I’ve been promoting the Conferences That Work meeting format for so long, that some people assume I think it’s the right choice for every meeting.
Well, it’s not.
Here are (drum roll!) two meeting types and three situations when you should NOT use a Conferences That Work design:
— Most corporate events
Many corporate events have a tight focus. Management have desired outcomes for the meeting: e.g. developing new products and services, communicating changes in company strategic goals, training and incentivizing sales teams, implementing successful product launches, etc. The function of such meetings is primarily top-down: effectively communicate management objectives, answer questions, and get employee buy-in. Fixed agenda corporate meetings are not a good fit for peer conference designs because they are predominantly about one-way broadcast-style communication; participants are there to listen and learn rather than to determine what’s individually useful to them or to build intra-company connections.
— Special events
Special events involve a mixture of entertainment, celebration, and raising money. While some may include impromptu participant involvement, they concentrate on creating a wonderful experience for attendees. Special events are carefully choreographed in advance and participant interaction is generally limited to the traditional social forms of meals and parties, so they are not a good fit for the spontaneous generation of topics, themes, and participant-determined process that peer conference designs generate.
— When simultaneously scheduled alongside traditional meeting formats
Much as I would like to tell you that participant-driven and participation-rich event formats are common these days, it just ain’t so. As a result, many conference attendees have not encountered these designs before and have not experienced how effective they can be in creating valuable connections and learning with their peers. When meeting planners add participant-driven sessions as a track to an existing schedule of traditional presentations, few attendees will pick the unfamiliar. Unfortunately, this convinces the organizers that few people are interested in these formats, reinforcing a return to a familiar predetermined program.
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen this mistake made … well … that would pay the bill for a very nice dinner out.
— When time is short
Participant-driven and participation-rich events are messy and, by the standards of a content-dump-into-listeners-ears event, relatively inefficient. You can share some good information in a ten-minute talk, even if most of the audience will have forgotten it a month later. If you’re attempting to build connections and learning in a group of a hundred people in ten minutes, however, little of any significance is going to happen in such a short time.
I’ve run the core Conferences That Work design in a day numerous times, and it’s always a rush. A day and a half is the minimum needed for a group to really benefit. A peer conference design such as Open Space doesn’t need so much time—a few hours can be useful—though it omits some of the features that make Conferences That Work so effective.
Valuable peer learning and connection takes time. It’s worth it. If you don’t have enough time, remember that a peer conference isn’t like a podcast you can speed up and still understand what’s said. Schedule the time actually needed for the process to work and wonderful things will happen. Shortchange the time needed, and you and your attendees will be frustrated and unhappy.
— When a meeting is significantly about status rather than learning and connection
Sadly, in my view, some meetings are primarily about asserting and demonstrating status. Government, political, and, to a lesser extent, academic conferences often fall into this category. If your conference attendees come from a culture where power and influence is firmly controlled by the people in charge, a peer conference will be a poor fit, as the powers that be will be threatened by a format that does not reinforce their dominance.
So when should you use the Conferences That Work design?
I thought you’d never ask. If you have all attendees’ attention and enough time to for the process to work (see above), a Conferences That Work meeting design is a fantastic (I would argue, the best) approach for meetings of communities of practice (this link explains in detail what communities of practice are). That includes all conferences, colloquia, congresses, conventions, and symposia.
Association and client conferences are clear candidates for Conferences That Work. Traditional conference elements are easily integrated into the design, so desired sessions like up-to-the-minute research findings, recognition ceremonies, social events, etc. are not excluded.
Existing conferences can be made more participant-driven and participation-rich by carefully incorporating peer conference process into future events. Over the years I have helped many associations successfully make this transition.
But the best time to implement Conferences That Work is at a brand-new conference! (A good example is the edACCESS peer conference, now in its 26th year, and still going strong.) Why? Because conferences are typically started when a group of people finds the need to meet for a new purpose. At that moment in time, invariably, there are no obvious experts to invite. Opening with a peer conference design allows a group of relative strangers with a common interest to make fruitful connections and learn productively about and from the expertise and experience in their midst. The experience is so powerful, that I don’t know of a group that has decided to stop using the format.
Image attribution: Flickr user apionid
I love David Adler‘s creativity, support, drive, ingenuity, and enthusiasm. The first time I met him—at the premier EventCamp in 2010—he immediately purchased my just-published book, sight unseen. The following year, David was kind enough to honor me in his flagship publication BizBash as one of the most innovative event professionals. Whenever I’ve had the pleasure of meeting David (not often enough!) he has proved to be a continual source of great ideas and encouragement, as well as a masterful conversationalist.
However, one recurring theme in David’s magazine irritates me, because it perpetuates a common misconception in the events industry.
BizBash consistently uses the term “event design” to mean “visual design”.
As an example, consider the 2016 Design Issue. The cover proclaims “What’s Next in Event Design?”
The sixty pages of this issue concentrate exclusively on visual and F&B ideas and treatments. While its article “8 Fresh Faces of Event Design 2016” says it is about “industry newbies who dream up and create an event’s visuals as opposed to those that handle the logistics like a planner”, this really misses the point.
Event process design determines the logistics and visuals we use. Logistics and visuals are secondary issues that support the primary design choices we make.
First decide what your event is designed to do—what you want to happen during it—and then determine appropriate logistics and visuals that support and enhance the process design.
There is nothing in the 2016 BizBash Design Issue that explores the heart of event design: what will happen at the event? As I’ve written elsewhere, we are so steeped in traditional process rituals that society has used for hundreds of years—lectures, weddings, business meetings, galas, shows, etc.—that we don’t question their continued use. These forms are essentially invisible to us and previous generations because they have been at the heart of social and professional culture for so long.
But when someone takes time to reexamine these unquestioned forms, startling change becomes possible. Here are three examples:
1 — The world of weddings
In 2009, Jill and Kevin created the JKWeddingDance for their Big Day, and the traditional Western wedding was enriched forever.
2 — Elementary Meetings
Eric de Groot and Mike van der Vijver’s book “Into the Heart of Meetings” contains numerous examples of using Elementary Meeting metaphors to discover new congruent meeting forms.
3 — Conferences That Work
Finally, my own contribution. Re-imagining a conference as a participant-driven and participation-rich event, rather than a set of lectures, increases effective learning, participant connection, and individual and organizational change outcomes far above what’s possible at traditional passive broadcast-style meetings.
Prolonging the misconception, as BizBash implicitly does, that meeting design is principally about sensory design is slowing the adoption of fundamental and innovative process design improvements that can significantly improve our meetings. Instead, let’s broaden our conceptions of what meeting design is. Our work and industry will be the better for it—and our clients will appreciate the results!
Silvia Pellegrini of Events Uncovered TV interviews me about:
- how I got into events (0:00);
- why participation at events is so important (4:40);
- participant-led formats (7:10); and
- an overview of the Conferences That Work meeting format (8:10).
Silvia’s questions touch on:
- the difference between child teaching and adult learning (13:40);
- the social construction of knowledge (18:00);
- running your own Conferences That Work (20:45);
- how and why the closing session includes public feedback (21:10);
- session formats used (22:15); and
- why it’s easy to find others who share your interests at Conferences That Work (24:30).
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:
- CHAPTER 1 Why did I write this supplement?
- CHAPTER 2 What’s included?
- CHAPTER 3 Acknowledgements
- CHAPTER 4 Avoid one-day peer conferences
- CHAPTER 5 Running Conferences That Work with more than 100 participants
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
Happy reading and best wishes!