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.”
“Well, water’s coming out of the sky.”

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:

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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

Two scientists walk into a conference…

One of the most satisfying outcomes of the peer conferences I design and facilitate is how they bring people together who would never otherwise have met — and in doing so change the world.

This is obviously important, but why do world-changing connections seldom occur at conventional conferences?

Here’s an illuminating story from the pages of a New Yorker article about Jim Simons, the noted mathematician founder of Renaissance Technologies, one of the world’s largest hedge funds, and a funder of a variety of research projects:

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How to create amazing conference programs that don’t waste attendee time

Do your conference programs include pre-scheduled sessions you belatedly discover were of little interest or value to most attendees? If so, you’re wasting significant stakeholder and attendee time and money — your conference is simply not as good as it could be. Now imagine you could learn how to routinely create conference programs that reliably include the sessions attendees actually want and need? How much value would that add to your event; for your attendees, your sponsors, and your bottom line?

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Does the world of events need more exposure to the new?

Most of the event technology I’ve been using for the last quarter century is hundreds of years old. It works incredibly well. So, when you’re designing your next event, bear in mind this observation of Seth Godin’s:

You might not need more exposure to the new. Instead, it might pay to re-see what’s already around you.
—Seth Godin, What do you see?

Re-seeing technology is hard because technology is anything that was invented after you were born. Technology that’s older than you is mostly invisible, taken for granted like the air you breathe. Only when the wind blows you might notice, for a moment, that something important is all around you — but your attention quickly returns to the smartphone in your hand.

Yet none of the event technology that can drastically improve your events requires a smartphone or even spending much money.

Don’t ignore the wind. Instead, harness it and explore its possibilities.

Photo attribution: Flickr user 64700647@N06

The Conference Arc — the key components of every successful participation-rich conference

Traditional conferences focus on a hodgepodge of pre-determined sessions punctuated with socials, surrounded by short welcomes and closings. Such conference designs treat openings and closings as perfunctory traditions, perhaps pumped up with a keynote or two, rather than key components of the conference design.

Unlike traditional conferences, participant-driven and participation-rich peer conferences have a conference arc with three essential components: Beginning, Middle, and End. This arc creates a seamless conference flow where each phase builds on what has come before.

Participant-driven and participation-rich peer conference designs improve on traditional events because they don’t treat openings and closings as necessary evils but as critical components of the meeting design.

Let’s examine each phase of the peer conference arc in more detail.

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The best way to fundamentally improve your dull conference

I’ve been attending conferences for over forty years. Most of them are dull and largely irrelevant. This seems to be the norm, because when you talk to attendees you find they set a low bar for satisfaction, e.g. “It’s OK if I learn one new thing a day, oh, and if I make a useful connection or two that would be great!

For twenty years I assumed this was how conferences were supposed to be. And when I began creating conferences myself, I used the same standard format: invite experts in the field to speak to audiences.

Then in 1992, circumstances forced me to do one thing different. Ever since, thanks to that happy accident, I have been designing and facilitating peer conferences that people have loved for over a quarter-century.

“…gets an award for most/best/most thoughtfully organized conference I think I’ve ever been to.”

“I’m an introvert. I’ve never shared as much at a conference before. Your process is brilliant. Thank you.”

“…the truest sense of community I’ve ever felt and it was beautiful to experience. I hope you have the opportunity to experience something like this in your lifetime. It changes everything.”
—Three recent participants on their experience at three different peer conferences

What’s the one key thing I do that almost no one else does?

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