Designing conferences to solve participants’ problems

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.
solving 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

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.

Complicated problems

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

Complex problems (“unknown unknowns”) are even harder to resolve.

Here are some examples. How should we:

Such problems are complex because we:

  • 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.

Conference experiments

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.

Session-based experiments

Here are three session-based examples:

Experimental conferences

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) – [1], CC BY-SA 4.0

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