How to stay on time at online meetings

stay on time at online meetingsTired of meetings that don’t end on time? Who isn’t? Things were bad enough when we held our meetings in person. Now so many meetings are online, it’s easy to saddle remote workers with back-to-back meetings. When one overruns, you’re late to the next one. Hey presto, your tardiness snowballs! (And, no, you can’t be on two Zooms at once without going through tortuous hacks.) Sure, sometimes you’re at the mercy of others. But you can stay on time at online meetings when they’re your meetings — if you follow the guidance below!

NOTE: Many of these suggestions are good practice for any meeting!

Before the online meeting starts

Set expectations

Apart from those rare meetings that are ritual courtly dances with every step minutely choreographed, what happens at a meeting is unpredictable to some degree.

Ideally, the only unpredictable parts should be when you’re doing useful work, like sharing ideas, discussing options, making decisions, etc. And setting expectations for the meeting before it starts is key to minimizing the time-wasting behavior that we’ve all experienced during meetings.

You have two tools to set meeting expectations: creating agreements and the meeting agenda.

Creating agreements

I’ve facilitated meetings for decades. In my experience, the best way to reliably improve a meeting is to create and (gently) enforce agreements about how participants act there. Consensual group norms generate powerful motivation to keep meetings running smoothly and productively while discouraging unruly behavior. I’ve found that having an appropriate set of agreements eliminates the vast majority of common problems. And if someone still goes down an irrelevant conversational rabbit hole, interrupts others, or talks too much, it’s much easier to lightly redirect them.

Agreements can either be communicated before the meeting or at the start. While there’s no single set of agreements that’s optimum for every meeting, some base agreements should be familiar to anyone who regularly meets online. For example:

  • Join the meeting on time, ready to participate. (Tip: Here’s how to start online meetings on time.)
  • Mute your microphone unless you wish to speak.
  • Signal via a pre-agreed protocol when you want to say something, e.g., by raising your hand (literally or via a platform mechanism like Zoom’s “Raise Hand”), or via text chat.
  • If you’ve joined by phone, say your name before speaking.
Additional agreements

Additional agreements that are generally helpful include:

  • Commit to being present at the meeting unless an emergency occurs.
  • Don’t interrupt. Instead, use an agreed process to indicate you want to speak.
  • Follow the group’s discussion and decision processes.
  • Respect agreed time limits on speaking.
  • Support the meeting’s scheduled ending time.

Besides meeting-wide agreements, agreements about processes you will use during the meeting are very important. Create agreement and a clear understanding about how participants will:

  • take turns to speak;
  • discuss issues; and
  • make decisions.

The processes to use depend on the meeting’s goals (see agenda) and implicit or explicit power differentials between attendees. For example, you’ll use different procedures if a decision is going to be made by consensus, majority vote, or the presiding CEO. I’ve included some examples below.

Whatever processes you chose, be sure to explain how they work either before or at the start of the meeting. Make sure that all supporting technology, such as an on-screen timer, is available and there’s someone responsible for running it.

Providing an agenda in advance

An agenda is a vital tool for staying on time at online meetings, in fact at any meeting. Providing participants with a clear, detailed agenda in advance is respectful and smart. “In advance” doesn’t mean five minutes before the meeting. It means giving attendees enough time to read and review beforehand. This allows people to formulate questions, ideas, and positions on agenda items beforehand, saving time during the meeting. Whenever possible, include participants’ input into the agenda by distributing a draft with a deadline for questions, corrections, and additions for a final agenda before the meeting.

Timed agendas are very helpful for staying on time. Even if it turns out the written times can’t be fully adhered to, they give attendees an idea of what’s expected and make it easier to reschedule upcoming agenda items on the fly.

Be clear who is running the meeting. Online meetings often need various kinds of support. Be sure everyone knows their responsibilities for note-taking, setting up breakout groups, displaying visual aids, polling, monitoring text chat for questions or requests to speak, maintaining time agreements, etc.

Occasionally, an itemized agenda is impracticable because the meeting is preliminary and exploratory: for example, a group meeting for the first time to discuss a possible collaboration. Even under these circumstances, be sure you circulate a brief description of the meeting goals and a start and end time.

During the online meeting

First, start on timeHere’s how to do this.

Check that everyone involved with meeting tasks and support — facilitation, note-taking, setting up breakout groups, displaying visual aids, polling, monitoring text chat for questions or requests to speak, maintaining time agreements, etc.  — is present and ready to do their work. If the meeting is large, a backchannel for these folks to communicate, like Slack, can be very helpful.

Online discussions can often become messy, with people interrupting, taking up too much time, or going off-topic. To avoid this:

  • use one of these procedures to determine who speaks next.
  • gently enforce time limits for speakers. I use an on-screen timer program, ManyCam, but low-tech solutions such as a timekeeper displaying their phone’s countdown timer work too.
  • use an online fishbowl or fishbowl sandwich to control the discussion. (If your meeting is purely discussion, you can employ a dedicated fishbowl platform like Stooa).

Expect to readjust your schedule during the meeting

If you haven’t supplied a timed agenda, it’s important for the meeting leader to share their thoughts on how the group will use the time available. Since it’s rare to precisely follow such plans, regularly recalculate the time allotments as the meeting proceeds, and update/consult with participants on any changes you think you’ll need to make.

If you complete the meeting agenda ahead of schedule, end it early! No one will complain. 😀

Finally, end on time! It sometimes becomes clear during a meeting that the agenda scope was unrealistic. More time is needed to satisfy the meeting’s goals. Asking to extend the meeting duration may be an option, but don’t just keep going. Instead, before the meeting is scheduled to end, estimate how much longer is needed and poll attendees to see if they can stay. Respect their responses and proceed appropriately. Options include:

  • Continue for an additional agreed-upon time (which you may need to negotiate).
  • Continue without one or more participants if you can still achieve your meeting goals despite their absence.
  • Schedule another meeting to finish what’s been started.

Conclusion

It’s important to stay on time at online meetings. Yes, running late inconveniences everyone attending, and some people may have to leave on time, with the consequent loss of their contributions and involvement. In addition, every corporate or community meeting that runs late reinforces the all-too-common dysfunctional cultural norm that all meetings will overrun. The resulting psychological, and emotional burden imposed on attendees who routinely experience losing control of their time is high.

Hopefully, these ideas will help you and your colleagues stay on time at online meetings. Do you have further suggestions? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

 

The fairest rules for meetings

fairest rules meetings
What are the fairest rules to use when running meetings? This might seem like an odd question. You might ask, “Fair to whom?” or, “What do you mean by fair?” I think it’s reasonable to concentrate on fairness to participants: the majority of those involved with the meeting. As to what being fair to participants might look like, let’s turn to the ideas of the moral and political philosopher John Rawls.

In his influential 1971 book A Theory of Justice , John suggested that “the fairest rules are those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have.”

All meetings have rules, whether overt or covert, conscious or unconscious, that influence how they proceed. These rules are embedded into every aspect of the meeting, from the seating arrangements (1, 2, 3, 4) to the meeting formats employed. We usually think of rules as guides to process. But, at a deeper level, rules instantiate issues of status and power.

Status and power at meetings

I think of status at events as the relative levels of proclaimed or perceived social value assigned to or assumed by attendees. And power at events is an individual’s capacity to influence the actions, beliefs, or conduct of attendees.

Typically, but not always, higher status implies greater power at meetings.

In wider contexts, status is situational. The low status janitor at a big corporation may be the high status head of their family at home. Some say I have high status in the event industry, but when I’m facilitating a roomful of subject matter experts, I’m the most ignorant and lowest status person present.

At a traditional meeting, however, perceived status roles rarely change significantly during the event. This leads to a number of problems, which I described in my first meeting design book: Conferences That Work.

To overcome these problems, one of my goals for the participant-driven and participation-rich meetings I champion is to use process that deemphasizes old-school fixed status at meetings and emphasizes what I call real-time status.

The key process I use to do this is to ask the group to commit to specific agreements (rules, if you like) at the start of the event.

Here are the six agreements — The Four Freedoms plus two other agreements — that I’ve been using for years.

fairest rules

The fairest rules and my six agreements

Which brings us back to John Rawls’ intriguing and bold statement on what the fairest rules would be: “those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have.”

Let’s use Rawls’ suggestion to explore the fairness of using the above six agreements at a meeting.

The first agreement…

…is that everyone has the right to express their point of view. At many events, only high status people talk. I remember the physics conferences I attended as a lowly graduate student, where the prize-winning physicist lectured for fifty minutes, and only his (yes, they were all guys) colleagues and rivals spoke at the end. The tacit assumption was that you didn’t speak unless you had something brilliant to say.

The first agreement I have a group make is that anyone has the right to share their opinion with others in the group. For a low status person (like me at those conferences), that is a great freedom to have. If I had explicitly been given it, I might well have had the courage to speak all those years ago.

High status individuals at the physics conferences reinforced their high status by speaking publicly. They maintained or gained status, at the expense of others who did not. That was not fair.

I think my first agreement clearly implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.

The second agreement…

…is that everyone has the freedom to ask questions. Like the first agreement, this freedom allows low status group members to speak up. In particular, it removes the—often self-imposed—barrier to asking a “stupid” question. How often have you not understood what someone said, but failed to ask them a clarifying question “because it might make you look stupid”?

Of course, having the freedom to ask a question, even if you’re worried it might make you look stupid, often has an unexpected outcome. It frequently turns out that other group members have the same question! And it’s often the case that the reason many people have the question is that the speaker has been unclear about what they were saying, or perhaps even said something incorrect.

Speaking truth to power often involves questioning what a speaker has said. High status individuals may not like this. So I think my second agreement also clearly implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.

I introduce the third agreement at meetings…

…by saying, “it’s about the F-word.” <Pause>. “Feelings.”

Meeting participants don’t, in general, spend much time expressing how they feel. Although that’s often the case because feelings aren’t relevant to a group discussion, sometimes people think or feel it’s inappropriate to share how they feel with others, especially to a group of strangers.

This agreement says it’s okay to talk about how you’re feeling. It gives individuals permission to talk about sensitive issues, if desired. Besides being potentially healthy for the sharer, it is often validating and helpful for group members who feel the same way. Talking about how you’re feeling reduces power inequities in meetings where dominant members try to push through a contentious decision. Giving participants the freedom to share how they feel can help ensure that more voices are heard.

Like the first two rules, this rule also supports low status and low power individuals in a group. So it also implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.

The fourth agreement…

…is a meta-agreement that gives participants the freedom to say that they don’t feel the three preceding agreements are being followed. Though I’ve never heard this freedom invoked at any conference I’ve facilitated, I feel confident that its existence, and the group awareness that everyone has agreed to it, helps prevent the kind of dismissal, shaming, and bullying behavior that can surface at traditional meetings.

In some ways, this agreement is the closest framing of Rawls’ fairness rules suggestion. It says not only have we agreed on rules that minimize power differentials but we also have the right to call out instances when these rules are not being followed.

The fifth agreement…

…is about keeping what is discussed while the group is together confidential. I’ve written in more detail about the value of this important agreement here. Interestingly, this agreement potentially benefits all participants, whether  high or low power/status. Why? When anyone shares, they potentially reveal something about themselves. A group confidentiality agreement helps increase people’s feeling of safety, possibly making it more likely they will share something sensitive.

The corporate CEO risks confessing that they have been neglecting a company-wide issue for too long. A mid-level manager shares their difficulties working with their boss. A new hire summons the courage to ask what they think is a basic question, to which they believe they should know the answer. All these actions are more likely when the initiator trusts that the group will respect their confidentiality.

The fifth agreement, therefore, is probably the easiest agreement for high status group members to agree to. They have something to gain too. It epitomizes Rawls’ fairness rules suggestion.

The sixth agreement…

…is about staying on time.

A meeting may have a predetermined schedule, or the schedule may be negotiated and constructed on the fly, as typically occurs at peer conferences (aka unconferences). I have been at too many conferences where unchecked, self-important presenters run way over their allotted time, causing an inevitable train wreck with subsequent sessions truncated and even cancelled. (Here are a couple of my own unhappy experiences.)

Applying Rawls’ suggestion would mean that all presenters would agree to present as if they had been scheduled at any point in a meeting program: the first or last session, or at any time between. As the above article explains, the resulting program, where everyone stays on time, offers many advantages to everyone involved.

How do your meeting rules fare under Rawls’ fairness rules?

How do my six agreements fare under Rawls’ fairness rules?

Pretty well, I think!

Take a few minutes to think about the rules — overt or covert, conscious or unconscious — that you use to run your meetings. How does their fairness fare? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

If you discover you are still enabling power and status imbalances at your events, you are not serving your participants well.

What are you going to do about it?

P.S.

Want to learn more about John Rawls and political philosophy in a delightful way? Listen to “A Theory of Justice: The Musical!

How to support a community online during covid-19

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

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

Key takeaways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing for your community online meeting

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

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

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


Sample pre-meeting information document for community online meeting

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

Please check out the following three links before the meeting:

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

Preparation

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

Schedule

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

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

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

11:45: Online meeting opens.

11:45 – 12:00: Join meeting.

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

12:05: Sharing our feeling words together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

12:55: Group recap of what’s helped.

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

13:10: Individual consulting in online breakout room.

13:25: Group recap of individual lessons learned.

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

13:55: Thanks and closing.

14:00: Online meeting ends.


Support your community online during covid-19

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

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

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

Stay on time!

Stay on time

Stay on time! Though it’s clearly sensible to keep a conference running on schedule, we’ve all attended meetings where rambling presenters, avoidable “technical issues”, incompetent facilitation, and inadequate logistics have made a mockery of the published program.

So one of the agreements I always ask for at the start of a session or conference is for organizers and participants to stay on time. (By which I mean, of course, don’t run late!)

It seems obvious to do this. When meetings don’t stay on time:

  • It’s unfair to the later presenters and sessions.
  • It becomes OK to be late. (“If that session overran, mine can too.”)
  • Participants don’t know what the actual schedule is. Chaos and cynicism follow.
  • Meals and breaks are abbreviated or, in extreme cases, eliminated.

When meetings don’t stay on time, the event is out of control. I can’t think of any situation where this is a plus. (Well, maybe a conference on world domination by a quintessentially evil cabal, where failure would be a good thing.)

In particular, there are a couple of ways in which out-of-control schedules can wreak havoc on sessions. I’ll illustrate them with examples from a presenter’s point of view (mine).

“You’ll need to shorten your session by twenty-five minutes.”

A client asked me to run a 75-minute interactive session on participant-driven and participation-rich meetings at a daylong conference. They scheduled me for the last session before the closing social. During lunch, the A/V crew asked the two remaining presenters to check our slide decks were ready to go. I did so, and noticed that the other presenter did not.

You guessed it. When the afternoon sessions began, the entire 150-person audience sat around for twenty minutes while the first presenter fiddled around trying to get her laptop to project.

She then added insult to injury by exceeding her allocated time, with no correction from the conference organizers.

When she was finally finished I asked if we could run late so I could get the session duration I’d planned for.

No, sorry, you’ll need to shorten your session by twenty-five minutes,” was the reply.

Experienced presenters are able to creatively improvise in response to last-minute changes to their environment. However, losing a third of my time with no notice was a challenge. I did a good job, but had to omit the major exercise planned for the session. The resulting experience was less impactful than it could have been. Ultimately, the attendees are the losers when this happens. They don’t know what they missed — and, of course, I don’t come across as well as I might deserve.

“Sorry, but we’re starving and exhausted.”

Here’s another less obvious way that chronic lateness can sabotage a session. A client asked me to facilitate a 90-minute workshop for 600 attendees. It was scheduled as the last session of the day, in a distant ballroom separated from earlier sessions by a five-minute walk. With a scheduled 30-minute break before my session, there was plenty of time for participants to get to my room.

Or so I thought.

The session required extensive set up, so my crew and I worked solidly for three hours to get the room ready and rehearse our workshop tasks. But when it was time to start, no attendees appeared.

We waited for 30 minutes before people began to trickle in. Clearly, the entire day’s schedule had been running severely behind all day. Luckily, an organizer told me I could still use my full time for the workshop. That was a relief to hear.

Hundreds of people were standing as I was about to start. But then the conference owner arrived and asked to present an award first. He made a short introduction of the recipient, who embarked on a long, rambling thank-you speech.

Finally I began my workshop, which required participants to be present for the entire session. (Early leavers would significantly impact their working groups.)

I’ve run this workshop many times, and in the past when I’ve announced this requirement (“If you have to leave before [finishing time], I’m sorry but you should not participate in this workshop”) typically two or three people leave.

To my astonishment, hundreds of people — two-thirds of the room — left!

Dumbfounded, I nevertheless knew that the show must go on.

It was a great workshop for the folks who remained. (No one left when it was over; they simply sat and talked with each other for at least ten minutes before anyone left the room. And several people came up and thanked me.) But I was disappointed and puzzled that so many attendees had missed out on an excellent experience. Obviously, I wanted to find out why. But first we had to break down the room set, and by the time this was over the attendees had dispersed.

At breakfast the next morning the reasons for the mass exodus finally became clear. The morning program sessions had run over so extensively, that the organizers slashed the lunch break to 30 minutes. Since lunch was not provided at the conference that day, many attendees didn’t have time to eat any lunch at the restaurants nearby.

The afternoon sessions also overran, so the organizers also eliminated the scheduled 30-minute break before my session. When the hungry and exhausted attendees appeared in my room, only to be asked to attend my entire workshop in its entirety, the proverbial straw broke the camel’s back and most of them walked out.

As a participant, I would have probably joined them.

Stay on time!

From my perspective as a presenter and facilitator, I’m not sure there’s much I can do when others cause truncation of my contracted sessions or fill them with hungry, tired attendees. Perhaps a contract clause that doubles my fee if the session starts late or my available time is slashed?

I can dream.

Regardless, the moral is pretty obvious. Stay on time! That goes for everyone: conference organizers, emcees, facilitators, presenters, and attendees. Ultimately this is a matter of careful planning, firm and effective time management, and simple respect for everyone who spends time, energy, and money attending and producing an event.

Leadership for meetings

Leadership for meetingsWhat might leadership for meetings look like?

Let’s turn to Harold Jarche for inspiration:

“Those doing the work are often the only ones who really understand the context. Leadership is helping build the structure and then protecting the space to do meaningful work.
—Harold Jarche, work in 2018

Read the rest of this entry »

Being truly heard and seen at meetings

When we enable people to meaningfully connect at a meeting, something extraordinary happens. We transform a conference from an impersonal forum for information exchange to a place where people feel they matter: their views, their experience, their ability to contribute become seen.

Such a transformation is the essential work needed to build human community around the event. It becomes something special, standing out like a beacon from the humdrum conferences routinely inflicted on attendees.

The meeting feels different, is different, because it allows participants to be truly heard and seen. Because being listened to is a gift. And, as Seth Godin puts it:

“We like to see. But mostly, we’re worried about being seenthe culture of celebrity that came with TV has shifted. It’s no longer about hoping for a glimpse of a star. It’s back to the source–hoping for a glimpse of ourselves, ourselves being seen.”
—Seth Godin, Mirror, mirror

It takes a few minutes at the start of a gathering to create agreements that help make it a safe place for participants to speak their minds, ask appropriate questions, and share possibly intimate yet important information about their work and lives that inform the entire event.

Immediately, the conference is subtly different, full of new possibilities, some of which might have been considered risky or even taboo. Everyone in the room begins to learn about each other in ways that matter. Everyone begins to discover how they can become a part of the gathering, how they can contribute and how they can learn about issues and challenges that personally matter.

Make it easy for participants to be safely and truly heard and seen. Your conferences will be all the better for it.

Image attribution: Flickr user paris_corrupted

Associations exist only in the mind

Professional, trade, and public interest associations are significant businesses. In the United States alone, associations employ more than 1.6 million people, and generate an annual payroll of ~$50 billion.

Yet, ultimately, associations exist only in the mind.

Stay with me! I’ll tell you a story that may convince you of the value of this strange point of view.

Fifty years ago, every business wanting to offer credit to its customers needed its own independent system. Individual banks were trying to encourage merchants and customers to adopt newfangled things called “credit cards”, but they failed to solve the chicken-and-egg problem that consumers did not want to use a card that few merchants would accept and merchants did not want to accept a card that few consumers used.

Then in 1966, a man named Dee Hock had the vision, determination, resources, and a little luck to break this logjam. Dee described his journey in a fascinating book he wrote after his retirement in 1984, intriguingly titled: Birth of The Chaordic AgeDee was the first CEO of what became the mammoth multinational financial services corporation VISA, a company with a current market capitalization of over $200B.

What has this to do with associations? Well, VISA has never issued cards, extended credit or set rates and fees for consumers. The company is, in structure if not in capitalist terms, an association of tens of thousands of member banks. They offer VISA-branded credit, debit, prepaid and cash-access programs to their hundreds of millions of customers. While competing with each other for customers, these banks agree to honor each other’s trillions of dollars in transactions annually across borders and currencies.

A set of agreements

At its core, VISA is a set of agreements between its members. The company’s value to its owners and customers is created from the mutual agreements its members have made. Without those agreements, VISA would not exist. We would return to the pre-VISA world, when every financial entity needed its own system of offering customer credit.

VISA is an atypical kind of for-profit organization. But its core purpose is essentially identical to that of trade and professional associations. Associations are society’s instantiations of communities of practice, groups of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and agree to actively engage around what they have in common. That leads us to Dee Hock’s (and my) view of organizations like VISA and associations:

“…organizations exist only in the mind; they are no more than the conceptual embodiments of the ancient idea of community.”
—Dee Hock, Birth of The Chaordic Age

When associations go astray

This perspective is extremely important because it’s easy for associations to forget their initial and continued reasons for existence. Every association is created when at some moment in time a group of people with something in common wants to further a particular profession and/or the interests of those engaged in a profession and/or the public interest. Typically, the community already exists informally. Its “members” want to create a formal, legal structure to support, deepen, and widen its reach.

Associations can, however, lose sight of this primal and ongoing purpose. When this happens, they concentrate on self-perpetuation and/or expansion at the expense of supporting the community of practice for which they were created. Remembering that an association is, at its core, a set of agreements in people’s minds about the instantiation of a community that is important to them is key to keeping the association relevant to the community it serves.

So remember that associations exist only in the mind. Keeping an association’s purpose foremost, is key to maintaining its community of practice’s core reasons for being.

Improve your events in 5 minutes with covenants

You can spend 5 minutes at the start of your events doing something that will significantly improve them. Something I bet you don’t currently do. Improve your events with covenants. To understand why including group covenants will make your meetings better, let’s eavesdrop on what’s going on in your attendees’ heads…

Common thoughts during meetings

“I didn’t understand that; should I ask her to explain?”
“I disagree, and I’m going to interrupt!”
“I’m not going to say a word in this session.”
“Why aren’t we discussing what I think’s important?”
“That makes me angry; guess I’ll just sit here and stew!”

It doesn’t have to be this way

Elementary school classrooms have ground rules posted on the walls. At the start of the school year, good teachers share the behaviors they expect from their students. Yet, apparently, in the adult world we’re magically supposed to know how to behave when we enter a meeting room.

When no explicit agreements about behavior are made at the start of a meeting, no one benefits. Most attendees default to passive behavior: not contributing or asking questions. Confident extraverts (including most “speakers”) monopolize group time, never taking advantage of the considerable experience and expertise in the room.

The power of events is weakened by the simple reality that without group agreements, each of us makes different assumptions about how we should behave at meetings.

Google, Carnegie Mellon University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology do research

Since 2012, Google’s Project Aristotle has been researching the factors that made teams successful. In his 2016 New York Times articleCharles Duhigg describes a key finding:

“…on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’ Woolley said. ‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’
What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology came up with similar conclusions:

“In two studies with 699 people, working in groups of two to five, we find converging evidence of a general collective intelligence factor that explains a group’s performance on a wide variety of tasks. This “c factor” is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members but is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.”
Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups, Science 29 October 2010 Vol 330, Anita Williams Woolley et al

Well, well, well. “Collective intelligence” improves if everyone gets a chance to talk! And it also improves by increasing the proportion of females in the group — which, for what it’s worth, has been my personal experience for years.

Using covenants to increase contribution diversity

We can’t usually do much about increasing the number of females at an event (though improving the gender balance of invited presenters wouldn’t hurt). But, in my fifteen years experience, I can report that using good covenants at the start of an event makes it far more likely that everyone will contribute appropriately.

[What are “good covenants”? Learn more about the ones I use here.]

When good covenants equalize the distribution of conversational turn-taking at a meeting, the collective intelligence of the meeting group increases. That translates to a better overall conference experience, as experienced collectively and reported individually.

Improve your events with covenants

Although skilled facilitators know how to help level the distribution of attendee contributions by explicitly inviting those who have not yet spoken to contribute, I’ve found that spending just 5 minutes at the start of an event explaining and getting group agreement on explicit covenants that give attendees the freedom, the right, and the support to share appropriately is a much more effective and efficient approach that democratizes conversations throughout the event. So, improve your events with covenants! Try it—you’ll like it, and your event and participants will reap the benefits.

How to improve your conference with explicit ground rules

How to improve your conference with explicit ground rules

Remember kindergarten? O.K., I barely do either. But when I go into my local elementary school to read to the kids, I see ground rules like these posted on the classroom walls. The teachers create them for the younger classes, and I’m told that the Junior High comes up with their own (probably with some judicious teacher input). So it seems that explicit ground rules are useful in the pre-adult classroom.

Moving to the adult world, professional facilitators who work for more than a few hours with a group or team will usually have the members establish their own ground rules. Why? There are two reasons. First, because group-developed ground rules handle the specific needs of the group. And second, the process of development creates buy-in for the chosen rules.

However, traditional conferences don’t have explicit ground rules!

So perhaps you’re thinking: We’re adults, we know how to behave! or What’s the point, we’re only together for a few days!

Here’s why the right explicit ground rules will improve your conference.

The right ground rules fundamentally change the environment of a conference.

The six ground rules used at Conferences That Work are not about nitpicking issues like turning off cell phones & pagers in sessions (good luck!) Instead they create an intimate and safe conference environment, by sending participants these powerful messages:

“While you are here, you have the right and opportunity to be heard.”
“Your individual needs and desires are important here.”
“You will help to determine what happens at this conference.”
“What happens here will be kept confidential. You can feel safe here.”
“At this conference, you can create, together with others, opportunities to learn and to share.”

Introducing and having attendees commit to the right ground rules at the start of the event sets the stage for a collaborative, participative conference, because the rules give people permission and support for sharing with and learning from each other.

And when attendees feel safe to share and empowered to ask questions and express what they think and how they feel, what happens at a conference can be amazing.

As a result, setting good ground rules at the start of a conference may be the single most transformative change you can make to improve your event!

Two tips on adding ground rules to your conference design

Before you rush to add ground rules to your conferences, bear in mind two points:

  • Don’t attempt to brainstorm and negotiate ground rules amongst attendees at a first-time conference! The time required to do a good job would be prohibitive. Use some time-tested rules, like mine (here are four of them), or the four principals and one law of Open Space events.
  • Think twice before adding ground rules that embody participant empowerment to a traditional event that consists mainly of pre-scheduled presentation-style sessions. Your ground rules and your design are likely to be seen as conflicting!

Do you use explicit ground rules in your events? What has your experience been? Want to know more about using ground rules at conferences? Ask away in the comments below! (If you can’t wait, <shameless plug> you could also buy my books, which describe in detail both the ground rules used at Conferences That Work, and how to successfully introduce them to attendees.)

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