatory voting techniques can quickly show whether a group has reached or is close to consensus, or wants to continue discussion.
However, Roman voting isn’t great for large groups, because participants can’t easily see how others have voted. Card voting (ibid, Chapter 47) works quite well for large groups, but it requires:
procurement and distribution of card sets beforehand; and
training participants on how to use the cards.
A novel way to assess consensus with large groups
I recently came across a novel (to me) way to explore large group consensus. This simple technique requires no training or extra resources. In addition, it’s a fine example of semi-anonymous voting: group voting where it’s difficult to determine how individuals vote without observing them during the process. [Dot voting (ibid, Chapter 49), is another semi-anonymous voting method.]