How to support a community online during covid-19

support a community online during covid-19
How can you support a community online during covid-19? Over the last few weeks I’ve run numerous online Zoom meetings for support groups and local, social, and professional communities. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about what makes these meetings most useful for participants.

I’m sharing what I’ve learned (so far) here.

Key takeaways

• Breakout room functionality is essential for your online meeting platform.
Small group conversations are the core components of successful online meetings. (If your meeting only involves people broadcasting information, replace it with email!) Unless you have six or fewer people in your meeting, you need to be able to efficiently split participants into smaller groups when needed — typically every 5 – 10 minutes — for effective conversations to occur. That’s what online breakout rooms are for. Use them!

• It’s important to define group agreements about participant behavior at the start.
For well over a decade, I have been asking participants to agree to six agreements at the start of meetings. Such agreements can be quickly explained, and significantly improve intimacy and safety. They are easily adapted to online meetings. (For example, I cover when and how the freedom to ask questions can be used when the entire group is together online.)

• Use process that allows everyone time to share.
You’ve probably attended a large group “discussion” with poor or non-existent facilitation, and noticed that a few people monopolize most of the resulting “conversation”. Before people divide into small breakout groups, state the issue or question they’ll be discussing, ask someone to volunteer as timekeeper, and prescribe an appropriate duration for each participant’s sharing.

• People want and need to share how they’re feeling up front.
I’ve found that pretty much everything important that happens at these meetings springs from people safely sharing at the start how they feel. They learn that they’re not alone. I ask participants to come up with one to three feeling words that describe how they’re feeling: either right now, or generally, or about their personal or professional situation. They write these words large with a fine-point permanent marker on one or more pieces of paper and share them, one person at a time, on camera or verbally. (Elaborations come later.)

• Sharing what’s working is validating, interesting, and useful.
In my experience, everyone has made some changes in their personal and/or professional lives that are helping them deal with the impact of the coronavirus. Sharing these in small groups is a supportive process that’s well worth doing.

• Consultations are a powerful small group activity.
Set aside time, if available, for a few group consults on individual challenges. Ask for volunteers. They will receive support, and their small group of impromptu consultants will feel good about helping.

• Don’t forget to provide movement breaks.
Occasional movement breaks are even more important for online than face-to-face meetings. Participants can feel trapped sitting in front of their camera. Schedule a break every 45 minutes.

• Check before moving on to a new topic.
If you are on video, ask for an affirmative sign (thumbs up or down), or use Roman voting. On audio, ask “who has more to contribute on this?”

• Provide a set of tips and conventions for the online platform you’re using.
Here are mine for Zoom.

• Schedule time for feedback and/or a retrospective.
Key questions: What was this like? Do we want to do this again? If so, when, and how can we improve it?

Preparing for your community online meeting

Key information should be distributed appropriately well in advance of the meeting. Include it in a single online document, and create a descriptive URL shortened link (e.g. bit.ly/ephhfeelings).  I suggest you share a short promo for your why? for the meeting, followed by this “complete details” link. Because many people don’t read the details until shortly before the meeting, resend your share closer to the time of the event.

I also like to display the link printed on a card visible in my video feed, so folks who have joined the meeting can catch up. Don’t rely on a chat window for this, since latecomers will not see earlier chat comments in most meeting platforms.

Here’s a sample of what you might want to include in your pre-meeting document for a 90-minute online meeting. My comments are in curly brackets {}.


Sample pre-meeting information document for community online meeting

[Date and start/end time of meeting]
[Time when host will open online meeting] {I suggest opening the meeting platform at least 15 minutes before the meeting starts. This allows people, especially first-time users, time to get online}
Meeting starts promptly at [start time]

Please check out the following three links before the meeting:

Why you should attend [meeting title] {audience, rationale, agenda, etc.}
How to join this meeting {complete instructions on how to go online}
[Meeting platform] tips {make it easy for novices to participate — here are my Zoom tips}

Preparation

Please have a few blank pieces of paper and a dark color fine point permanent marker (several, if you are artistically inclined). Before we start, write large on one piece of paper where you’re calling from. On another, please write (or illustrate) one to three feeling words that describe how you’re feeling: either right now, generally, about your personal or professional situation — you choose.

Schedule

We will open the meeting at 11:45 am EDT.

Please join us before 12:00 if at all possible, so we can start together promptly. We’ll try to bring you up to speed if you join late, but it may be difficult if there are many already online and it will be disruptive for them.

Exact timings will depend on how many of us are present. This plan may change according to expressed needs. All times EDT.

11:45: Online meeting opens.

11:45 – 12:00: Join meeting.

12:00: Meeting starts. Housekeeping. Where are you from?

12:05: Sharing our feeling words together.

12:10: Preparing for sharing what’s going on for you.

12:15: Sharing what’s going on for you in online breakout room.

12:25: Group recap of commonalities and illustrative stories.

12:35: Preparing for sharing what’s helped.

12:40: Sharing what’s helped in online breakout room.

12:50: Break — get up and move around! {Share your screen with a countdown timer displayed so people know when to return.}

12:55: Group recap of what’s helped.

13:05 Preparing for individual consulting. {Ask for a few volunteers.}

13:10: Individual consulting in online breakout room.

13:25: Group recap of individual lessons learned.

13:35: Group feedback on session. Do we want to do this again? If so, when, and how can we improve it?

13:55: Thanks and closing.

14:00: Online meeting ends.


Support your community online during covid-19

Most online meetings do a poor job of maintaining participants’ attention. I’ve found that starting with a quick opportunity for people to share how they’re feeling effectively captures attendees’ interest. And using a platform and process that allows everyone time to share what’s important keeps participants engaged. You might get feedback like this…

“I just wanted to reach out again and thank you for the call today. What an incredible conversation spanning such significant geographical areas. The perspective we gain from discussion like today is priceless. I just got off of another call with [another community] and the vibe was completely different. While everyone was respectful, everyone’s overall sense of well being was generally pretty positive. And that’s where they wanted to keep it.”
—A participant’s message to me after an online meeting last week

Please try out these ideas! And share your suggestions and thoughts in the comments below.

The meeting industry coronavirus silver lining

coronavirus silver liningDespite the terrible impacts of the coronavirus on the meeting industry, there’s a silver lining.

Hear me out!

There’s no question times are hard. The coronavirus pandemic has already devastated lives and businesses globally, and we don’t know how much worse things will get. The meeting industry is reeling under a wave of cancellations, postponements, and uncertainty. All my short-term facilitation and on-site training engagements have been cancelled — and I’m lucky in comparison with colleagues who are struggling with the significant financial impact of the loss of work, deposits, and income that a few months ago looked secure.

Consequently, in the short term, the situation looks bleak. In addition, no one knows what “short term” means right now.

In the long term…

Unfortunately, it currently looks like one potential short-term improvement outcome, containment, will not be successful. In the long-term, however, the current turmoil caused by the spread of COVID-19 is likely to subside. The development and introduction of an effective and affordable vaccine may bring the virus under control. Or, enough people may get COVID-19 and develop an immune response, leading to herd immunity.

Eventually, the coronavirus is most likely to either burn out, or return seasonally, like influenza.

So what’s the coronavirus silver lining?

I believe there are three silver linings that are long-term positives for the meeting industry.

1—Virtual meetings will replace many broadcast-style meeting sessions

The dramatic cancellation of face-to-face events has led to an immediate focus on replacing them, when possible, with virtual meetings. This focus is welcome, because online technology can and should replace the lecture-centric components of conventional meetings.

2—Virtual meetings process technology will improve

In my opinion, we can significantly improve virtual meetings process technology. The pressure to find a replacement for face-to-face meetings may speed the development of technology process for connection that current platforms lack.

All major online platforms support broadcast-style meetings. In small meetings, any meeting participant can become the broadcaster of the moment by speaking. As in face-to-face large meetings, this speaker-switching mechanism doesn’t work with a large group without central control over who, or how many, can speak at any moment.

What virtual meeting technology currently ignores or implements poorly is participant-initiated small group voice or video chat discussions of the kind that happen at face-to-face meetings. Although some platforms implement breakout groups, they are generally limited in number, and platform facilitators initiate them rather than participants on an as-needed basis.

Hopefully, a pressing demand for virtual meetings that can provide the spontaneous interaction and connection possible at face-to-face meetings will spur development of connection-centric online meeting technology features.

3—We will better understand the true value of face-to-face meetings

Right now, the human race is responding to the short-term devastating effects of coronavirus by implementing social distance. We are rapidly curtailing the ways we get together for entertainment, education, and the thousands of other reasons we meet.

But human beings do not thrive long-term on social distance; rather, we want and need social existence. Over time, restricting meetings to online modalities will make us aware of what they lack: personal connection and engagement around pertinent content. Consequently, the meeting industry will better understand the unique possibilities that face-to-face events can provide. And, perhaps, we will become increasingly open to the value of human process technologies that allow meetings to become what participants actually want and need.

Can you think of other long-term silver linings for the meeting industry as a result of the coronavirus pandemic? Share them in the comments below.

Image attribution: Flickr user dewet

Should meetings be efficient?

Should meetings be efficientShould meetings be efficient?

“Yes” say thousands of books on how to improve business meetings. And I agree.

But “No”, when we’re taking about most meeting industry events.

Unfortunately, the meeting industry tends to assume that if business meetings should be efficient, meeting industry events should be too.

Obviously there are aspects of meeting events that should be efficient whenever possible. For example: registration, coffee service, transporting attendees between venues, room set changes, etc.

In addition, a well thought out broadcast style design may be the right choice for some trainings and corporate events that require a top-down approach to achieve their objectives.

But, for meetings where you want participants to:

  • learn effectively;
  • form valuable connections; and
  • generate valuable ideas and approaches

you need to design meetings that are inefficient.

How efficiency can be counterproductive

Sometimes, efficiency can be the enemy of effectiveness. Here are three examples:

“If you have ever watched symphony orchestra you may have noticed how inefficient the musicians are. They are not utilised 100%. Most have below 50% efficiency. Imagine how good the music would turn out if all instruments were playing all the times. Such is the science of efficiency.“
Alidad Hamidi

“The problem is that democracy is by definition slow, messy and cumbersome. Today demands on democracy, driven by modern means of communication, are different. The pace is fast. Decisions have to be made quickly. Time for reflection and compromise is limited.”
@AlexStubb, former Prime Minister of Finland

“My own experience consulting inside some highly successful companies (Microsoft, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Dupont, to name a few) cannot corroborate a relationship between busyness and success. Very successful companies have never struck me as particularly busy; in fact, they are, as a group, rather laid-back.”
Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total EfficiencyTom DeMarco

We are not mind readers

Effectively figuring out what people want and need to learn and giving them the time and space to learn it is inefficient, because learning is messy.

Successfully supporting people in making valuable connections at meetings is also inefficient, because we do not know who might be valuable to meet until we are given opportunities and good process to find out about the people we’re with.

And creating worthwhile ideas and approaches through group process at meetings is inefficient, because we invariably have to generate many ideas that don’t pan out in order to glean the few specks of gold we’re looking for.

So, should meetings be efficient?

As Alex Stubb says, we are living in a fast-paced world where time is valuable. There is continuing pressure to shorten events, in the belief that busy prospective attendees will be more likely to attend a meeting that doesn’t tie up too much of their time and money.

However, the consequent shortening of programs and sessions has a significant impact on the effectiveness of events: their ability to deliver desired learning, connection, and creative outcomes. So be careful not to destroy the effectiveness of your event in the name of efficiency.

Image attribution: mourgfile / CC

Share information; don’t hoard it

share information don't hoard

Why would you want to share information, not hoard it? In today’s cutthroat business environment, isn’t exclusive knowledge synonymous with power — and the ability to make money?

Well, if you’re a stock trader or house flipper, maybe. But I’m a consultant who has long subscribed to Jerry Weinberg’s Seventh Law of Marketing: “Give away your best ideas” and  Credit Rule: “You’ll never accomplish anything if you care who gets the credit”, from his invaluable book The Secrets of Consulting. (More of Jerry’s pearls of wisdom can be found here.)

Skeptical? Well, here’s an alternative historical perspective from a completely different source, a 1926 article about the New York Club of Printing House Craftsmen, uncovered by Jeff Jarvis and described as “…a lovely evocation on the value of sharing in our field, which we used to call printing.

“Stop. Stop the presses.”

I’ll let quotes from Jeff’s blog post tell the tale:

“‘The times are not so far distant when every foreman or executive jealously guarded his technical ‘secrets’, in the mistaken idea that by doing so he would make himself indispensable to his employer,’ Fuhrmann writes…

‘And the men [sic*] who had the same or similar problems to meet in the actual running of their employers’ businesses found that an exchange of views and ideas benefitted them without hurting their employers.'”

“And so, we attempt the same today in our rapidly changing field with meetings and communities of practice and training of journalists and managers.”

“Along this journey — which I believe will be long, generations or even centuries long — we need to provide the means to bring together these brave new leaders not just to teach them what we know (so they may challenge it) but also to enable them to teach each other, to share.”
—Jeff Jarvis, Stop. Stop the presses.

This is a touching, century-old example of how communities of practice benefit from sharing information.

Share information; don’t hoard it

During my decades as a consultant I’ve followed Jerry’s advice about giving away your ideas. (As I’ve been doing in this blog for ten years now.) As he explains:

“I do everything possible to encourage my clients to take over the work I’ve been doing. They usually give me direct credit, but even if they don’t, they love me for my generosity. This increases the chance they’ll give me future business, or recommend me to others.”
—Gerald M. Weinberg, Chapter 11, The Secrets of Consulting

Finally, as a meeting designer I’m convinced that using meeting formats that facilitate and support sharing amongst peers of relevant information is one of the most powerful ways to improve the effectiveness of meetings.

Share information; don’t hoard it. Whether you’re a community of practice, a consultant, or a meeting designer, this simple aphorism applies!

Image attribution: Flickr user ben_grey

How to run a human spectrogram map

human spectrogram mapWhenever I open a meeting I run a human spectrogram map, allowing participants to quickly discover everyone at the meeting who lives (or works) near them. This is one of the most useful things you can do for a group of people who don’t know each other — and it only takes a few minutes!

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How old are you?

How old are you“How old are you?” All of us have wondered about the age of someone we’ve met, but asking this question can be awkward, even during a one-to-one conversation. Making public the ages of hundreds of people in a meeting room — well, that’s even more awkward! Body voting (aka human spectrograms) can uncover this information in a few minutes, but because age can be a sensitive subject, I’ve always demurred requests to have participants line up by age at a meeting.

Until last week.

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A free guide to creating peer conferences

free guide to creating peer conferences

The Association for Software Testing (AST) has just issued a free guide to creating peer conferences. I believe the software testing community adopted my term “peer conference” for their get-togethers after a conversation I had with pioneer software tester James Bach in 2004.

Reminiscent of my first book, Conferences That Work, AST’s guide provides a comprehensive entry-level guide to starting, preparing for, and running a peer conference. While it doesn’t offer the level of detail in Conferences That Work, it’s an excellent introduction to the key issues. Although it’s written for software testing conferences (hence the references to Lean Coffee and k-cards) first-time organizers of small conferences of any kind will learn a lot.

This short guide includes useful sections on:

  • defining the conference’s mission;
  • codes of conduct;
  • diversity;
  • dissemination; and
  • email templates and helpful checklists.

The text includes many links to more detailed explanations. As a result, the guide is a compact resource for anyone with little or no experience who wants to offer a great, well-run, conference.

So I strongly recommend this free guide to creating peer conferences. (Did I mention it’s free?)

Photo attributions: 2018 “QA or the Highway” software testing conference {top}. My old friend Fiona Charles at UKSTARConf 2019 {bottom}

Give meeting-goers many options!

give meeting-goers many optionsToday’s meetings need to give meeting-goers many options, not just a few. But this doesn’t mean filling the conference program with every conceivable session topic. To be enjoyable and productive, meetings need white space: free time for attendees to do what they want and need to do.

When we preschedule an entire conference program, each attendee’s only remaining choice becomes which sessions to attend. It’s like how the news industry uses of polls, as described by Jeff Jarvis:

“Polls are the news industry’s tool to dump us all into binary buckets: red or blue; black or white; 99% or 1%; urban or rural; pro or anti this or that; religious (read: evangelical extremist) or not; Trumpist or not; for or against impeachment. Polls erase nuance. They take away choices from voters before they get to the real polls, the voting booth. They silence voices.”
Jeff Jarvis, Polls subvert democracy

Predetermined meeting programs silence attendee voices in the same way.

So how do we give meeting-goers many options without taxing their stamina and powers of concentration?

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How to facilitate a community discussion using fishbowl

What’s the best way to facilitate a community discussion? Recently, I had to answer that question at short notice. My task: design and facilitate a two-hour community discussion in response to a bombshell announcement made by the largest employer in my tiny rural hometown of Marlboro, Vermont.

The community was in shock. Consequently, I felt it was important to use a discussion format that:

  • Supported respectful dialog from a variety of constituencies;
  • Created an environment that was as safe as possible for people to share;
  • Minimized the likelihood that people would monopolize the meeting;
  • Allowed both short statements and controlled impromptu conversations; and
  • Was efficient.

I ended up designing (and moderating the first half of) a fishbowl format. To be more precise, I used what I’d call “half a fishbowl sandwich“: an opening pair share plus a standard fishbowl. (All three of these techniques are covered in detail in my latest book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need.)

The pair share

I ran a one-minute-per-partner pair share with this question. “What do you think about the proposed Marlboro College plan to close down the school and transfer the endowment and campus to Emerson?

The fishbowl format

Now, watch this three-minute meeting video clip in which I explain how fishbowl works.

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