Well, listen to and consider this June 11, 2021 quote from New York City Mayoral frontrunner Eric Adams:
“With new technology of remote learning, you don’t need school children to be in a school building with a number of teachers. It’s just the opposite. You could have one great teacher that’s in one of our specialized high schools teach 300-400 students…”
When the leading candidate for the Mayor of New York City has this take on how people learn, perhaps it’s not so surprising that we’re still sitting through endless broadcast-style sessions at meetings and conferences.
Until we elect leadership that has a basic understanding of how great teachers actually teach, and how their students can effectively learn, we’re going to continue to live in a world of meetings full of ineffective lectures.
What is humans’ true superpower? [Hint: We’re not more intelligent than other species.] We can make a strong case that humans’ true superpower is social learning. Why am I writing about social learning on a blog that’s (mainly) about meeting design? Because social (uncovered) learning is the best learning model for conference sessions. Which means, to create the best meetings we need to maximize the social learning that takes place.
Humans’ true superpower
I’m reading Dutch historian and author, Rutger Bregman‘s absorbing and optimistic Humankind. The book presents a ton of evidence that — despite the torrent of bad news that daily floods our media — “humans are hardwired for kindness, geared towards cooperation rather than competition, and more inclined to trust rather than distrust one another.”
Early in the book, is this passage:
“What makes human beings unique? Why do we build museums, while the Neanderthals are stuck in the displays?”
“Chimpanzees and orangutans score on a par with human two-year-olds on almost every cognitive test. But when it comes to learning, the toddlers win hands down.”
“Human beings, it turns out, are ultra social learning machines.“
“…humans have another weird feature: we have whites in our eyes. This unique trait lets us follow the direction of other people’s gazes…Humans, in short, are anything but poker-faced. We constantly leak emotions and are hardwired to relate to the people around us. But far from being a handicap, this is our true superpower, because sociable people aren’t only more fun to be around, in the end they’re smarter too.” [emphasis added, illustration based on this research] —Humankind, Rutger Bregman
Or, as Seth Godin puts it:
“If you know how to walk, write, read, type, have a conversation, perform surgery or cook an egg, it’s probably because you practiced and explored and experienced, not because it was on a test.” —The revolution in online learning, Seth Godin
We aren’t superior thinkers. Humans don’t remember stuff better or longer or more accurately that other species. We aren’t better at causal reasoning. The one characteristic — our superpower — that distinguishes us from the other life on our planet is how we learn from and with others. (And how they learn from and with us.)
Social learning is how humans learn. We’re great at it, compared with other life forms. (Yes, there’s always room for improvement.)
So, for pity’s sake, don’t lecture and test. Eliminate all the one-hour (or longer) lecture sessions. Instead, build social learning into your meetings as much as possible.
So, how can I incorporate the power of social learning into my events?
It’s not hard to unleash the power of social learning at your events! Simply implement the participant-driven and participation-rich processes I’ve described and taught in my books and workshops for over thirty years.
Here’s a summary of the research findings from the abstract of the article:
“We show that…the presence of visual cues surprisingly has no effect on CI; furthermore, teams without visual cues are more successful in synchronizing their vocal cues and speaking turns, and when they do so, they have higher CI. Our findings show that nonverbal synchrony is important in distributed collaboration and call into question the necessity of video support.” —Speaking out of turn: How video conferencing reduces vocal synchrony and collective intelligence. Maria Tomprou, Young Ji Kim, Prerna Chikersal, Anita Williams Woolley, Laura A. Dabbish
Translation: in the experimental setup used, the researchers found that online meeting participants were:
better able to avoid interrupting each other; and
shared the available time more equally.
There’s good evidence that both of these factors improve CI. How? Theory of Mind (ToM) research shows that a group’s CI is correlated with members’ scores on a remarkable test: Reading the Mind in the Eyes (RME). Google’s Project Aristotle research on creating high-performing teams—i.e. teams with high CI—found that teams with high RME scores also displayed these two behaviors.
I don’t have the background to evaluate the experimental methodology and protocols used in the CMU research. But I have no problem accepting their results.
Where I disagree, however, is how the researchers extend their experimental findings to everyday online meetings.
Can we conclude that turning off video increases collective intelligence during online meetings?
I don’t think so. Why?
Because the vast majority of online meetings provide a significantly different environment than the CMU researchers used.
From the research article:
“…our findings were observed in newly formed and non-recurring dyads in the laboratory…”
“Each session lasted about 30 minutes. Members of each dyad were seated in two separate rooms. After participants completed the pre-test survey independently, they initiated a conference call with their partner. Participants logged onto the Platform for Online Group Studies … to complete the Test of Collective Intelligence (TCI) with their partner. The TCI contained six tasks ranging from 2 to 6 minutes each, and instructions were displayed before each task for 15 seconds to 1.5 minutes.”
Artificial online meetings
My first objection is that all the CMU experiments were conducted with only groups of two participants, neither of whom had ever met before.
This hardly describes the make-up of most online meetings. And, perhaps more important, when we are meeting with people for the first time there is a lot more to process than in subsequent meetings, when we already have some familiarity. An initial phone call with a stranger may be more comfortable than a Zoom video chat because it is less intimate.
My late mentor Jerry Weinberg encapsulated the overloading that occurs during an initial (consulting) meeting in his Five-Minute Rule:
“Clients always know how to solve their problems, and always tell you the solution in the first five minutes.”
Unbelievably, I’ve found this is true. Unfortunately, the problem is listening well enough, despite the initial sensory overload, to hear what needs to be heard.
Working as a team
My second objection concerns the brevity of the research exercises. “Six tasks ranging from 2 to 6 minutes each” simply doesn’t reflect what people with more than a passing relationship do in real-life meetings. In my experience, it takes time to build a sense of someone through their facial expressions and body language. It’s unrealistic to extrapolate from what occurs during a series of brief interactions with someone you’ve never met before to how a larger group will function during a longer meeting or series of meetings.
The following story may illustrate this point. In 2016, I experienced my first escape room. Two teams competed to escape two identical rooms. Both teams included people I hardly knew. (This occurred during the first Meeting Design Practicum in Utrecht, The Netherlands: more details here). One thing I noticed was that my impromptu “team” of strangers spent no time on body language cues while working together. As we explored the room, we would call out things we’d discovered, and other team members would gather and look at what we’d found. We communicated to each other by voice, and used our vision to concentrate on clues.
If I had stayed with the same team and continued to play escape room games, over time we would have picked up the body language of other players and been able to use it to improve how we worked together.
My experience of the value of seeing participants during online meetings
In addition, I think the CMU research actually supports my experience, when applied to longer and longer-term meetings with more participants. The article’s discussion includes this passage:
“we did find that in the video condition, facial expression synchrony predicts collective intelligence. This result suggests that when visual cues are available it is important that interaction partners attend to them.”
I would argue that the negative effect on CI that the research found when video was available is due to the overloading effects I described above. When team members become more familiar with each other, overloading disappears and visual clues are not a distraction but a positive influence on CI.
The CMU researchers acknowledge the points I’ve made above.
“Our study has limitations, which offer opportunities for future research. For example, our findings were observed in newly formed and non-recurring dyads in the laboratory. It remains to be seen whether our findings will generalize to teams that are ongoing or in which there is greater familiarity among members, as in the case of distributed teams in organizations.”
So, are online meetings reducing our collective intelligence?
I hope my perspective will turn out to be valid, counteracting the initial, IMO overblown, interpretations of the CMU research. Although we all hope things will change, right now, we can’t universally meet safely face-to-face without social distancing and wearing masks. Both these requirements significantly reduce our ability to “read” others. Given the ease of meeting online, and the fact that we can actually do decent eye contact there, I’d argue that online meetings with video have the advantage right now.
P.S. Bonus tips! It can be hard to figure out who should go first or speak next during an online meeting with multiple participants. Check out my posts “Who goes first?” and “Who goes next?” for ideas!
Do you think online meetings are reducing our collective intelligence? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Image attribution: Business people having online meeting by Jacob Lund from Noun Project
Chapter 44 of my book The Power of Participation explains how facilitators use participatory voting to provide public information about viewpoints in the room, and pave the way for further discussion. In particular, we often use participatory voting to assess consensus.
It’s often unclear whether a group has formed a consensus around a specific viewpoint or proposed action. Consensual participatory voting techniques can quickly show whether a group has reached or is close to consensus, or wants to continue discussion.
However, Roman voting isn’t great for large groups, because participants can’t easily see how others have voted. Card voting (ibid, Chapter 47) works quite well for large groups, but it requires:
procurement and distribution of card sets beforehand; and
training participants on how to use the cards.
A novel way to assess consensus with large groups
I recently came across a novel (to me) way to explore large group consensus. This simple technique requires no training or extra resources. In addition, it’s a fine example of semi-anonymous voting: group voting where it’s difficult to determine how individuals vote without observing them during the process. [Dot voting (ibid, Chapter 49), is another semi-anonymous voting method.]
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.
I’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.)
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.
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.
4) We’re meeting safe—but you can’t sue us if we’re not
“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.
My post on gamification last week garnered plenty of comments on LinkedIn. Many responses exposed the vague ways people use the word gamification to imply, well, something good about a service that some companies provide. Like advertising’s liberal use of improved! without explaining what’s improved, the genius of the word gamification is that it can be applied as a plausible sounding selling point to all kinds of products, without ever saying what gamification is, or specifying its benefits. So let’s explore the gulf between playing games and gamification in the world of events.
Here’s an eloquent description of game designer and performative games artist Professor Eric Zimmerman‘s experience of playing games with Bernie in the 60’s:
“Not too long ago, I was privileged to take part in a New Games event led by Bernie. On a brisk afternoon in the Netherlands, a few dozen players stood outside in a circle. Withthe boundless panache of a practiced ringmaster and the eternal patience of a kindergarten teacher, Bernie taught us several games.
Bernie led by example, always reminding us that we could change the rules to suit the moment, or that we could exit the game whenever we wanted. Attuned to the spirit of the group, he flowed effortlessly from one game to another, tweaking a ruleset to make a game feel better, always somehow knowing exactly when it was time to move on.
He wove his spell. Or, rather, we wove it together. As we threw animal gestures across thin air, raced like hell with locked knees to capture enemies, and became a single blind organism with a forest of groping hands, Bernie helped us massage our play into a more beautiful shape. In a short space of time, jaded gamers, know-it-all developers, and standoffish academics became squealing, sweating, smiling purveyors of play.
‘This is amazing! I can feel the equilibrium shift and restore itself. I can’t tell which one of us is making it happen. But I feel so sensitive–I can sense the game. I can sense the way we’re playing it together. And I love it. I love being this way. I love doing this thing, playing this game with you.'”
One more quote. Bernie wrote the following in 1978 about playing well:
“If I’m playing well, I am, in fact, complete. I am without purpose because all my purposes are being fulfilled. I’m doing it. I am making it. I’m succeeding. This is the reason for playing this game. This is the purpose of this game for me. The goals, the rules, everything I did in order to create the safety and permission I needed, were so that I could do this-so I could experience this excellence, this shared excellence of the well-played game.”
Now, compare what you’ve just read with your experience of “gamification” of meetings.
If you’re like me, there’s no comparison between the experience of playing a game well and the experience (often negative) of participating in “gamified” conference sessions. The former is transcendent, the latter often something to avoid.
As I wrote last week, gamification concentrates on competition and rewards to encourage participation. Proponents don’t directly address whether gamification actually leads to joy and fun. Instead, they imply it by including a version of the word “game”.
“The rhetorical power of the word “gamification” is enormous, and it does precisely what the bullshitters want: it takes games—a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people—and it makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business.” —Ian Bogost, Gamification is Bullshit (2011)
Yes, competitive experiences can be fun. (Though, as I write this on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday 2020, I’m wondering how much fun the Chiefs and Buccaneer players will experience.) It turns out that including competition into a well-played game is surprisingly tricky. Bernie, who designed events and computer games in the 1970’s and 80’s, wrote extensively about this, including the roles of coaches and spectators.
Yes, rewards can be fun too, provided the rewards are really, well, rewarding.
The problem is that manufactured competitive experiences usually feel fake. I’m supposed to get excited about beating some other randomly chosen team so I can win a prize I generally don’t want that much. Even if the prize is substantial — “an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii!” — what I have to go through to “win” is unlikely to feel joyous.
And, of course, “you have to play to win.” But, as Bernie says in The Well-Played Game:
“…as I’ve seen and said so many times, if I have to play, I’m not really playing.”
Once someone requires you to “play the game”, gamification becomes little more than trying to make an obligatory task more enjoyable. Articles like this one, which touts the benefits of gamification on an already highly competitive group, are silent on the effects of a coercive learning environment on participants in general, many of whom may resent being constantly compared with their peers.
Many of the comments on last week’s post referenced using games to improve the effectiveness of learning, or adding some fun activities to an event. This is a straw man argument, because, yes, using games to achieve specific objectives, like learning something experientially, or having fun is often helpful. Applied Improvisation (1, 2), about which I’ve written a fair amount, is a fine example, as are serious games. But these approaches are not gamification as it’s routinely marketed! In reality, these are game-like activities that have value in their own right, rather than band-aiding them onto existing meeting activities.
In contrast, the concept of “gamifying” something we already do at a meeting is basically a marketing strategy rather than something that’s actually useful.
Incorporating playing games well into events
Here are a couple examples of successfully incorporating game playing, ala Bernie DeKoven, into events.
Simulations and serious games
A number of years ago, I participated in a high-end business simulation that took place during a meeting industry conference. [If anyone can provide more information on this session, please let me know!]
It included briefings and a set of high-quality videos that introduced a motorsports business situation leading to several possible choices. We split into small groups and discussed what our group thought was the best choice. We shared and discussed the group conclusions en masse and chose one of them, which led to another video segment showing the consequences and giving us another set of choices. After, I think, three choice points, the simulation ended and we debriefed and discussed the lessons learned.
The small groups didn’t create significant connection, so I wouldn’t class this as gamification, but it was a learning experience with game-like features.
I remember that creating this single example was clearly very expensive and only provided limited (though probably quite effective) learning. The session provided the same kind of experience as some interactive courseware built for education.
Ask people what “improvisation” brings to mind, and many mention improvisation in the performing arts, aka improv. As the name suggests, applied improvisation (AI) applies improv techniques, skills, and games developed and formalized over the last hundred years to learning activities in areas like team building, social work, health care, responding to emergencies, etc. — in other words, student-centered interactive learning.
Today, AI practitioners have a rich inventory of hundreds of games, with a myriad of variations. (Some invented, as you might expect, in the moment as needed.) A skilled AI practitioner is able to design meeting sessions that satisfy complex needs for improved human interaction. These sessions are also a lot of fun!
The gulf between playing games and gamification
Both of the above examples require significant resources. Simulations involve careful learning design plus the creation of supporting materials. Successful AI must be led by a highly trained, skillful, and experienced practitioner.
In addition, these approaches are not examples of gamification. Why? Because simulations and AI sessions are designed from the ground up to meet specific outcomes, rather than slapping achievements, badges, leader boards, and payments onto a traditional learning environment.
To conclude, incorporating playing games thoughtfully and productively into meetings is possible, and plainly desirable. But it’s not something you can do meaningfully on a formulaic basis by adding competition and rewards, which is what proponents of gamification are selling. Caveat emptor!
Gamification “makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli”. Education professor Amy Bruckman, coined this analogy in a 1999 paper on game software design:
“Most attempts at making software both educational and fun end up being neither. Fun is often treated like a sugar coating to be added to an educational core. Which makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli. The problem is that too many game designers are using long-outmoded models of what it means to be “educational”.
Game designer and author Ian Bogost makes the same point, somewhat more forcefully:
“…gamification is marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.
Bullshitters are many things, but they are not stupid. The rhetorical power of the word “gamification” is enormous, and it does precisely what the bullshitters want: it takes games—a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people—and it makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business.” —Ian Bogost, Gamification is Bullshit (2011)
How can we design the optimum balance between control versus freedom at meetings? First, let’s get one misconception out of the way. As I wrote in 2010:
The reality is that you never had control to begin with, just the myth of control. You’ve been kidding yourself all these years. Unless your constituency is bound to your event via a requirement to earn CEUs, members can withhold their attendance or avoid sessions at will. —The myth of control
Note that I’m not suggesting meeting professionals give up any attempt to control what happens at their events. Maintaining control of vital logistics, and having and executing backup plans when unexpected developments occur are core requirements and responsibilities of our job.
It’s when we try to tightly control every aspect of our meeting that our events suffer. Surprisingly, clinging to control is the easy way out. As Dee W Hock, founder and former CEO of VISA, put it:
Any idiot can impose and exercise control. It takes genius to elicit freedom and release creativity.
“Any idiot can impose and exercise control. It takes genius to elicit freedom and release creativity.” —@DeeWHock
To “elicit freedom and release creativity”, we need to recognize that participants are stakeholders in the event, rather than “just” an audience.
Why are they event owners?
“…participants are event owners because, to some extent, they control what happens next.” —Adrian Segar, Who owns your event?
Creating events that truly meet participants’ wants and needs
In order to create events that truly meet participants’ wants and needs, we need to provide three things:
Appropriate meeting logistics that meet participants’ bodily and sensory needs.
Content and experiences that participants actually want and need.
Maximal opportunities for participants to connect around the content and during the experiences.
Our traditional work
The first bullet point describes the traditional work of meeting professionals. Our logistical designs control the environment that participants experience. They include flexible, support (plans B – Z) when the unexpected happens. In this arena we are in control through our careful planning, which includes resources for a wide range of contingencies.
Giving up control where and when it’s not needed
To satisfy the remaining bullet points, we have to give up control. Why? To give participants the freedom to satisfy their wants and needs! To do this, participants need the freedom to choose what they talk about, whom they talk to and connect with, when it suits them. Our job is to support these activities as much as possible by providing appropriate:
Structure [participant-driven and participation-rich formats and sessions]; and
Resources [flexible physical and/or online spaces, facilitators, and a schedule that can be developed, as needed, at the event].
Notice that providing these improvements over traditional meetings doesn’t mean that your meeting will turn out to be wildly different from what took place before. It’s perfectly possible that your event will include sessions that look very similar to what you might have scheduled for a tightly controlled program. The difference is that your participants will have chosen these sessions and formats themselves, not you.
Instead of control versus freedom, choose control and freedom. Each assigned to the appropriate characteristics of your event.
That makes all the difference.
For a discussion of control versus freedom in the context of event leadership, you may find this post useful…
What makes attending conferences worthwhile? As I described in Conferences That Work, the two most common reasons for attending conferences are to learn useful things and make useful connections. But there are numerous other ways that conferences provide value to stakeholders. In this post I’ll focus on, arguably, the most useful conferences we can design: those that solve participants’ problems.
A useful taxonomy of problems
When thinking about solving problems, the Cynefin framework provides a helpful taxonomy of problem types. It’s useful because each Cynefin domain requires a different problem-solving approach. Cynefin describes five domains, usually named as: obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder. Check out the above Wikipedia link to learn more about them.
As we’ll see:
Traditional conferences support, to some degree, solving participants’ obvious and complicated problems.
Peer conferences improve this support by allowing participants to share their top-of-mind problems in real time and leverage peer resources to get solutions.
Designing experiments into our conferences allow participants to explore solutions to complex problems.
How to help solve participants’ obvious, complicated, and complex problems at conferences
Here’s a little more detail on the obvious, complicated, and complex problem domains. For each domain, I’ll include examples of meeting processes you can use to satisfy participants’ problem solving wants and needs.
Obvious problems (“known knowns”) have known solutions, often called “best practice”.
For example, how do I:
Determine what employee data to store in the human resources system?
Provide frequent and timely feedback to my staff?
Maximize milk production on a New England dairy farm?
Research a potential client’s financial background?
These examples might remind you of the kinds of topics that routinely appear as the titles of traditional conference sessions. That’s because these are problems to which experts know the answers, or, at least, have plenty of good advice to share. Their expertise can, therefore, be shared with participants via traditional presentations.
Sadly, traditional lecture-style sessions are only good for solving participants’ obvious problems. What’s more, the session will be of little use unless the session content happens to match a participant’s current problem.
Peer conferences reduce problem solving limitations in the obvious domain, by allowing participants to influence the content and scope of meeting sessions in real time during the event. So it’s much more likely that participants’ top-of-mind obvious problems will be effectively addressed at a peer conference.
Unfortunately, the majority of our day-to-day challenges are not obvious. (That’s why we spend much more time and energy working on them than obvious problems.) Complicated problems (“known unknowns”) succumb to expert analytical judgment.
For example, how can I:
Unify my business’s unique branding and marketing needs?
Implement a customer relationship management system for my veterinary circus animal practice?
Provide the best guest experience at my Airbnb castle rental?
Evaluate event production company abilities for a game-changing event I’m planning?
Traditional conference lecture-format sessions provide almost no time for solving participants’ complicated problems. Typically, complicated problems can only be addressed up during a question and answer period at the end of the session, when there is little time to perform the kind of analysis a session expert might be able to supply.
Interactive conference sessions allow more opportunities for participants to share specific complicated problems and get targeted advice. However, few presenters incorporate significant interactivity into their sessions, and this format is more the exception than the rule.
Once again, peer conference sessions provide significantly more ways to solve participants’ complicated problems. There are two reasons for this. First, as above, peer sessions are far more likely to address the actual problems participants are currently facing. And second, peer session formats use the resources in the room — not just the session leadership — to uncover and resolve top-of-mind participant problems. (For more information on how to do this, see my book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need.)
Complex problems (“unknown unknowns”) are even harder to resolve.
Don’t really know what questions to ask to start; and
Cannot accurately predict what the consequences of action would be.
Unlike the obvious and complicated domains, we have to approach complex problems by doing experiments. Cynefin describes this process using the word trio [probe–sense–respond], as opposed to the trios for the obvious [sense–categorize–respond], and complicated [sense–analyze–respond] problem domains.
Complex problems have to be tackled in the same way that scientists use experiments to probe the world around us and gradually build understanding of it.
Thus exploring complex problems requires a probing experiment, from which we observe outcomes, and then, with our understanding perhaps slightly improved, we probe in an appropriately different way again. With persistence and luck, over time we may be able to formulate some helpful responses to the problem.
It may seem strange to run experiments at conferences, but I’ve participated in (and designed) a few conference experiments over the years, and have invariably found them to be some of the most interesting and illuminating meeting experiences I’ve ever had.
The Solution Room creates a host of simultaneous small group problem-solving experiments, designed to support the solving of participants’ current challenges in a single session.
Finally, there are conferences that are entirely experiments!
In the meetings world, the most well known are the series of EventCamps that were held around the world between 2010 and 2014. These were volunteer-run, meeting experiments that explored a wide range of meeting and session formats and technologies. For example, we designed and held some of the earliest hybrid meetings, and introduced the meeting industry to peer conferences, gamification, improv, sustainability issues, and many other, now common, meeting components. These events made a profound impression on pretty much everyone who participated. Many of the people I met remain friends today.
Since 2016, I’ve been participating in the annual, invitation-only Meeting Design Practicum conferences that have been held all over Europe. A rotating crew of two or three volunteers organize these wonderful events. They plan an experimental program and ask participants to contribute in various ways, but are the only people who know the entire program in advance. Truly a unique and different experiment each year!
Conferences that are entire experiments are rare because they are risky. Experiments, by definition, have unpredictable results, which means they may “fail” to produce “desirable” outcomes. The understandable default assumption for most meeting industry clients is that their meetings are “successful”, and clients who are willing for “success” to include novel learning from innovative experiments are rare.
Nevertheless, whether held by the meeting industry for itself or for clients, meeting experiments provide the potential for the participants to work on some of their most difficult problems, those that are complex. Bear this in mind if you see an opportunity to create experimental sessions or events!
Solve participants’ problems!
Whatever kind of conference you design, remember the value of incorporating sessions and formats that solve participants’ problems. It’s no accident that the experiment-rich Solution Room is the most popular and highly rated plenary I offer. Give your participants opportunities to solve their top-of-mind problems at your meetings and you’ll make them very happy!
Image attribution: Cynefin illustration by Edwin Stoop (User:Marillion!!62) – , CC BY-SA 4.0