Doing peer conferences right

peer conferencesSoftware testers do peer conferences right! (They even call them a peer conference, rather than unconference, a term I don’t like.) As evidence of software tester conference awesomeness, I offer three examples below. But first…

…a short history of the peer conference

I first designed and convened what I called a “peer conference” in 1992 for a group of IT managers at small schools that eventually became known as edACCESS.

During my 20+ years as an IT consultant and software developer, I got to know a delightful international crowd of software testers: those all-important people responsible for the impossible task of making sure that software works. After I talked about my meeting design work with pioneer tester James Bach at the 2004 Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference, the testing community somehow adopted the term peer conference for their get-togethers.

My code development days are long gone. I miss hanging out with the folks I got to know at these events. (Though I’m still in touch with some of them.) Regardless, peer conferences in the world of software testing are still alive and thriving!

And now…

Three examples of how software testers do peer conferences right

1. The 2022 SoCraTes peer conference

Lisi Hocke wrote a long detailed post about her first-timer experience at the 2022 SoCraTes (Software Craft and Testing) peer conference held in Soltau, Germany.

For a quick visual impression of the event, watch this!


Here are some illustrative extracts from Lisi’s post.

Keeping participants safe

Feeling safe is an important psychological requirement for people in any situation, and conferences are no exception (1, 2, 3). Lisi shares another participant’s experience:

Providing a welcoming and supportive environment for first-time participants

SoCraTes 2022 included a Foundation Day “with less people and hence a smaller crowd to get used to. A day covered with fundamental topics without them being too basic, so I learned a lot even with topics I knew about. A day where we had a schedule set in advance, which took away the uncertainty of what would happen. A day to get to know people a bit already.”

Notice how this optional first day used more conventional session formats to make it easier for first-time attendees to integrate into the existing community.

“Over dinner, I realized I was not the only one joining this conference for the first time. Later on, we realized lots of people were new joiners indeed, based on recommendations they chose to give this conference a try. Was really great to see.

In the beginning, things were still a bit new, strange and even stiff; as it often is for me these days when suddenly seeing lots of people in real life. Within a short period of time I could loosen up, though. The more people I got to know, the more I relaxed and felt at ease.”

A participation-rich session format — World Café — was introduced at the end of Foundation Day

The World Café supplied an appropriate introduction and transition to the Open Space format used during the rest of the conference.

“To set the scene, a World Café was hosted by the wonderful Juke, getting all of us connected to SoCraTes and each other. How it worked? We had three rounds, a new question each round. For each group, one stays at the same place while all others look for a new group to join. The one who stays welcomes the new people and shares what the previous group had talked about. Usually this is supported by taking notes and drawing on flip charts or similar means.”

Open Space

SoCraTes 2022 used the participant-driven Open Space format to determine what sessions participants wanted to hold. Though Open Space is just one of the formats you can use to create participant-driven and participation-rich meetings, it’s probably the most well known and is often an appropriate process to use.

“In short: we build the agenda we want to see! And that’s what happened. It’s fascinating how you can really trust in the system. The queues to briefly present the proposed topics were really long, and the emerging schedule looked amazing. So many awesome topics…”

Session leaders used a wide variety of participative formats

Check out Lisi’s post for descriptions of many appropriate innovative session formats, including ask me anything, brainstorming, blind ensemble programming, the pipeline game, exploring feelings while reading code, a Code Retreat, and a retrospective.

Some closing insights

About listening and learning…

“The entire conference felt like a version of the world that could exist. Many small and large customs help people to get along better with each other. It starts with the name tags alone: ​​take off the name tag if you’re too introverted to talk to people right now. A red tape means you don’t want to be photographed. The name tags are magnetic and hold the creative badges that people use to announce their pronouns – with a lot of artistic flair if you like.”
—Eric, SoCraTes 2022 — a conference report [translated from German]

Compare the innovation and excitement at SoCraTes 2022 with just about any other conference you’ve attended. Can you see why software testers like Lisi think that peer conferences rock?!

2. The Unexpo Experiment

Here’s another example from a software testing peer conference, TestBash Brighton 2018. The conference designers invented a way to create “highly engaging, interactive and fun” poster sessions. Check out my post that describes this “excellent example of how to invent, explore, evaluate, and improve new meeting formats”.

3. A free guide to creating peer conferences

Want to create a peer conference, but don’t want to buy any of my excellent books on this topic? (Hey, you can buy all three for just $29.99, but that’s OK 😀.) No problem, the Association for Software Testing published an excellent free introductory guide to creating peer conferences. Learn more about it, and download it here.

Final thoughts

I love and respect the software testing community because its practitioners think carefully and seriously about how to design their conferences. And then they implement and test their innovative designs, discovering what works and what doesn’t while also being open to the joy and excitement of the unexpected. A beautiful mixture of serious exploration, learning, and fun.

That’s the way to improve meetings!

Image attribution: #SoCraTes2022 peer conference photo by Markus Tacker

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}

27 years of peer conferences

27 years of peer conferencesGood things come in threes. Though I usually overlook anniversaries, I noticed one this morning. The first peer conference I convened and designed was held June 3 – 5, 1992 at Marlboro College, Vermont. So, as of today, the community of practice that eventually became edACCESS has enjoyed 27 years of peer conferences. [That’s 3 x 3 x 3. I told you good things come in threes.]

Twenty-three people came to the inaugural conference. At the time, I had no idea that what I instinctively put together for a gathering of people who barely knew each other would lead to:

  • a global design and facilitation consulting practice;
  • over 500 posts on this blog, which has now become, to the best of my knowledge, the most-visited website on meeting design and facilitation;
  • three books (almost!) on participant-driven, participation-rich meeting design; and
  • plentiful ongoing opportunities to fulfill my mission to facilitate connection between people.

However, none of this happened overnight. For many years, designing and facilitating meetings was a vocation rather than a profession, usually unpaid. Furthermore, it was an infrequent adjunct to my “real” jobs at the time: information technology consulting, and teaching computer science.

27 years of peer conferences. From little acorns, mighty oaks. I would never have predicted the path I’ve traveled — and continue to look forward to the journey yet to come. Above all, thank you everyone who has made it possible. I can’t adequately express the gratitude you are due.

Scenes from a peer conference—part 2

Since 2012, I’ve had the privilege of designing and facilitating the annual Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future Peer Conference. It’s an honor to work on a classic Conferences That Work-style peer conference that’s turned out to be one of the most powerful tools for building inclusive, equitable, and sustainable communities in my home state. So I’m happy to share some scenes from this peer conference.

Experience a taste in this two-minute conference video, made by the staff at the Vermont Partnership for Fairness & Diversity. Watch carefully for my cameo appearances!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wa4Ao5xhzJg

Watch scenes from a peer conference—part 1 here.

Being Schooled: Inside a Conference That Works

Inside a Conference That Works edACCESS 2014 RoundtableInside a Conference That Works

“Mad blogger” Sue Pelletier of MeetingsNet has written an excellent article on her experiences at the four-day Conferences That Work format edACCESS 2014 annual meeting I convened in June.

Solution Room edACCESS 2014Sue, a veteran journalist, was there for the opening roundtable, peer session sign-up, The Solution Room, and even one of the 32 resulting peer sessions. Illustrated with great photos by Brent Seabrook Photography, Being Schooled: Inside a Conference That Works is one of the best descriptions I’ve read of the opening of a peer conference.

Recommended!

Photo attribution: Brent Seabrook Photography

 

Drive-by experts at your conference

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Want to discover the experts at your conference?

“It’s been clear from the beginning of the Web that it gives us access to experts on topics we never even thought of. As the Web has become more social, and as conversations have become scaled up, these crazy-smart experts are no longer nestling at home. They’re showing up like genies summoned by the incantation of particular words. We see this at Twitter, Reddit, and other sites with large populations and open-circle conversations. This is a great thing, especially if the conversational space is engineered to give prominence to the contributions of drive-by experts. We want to take advantage of the fact that if enough people are in a conversation, one of them will be an expert.”
—David Weinberger, Globalization of local experience

This is exactly why the Conferences That Work format works so well. Peer conferences allow participants to discover the conference experts in (what was formerly known as) the “audience” they want to meet, connect with, and learn from. Instead of restricting teachers to the few folks at the front of the room, peer conferences allow us to tap the experience and expertise of anyone that’s present.

In other words, Conferences That Work extend the effectiveness of the online conversations that David describes above to face-to-face meetings.

Photo attribution: Flickr user jannem

Market your conference with an annotated schedule

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Here’s a creative way to market your conference — with an annotated schedule!

Right after my last post on marketing a new peer conference, organizational and leadership development consultant Judy Warriner Walke suggested an additional way to help communicate what happens at a conference—an annotated schedule.

I like this idea! Walking potential attendees through the flow of the event helps to clarify and demystify conference process, especially if people haven’t attended an event format like Conferences That Work before. Want to try to market your conference with an annotated schedule? Here’s an example of what you can do, written for the October 2013 1st Annual Vermont Leadership Network Conference.


Want to better understand what will be happening at the 1st Annual Vermont Leadership Network Conference? Here’s an annotated schedule!

[Note: Some details are omitted here! For more information, visit About Peer Conferences.]

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Registration will be open between noon and 2pm.

At 2pm, after a brief welcome and an explanation of conference ground rules, we’ll start with opening roundtable(s). Roundtables provide a structured, safe way for you to learn about other participants early in the conference. During the roundtable, you’ll discover topics of interest to explore, get a sense of the depth of interest in these topics, and find out who has experience and expertise that you want to connect with and explore further. We’ll include frequent breaks and refreshments during the roundtable, ending around 4:30pm.

After an hour break, we’ll hold peer session sign-up during dinner. In peer session sign-up we’ll visually document our wishes and suggestions for the upcoming conference sessions. Then, we’ll determine which of the suggested peer session topics are popular and schedule the chosen sessions into a conference program. This is a short process that will be held during the dinner and subsequent socializing, with a small group subsequently using the resulting information to create Friday’s program. The end result will be a Friday conference schedule that optimally matches desired topics with the resources of the group.

Friday, October 18

We’ll have time for four sets of (usually) one-hour concurrent sessions on Friday, with breaks between each and lunch served between sessions 3 and 4.

What might these sessions look like? They are typically informal: often facilitated discussions, presentations, panels, workshops, walks, etc. As an example, five years ago the class of ’08 used this conference format for a reunion—here are the topics that were chosen (8 sessions in concurrent pairs):

Fun and team camaraderie in the workplace • Fundraising • The political process – running for office • The systematic development of informed consent • Am I doing what I want to be doing? • Technology – social networking & other applications • Getting Things Done • Appreciative Inquiry

Closing sessions

After these sessions are over, at 2:40pm we’ll end with two facilitated closing sessions, a personal introspective and a group spective.

The personal introspective will give you a structured opportunity to think about what you have experienced at the conference, how your experiences may impact your life in the future, and what changes you may want to make as a result. After reflection, you’ll then have an opportunity to share your answers in small groups.

After a break, a group spective will start at 3:50pm. The group spective will provide facilitated time for participants as a group to evaluate the conference and suggest and begin to develop future initiatives for Vermont Leadership and the Snelling Center. We’ll use a variety of techniques to do this.

The conference will end at 5pm, and all are welcome to stay and socialize with their classmates and new friends at a reception hosted by the Snelling Center immediately following the conference.

As you can see, participation on Thursday will make a big difference to your conference experience and your influence on its form and content. Please attend the whole event if at all possible!

Outline of the conference schedule

To summarize, here’s the outline of the conference schedule for Thursday and Friday.

Thursday, October 17, 2013
12:00PM – 02:00PM Registration
02:00PM – 02:10PM Welcome
02:10PM – 03:10PM Roundtable(s)
03:10PM – 03:30PM Break
03:30PM – 04:30PM Roundtable(s) continued
05:30PM – 07:00PM Dinner and peer session sign-up
07:00PM – Informal chat, socializing, music, etc.
Friday, October 18
08:30AM – 08:40AM Morning news
08:40AM – 09:40AM Peer session 1
09:40AM – 09:50AM Break
09:50AM – 10:50AM Peer session 2
10:50AM – 11:05AM Break
11:05AM – 12:05AM Peer session 3
12:15PM – 01:30PM Lunch
01:30PM – 02:30PM Peer session 4
02:30PM – 02:40PM Break
02:40PM – 03:40PM Personal introspective
03:40PM – 03:50PM Break
03:50PM – 05:00PM Group spective
05:00PM – Optional: class reunions, etc.

Notice that I’ve added a regular schedule at the end of the annotation, so attendees can still easily see when all sessions take place.

I really like this way to market your conference with an annotated schedule. Familiarizing people with something different in advance is a great way of reducing the common resistance to trying something new. Thanks for the suggestion, Judy!

Photo attribution: Flickr user stevendepolo

Published—free update of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love!

free update Conferences That Work

I’m happy to announce that a free 9,000 word update to my book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love is now available!

Many improvements and refinements are included—the outcome of four years of feedback and experience since the book was published in 2009. Highlights include a long-awaited chapter on extending Conferences That Work to larger events, and important additions that make the established format (now tried and true for over twenty years!) even better.

Here’s a list of the contents:

INTRODUCTION

  • CHAPTER 1 Why did I write this supplement?
  • CHAPTER 2 What’s included?
  • CHAPTER 3 Acknowledgements

GENERAL CHAPTERS

  • CHAPTER 4 Avoid one-day peer conferences
  • CHAPTER 5 Running Conferences That Work with more than 100 participants

IMPORTANT IMPROVEMENTS

  • CHAPTER 6 Give people permission and opportunity to take a break!
  • CHAPTER 7 Break up roundtables approximately every twenty minutes
  • CHAPTER 8 Make peer session determination more efficient
  • CHAPTER 9 Improve personal introspectives by running them in small groups
  • CHAPTER 10 How to choose what to do at a group spective

OPTIONAL IMPROVEMENTS

  • CHAPTER 11 Include a first-timers session for repeat events
  • CHAPTER 12 Consider implementing a buddy system
  • CHAPTER 13 Use shared Google Doc for roundtable themes and plus/delta sharing
  • CHAPTER 14 Have people stand while speaking during the roundtable
  • CHAPTER 15 Use alternate colors when recording on flip charts
  • CHAPTER 16 Focused discussion = fishbowl — and an alternative format

ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES

  • CHAPTER 17 Consider using a conference app instead of a face book
  • CHAPTER 18 Consider running plus/delta with tape columns on the floor
  • CHAPTER 19 Use plus/delta as a tool for action
  • CHAPTER 20 Consider adding “Curious about?” column to plus/delta

MISCELLANEOUS TIPS

  • CHAPTER 21 Where to buy stiff 5 x 8 index cards
  • CHAPTER 22 A closing note about appreciations

The supplement, provided as a free ebook <pdf>, will be updated from time to time and the latest version will always be available for free on this website. Comments and corrections are always welcome.

Download it now!

Happy reading and best wishes!

-Adrian Segar-

A birthday present for you on the 21st anniversary of Conferences That Work

Scotch on the rocks 2740144831_c95ec608db_o
What a long strange trip it’s been
The first Conferences That Work event was held June 3–5, 1992, at Marlboro College, Vermont. If you had told me then that the format would spread all over the world, and that twelve years later I would devote my entire professional life to designing, facilitating, and evangelizing participant-led and participation-rich events I would have said you were crazy.

Even last week, glimpsing a couple of copies of my book lying on a table behind a Swiss conference organizer during a Skype call evoked a moment of disbelief, though it was quickly followed by a mixture of excitement and pride.

That original 1992 conference has been held every year since, adding an extra day and becoming, in the words of one participant, “The best education focused tech conference on the planet.

Hardly a month goes by these days without my hearing about events organized by people who have purchased Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, and it’s becoming clear to me that there are many Conferences That Work taking place that I’ll probably never know about.

A free gift for you
Although I’m hard at work finishing my next book I haven’t forgotten Conferences That Work. The format continues to evolve, so I’m writing a supplement that describes the improvements, both large and small, that I and many collaborators have suggested and implemented since Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love was published in 2009. I’ll publish the supplement as a free ebook in the next few months.

Want a copy? Let me know using the form below and I’ll send you a copy when it’s ready.

Think of it as a 21st birthday present to my creation and its practitioners. This drink’s on me!

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    Photo attribution: Flickr user data_op