Hub and spoke meetings

Ever since my first encounter with the hybrid hub and spoke meeting topology at Event Camp Twin Cities in 2011, I’ve been a big fan of the format. Yesterday [see below], I realized that hub and spoke is a great format for purely online meetings too. But first…

…What’s a hub and spoke meeting?

A hub and spoke meeting is one where there’s a central hub meeting or event that additional groups (aka “pods”) of people join remotely.hub spoke meetingHub and spoke is an event network topology. The hub event and each pod may be either in-person or online.

A terminology reminder
In-person meeting: participants are physically together.
Online meeting: participants are connected to each other via an internet platform like Zoom or Teams.
Hybrid meeting: A meeting with in-person and online components as defined above, plus additional forms explored below.

The benefits of hub and spoke

Increased learning, interaction, and connection

If you want maximum learning, interaction, and connection at a meeting, small meetings are better than large meetings. Using good meeting design, simply splitting a single large group of participants into multiple small groups in an intelligent way provides increased opportunities for each group’s members to connect and interact around relevant content.

Flexibility

Hub and spoke topology allows tremendous design flexibility for a meeting.

In-person pods can be set up at any convenient geographical location, reducing travel time and costs for pod participants while still providing the benefits of in-person interaction.

You can segment online pods to reflect specific “tribes”: groups of people with something in common. For example, think about a conference to explore the implications of a medical breakthrough. One pod could be for patient groups that the discovery will affect. Another might include medical personnel able to deliver the new technology or procedure. Yet another group could contain scientists working on next iterations. [A hat tip to Martin Sirk for suggesting this example!]

Creating pods that reflect event participant segments allow different communities’ goals and objectives to be optimally met while sharing with all participants a common body of learning and experiences via the hub.

Convenience

As noted above, using in-person pods can dramatically reduce the travel time and cost for event participants without sacrificing the benefits of meeting in-person. This allows more people to attend the hub and spoke meeting, and makes it easier for them to do so.

Hub and spoke variants

Depending on the choices made, a hub and spoke event will take one of the following forms:

In-person hub and in-person pods

This is the classic hybrid hub and spoke format that we used 10 years ago at Event Camp Twin Cities (ECTC).

Producing Event Camp Twin Cities 2011

Here’s a little information about the groundbreaking ECTC. Besides the attendees at the in-person hub event in Minneapolis, seven remote pods in Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, Silicon Valley and two corporate headquarters were tied in to a hub feed that—due to the technology available at the time—was delayed approximately twenty seconds. As you might expect, this delay led to a number of communication issues between the hub and pods. I wrote about ECTC in more detail here.

There will always be some communications delay between the hub and pods, though these days it can be reduced to a fraction of the delay at ECTC. Such delays should be taken into account when designing hub and spoke events.

Online pods

My recent experience of being in an online pod viewing an online hub event made me realize that online pods can be used to great effect with either in-person or online hub events.

Since February, 2021, my friend, tech producer, and meeting industry educator Brandt Krueger has been hosting weekly EventTech Chats on Zoom, together with another friend, his talented co-host, “The Voice of Events”, Glenn Thayer. Yesterday, Brandt was presenting at an MPI event on hybrid meetings, so Glenn shared the event so we could kibitz. Seven of us were in a Zoom, watching a Zoom…

hub spoke meeting

I commented about the recursive nature of this…

…and Anh Nguyen replied that the experience was like Inception. She also mentioned Giggl, which, in similar fashion, allows a group to interact (text and voice) on a shared internet portal. This could be useful if you don’t have a Zoom license.

Our pod experience

The MPI meeting had over 150 viewers. We noticed that there was little interaction on the MPI Zoom chat. Our little group was much more active on chat. We were a small group with a common set of interests, and we all knew each other to some extent.

It’s clear to me that we had a much more interactive, useful, and intimate discussion than the hub event group.

Yes, this is one anecdotal example. But I hope you can see how being in a small pod of connected folks can lead to a better experience than being one of many attending the same event at a hub.

The ease, with today’s technology, of creating an online pod with whomever you please to watch and comment on a hub event, makes this an attractive option to attending the hub event directly online. (If you wanted to, of course, you could do both—as Glenn Thayer did for our pod.)

In-person and online pods

Finally, there’s no reason why a hub event can’t support a mixture of in-person and online pods. (In fact, ECTC had a small number of individual remote viewers as well, though I suspect they could only watch the hub stream.) Once the hub stream is available, one can share it with an online pod, or on a large screen with an in-person pod. Mix and match to satisfy event stakeholders’ and participants’ wants and needs!

Conclusion

I believe that hybrid meetings, catapulted into industry awareness by the COVID-19 pandemic, will be a permanent fixture of the meeting industry “new normal”. Once we’ve firmly established the design and production expertise needed for hybrid, hub and spoke is a simple addition that promises the many advantages I’ve described in this post.

It may take a while, but I think we are going to see a growing use of this exciting and flexible format.

What do you think about hub and spoke meetings? Have you experienced one, and, if so, what was it like? Do you expect to use this format in future events? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Is the end of an event important?

end event importantIs the end of an event important?

It’s complicated.

8 years ago, I wrote about how to create especially memorable events. Including many different kinds of short experiences during our meetings, allows us to hack the peak-end rule to maximize the impact of an event on attendees.

Here’s what I said…

…the peak-end rule suggests that we judge experiences largely based on how they were perceived at their peak and at their end. This implies that we should concentrate on making sure that our events end powerfully. That’s because the peak-end rule implies that we’ll better remember an event with a peak and then a powerful finish than one with two peak experiences sandwiched in the body of the event.
Hack the peak-end rule to maximize conference impact, April 2013

So, clearly, we should ensure that events end with a “powerful finish”, so they’ll be especially memorable.

Right?

Well, maybe not.

What can we learn from professional speakers?

Think about good professional speakers for a moment. They know about the peak-end rule. Professional speakers invariably include one or more peak moments during their presentation, and end powerfully. They do this to be memorable.

Good professional speakers have an emotional impact, which makes them memorable. But, as I’ve written elsewhere, there’s no guarantee you’ll learn anything more from them than a “poor” presenter covering the same content.

The danger of focusing on a powerful event ending

There’s nothing wrong with employing a powerful event ending to make it memorable.

Unless—we do so at the expense of making the entire event not only memorable but also useful.

Because memorability is great while it lasts. But it actually isn’t usually important in the long term.

What is important is that the entire event ends up satisfying stakeholders’ goals and objectives as much as possible.

Here’s Seth Godin’s take on the danger of what he calls the focus on the last thing:

“…We focus on the thing that happened just before the end. And that’s almost always an unimportant moment.

Things went wrong (or things went right) because of a long series of decisions and implementations…

When you get to the thing before the last thing, don’t sweat it. It’s almost certainly too late to make the outcome change. On the other hand, when you’re quietly discussing the thing before that before that before that before that, it might pay to bring more attention to it than the circumstances seem to demand. Because that’s the key moment.”

—Seth Godin, The focus on the last thing

So, is the end of an event important?

The answer is yes.

And, so is everything that leads up to it!

To make an event maximally useful and productive, concentrate on its conference arc rather than a grand climax.

That’s the way to create a truly memorable event for everyone involved.

How meeting professionals can measure and improve event ROI in a post-pandemic world

[My June, 2021 guest post for BlueJeans by Verizon on event ROI.]Event ROI

What is event ROI?

Return On Investment (ROI) is such a familiar business concept that it’s easy to gloss over the complexities of defining it in the context of events. So let’s define event ROI in a little more detail.

Typically, ROI is thought of as a financial metric to evaluate the profitability of an investment. Some event stakeholders use ROI as a financial tool to evaluate the profitability of holding or attending an event. Others view it as a non-financial metric. For example, an academic invited to speak at a meeting might compare their investment of time and money spent attending with their expected return of increased status, easier access to colleagues, or greater likelihood of obtaining tenure.

Rather than spend more time delving into the complexities of defining event ROI (explore further at the Event ROI Institute), suffice it to say that event ROI is an intricate attempt to measure value for event stakeholders.

Who gets ROI at an event?

Events have multiple stakeholders. All events have owners, suppliers of services and products, and attendees. And there are often other stakeholders, such as associated organizations, exhibitors, employees, and volunteers.

Which stakeholders receive the event ROI?

Ideally, all of them!

For example:

  • Event owners expect to profit financially from the event, or from its contribution to shareholder value, or its support of an organization’s mission.
  • Suppliers of services and products plan to make a financial profit from their investment of time and resources, and perhaps firm up additional profitable business too.
  • Exhibitors hope to gain new customers, maintain or strengthen existing business relationships, increase brand awareness, and promote their offerings to a wider audience, thus obtaining greater market share.
  • Attendees profit by learning about top-of-mind topics and issues of interest, getting their questions answered, building their knowledge peer network, and maintaining or increasing their status and visibility.

Notice that different event stakeholders think of ROI in very different ways. Successful win-win events provide attractive ROI for every stakeholder.

Event ROI and the pandemic

With the loss of most in-person meetings during the pandemic, stakeholders with tangible investments in face-to-face meetings have an ROI of zero. The meeting industry continues to reel under a wave of cancellations, postponements, and uncertainty.

Post-pandemic, potential event ROI is not significantly different from what it was before, except that the delivery models for meetings are going to be different. It seems likely that the mix will include:

  • Fewer in-person;
  • More online; and
  • More hybrid (in-person and online) meetings.

Considerations for event owners

Calculating post-pandemic ROI is especially difficult for event owners, because it’s not clear yet:

  • What the mix of these three delivery models will be.
  • How eager people will be to attend in-person events.
  • Whether there are attractive ROI models for online exhibitors, who are typically significant revenue contributors to in-person meetings.
  • What will people be willing to pay for online attendance, compared to what they paid for pre-pandemic face-to-face meetings.

In addition, the meeting industry is still clarifying the production costs involved with larger online meetings. After a year of hasty learning how to produce online events that satisfy still indeterminate norms for event production quality and reliability, it’s still unclear what a typical online meeting will involve and cost for each of the different pre-pandemic meeting sectors.

Considerations for event supplies and attendees

Calculating post-pandemic ROI for suppliers and attendees is unlikely to be markedly different from what they did before. Attendees, of course, will now often have the option to attend on-line or in person. It will be interesting to see the choices people make. One clear trend has been the increase in attendance for meetings that have successfully transitioned to online from in-person. Larger audiences at such events may be a way to increase revenue (though at a lower cost-per-seat) over time.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic positively affected the meeting industry?

Yes, the coronavirus pandemic has had a terrible impact on the meeting industry. But, there’s a silver lining.

During the pandemic, online meetings replaced many in-person meetings. Producing and experiencing online meetings has been challenging. Yet stakeholders have discovered numerous positive aspects, including:

  • You’re instantly “there”. Travel expense and time is eliminated, with an associated sustainability bonus.
  • It’s become clear that many in-person meetings can be conducted just as effectively and successfully online. Meeting stakeholders now have much more experience as to when online can replace in-person meetings.
  • Participants’ increased familiarity and acceptance of on-line meetings have led to the rise of new ways of meeting for organizations. I’ve worked with clients who have replaced large in-person meetings of physically separated senior executives with more frequent, smaller, tightly targeted online meetings. These meetings have been so well received, that they will continue online post-pandemic.
  • Online meetings, which attendees can easily leave or ignore, have increased stakeholder awareness of the importance and value of using engaging, interactive meeting formats.

Event platforms for connection

The pressure to find comprehensive replacements for face-to-face meetings has sped the development of technology platforms that better support connection between participants. Pre-pandemic online platforms were designed to provide broadcast-style meeting formats. A host of new online platforms, like Gatherly, Rally, Wonder, and others, allow fluid, participant-driven connection much closer to that found in an in-person meeting social. These platforms provide the “hallway conversations” missing from larger platforms, like Zoom, BlueJeans, and Teams.

Finally, the pandemic has helped the meeting industry to better appreciate the unique advantages that pre-pandemic, in-person events could offer. The value of our human desire to meet in person, unfettered by masks and social distancing, has only been strengthened by its absence. The meeting industry will never be the same after this pandemic. But, thanks to it, we have all gained a heightened awareness of the importance of face-to-face meetings in our lives.

Improving event ROI

The COVID-19 pandemic has given the meeting industry and its customers a painful but potentially valuable opportunity to rethink events.

The most promising way to improve event ROI involves simple but fundamental changes to the processes and meeting formats we use at our meetings.

During the last decade, the meeting industry has become aware of the importance of providing meetings that are highly relevant, interactive, and engaging. In the past, once you induced attendees to attend an in-person meeting they became captives of the meeting program.  They were trapped in the middle of a row of seats during sessions that were often irrelevant/poorly presented/boring.

Over a year of online meetings with attendees routinely tuning out after a few minutes, has clearly shown the poor quality of the majority of traditional meeting sessions.

Improving meetings

Decades of experience show that you can improve all kinds of meetings, whether in-person or online, by designing them to:

  • Provide opening opportunities for participants to discover who else is present, what they want to discuss and learn about, and the collective expertise and experience that’s available to tap.
  • Include significant time for sessions that are participant-driven. In other words, the meeting provides a real-time structure for participants to choose what they want to discuss and learn, and then create sessions that meet those wants and needs.
  • Create and strengthen community throughout the meeting. Meetings are perhaps the most powerful ways to build community. This pays rich long-term dividends for everyone involved. Yet traditional meetings provide little if any explicit support for community building.

When participants are truly happy with the meetings they attend, all stakeholders benefit. The adoption of participant-driven and participation-rich meeting formats improves event ROI. Why? Because such events are better at satisfying stakeholders’ actual wants and needs. It’s not surprising that responsive and interactive event designs and sessions are steadily replacing the lecture-centric formats of many formerly webinar-style meetings.

Event ROI is likely to improve in other ways, of course. For example, as online meeting technology matures, it’s likely that production costs will drop, improving event owners’ bottom line. But I think the greatest (and easiest) improvements to event ROI involve adopting human process technologies that allow meetings to become what participants actually want and need.

Powerful Panels interview with Adrian Segar

Powerful Panels interviewHere’s my Powerful Panels interview with good friend and meeting panel doyen Kristin Arnold. During our 25 minutes together, we discussed various panel formats, their value, and how to structure and design powerful panel discussions into the larger context of meetings, conferences, and events.

Annotated timeline of the video

0:00 Introduction.

2:30 A brief history of meetings; why lecture formats are still so popular; how panels fit into the larger context of meetings.

5:30 When and how to use panels, and why.

8:00 Different panel formats.

9:00 The fishbowl—Adrian’s favorite discussion format (which includes panels as a special case).

10:15 Adrian describes the fishbowl sandwich format, and how he used it to find solutions for an industry-wide problem with a group of several hundred people. Includes a description of pair share. How to know when a session is a smash hit.

14:00 Comparing the fishbowl to Clubhouse. How to run fishbowl in-person and on Zoom.

18:00 Kristin describes her version: empty chair.

18:30 Alternative seating arrangements for fishbowl.

19:00 Why you should use curved theatre seating.

21:00 How these formats satisfy the core purpose of meeting formats: creating great conversation with smart people that delivers valuable takeaways.

22:45 Using the Post It! technique to determine what should be covered during a meeting or session, and at what level.

24:45 Most important takeaway: Be curious about doing meetings differently. Now, there are better formats available for meetings than those we’ve always used. Don’t just read about these formats, but experience them at a well-designed, well-facilitated/moderated event to truly learn how great a meeting can be.


We covered a lot in a short time, but there’s much more to learn about Powerful panels and good meeting design!

If you liked this Powerful Panels interview, check out Kristin’s other Powerful Panels Podcast interviews!

And check out the links in this post to learn more about the topics mentioned.

Bonus: More ways to create panels designed as if the audience matters.

Why our meetings are still full of lectures

Why are our meetings still full of lectures?

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.

Yes, switching to active learning is hard, but it’s worth it! Social learning is humans’ true superpower. Learning researchers and our best teachers and meeting designers have known this for a long time. Learning in community allows us to uncover and incorporate all the questions, discussion topics, expertise, and experience available in the room.

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.

Video courtesy of The Matt Skidmore Show

Social learning is humans’ true superpower

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

social learning superpower
Illustration from Humankind by 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.

What are you waiting for?

Are Online Meetings Reducing Our Collective Intelligence?

online meetings collective intelligence
Are online meetings reducing our collective intelligence [CI]? New research from Carnegie Mellon has been widely interpreted as concluding that, for example, “Zoom is actually less effective than a phone call”, and “Video conferencing can hurt collaboration”.

Not so fast.

New research about online meetings

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 my experience, I find seeing participants when meeting online to be useful in groups that have a relationship formed by multiple meetings over time. Although you might reasonably question whether eye contact with people online can evoke the same responses as seeing them in person, there is research that indicates that eye contact during online meetings creates the same kind of responses as eye contact face to face.

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.

CMU discussion

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.”

Conclusion

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

A novel way to assess consensus

assess consensus

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.

Methods to assess consensus

For small groups, Roman voting (The Power of Participation, Chapter 46) provides a simple and effective method of assessing agreement.

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.]

Want to know how it works?

Read the rest of this entry »

Ask Me Anything—a better alternative to guest lectures

Ask Me Anything

Recently, I’ve been appearing as a guest at college event planning and hospitality courses to talk about meeting design. (I love to do this. Teachers, please contact me, it’s free!) Rather than lecture for an hour, I’ve been using an Ask Me Anything (aka AMA) meeting format.

Here’s why I think Ask Me Anything is almost always a better session format than a lecture.

I’ve written extensively on this blog (1, 2, 3) and in my books about why the meeting lecture is a terrible way to learn. (A one-sentence distillation: learning is a process not an event.)

But suppose a group gets the opportunity to spend time with a content expert who knows a lot more about their field than anyone else present? Isn’t a lecture the best format to use in these circumstances?

Well…sometimes. First, let’s explore the circumstances when a lecture may be the way to go. Then I’ll make a case for why an Ask Me Anything format is usually a better choice.

Read the rest of this entry »

No, I do not hate in-person meetings

hate in-person meetingsI’d like to be clear that I don’t hate in-person meetings, despite what some have been posting recently on a Facebook group for meeting professionals:

“Often wondered why so many on this feed hate live events.”

“It is my opinion that this group does not support any in-person meetings or gatherings of any kind…”

” I am sad to see so many industry giants verbally destroying our industry – apparently with glee.”

Let’s explore what’s causing opinions and feelings like this in the meeting industry.

The tension in the meeting industry

As I’ve said before, the pandemic’s impact on lives and businesses has been devastating, especially for the meeting industry. COVID-19 has virtually eliminated in-person meetings: our industry’s bread and butter. Many meeting professionals have lost their jobs, and are understandably desperate for our industry to recover. We are all looking for ways for in-person meetings to return.

Unfortunately, I and many others believe there is a strong case to make against currently holding in-person meetings. Ethically, despite the massive personal and financial consequences, we should not be submitting people to often-unadvertised, dangerous, and life-threatening conditions so we can go back to work.

I’ve been posting bits and pieces of the case against currently holding in-person meetings on various online platforms, and decided it was time to bring everything together in one (long for me) post. I hope many meeting industry professionals will read this and respond. As always, all points of view are welcome, especially those that can share how to mitigate any of the following concerns.

The strong case against holding in-person meetings right now

Here are four important reasons why I think we shouldn’t be holding “large” in-person meetings right now. (Obviously, “large” is a moving target. Checking Georgia Tech’s COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool as I write this, a national US event with 500 people is extremely likely (>95%) to have one or more COVID-19 positive individuals present.)

1) Posted safety protocols are not followed

Seven months ago, I explained why, in my opinion, in-person meetings do not make sense in a COVID-19 environment. I assumed that in-person meetings could, in principle, be held safely if everyone:

  • meticulously observed social distancing and masking;
  • could safely travel to and from events;
  • be housed safely; move around event venues while safely maintaining social distancing; and
  • eat and drink safely.

Even if one could meet these difficult conditions, I questioned the value of such in-person meetings. Why? Because meetings are fundamentally about connection around relevant content. And it’s impossible to connect well with people wearing face masks who are six or more feet apart!

In addition, there’s ample evidence that some people won’t follow declared safety protocols. Since I wrote that post, we have heard reports and seen examples of in-person meetings where attendees and staff are not reliably social distancing, and/or aren’t wearing masks properly or at all.

Orlando, Florida, OCCC Together Again Expo, July 2020

This is most likely to happen during socials and meals, where masks have to be temporarily removed. It’s understandably hard for attendees to resist our lifetime habit of moving close to socialize.

2) We perform hygiene theater—but please don’t ask us about our ventilation systems

Many venues trumpet their comprehensive COVID-19 cleaning protocols. Extensive cleaning was prudent during the early pandemic months, when we didn’t know much about how the virus spread. But we now know that extensive cleaning is hygiene theater (1, 2); the primary transmission vector for COVID-19 is airborne.

A recent editorial in the leading scientific journal Nature begins: “Catching the virus from surfaces is rare” and goes on to say “efforts to prevent spread should focus on improving ventilation or installing rigorously tested air purifiers”.

I haven’t heard of any venues that have publicly explained how their ventilation systems minimize or eliminate the chance of airborne COVID-19 transmission!

Why? Because it’s a complicated, and potentially incredibly expensive issue to safely mitigate. And venues are reluctant or unable to do the custom engineering and, perhaps, costly upgrades necessary to ensure that the air everyone breaths onsite is HEPA filtered fast enough to keep any COVID positive attendee shedding at a safe level.

Adequate ventilation of indoor spaces where people have removed masks for eating or drinking is barely mentioned in governmental gathering requirements (like this one, dated March 3, 2021, from the State of Nevada). These guidelines assume that whatever ventilation existed pre-COVID is adequate under the circumstances, as long as all parties are socially distanced. We know from research that there are locales — e.g. dining rooms with low ceilings or inadequate ventilation — where this is not a safe practice, since it’s possible for COVID droplets to travel far further than 6 feet.

In case you are interested, current recommendations are for MERV 13 filtering throughout the venue. Does your venue offer this?

P.S. I expect there are venues that have done this work. Do you know of venues that have done the engineering to certify a measurable level of safe air on their premises? If so, please share in the comments! We should know about these conscientious organizations.

3) Inadequate or no pre-, during-, or post- COVID testing, and contact tracing

Shockingly, many in-person meetings now taking place require no pretesting of staff or attendees. (News flash: Checking someone’s forehead temperature when they enter a venue will not detect anyone who is infectious for the two days before symptoms appear, or who is asymptomatic.)

Even if everyone in the venue is tested daily, the widely used quick tests are simply too unreliable. From Nature again:

“Deeks says that a December trial at the University of Birmingham is an example of how rapid tests can miss infections. More than 7,000 symptom-free students there took an Innova test; only 2 tested positive. But when the university researchers rechecked 10% of the negative samples using PCR, they found another 6 infected students. Scaling that up across all the samples, the test probably missed 60 infected students.”
—Nature, February 9, 2021, Rapid coronavirus tests: a guide for the perplexed

Finally, I find it upsetting that venues like the OCCC keep claiming that they are #MeetingSafely when they are doing no post event follow-up! If an attendee contracts COVID-19 at the event, returns home, and infects grandma, how would the OCCC ever know?! Under the circumstances, I think it’s misleading, dangerous, and unethical for such a venue to publicly claim that they are providing an #MeetingSafely environment.
hate in-person meetings

4) We’re meeting safe—but you can’t sue us if we’re not

In fact, some in-person meetings quietly acknowledge that they may not be providing a “safe” environment. One meeting venue held an in-person meeting that required waivers that forever bind attendees and their family members, and “heirs, assigns and personal representatives” not to sue if they contract COVID-19.

“I voluntarily assume full responsibility for any risks of loss or personal injury, including serious illness, injury or death, that may be sustained by me or by others who come into contact with me, as a result of my presence in the Facilities, whether caused by the negligence of the AKC or OCCC or otherwise … I UNDERSTAND THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY AND AGREE THAT IT IS VALID FOREVER. It is my express intent that this Waiver binds; (i) the members of my family and spouse, if I am alive, and (ii) my heirs, assigns and personal representatives, if I am deceased.”
—Extract from the Orlando, Florida, OCCC American Kennel Club National Championship Dog Show, December, 2020, Waiver

I’m not sure how you can bind people to a contract who may not even know they are a party to it. But, hey, I’m not a lawyer…

So, can we safely and ethically hold in-person meetings right now?

For the reasons shared above, I don’t believe we can safely and ethically hold in-person meetings right now. Consequently, it’s alarming that many venues, and some meeting planners, are promoting in-person meetings in the near future.

Do I hate in-person meetings?

By now it should be clear that I stand with meeting professionals like Cathi Lundgren, who posted the following in our Facebook group discussions:

“I’m not going to be silent when someone holds a meeting in a ballroom with a 100+ people and no masking or social distancing…I own a global meetings company—and we haven’t worked since March but no matter how much I want to get back at it I’m not going to condone behaviors that are not positive for the overall health of our industry.”
Cathi Lundgren, CMP, CAE

And here’s how I replied to the first Facebook commenter quoted at the top of this post:

“For goodness sake. I LOVE in-person events. It’s been heartbreaking for me, like everyone, to have not attended one for a year now. But that doesn’t mean I am going to risk stakeholder, staff, and attendee lives by uncritically supporting in-person meetings that are, sadly, according to current science, still dangerous to attend. When in-person meetings are safe to attend once more — and that day can’t come soon enough — you bet I’ll be designing, facilitating, and attending them.”

I hope it’s clear that I, and those meeting professionals who are pointing out valid safety and ethical concerns, don’t hate in-person meetings. Realistically, the future of in-person meetings remains uncertain, even with the amazing progress in developing and administering effective vaccines. More mutant COVID-19 strains that are resistant to or evade current vaccines, transmit more effectively, or have more deadly effects are possible. Any such developments could delay or fundamentally change our current hopes that maintaining transmission prevention plus mass vaccination will bring the pandemic under control.

I’m cautiously optimistic. But, right now, there are still too many unknowns for me to recommend clients to commit resources to future large 100% in-person events. Hub-and-spoke format hybrid meetings look like a safer bet. Regardless, everyone in the meeting industry hopes that it will be safe to hold in-person meetings real soon.

In the meantime, please don’t attack those of us in the industry who point out safety and ethical issues and consequences of prematurely scheduling in-person meetings. We want them back too! We all miss them.