Create memorable learning experiences and connections at simple workshops

I often design and facilitate workshops for association members who mostly haven’t met before. The desired outcomes are for each participant to gain useful and relevant professional insights, and to make significant new connections.

During the workshops each participant shares and receives consulting from a small peer group on a current personal professional challenge. The only technologies used are printed cards, paper-covered round tables, and colored pens.

Here’s what you might see on a stroll through a typical workshop:

An example
At one workshop, association staffers noted that no one touched a cell phone, and intense conversations with frequent bursts of laughter filled the entire two-hour event.

A participant started crying and his group members rushed to console and support him. (We learned later that he had been unfairly fired earlier in the day.) Afterwards, we saw many people swapping business cards and making arrangements to meet up again. Before leaving, the man who’d been fired told me that, despite his dire circumstances, he had had a very positive experience and made several good new friends in his group. Other participants shared during post-workshop conversations that the experience would be memorable because of their personal learning and the new connections made.

Follow up evaluations confirmed that participants obtained meaningful peer support and advice, and began new friendships with other workshop participants.

Such workshops routinely meet the outcomes they’re designed to achieve: creating useful and memorable learning experiences and connections.

Why are these workshops successful?
These workshops are not successful because of the:

  • excellence of a speaker;
  • beauty/novelty of the venue/F&B/entertainment; or
  • extraordinary facilitation.

(Full disclosure:  the facilitation needs to be competent!)

They are successful because of the process design that supports participants learning from each other while simultaneously enjoying a positive emotional connection together.

Adult professional peers can learn much from each other, and when they meet they are hungry to find solutions to current problems, explore issues, and make connections with others who work in the same sphere.

The successful workshops I’ve described above do not have a single expert sharing content. (Rather, it’s fair to say, they tap the expertise and experience of everyone present.) All they need for success is good process, competent facilitation, and a few low-tech items.

They are also simple. Every process element is a strategic ingredient of the workshop design. Running these workshops helps me continually refine the design, stripping away components that distract focus from the desired outcomes.

Many organizations focus on getting the “best” experts to speak at their meetings. Ironically, in my experience it’s almost always easier to create memorable learning and valuable connection for attendees by employing participatory workshop formats. Why? Because they take full advantage of the group’s combined expertise, hone in on what people actually want and need to learn, and build lasting relationships in the process.

How to become one with your association’s strategic goals

No, I’m not suggesting you rise at 5 a.m. and recite your association’s strategic plan as your daily morning mantra. But I’d like you to try this simple test:

How many of your association’s strategic goals can you recall right now?

(No cheating! And not the easy bits about your vision, mission, who you serve, or your programs and services — just your goals!)

I’ll wait…

Was that a little embarrassing? You’re not alone — when I tried this recently, I was pretty embarrassed too!

Read the rest of this entry »

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, and I’ll tell you a story that may convince you of the value of this strange point of view.

Fifty years ago, every business that wanted to offer credit to its customers had to have its own independent system to do so. 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, you may be surprised to learn that 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 who offer VISA-branded credit, debit, prepaid and cash-access programs to their hundreds of millions of customers. These banks, while competing with each other for customers, agree to honor each other’s trillions of dollars in transactions annually across borders and currencies.

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 and we would return to the pre-VISA world when every financial entity had to have its own independent system of offering credit to its customers.

Although VISA is an atypical kind of for-profit organization, 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

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, and 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.

Lessons from my association leadership transitions

transitions_4141130245_1b07542dfb_oIn June I’m stepping down as President and Executive Director of edACCESS, an association I co-founded 25 years ago. This is the third time I’ve left an association leadership position, and I’m going to share some valuable lessons learned from each transition.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tip: Simple inexpensive effective appreciation of your volunteers

HHMI appreciation posterHere’s a great low-cost way to provide powerful personal feedback in permanent form to meeting volunteers and staff that complements giving them public appreciations during the event. Event planning committee members and I were the delighted recipients during a recent national peer conference for medical research lab managers.

Read the rest of this entry »

Unmembership and unconferences

rootsSparked by my article Is unmembership the future of associations?, Joe Rominiecki, senior editor of Associations Now, has published an interview with me: How “Unmembership” Gets Back to the Roots of Associating.

Talking with Joe helped me verbalize the close connection between the core reasons why associations begin and new conferences are born. I’ll leave you to read Joe’s excellent article for the details.

Photo attribution: Flickr user buehlerphoto

Convenings 2.0: Connecting adult learning, communication strategies and event logistics to build stronger relationships

Convenings 2.0

“The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is a relationship-based and an event-based organization. We love to bring our grantees together so they can learn, network and share best practices.”
Sterling Speirn, President and CEO, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Hot off the press! This beautifully designed report, which can be downloaded for free by clicking on the report cover above, describes a wealth of thoughtful approaches, proposals, and standards for meetings hosted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for its grantees. Containing extensive research by Carol and Mike Galle, and Sharon McMurray of Special D Events, I believe this document deserves wide circulation to associations, foundations, and event and association professionals.

Thirty-five subject matter expert contributors from foundations, the meeting industry, and adult learning/academia  contributed to the report, including my friends and colleagues Mitchell Beer, Michelle Bruno, Sandy Heierbacher, Carolyn Ray, Maarten Vanneste, and myself. The bibliography includes books and reports by Joan Eisenstodt, Jackie Mulligan, Maarten, myself, and many others.

The report scope includes meeting and event logistics, knowledge management, integrated communications, technology, foundation considerations, design and execution, communication and branding, a set of twenty-one recommendations, and an outline of design, execution, and evaluation process, with an appendix covering adult learning theory and its application to meetings and a glossary. Apposite quotes are sprinkled throughout the fifty-two pages.

There’s something for everyone here, folks. It’s well worth reading!

Two ways to make conferences better

Attendees talking 7088326883_a77ef0d148_o

Samantha Whitehorn of ASAE’s Associations Now recently wrote an interesting article on new staff roles for meetings and events and I’ve picked out two of her suggestions to comment on:

Attendee Concierge. Full disclosure: I pretty much stole this one from our June Associations Now cover story about Terry Fong, member concierge for the California Dental Association, who calls 1,000 new members each year to welcome them and ask, “Is there anything we can do for you?”

What if you had a staffer call all new attendees after your meetings and ask them what they liked most and least about the meeting and what else you could be doing to get them to register for the meeting again?

You could also use a similar role onsite and assign new attendees to attendee concierges—in this case, maybe extra staff or member volunteers—and have them check-in with attendees throughout the meeting and then follow-up after.
—Samantha

I think it’s crucial to check in with attendees during an event—something that I’ve done for years—and it’s easy to do. I like to concentrate on attendees I don’t know (the one’s I do are probably going to bend my ear anyway) and ask how the event is going for them. And listen. Do this and you’ll get tons of good in-the-moment feedback, build goodwill and relationships with the people you talk to, and get occasional opportunities to answer questions and solve problems they mention while the event’s still going on, rather than having to wait until next year. Don’t just ask new attendees, by the way; returning attendees can have equally valuable feedback for you. And make notes promptly about what you’ve heard so it doesn’t evaporate from your brain from the heat of the conference.

Conference Connector. I’ve blogged before about how the association education model needs an overhaul where the focus is put more on attendees learning and connecting with one another rather than just speakers on a stage or in front of a room.

At ASAE’s 2013 Great Ideas Conference, Thom Singer, served as “Conference Catalyst.” Over the course of the meeting, he gave attendees networking tips and helped them to engage and connect with one another. And at the California Society of Association Executives’ Annual Conference in April, Jeff Hurt served in a similar role, helping attendees keep the conversation and learning going between sessions and during lunch by having organized chats about what they recently learned.

What if you had a full-time staff person who helped form these small-group discussions to not only help members engage but also to help process and remember what they learned in the larger sessions?
—Samantha

Thom and Jeff are doing great work around this important topic. But rather than simply adding opportunities for connection piecemeal into our events we can do better. We can build opportunities for meaningful connections right into our entire event design. This means that we need to adopt meeting and session formats throughout our events that facilitate effective participation, connection, and engagement in the sessions themselves. We’ve known for years that the learning and connections that occur when we do this are far superior to what happens at traditional meetings. This is not rocket science—I’ve been designing and facilitating meetings like this for over twenty years. Participants love them. And more and more of them are taking place, all over the world. Let’s do this!

Photo attribution: Flickr user michigancommunities