Dear Adrian — How does group size impact process design?

ask-adrianAnother issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, facilitation, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please contact me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).

Here’s a great question from Australian facilitator, trainer, and coach Steve Rohan-Jones about … The Three Questions! (Check out the link if you aren’t already familiar with The Three Questions, otherwise what you are about to read won’t make much sense.)

Good morning from Canberra, Adrian,

I have just read through The Power of Participation over one year after I received a signed copy from you!

In short, I have a question about The Three Questions. I understand the process both in singular and multiple form (combined with round tables). From my reading, The Three Questions appears to take some time (based on the amount of participants) with only one person speaking. This appears at odds with the aim to get people engaged in conversation.

I would also think – not a question just an observation – that group of 6 would be better. This would speed up the set piece of one person speaking and others listening, reduce the need for breaks and keep the energy going early in the day.

Can you clarify my understanding of The Three Questions?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Cheers
Steve Rohan-Jones
O2C Pty Ltd

Steve, I like your question because it highlights a key tension inherent in group process design: the tension between intimacy (going deep with a few) and discovery (uncovering the possibilities of the many). Let’s explore this in more detail.

When people are meeting for a shared purpose, some of the potentially valuable outcomes include:

  1. Learning about each other.
  2. Being and feeling heard.
  3. Sharing with each other.
  4. Learning from each other.

The Three Questions focuses on #1, #2, and #3. I love to use it at the start of an event or workshop, because we can’t really learn effectively from our peers (#4) until we:

  • have learnt what they might have to offer (#1);
  • feel safe sharing with them (#2); and
  • have each had an opportunity to share our own expertise and experience (#3).

Because each person gets the same amount of time to share their answers to The Three Questions to a group, the time needed to run the process is proportional to the group’s size. [I’m neglecting here the few minutes needed to a) explain the process and b) provide one or two short breaks for large groups.] In practice, I’ve found this restricts the maximum effective size of a single group using The Three Questions to 60 people. If more than 60 people are present, you divide them into smaller groups and run multiple simultaneous The Three Questions sessions.

Even if we have 60 people or less, we may still decide to divide our group into several smaller groups and run multiple simultaneous sessions. Typically we’ll do this when time is a constraint.

For example, next month I’m leading a two-hour, ~200 person, participation techniques workshop. In order to cover multiple core techniques in two hours with this many participants, I will give them just a taste of The Three Questions by running 30+ concurrent 6-person groups. Everyone will know five former strangers much better after the ~20 minute session is over, but they won’t have learned more about the others in the room.

So when designing a session or conference that includes The Three Questions, there is a trade-off between the time we have or want to allocate and group size, because we need to give each person sufficient time for meaningful sharing with their group (typically 1 – 2 minutes per person).

There’s no single answer for this design decision that’s optimum for all circumstances. At a multi-day conference, for example, it makes sense to run multiple simultaneous  50-60 person Three Questions groups for a couple of hours at the start of the event. Everyone in each group will learn important information about the interests and resources of their 50-60 peers. For a monthly board meeting, once a year I might run a single session with the ten board members to remind the group of each member’s “why?”. And at a one-day peer conference with ninety participants, perhaps three simultaneous 30-person sessions would be the way to go.

In some ways this design consideration is a parallel application of Jerry Weinberg’s Law of Raspberry Jam:

The wider you spread it, the thinner it gets.

We are looking for a balance between:

  • intimacy — sharing deeply with a few people, making the format feel more like a conversation; and
  • discovery — learning important things (interests and resources) about everyone in a large group, in a process that feels more like structured sharing.

Both intimacy and discovery have their benefits. By choosing the size of the groups using The Three Questions, it’s possible to select the balance that works for the design and constraints of each unique situation.

Dear Adrian—How can we incorporate exercise into event programs?

walking 21933280563_e08d835b7d_kSue Walton, MeCo co-founder, asks on the long-running MeetingsCommunity (MeCo, registration needed):

Q: How do you incorporate exercise into your (event) programs?

A: Exercise during events is important because blood flow to our brains starts to decline within ten minutes of sitting still. Any kind of movement incorporated into sessions helps to boost alertness back to the level when people first sat down.

Adding early morning running or yoga sessions into conference schedules is becoming increasingly common. That’s great, but providing opportunities to exercise between and during conference sessions is also possible. Interpreting “exercise” loosely, here are four additional ways to incorporate exercise into an event.

Walking maps
Before the event, prepare and distribute maps showing walking and/or jogging routes that start and end at the venue. Include time estimates for each route, so participants can see options for exercise that will fit into their schedule. Make it easy for participants to incorporate healthy movement into their conference experience.

Short standing-in-place exercise
If people have been sitting for a while, face the group and lead them in a minute of standing-in-place exercise. You might say “We’ve been sitting for a while, so I’d like to lead you through a minute of gentle exercise. Please avoid anything that is uncomfortable for you. Please stand [PAUSE].”

Then demonstrate and lead participants through the following:

  • “Rotate your shoulders by slowly raising them up, back and down. Continue for around twenty seconds.”
  • “Bring palms together in front of chest. Slowly raise arms straight above the head, with hands apart or together. While keeping arms raised, slowly swivel hips for twenty seconds.”
  • “Slowly turn your head to the right until you feel a slight stretch. Be careful not to tip or tilt your head forward or backward, but hold it in a comfortable position. Hold for ten seconds, and then return to facing forward. Repeat, turning to the left.”

Walking sessions
Schedule sessions where participants are walking and talking together. Intersperse them in the schedule, so no one is sitting for an entire morning or afternoon. Event producers might include a pertinent facility or nearby resource tour, but also consider holding small discussion breakouts while people walk—ideally in interesting or beautiful surroundings, though that’s not necessary.

Make sure that the activity you propose is accessible to those who can’t walk easily; scooter or golf-cart access might be needed.

Just the act of walking while thinking and talking will elevate the quality of the discussion.

Grab!
For a quick energy boost, play Grab! Have people stand and pair up with someone they don’t know. (Another option is to have them find someone with the same color eyes.)

Ask each pair to decide who’s A and who’s B. Then have the A’s hold one hand out, palm and fingers flat and facing B at a comfortable height.

B then points her index finger at A’s palm at the same height. B’s task is then to rapidly touch the center of A’s palm with her index finger and pull it away before A can grab it.

Giggles will ensue! Give each pair around sixty to ninety seconds to play and then have them switch roles.

How have you incorporated exercise into your events? Share your ideas in the comments below.

Photo attribution: Flickr user taedc


Adrian & KaylaAnother issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions sent to me about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).

Dear Adrian—More questions about event process design

Event Design MagicDipesh Mody, writing from Mumbai, India, asks five great questions about event process design. I’ve interspersed my answers after each question.

Q. Dear Adrian,

I have now read both your books and have truly enjoyed reading them. Your work has been very inspiring to many; and I am certainly one of them.

While your book is very well written and structured, I had a few questions for you and I am hoping that you will find the time to respond.

1. After the peer group session sign-up and once the time and space is allocated, who decides which technique to use? Is it the volunteer facilitator of the peer group? If yes, what if the volunteer is not familiar with these techniques? Will he invariably choose a roundtable technique?

Yes, the volunteer facilitator(s) of a peer session is/are responsible for determining the format used in the session, and, as covered in The Power of Participation, there are a number of basic formats that can be used. For many years, I’ve given every attendee a one-page peer session facilitation handout (free download) at the start of the event. This short document explains what’s involved in facilitating, offers a suggested step-by-step process, and includes some tips for effective facilitation.

Analyzing thousands of evaluations of Conferences That Work format events, it’s very rare to see a complaint about the quality of peer session facilitation. So I believe this simple handout is an effective tool for volunteer facilitators to do a decent-to-good job at facilitating a peer session. While I could include some additional opening techniques such as Post It, described in The Power of Participation, it’s possible that making the handout longer might reduce its overall effectiveness.

In India, and other regions where organizational cultures tend to be more hierarchical than those in North America and Europe, participants may be less comfortable taking responsibility for leading a session. Under such circumstances, taking twenty minutes at the opening of a peer conference to explain basic peer session leadership techniques can be helpful.

2. From what I understand that certain sessions only a trained facilitator can run them such as world café, fishbowl or a human spectrogram? Is my understanding correct? If yes, then such techniques can only be used involving the entire group. For e,g, if the conference size is 50 people then all 50 people need to be in that one session when a human spectrogram technique is being used? Is my understanding correct?

I think it depends on what “trained” means. I have not received any “formal” facilitation training, but I experienced World Café, fishbowl, and human spectrogram process run by others before I attempted to facilitate them myself. I think many people who have experienced a human spectrogram once could successfully facilitate it under similar circumstances, and there are plenty of good resources (including The Power of Participation😄) for other group work techniques.

As participative techniques become more frequently used at conferences, attendees are increasingly likely to be capable of facilitating them, and I expect the requirement for a “trained” facilitator will decrease over time.

3. About the beginning and the end sessions, I am quite clear but for the middle sessions is there a particular sequence (s) that works best based on your experience? For e.g. use fishbowl to gain a deeper understanding of top six issues and then follow it up with world café to discuss solutions to these issues (assuming we have 6 tables with five people on each table: Conference size 30 people). Then use a human spectrogram to vote on the proposed solutions and to select the most plausible ones.

Again, the answer to your question depends on the circumstances—in this case a session’s desired outcomes. It sounds like you are asking about process to explore and choose solutions to problems. Because meetings are held for many different reasons, there’s no single process sequence that’s appropriate for every situation.

The Conferences That Work format, for example, works very well for a group of peers who are meeting to learn and connect for individual reasons, determine common ground, and discover and act on opportunities available to the group.

If, as per your example, the meeting is to learn and discuss six pre-determined important issues, you might well use techniques like fishbowl and World Café as opening and mid-course process. If attendees don’t know each other well, an opening roundtable would be useful. Or if the important issues were unknown or unclear at the start of a meeting, introductory educational sessions plus affinity grouping might be appropriate.

As far as discussing solutions is concerned, while human spectrograms are a useful tool to gauge sentiment, outcomes are more typically determined by process prescribed by the norms of the group, organization, association, or corporation stakeholders.

4. About world café or human spectrogram or voting, while a volunteer team can assist in framing the right questions as pre-work but my experience shows that getting them to contribute on the questions is difficult as they don’t have time to devote on such pre-work activities due to work related and other commitments. Further, on page 222 of Power of Participation, you have identified questions for collective attention, for finding deeper insights, for forward movement etc. In light of this, would it be a good idea for the attendees to frame the questions during the conference beginning? In your experience would this work?

In my experience, if you are going to use World Café at an event, pre-work defining good table questions is essential. While there are frameworks that can be helpful in devising Café question rounds (e.g. those for sense-making by Chris Corrigan and strategic planning by John Inman), I think it’s very hard to build consensually-good questions on the fly at the event unless participants are patient and willing enough to spend a significant amount of time. It’s akin to bringing a large group of people to a building site and asking them to collectively design and erect a building from scratch. Not impossible, but difficult!

5. While your book does provide model conference schedule but it falls a bit short of getting a real sense of what a real schedule looks like. It would be really great if you could add a few real examples of conferences you facilitated. It would indeed be useful to get a sense of how you mixed and matched various techniques (fishbowl, world café, spectrograms etc.) during a lets say three day conference around a particular theme. It would be a great addition to what a truly amazing book it already is.

Dipesh, I think that’s a good idea in principle. However, I’m wary supplying such examples unless they include extensive background on why the specific types and flow of process techniques were used. The danger of providing condensed examples is that some readers will be tempted to copy them verbatim for events that involve participants, logistical constraints, and desired outcomes that are significantly different from those that generated the example design. End result—a design that doesn’t satisfy stakeholder needs, leading to poor evaluations and, perhaps, the conclusion that these new-fangled event designs “don’t work.”

There are so many factors involved in creating a good event design that I estimate a useful case study of a single event design, one that comprehensively covers the reasons for the design choices made, might require 10,000+ words and many days of work! A worthy project, but one that may have to wait a while…

Best regards,

Dipesh Mody, India

Thanks for your thoughtful questions, Dipesh. I hope these answers help a little in your quest to produce fine events in India!

Best wishes,

Adrian Segar


Adrian & KaylaAnother issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions sent to me about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).

Dear Adrian—A Consultant’s Dilemma and The Thirty Minute Rule

30 minutes free
Another issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).

Last week I met Tony P. Burgess, the recently retired Director of West Point’s Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning, who, amongst other achievements, helped develop the U.S. Army’s premier community of practice, CompanyCommand. During an enjoyable, wide-ranging conversation at 1369 Coffee House Tony asked my opinion on a Consultant’s Dilemma:

How much “free” consulting should a consultant offer during initial discussions with a client before requesting pay for services?

When consultant and client meet for the first time there’s naturally a certain amount of sizing-up going on.

A potential client is looking for a solution to a problem, and is wondering if the consultant can help him, whether he can trust what she says, how much she will cost, how soon she will be available—and all these considerations and more will be taken into account before a decision is made whether to engage her services.

A client is hoping to find the help he needs as quickly as possible, but wants to feel confident that the chosen consultant can help effectively for an acceptable price. He may believe that his problem can be fixed easily by someone with the right expertise, and be hoping (or expecting) to get his problem solved quickly, perhaps at no charge.

consultant is wondering what she needs to learn about the client, what the client thinks the problem is, what the problem might actually be, whether she’s capable of helping the client, whether she can get paid what she’d like to get paid, whether she’s going to have the time, resources, and inclination to work with the client in a timely fashion, and so on.

From a consultant’s point of view, time spent working to get an initial sense of a client’s needs, determine that he is a fit for her expertise and abilities, and convey enough of her capabilities to reassure the client that she is the right person for the work is non-billable. Too much non-billable time, and a consultant starts to have problems paying her own bills.

Naturally, these client and consultant concerns take time to resolve, leading to the above-mentioned Dilemma.

I have been consulting for over thirty years and have participated in hundreds of initial client-consultant dances. (I like to think of them as dances: mysterious, exciting, full of the possibility of creating something great together, sometimes disappointing.) In my experience, a contracting minuet can take as little as ten minutes or…well, let’s just say far too long. Client or consultant can trip over any of the obstacles I’ve already listed and decide to walk away.

So, what’s a consultant to do?

David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, coined the Two Minute Rule to determine whether a task that interrupts current activity should be handled on the spot—answer: yes, but only, if it can be completed in less than two minutes—or captured to be performed later. I doubt he chose 120 seconds based on some deep scientific analysis, it’s his rule of thumb (which I’ve found to be useful), presumably based on years of experience.

In a similar vein I offer my Thirty Minute Rule for resolving the Consultant’s Dilemma.

I told Tony that I’ll talk to any potential paying client for up to thirty minutes for free. At that point, if the client is still looking for free advice I’ll gently explore options for transitioning to a paid consultation. Sometimes, of course, it’s clear that we’re not going to move forward. No blame need be assigned, it just happens. Otherwise I’ll generally have enough information to propose next steps. And if my client doesn’t have sufficient trust in me after thirty minutes, then I’ve found it’s unlikely I’m going to change his mind by staying on the call.

The Thirty Minute Rule doesn’t include the time required for creating a contracting agreement or proposal. If I judge that we’ve a good chance of creating a win-win consulting arrangement I’ll create a short document and send it to the client for approval. This rarely takes more than an additional thirty minutes. If the document requires significant client-specific research I’ll ask for appropriate compensation to create it.

The Thirty Minute Rule is my reasonable compromise between the competing needs of consultant and client. If you’re a consultant reading this, what do you think? Do you have your own “free consulting time” rule? Feel free to share yours in the comments!

Image courtesy of Atom Smasher

Dear Adrian: Answers to participant-led event questions asked at a MeetingsNet webinar

innovativeportalbannerCurtiss Reed and I enjoyed presenting our thirty-minute MeetingsNet webinar Participant-Led Meetings: A Case Study on February 4, 2014, and I’m happy to announce that the webinar is now available free on demand (until February 4, 2015). Just go to the registration link and complete the short sign-up to receive a link to the webinar.

We received a good number of good questions during the webinar, and were not able to answer them all in the time available. So I’ve listed them here, together with my answers. I hope you find them useful!

Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Adrian—How do you market a new peer conference?

How do you market a new peer conference?Another issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions sent to me about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).


 

Q. Dear Adrian,

Forgive me if this is something you have been asked a million times before (and maybe you could point me to the page on your website which gives the answer, although I couldn’t find it.)

How do you market a new peer conference?

I can see that the peer conference structure can work for groups which have already been meeting for many years, for example industry association meetings, and people are looking for a better format.

But I think it would be very hard to get people to have enough confidence in a new peer conference without anything to show them about what is going to happen there (except possibly a list of other delegates, if it was possible to get anyone to sign up to a conference where the agenda was a blank sheet of paper).

The standard way to market conferences as you know is to try to attract some relevant interesting sounding speakers, and use the speakers names in the marketing – but that forces the structure into the standard 30 minute powerpoint format.

Do you have any examples of where someone has developed a new peer conference as a commercial business?

Many thanks!

Cheers
Karl Jeffery
Digital Energy Journal, London, England


A. Dear Karl,

Great questions—no need to apologize! People often ask me about how to market peer conferences, and your request has an interesting focus.

Most of my consulting clients want help with conference redesign—making established traditional events more peer-driven and participation- and connection-rich. Actually, it’s often easier to create a new peer conference than to change the format of an existing conventional event. Changing something that already exists is often harder than starting from scratch.

I’m not saying that it’s simple to market a new peer conference. As you point out, people are accustomed to seeing a pre-determined schedule of conference sessions and speakers. This influences their decision on whether to attend. (I cover this “program trap” in Chapter 4 of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love.) Many wonder a) how you can create a great conference program at the event and b) how good the resulting conference will be. Your marketing has to address these concerns.

In my experience there’s an essential prerequisite for a new peer conference to get off the ground: a core group of organizers who understand and believe in peer process (ideally, but not necessarily, through experience) and who are committed and prepared to proselytize the envisaged event to their professional circles. My rule of thumb is that this group should contain at least five people.

Once you have your core group in place, your marketing should feature the peer conference format without going into all the details. Intrigue potential attendees, especially those tired of traditional conferences, and talk up the proven nature of the design. Here’s an example of what you might say:

Have you attended a conference about TOPIC recently? Then you probably sat in room after room with scores of other attendees listening to outside experts talk about topics that weren’t quite what you were interested in. You were sure there were some interesting people to talk to, people who had the same questions you did (and maybe even some answers)—but how could you find who they were and meet them among the swirling crowds? Did you come away frustrated, feeling that only a small portion of the time you attended was valuable to you?

If so, you’re not alone.

INNOVCONF is different. 

INNOVCONF is an out of the box conference experience that replaces highly scripted events, calls for papers, pre-determined workshops, keynote speakers, networking receptions, etc. We use the proven Conferences That Work design to create a conference that adapts to meet your needs, leverages the combined expertise and experience of all participants, and provides unique opportunities to discover, connect, share, and learn with the peers you want to meet.

Our conference format is participant-driven and participation-rich.  The attendees themselves—DESCRIPTION OF TARGET ATTENDEES—will determine the conference’s agenda, presenters, session format, focus, and results during the first afternoon of INNOVCONF. (To learn more, visit conferencesthatwork.com.)

The goals of INNOVCONF are simple. Create the best possible conference for each individual attendee. Maximize participant interaction and connectedness. Strengthen our community. And explore future group initiatives. Sounds good? Then register today to join your peers at this innovative event!

To answer your last question, until I published my 2009 book I was the only person creating peer conferences. So it’s still early to expect many examples of established pure Conferences That Work format peer conferences “as a commercial business”. In addition, many current peer conferences are not commercial meetings-for-profit ventures. Instead, they create effective ways to bring a professional or vocational community together. Fees and budget are set to cover costs and make a modest profit.

What people have started to do is to use the Conferences That Work format in conjunction with traditional general sessions to create what I called in the book a hybrid event. (Unfortunately, since publishing, “hybrid” has come to mean an event that has face-to-face and online components). The marketing of these events often plays up the big names invited. However, the formats themselves contain significant peer conference elements. Three examples are FinCon: A peer conference for the financial blogging community, the Swiss Caux Conferences, and the Renaissance Weekends.

Karl, I hope this is useful. I’d love to hear more about your potential conference. If there’s anything I can do to assist you, please let me know.

With best wishes,

-Adrian Segar-

Dear Adrian—How do I break in to the event services industry?

Adrian & KaylaAnother issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions sent to me about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).


 

Q. Dear Adrian,

I was wondering if you would be able to share some of your experience in the events services industry. I was a Middle East Studies professional and I’m looking towards a career change into event management. I was just wondering what you studied, how you got into conference designing? What were some of the difficulties you had along the way? How does one “break into” the conference and events services industry with a degree in liberal arts?

In your book, which I am reading (which is amazing by the way, congrats!) it says that you managed a solar domestic hot water heating system manufacturing company? How on earth did you get into event management with that background?

I appreciate any answers you might have time have to answer and I thank you.

Kind regards,

Usayd Casewit, student in George Washington University’s Event Management Certificate program with experience in event consultant work at United Nations conferences, international music festivals, and phosphate and wind energy conferences in Morocco.


A. Dear Usayd,

I’m afraid that the career path that led to my “breaking” into the events industry is so atypical that it can in no way serve as a guide to others. Some information that sheds a little light on the circumstances can be found in this post.

And yet there is something that can be learned from the strange journey that brought me into the conference and event services industry. Although I have only been connected to the “professional” event industry world for a few years, I have met and learned a little about the backgrounds of hundred of event professionals in many industry segments. And I can assure you that a majority of those people did not plan a career in our industry but, like myself, found a calling or attraction to their work.

The people I’ve met have prior experience in all kinds of seemingly unrelated fields. Besides hospitality experience, which you might well expect to be a precursor, I’ve met people who have years of theatre experience, people with degrees in computer science or who worked in high tech, who started organizing conferences around a hobby they loved, and who ran companies and associations related to completely different industries.

As a result, my conclusion is that you are unlikely to be able to predict the fit for an events industry position by simply looking at prior experience listed on a résumé. Founding and managing my solar hot water manufacturing company, for example, gave me valuable business experience in a host of areas: finance and business planning, working with employees and contractors, marketing, and selling, to name a few. ((And I’d add that your liberal arts degree could be excellent preparation for a career in the events industry, as a good program teaches you how to think creatively about a wide range of subjects; valuable expertise in such a diverse, wide-ranging, and often fast-paced industry as ours.)

What the event professionals I’ve met who clearly enjoy their work all have in common is their pleasure and satisfaction in successfully creating an enjoyable environment where people can come together, connect, and learn. That’s certainly what motivates my work. If this is something that also speaks to you, and you have or can build the necessary competencies over time, then there’s a place for you in this profession.

As far as practical considerations go, there are a wealth of opportunities available to you. I’m a big believer in the power of personal networking, whether face-to-face or, increasingly, online. The local chapters of industry associations are an obvious starting point. Reach out to your local chapter and explain your situation; attend a meeting or two and start to network there. If you can afford to volunteer or intern this is one of the best ways for people and organizations to learn your capabilities, potentially leading to paying job opportunities.

Online, the MeetingsCommunity (commonly known as MeCo) has proved to be a great resource over the years. You should also check out the #eventprofs #mpi #pcma, and #ises streams of tweets on Twitter, and explore the many LinkedIn groups that have been formed around every facet of the industry.

I hope this is helpful. Getting started in the industry is probably the hardest part, but persistence, with a bit of luck and serendipity, is usually rewarded. I wish you well in your endeavors. Keep me posted about what happens!

With best wishes,

-Adrian Segar-

Dear Adrian Episode 1—is there a way to crowdsource a conference program before an event?

Adrian & KaylaIf Abby and Prudence can do it, so can I! Here’s the inaugural issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions sent to me about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).


Q. Dear Adrian,

I have read with great interest your articles on ‘Conferences that Work’. Whilst most of my clients’ events fall into the many hundreds of delegates there is an opportunity in most cases to run a ½ day or full day pre-event for one or more particular segments of the audience such as new entrants or master classes.

I would like to find a way to incorporate your concept of peer events into this structure.

Have you ever tried creating the ‘peer session sign-up’ on line through a social media site or the client internal communication system? This would give the client the confidence that the logistics can be handled cost effectively, ie, the number of rooms held to accommodate concurrent sessions and ensuring that the appropriate topic experts were available. This could have the dual benefit of ensuring that a significant part of the event is attendee driven and probably increase delegate registration numbers due to the relevance of the program.

In the past I’ve run qualitative research to assist in the pre-planning of the program in an attempt to more closely align the event with attendee needs but an online component would permit the addition of a quantitative element.

I would be very interested to hear if you have any experience in this area that you could share.

With thanks and kind regards,

Wendy Hand, Bright Red Fish Pty Limited, Mosman NSW, Australia


A: Dear Wendy,

Your question about whether it’s possible to build a peer session sign-up system to create a conference program before an event is one of the most common questions I’m asked.

The answer is a “Yes…But”.

Yes, it’s not hard to build such a system—I’ve done some kind of pre-conference “what-do-you-want-to-talk/hear-about” online survey since the start of the world wide web; i.e. for 15+ years. These days it’s pretty simple to create such a system; the SXSW Panel Picker is just one example.

But. For twenty years now, I’ve had the luxury of comparing what these pre-conference surveys conclude attendees want with what they actually choose when they pick sessions on site. And I’ve found that the predictive power of pre-conference surveys (and conference program committees) is extremely poor.

The best surveys/program committees predict only half of the sessions that attendees actually want. In other words, half or more of the pre-chosen sessions at a traditional event are not what attendees want.

This is a dirty secret of traditional conferences that no one ever talks about.

I believe there are a number of reasons for the poor predictive power of attendees and conference program committees:

  • It’s very hard these days to get busy people to spend any significant time thinking about what they would like to see on the program of a conference that’s six months down the road.Only a small number of attendees respond to such pre-conference requests. (If it’s a traditional conference, they are skeptical such input will make a difference. If it’s a participant-driven event design like mine, they know their desires will be taken into account on site.)
  • The attendees who respond are not representative of the entire body of attendees.
  • I’ve seen pre-conference crowdsourcing gravitate to “hot” topics that are largely irrelevant by the time the event rolls around. For example, six months before Windows Vista came out, it was clear that everyone at a technical conference I was facilitating thought that implementation would be a hot topic. We left it off the traditional program, and avoided wasting time at the event, by which time it was clear no one wanted to hear about it.
  • When you use a participant-driven design to create sessions at the event; you always (at least in my 20 years of experience) uncover unknown attendee expertise and experience that other attendees are eager to tap. Such uncovered resources become sessions that are often some of the most valuable time at the event.
  • As a participant-driven conference, it only needs one attendee to share a great idea for a session for others to concur and make the session happen. This is hard to duplicate in an asynchronous crowdsourcing program, where a late submission is unlikely to be seen by earlier respondents.

Those are some of the reasons why it’s important to spend the time to build a conference program at the event. While crowdsourcing a pre-conference program may improve it slightly, my conclusion is that on balance it’s simply not worth the effort. On the other hand, building the conference program at the event, which takes about half a day to do right, improves the event immensely—and this has been validated by the thousands of evaluations I’ve received over the years.

Here’s a 2011 post that reflects on some of these points.

I hope this gives you some background as to why I am still skeptical of the value of crowdsourcing programs before an event rather than during it.

With best wishes,

-Adrian Segar-