Why digital tools aren’t always the right choice for events

Every day I receive a barrage of pitches for event technologies. Each one markets digital tools, like apps for marketing, registration, venue booking, staffing, sponsorship, engagement, etc. Newcomers to the meeting industry who experience this onslaught could be forgiven for believing that digital software and hardware technologies are the only tools available and worth considering for meeting improvement.

Well…no.

The reason that event professionals’ mailboxes and feeds are filled with digital tool marketing is simply that there’s money to be made when these technologies are purchased. Much more money than from tools like the participation techniques covered in my book The Power of Participation, which require either no “technology” at all or inexpensive tools like paper, Sharpies®, and Post-it® notes.

Yes, digital event technology has had a big positive impact on events. For example, no one (except the companies that printed them) regrets the demise of the massive printed conference guides that attendees had to drag around, most attendees appreciate the quantity and timeliness of information available on their mobile devices from well-designed event apps, and voting apps and throwable microphones allow greater interaction between presenters and audiences.

Nevertheless, in my experience, the human process tools I’ve been using and improving for the last twenty-five years provide more benefits more effectively (and, obviously, at lower cost) than current digital tools.

Let me illustrate with a current story taken from one of my earlier careers.

A massive difference
Before accidentally entering the meeting industry, I spent twenty-three years as an independent information technology consultant. During this period I was an active member of the global software development community and my friends included some of the leading practitioners of this challenging art.

Large software projects involve teams of programmers who work together to develop complex systems where a single error can have far-reaching consequences. Everyone makes mistakes, and one of the hardest tasks when developing software in teams is to implement design process that provides the required system functionality while minimizing flaws. Because the system implementation is constantly changing during development, continual software testing is an essential component of the whole process.

As you might expect, software developers are leading-edge creators of software tools. Sophisticated code repositories, automated testing suites, and complex project management tools are routinely used and constantly improved.

And yet, it turns out, some of the most important tools are not digital. Here’s an illustrative tweet from Mathew Cropper, an Irish software developer, and a follow-up response from Canadian consultant Dave Sabine.

“Last week we moved from a purely digital backlog to using a physical wall. The quality of conversation improved massively. It’s like talking with a different group of people.”
Mathew Cropper tweet

“If a team hasn’t yet tried a big, visible, physical wall of roadmaps/backlog/tasks… then any discussion about digital tools is like buying new tennis shoes in order to quit smoking.”
David Sabine tweet

The most sophisticated digital tools that money can buy are no match for a wall full of sticky notes!

Successful process for software development and meetings
There are many reasons why a wall of sticky notes is a useful and powerful tool for successful team software development and effective conference program crowdsourcing and engagement. Both human process environments thrive because a sticky note wall provides:

  • One place to easily capture every piece of information that any individual thinks is relevant;
  • A public display of information that can be easily viewed by many people simultaneously for as long as needed;
  • Simple public manipulation options, such as note clustering, inclusion/exclusion, ranking, and public modification;
  • Somewhere for appropriate people to document and discuss progress and develop and implement process; and
  • A natural focus for easy spontaneous conversation, communication, and creativity.

It’s hard for current digital tools to provide any of these benefits as simply and well. Let’s compare for each of the points above:

  • Information capture: Wall requires writing with pens on sticky notes; digital tools require access to a digital device for each attendee plus the interface knowledge necessary to use it.
  • Public display: Wall requires a flat surface for notes to be placed; digital tools require a BIG (expensive) screen.
  • Public manipulation options: At the wall simply pick up a note and move it; digital tools would require a big touch screen plus some form of note-dragging interface. [aka Minority Report wizardry]
  • Document and discussing progress & implementing process: Wall layout can easily be repurposed/redesigned whenever needed to accommodate different process tools such as project management or ranking to-dos; digital tools typically require specific process techniques to be precoded.
  • Focus for conversation, communication, and creativity: Because walls provide all the above functionality simply and in ways accessible to any attendee, they are natural foci for conversation, experimentation, and creativity. The barriers listed above for digital tools make them far less accessible for such purposes.

Given these significant advantages, coupled with much lower costs, it’s a shame that more conference organizers haven’t discovered the value of simple process tools like sticky note walls and are still seduced by the relentless marketing of digital tool suppliers. To learn more about many other powerful human process tools and how to use them effectively, buy my “tool chest” book The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.

Everybody likes me, nobody tweets me, guess I’ll post on LinkedIn

The effectiveness of Twitter as a connective social media channel is declining
In July I wrote about why 2017 is a tipping point for Twitter, noting that the rate at which users follow established accounts has slowed dramatically. As the year draws to a close I’m seeing further evidence that conversations in the twittersphere are drying up too. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Use pair share to quickly improve your conference sessions

psIn less than three minutes, you can improve almost any conference session with pair share. The technique is simple: after pairing up participants and providing a short period for individual thinking about an appropriate topic, each pair member takes a minute in turn to share their thoughts with their partner. (More details can be found in Chapter 38 of The Power of Participation.)

Pair share is not the same as conversation, because pair share gives each person an exclusive minute of active sharing and a minute of pure listening. This balance rarely occurs during conversation, because typically:

  • One party speaks more than another, and;
  • Whoever isn’t speaking is often not fully listening to what is being said because they’re thinking about something they want to say themselves.

Pair share improves conference sessions by:

  • Resetting every participant’s brain to a state of active engagement;
  • Providing structured opportunities for participants to share expertise and experience with their partner, and (if built into the subsequent session design) with others in the room; and
  • Modeling and supporting social learning during the session.

For pair share to work effectively:

  • Each assigned topic must be central to the session’s purpose;
  • If the session is presenter-content heavy, hold a pair share roughly every ten minutes to explore and consolidate participant learning; and
  • Design the session to build on relevant expertise and experience uncovered by each pair-share.

I also like to incorporate a closing pair-share where partners each share three takeaways they’ve acquired during the session. I’ve found that when I use this in a session design like the fishbowl sandwich, participants inevitably stay around deep in conversation after the session is officially over. (That always looks and feels good!)

Finally it’s worth mentioning that pair share can be used as a tool for introductions. Invite everyone to pair up with someone they don’t know and have each person take a minute to introduce themselves to their partner.

Pair share is quick, simple, versatile, and effective. Use it!

How do you use pair share? Share with everyone in the comments below!

Two ways to handle a major obstacle to change

How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

tacit knowledge

One of the reasons it’s so hard to change is because much of what we “know” is tacit. Tacit knowledge is that which cannot be easily shared verbally or in writing—as Michael Polanyi says, “…we can know more than we can tell.” A simple example of tacit knowledge is how to ride a bicycle.

Not only is tacit knowledge hard to convey to others, we are often not even aware that we know it ourselves. We all possess unexamined and/or unconscious beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions that can limit our ability to see, question, or act on desirable change in our life and work.

It’s hard enough when we don’t know what we know—but what happens when some of our tacit knowledge is incorrect or inaccurate? Here’s what Chief of Confusion John Seely Brown says:

It turns out that this learning to unlearn may be a lot trickier than a lot of us at first think. Because if you look at knowledge, and look at least two different dimensions of knowledge, the explicit dimension and the tacit dimension, the explicit dimension probably represents a tiny fraction of what we really do know, the explicit being the concept, the facts, the theories, the explicit things that live in our head. And the tacit turns out to be much more the practices that we actually use to get things done with…

…Now the problem is that an awful lot of the learning that we need to do is obviously building up this body of knowledge, but even more so the unlearning that we need to do has to do with challenging the tacit. The problem is that most of us can’t easily get a grip on. It is very hard to reflect on the tacit because you don’t even know that you know. And in fact, what you do know is often just dead wrong. And it is almost impossible to change your beliefs about something that is in the tacit and is different from what you happen to think.
—John Seely Brown, Storytelling: Scientist’s Perspective

Tacit knowledge acts like an invisible force that guides and constrains our potential choices and actions, making unlearning incorrect or inaccurate tacit knowledge seem like a hopeless task.

Two tools for freeing ourselves from the constraints of tacit knowledge
Surprisingly, there are tools available that allow us to become aware of and work with our tacit knowledge. The key insight is this: we can overcome our inability to reflect on our own tacit knowledge, by working with others!

Conversation
While it’s common to think of knowledge as being something an individual possesses, in reality knowledge is socially constructed with others. (Remember Socrates in ancient Greece, pursuing knowledge through dialog?) This leads us to the first tool to free ourselves from the limitations arising from what we don’t know we know: conversation with others. Other people can see our blind spots and share with us what they see. By reflecting and gently challenging the beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions that form our tacit knowledge, they can help us see what we cannot and provide us an opening to, at least, become aware of what was formerly invisible to us.

Storytelling
The second tool available to us is one of the most powerful ways to see and process the boundaries and consequences of our tacit knowledge: storytelling.

We can explore our tacit knowledge via storytelling in two ways:

  • By examining honestly the stories we tell others. Ultimately, we are the stories we tell about ourselves. Our own stories illuminate the tacit in us—somehow they craftily bypass our conscious limitations. If we scrutinize our own stories that have emotional resonance for us, we can learn much about ourselves that would otherwise stay hidden.
  • By noticing the stories of others that evoke emotions in us. When we respond to another’s story by feeling an emotional response that seems incongruous in some way, there’s a good chance we can learn about some aspect of our tacit knowledge from what we have just heard.

We are not alone
Conversation and stories create frameworks that can help us transcend some of the barriers to change imposed by our tacit knowledge. I think it’s fitting that we need to connect and engage with others in order to do this important work.

Photo attribution: John Seely Brown

Conversations => Relationships => Value (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post I introduced a core component of Conference 2.0.

Conversations => Relationships => Value

Here’s why this sequence is an important consideration for modern meeting design, and how it’s enhanced by Conference 2.0 designs.

Why should customers buy from you?
Sometimes, business value grows out of the barrel of a gun. When you have a monopoly on a product or service, you can charge as much as the market will bear. But when competition exists, you must use different strategies. For example, you can play race-to-the-bottom: squeezing your suppliers for rock bottom costs that, hopefully, are lower than your competitors. Or, you can differentiate what you offer in many other ways: better service, more options, faster delivery, longer warranties, superior customer support, etc. Thousands of books have been written about how to profitably and consistently market and sell. And, except perhaps for the most cutthroat commodity markets, the ability to build and maintain good relationships with your customers is a key component of most techniques.

This ability is even more crucial in today’s markets, because of four factors:

  • The increased complexity of products and services.
  • The increased variety of products and services.
  • The increased speed of product and service development.
  • The increased transparency in many marketplaces caused by online customer reviews and feedback.

The first three factors make it harder for potential customers to evaluate whether a specific product or service is a desirable fit for their needs. The last amplifies any deficiencies (perceived or otherwise) that may exist, any of which could prove fatal to sales.

In this new business environment, creating and maintaining good, trustworthy relationships with your customers becomes crucial.

Relationships are the new impressions
In the good old days, the more people heard about your product through broadcast marketing (impressions), the greater your sales. Today, business value, especially for non-commodity products and services, is becoming increasingly linked to the strength and quality of buyer-seller relationships. Relationships can’t be manufactured by traditional marketing; they are built through conversations between you and potential customers. Some of your conversations will turn into relationships, and some of those relationships will lead to value for your business.

Not all meetings are alike
Meetings provide wonderful opportunities for conversations. But, for two reasons, some meeting environments provide better opportunities than others.

First, for all but very small meetings, the number of conversations doesn’t scale with event size. For example, at a one-day, two hundred attendee event you can’t have more ten-minute conversations than you can with a hundred in attendance. In fact, at a large conference it’s often harder to find the people you really want to talk to than at a smaller, more focused event.

Second, Conference 1.0 sessions are not designed to foster conversations. Conversations are relegated to breaks and socials. Compare this with Conference 2.0 designs, which excel at providing opportunities for relevant conversations

How Conference 2.0 designs support conversations
I’ve quoted Howard Givner before and I’ll quote him again. (Why? Because this is a highly positive remark he made about one of my conferences :-).)

I easily established triple the number of new contacts, and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to.

Why is Howard’s experience a common one at Conference 2.0? Let’s take Conferences That Work as an example. This conference design starts with initial roundtables that not only provide a structured forum for attendees to meet and learn about each other’s affiliations, interests, experience, and expertise but also effectively uncover the topics that people want to discuss and share. Within a couple of hours, every attendee has the initial introductions and information necessary to go out and start the right conversations about the right topics with the right people. Other Conference 2.0 designs encourage fruitful conversations by giving attendees the ability to meet around topics that they choose during the event.

The bottom line: Conference 2.0 formats routinely lead to more meaningful conversations, which in turn lead to more relationships, which in turn lead to more business value.

Does Conversations => Relationships => Value make sense to you?

Conversations => Relationships => Value (Part 1)

I admit it
I do not have a good reaction when someone talks about the return on investment (ROI) from attending an event.

My initial internal response is a rant:

Do we ask for the ROI when we buy tickets to a concert?

How can you evaluate the ROI for learning something new or seeing something in a new way?

And my favorite: So, what is the ROI on a wedding? (Please don’t respond with an analysis of the average value of wedding gifts versus the cost of the wedding. I’d probably argue diminished responsibility at the subsequent trial.)

priceless 2254991225_8fc4e2967e_oIn some ways, my reaction is alarmingly similar to the message of the brilliant formula for the MasterCard advertisement:

[List of mundane items with $ assigned]
[Intangible item – Priceless!]

The delicious subtext: Forget the money, whip out the credit card, and go to the event anyway!

The morning after
OK, it’s strong black coffee time. Whether the benefits are intangible or concrete, we all know that there is some kind of calculation that goes on when a potential attendee decides whether to attend an event. I’ve written about how existing event ROI methodologies are a noble attempt to quantify this calculation and give it as much respectability and logic as we can. So, enough on ROI; here’s a core component of Conference 2.0.

Conversations => Relationships => Value

In Part 2 of this post, I explain why this sequence is now an important driver of modern meeting design, and how it’s enhanced by Conference 2.0 designs.

Photo attribution: Flickr user alanchan

How participant-driven events can improve event ROI

skeptical 2402001517_fab6e95cdb_o“Why do you want to go to this conference?” is a question that you’ve probably been asked at one time or another. The real Question being asked (usually by our boss) is, of course, Is it worth the money and time invested in having you attend? It can be a hard question to answer, especially when the event in question has no or few predetermined sessions, like the peer conferences I design and facilitate.

Probably the most exhaustive methodology of planning and evaluating event ROI has been developed by Jack Phillips and Elling Hamso. It’s long and comprehensive, and here’s a summary of it.

According to this methodology, one of the components involved in evaluating Event ROI is the degree of Relationship Learning, which Elling defines as follows:

Relationship learning refers to the building of affinity between people, getting to know others, trust and liking. All forms of peer learning benefit from the strength of personal relationships, it is the foundation for subsequent information, skills and attitude learning in the peer relationship. Relationship learning may be measured in much the same manner as other forms of learning. At the most detailed level, individual relationships of trust and liking, for example, may be scored on a scale from very low to very high, or more general reports of relationship learning may be collected.

Well, this is exactly this kind of learning experience at which peer conference designs like Conferences That Work excel! Here’s how Howard Givner described a recent peer conference:

…one of the most innovative and eye-opening professional experiences I’ve had. Aside from coming back with lots of new tips and ideas, I easily established triple the number of new contacts, and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to.
—Howard Givner article: The Un-Conference: Participant-Driven Agenda + Mashup Networking = Relationship Building on Steroids

Conversations, and the subsequent relationships that are formed, are very important. Doc Searls, co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto, wrote a great article about their pivotal role: Building a Relationship Economy. Well-designed peer conferences provide an environment that encourages and supports a rich abundance of the initial components of the following sequence (on which I’ll write more soon):

Conversations => Relationships => Value

“Value” here means the kind of business worth your boss is thinking about: more prospects, new sales, increased customer satisfaction, etc. All the things that translate into funding for your paycheck, profit for your company, and a happy boss.

So, when your boss next asks you The Question about the participant-driven conference you want to attend, take a deep breath and tell her you expect to make many more business relationships at this event than you would at a conventional conference—relationships that will turn into solid business value for your organization. Communicate exactly why you want to go, and explain that participant-driven conferences are much better than traditional events at building sessions around the content that attendees really want. Good luck!

Photo attribution: Flickr user andyi

Content versus conversation

Content vs conversation 515731969_9df2505684A few days ago during an #eventprofs chat I tweeted Cory Doctorow’s remark (made in 2006 in a boing-boing post): Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about. This inspired a variety of comments from such #eventprofs luminaries as @JeffHurt @MichaelMcCurry @lyksumlikrish @JaredGoldberg @camerontoth and @samuelsmith.

Here’s the point I was trying to make.

Sure, we need to have content at our events – something to talk about. But content is everywhere—I don’t need to go to an event to get content! If I never left my office again (now there’s a thought), as long as I paid my internet provider’s bill each month, I could choose, receive, and absorb content for the rest of my life.

And what a miserable life that would be.

I need connection, engagement, conversation to make my life meaningful. And, in my experience, so does most of the human race.

Content these days is ubiquitous. Face-to-face events are the places for powerful, life-changing connection and engagement. That’s why we need to make them the best possible environments for conversation we can. And when we do, our conversations will naturally encompass the content that is meaningful for us.

That’s why, for me, conversation is king.

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonz/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Six principles of conversation

conversation_2995911291_cfba89e806While reading Margaret Wheatley’s lovely book turning to one another I ran across the six principles she has “learned to emphasize” before beginning a conversation:

  • we acknowledge one another as equals
  • we try to stay curious about each other
  • we recognize that we need each other’s help to become better listeners
  • we slow down so we have time to think and reflect
  • we remember that conversation is the natural way human’s think together
  • we expect it to be messy at times

I’m especially taken by her third principle. We can’t listen by ourselves.

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/soylentgreen23/ / CC BY-SA 2.0