Who goes first — protocols for online meetings

who goes firstLast week I shared protocols for “who goes next?” at meetings. This week it’s time to cover a closely related topic: who goes first?

When everyone shares at a meeting, someone has to start! There are two scenarios to consider: facilitating a discussion for a single group, and providing directions for choosing who goes first when simultaneous small group discussions are needed or desired.

Face-to-face and online meetings have different signaling options, which I described in detail last week. So for this post, I’ll chronicle “who goes first” options for single and multiple group scenarios.

Options for choosing who goes first with a single group

• Ask for a volunteer

Probably the most common protocol for determining who goes first is to ask “who wants to start?” and provide a signaling method: e.g., raise your hand, or use an online signaling option.

This is generally a perfectly acceptable method, though, as you’ll see the next two options may be preferable under some circumstances.

• Facilitator/leader goes first

Sometimes a topic under discussion is tough to talk about. I’ve been in many meetings where the first contribution avoided addressing what was asked, or was meagre or superficial. This gives later sharers a license to follow suit. For example, a question about how a person is feeling about an issue may be answered by what they are thinking about it.

When a meeting facilitator or leader starts the sharing and models the kind of response that’s wanted, it’s much more likely that others will respond in a similar way.

• A plant goes first

No, not that underwatered yet surprisingly intelligent potted hibiscus that’s sitting next to the speakerphone. Or Groot. Rather, the facilitator asks a reliable participant, perhaps warned beforehand, to provide a great response to the posed question/issue/challenge.

Ways for small groups to independently determine who goes first

When you’re facilitating multiple small group sharing, either in person or online, you need to provide each group with guidance on how to choose who goes first. In person, you can provide this guidance once everyone is in their small group. Online, typically, you will need to supply “who goes first” instructions before people are whisked into their virtual breakout rooms.

A word about pair share

One of the best ways to improve any meeting session is to regularly include pair share (where paired participants each take time in turn to share their thoughts with their partner). Online, rather than splitting everyone into pairs, I recommend you create groups of four. Instruct each group to form two pairs, perhaps using one of the methods described below. Have one pair run pair share while the other pair listens, and then switch. This makes it more likely that each pair will actually follow instructions, and gives the group of four people a taste of three perspectives rather than one.

Methods for small groups to choose who goes first

You can use a couple of strategies: either leave it up to the groups to decide, or provide a method for them.

[Some of the following ideas were sparked by this post (check it out for even more ideas!) by Ted DesMaisons]

Letting each group decide who goes first is always an option, but it can also be fun to have groups compare or discover something about each other. Here are some simple ideas; feel free to add your own, especially if you can identify something that relates to the topic groups or pairs are going to discuss:

  • First name closest to start of alphabet
  • Longest first name
  • Tallest
  • Nearest to birthday
  • Earliest up in the morning
  • Lowest street address number
  • Closest to a point in the room
  • Longest hair
  • Most pockets
  • Lives nearest to water
  • Most recently worked in the garden
  • Last purchased something
  • Most colorful clothing

Feeling whimsical? For a pair share, pick neutral substitutes for partners A and B. For example: “One of you is cup, one of you is saucer.” “One of you is coffee, the other tea.” “One of you is sun, one is moon.” There are plenty of other pairs you can use (rock and roll, knife and fork, bread and butter) but avoid those that could have a negative connotation (e.g., life and death, right and wrong). And if you’re running multiple pair shares in a session, have Partner B start first sometimes, and change partners and who-goes-first strategies as well.

Are there other ways to decide who goes first?

I hope these ideas will prove helpful. I bet there are more I haven’t thought of. If you have additions and improvements, please share them in the comments! 

Who goes next — protocols for online meetings

who goes nextYou’ve surely overheard or been part of a “conversation” where one person talks non-stop. Who goes next? Nobody! “Free discussions” at meetings frequently suffer from the same phenomenon. A few people monopolize most of the time, and many people, often a majority, say nothing.

If you want to support everyone’s right to share at a meeting, you’ll need to facilitate what happens via defining and agreeing on who can speak, and when, and for how long.

One of those agreements involves determining who goes next.

Let’s explore strategies for who goes next, first for face-to-face meetings and then online meetings.

Face-to-face options for who goes next

When all participants are physically together in one room, there are several ways “who goes next?” may be decided.

• Random

No facilitation or explicit process used. Whoever speaks gets to talk. If two or more people start simultaneously, they decide (or battle) as to who should speak next.

Because this is the default mode for most casual human conversations, many groups unconsciously adopt it when they meet. As we all know, this (lack of) process eventually breaks down as the group gets larger, with people shut out or deciding not to speak.

• Round-robin sharing

The simplest who goes next protocol for a face-to-face group is round-robin sharing, where participants’ physical location determines who speaks next. When using a circle of chairs, this is easy to do. It’s not much harder for a facilitator to implement round-robin in other room sets, providing participants aren’t moving around. An agreed limit on time to speak is typically needed in order to prevent one or more people from monopolizing group time. And it’s important for the facilitator to check that no one’s been left out when sharing appears to be done.

• Popcorn sharing

In popcorn sharing, people indicate they’d like to speak by some agreed on method, say by raising their hand, and a facilitator guides who speaks next. This allows people to speak when they’re ready to say something, rather than be forced to speak because it’s “their turn” due to where they are sitting or standing. For successful group sharing, a facilitator should check that everyone who wants to has spoken before anyone speaks again. Again, a time limit is recommended.

“Pass” should always be an option

However a group uses to decide who goes next, it’s important to make clear that speaking is optional. Give anyone who doesn’t want to speak at an available time an explicit opportunity to state this, rather than assuming that anyone who hasn’t spoken doesn’t want to.

Who goes next at an online meeting?

Determining who goes next during an online meeting discussion poses additional challenges to those of a face-to-face meeting. That’s because we don’t have all the signaling options that are possible when all participants are physically together.

• Facilitator chooses

At an online meeting there’s no physical room set to use for a round-robin process. (A common mistake is to assume that the order participants appear on one’s screen is the same for everyone, but that’s not the case—and the visible order may change at any time when participants join or depart the meeting.)

One strategy is to have the facilitator choose who speaks next. For a small group, the facilitator’s memory may be sufficient to keep track of who has spoken and who hasn’t.

Alternatively, meeting platforms generally allow the host to display a list of participants, and the facilitator can use a screenshot of this list to invite and track who goes next.

Finally, for a more formal meeting, an agenda distributed before the meeting can include an ordered list of speakers.

As in face-to-face meetings, the facilitator should check that everyone who wants to has spoken before anyone speaks again.

• Participants raise hands

We are all used to raising hands when we want to speak in a group. If all participants have their camera on, and the facilitator can see everyone on one screen (check this — every meeting platform has a limit to the number of participants shown simultaneously), you can have people raise a hand if they want to speak. The facilitator then names who will speak next. If more than one person raises their hand, it’s good to recognize both: e.g. “Martha, and then let’s hear from Priya”.

If you have a few people on phones, the facilitator can check in with them periodically, asking if there’s something they want to contribute. However, phone-only attendees are typically second-class citizens on video conferencing calls unless the meeting group is small.

Some meeting platforms have the capability for participants to click on a “raise hand” icon, to inform the host they want to speak. (Microsoft Teams will be adding this, though the displayed hand is pretty small.) Zoom implements this well, even allowing phone callers to “raise their hand” by entering *9 on their keypad.

• Participants use text chat

If everyone has appropriate access, another approach is for attendees to request to speak via text chat. I’m not a big fan of this approach because I’ve found that text chat is a great channel for people to connect with other participants and comment on the meeting, and it’s hard to use this channel for two different purposes. One alternative is to reserve the meeting platform text chat for normal use, and agree on a separate text chat channel that uses a different platform for queuing speaking requests. This could be a viable approach for very large online meetings, though remember that running a free-floating discussion amongst a large number of people is just as ineffective and prone to abuse online as it is in person.

• Current speaker picks the next person to speak

A final strategy is to have the current speaker pick who speaks next. This adds a little nice informality to the sharing. There are a couple of things to bear in mind with this approach. First, it can be hard for people to remember who has spoken and who hasn’t. And second, I’ve seen everyone avoid choosing people with hard-to-pronounce names until they are the only folks left!

Are there other ways to decide who goes next?

If you have additions and improvements to the above ideas, please share them in the comments! And stay tuned for my upcoming post on a similar online meeting issue: who goes first?

How I got here

How I got hereHow I got here?

Schoolboy days

I have little memory of my earliest formal education though I suspect it has informed my entire life.

My mother decided that I should attend London’s Chelsea Froebel School. For a couple of years she valiantly brought me to school via two buses and a train, went to work, and then picked me up to return home via the same interminable route.

The school’s philosophy was developed in the early nineteenth century by Friedrich Fröbel, the remarkable German pedagogue who created the concept of kindergarten and espoused the importance of children’s games, singing, dancing, and self-directed play. I remember singing, writing poetry, and spending hours at water and sand play tables.

At the age of seven, my school environment changed drastically. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to Dulwich College, a British “Public” (in actuality private) all-boys school founded in 1619. I say “lucky” because, as a child of working-class parents who were forced to leave school at thirteen due to the outbreak of the Second World War, my options for educational advancement were severely limited. By a twist of fate, the school had recently implemented what eventually became known as the “Dulwich College Experiment”. Local councils paid the fees for the majority of boys selected to attend.Attending a private independent school with experienced teachers and small class sizes greatly increased my likelihood of access to higher education. On graduation, I won a second scholarship to Oxford University.

Education

I’ll always be grateful for the opportunities Dulwich College gave me. But I had no awareness at the time of the poor learning environment it offered.

I sat at ancient wooden desks, complete with inkwell and carved with the initials of generations of earlier schoolboys. I listened to teachers sharing knowledge that the best minds had taken hundreds or thousands of years to figure out. A condensed précis poured unceasingly into my ears. Somehow, I was expected to absorb, understand, regurgitate, and use this information to do well at frequent tests and nerve-wracking national exams that determined my educational and vocational future.

Apart from the tests, I found this torrent of knowledge exhilarating. Apparently, as judged by tests and exams, I was capable of absorbing it better than the majority of my peers. It was only much later that I realized that for most people, immersion in a high-volume flood of information is a terrible way to learn and provides minimal opportunities to connect with others.

It had a cost for me. The school environment emphasized my intellectual side and provided almost no time for personal or social development. I made no close enduring connections at school, becoming a nerd, concentrating on my studies. Luckily, I never completely lost touch with the Froebel-nurtured, playful, and curious child buried inside me.

How I got here

How I got here

After school, I began a thirty-year journey. It wasn’t until my fifties, after careers as a high-energy physics researcher, owner of a solar manufacturing business, college professor teaching computer science, and independent information technology consultant that I reconnected with the six-year-old who loved to sing and dance.

Throughout this period, convening conferences on my current professional interests fascinated me. I organized academic, solar, non-profit, and information technology conferences. In retrospect, it was an advantage to be an amateur. I hated the formal academic conferences I had to attend. Eventually I tried new approaches.

People started asking for my help with conferences on topics I knew little about. I eventually realized how much I loved to bring people together around common interests and needs. I became fascinated with the remarkable improvements that good process can have on the individual and collective experience and satisfaction when people meet. Eventually I decided to make inventing and proselytizing this work my mission.

Today, I’m happy that thousands of people and organizations have realized the value of what I’ve been learning and sharing. Over the last twenty-plus years I’ve worked all over the world, facilitating connection between people face-to-face. The current coronavirus pandemic has temporarily suspended this work. Yet I feel confident the value of well-designed and facilitated face-to-face meetings will only become more apparent during the period we cannot hold them.

The workshop that wasn’t

workshop that wasn'tLast week, my friend Traci B wrote to me about a workshop that wasn’t.

“You’ll love this…I went to a 4 hour morning workshop at this digital conference. The speaker said, this will be interactive because no one wants to listen to me talk for four hours. He then proceeded to talk for 4 hours!

I did learn stuff and it prompted some ideas, but imagine how much better they might stick if it actually was a workshop. Also, he polled people in the audience and asked who was B2B [business-to-business] and who B2C [business-to-consumer]. 90 percent of the room was B2B…his presentation was almost all B2C.”

Sadly, experiences like this are far too common. Speakers (and the folks that concoct conference programs) decide to jazz up the description of a broadcast-style session by calling it a workshop.

The dictionary definition of a workshop is: “a seminar, discussion group, or the like, that emphasizes exchange of ideas and the demonstration and application of techniques, skills, etc.”.

Workshops that are

Obviously, the lecture Traci had to endure wasn’t a workshop. Genuine workshops include significant, frequent, and appropriate work by participants, guided by leaders. The leaders typically have significant content-specific experience. However, they also need adequate facilitation skills to guide the group through the session’s activities.

Some workshops are better described as trainings, where the participants are novices and the leader supplies the vast majority of the content and learning environment. However, most workshops I’ve led included professionals with significant skills and experience.

Customizing a workshop

When running such sessions, it’s important to customize the workshop in real time to meet the actual wants and needs of the participants, rather than plowing through a predetermined agenda that may be partially or largely irrelevant.

This did not happen at Traci’s event!

“Also, adapting your presentation isn’t tagging on “it’s the same for B2B” after every example…cause it’s not.”

Skilled leaders know to uncover the wants and needs of participants at the start of the session, and use the information to build a workshop that’s optimized for the attendees.

This sounds more difficult than it usually is. Preparation involves having a broad set of potential content, techniques, and skills to cover. Then, during the session, the leader concentrates on the wants and needs the attendees have initially shared, adjusting the time spent on each area to match the expressed interest.

One final suggestion

If a presenter (like me) is actually running a workshop, please don’t insist on calling them a speaker! In my experience, attendees prefer well-designed workshops to almost any other session format. Tell them the session is a workshop. They’ll appreciate the information (and likely the session too)!

I am the second sort of escapologist

the second sort of escapologistI am the second sort of escapologist.

“I read once that the first time they put an escapologist in a tank of water, he or she will have one of two reactions, and which one determines the course of their life.

The first sort of escapologist is an ordinary person who has come to the trade organically, by whatever curious sequence of opportunity and happenstance—and that sort will panic. There is very little that is more appallingly unnatural or frightening than being lowered, bound, into a confined space containing an atmosphere you cannot breathe. … Some people just never go back in the tank. … Some get right back in and they master their fear and they go on to be as good as their skill allows. These last are most compelling to watch.

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How to improve your facilitation: an example

improve your facilitationHow can you improve your facilitation practice? Here’s an example that illustrates what I do: a mixture of continual improvement, lifelong learning, and Kaizen.

An example from The Solution Room

I’ve been facilitating The Solution Room, a popular plenary session, for 9 years. It’s a 90 – 120 minute session that engages and connects attendees, and provides peer-supported advice and support for a current professional challenge chosen by each participant. Participants routinely evaluate the session as a highly helpful and valuable experience.

Over the years I have made numerous small improvements to The Solution Room. Here’s the process I use, developed intuitively over time, illustrated with a recent tweak.

Practice

Obviously, if you’re going to improve what you do you need to practice. Each time I run The Solution Room is an opportunity to implement any new ideas gleaned from the previous time I ran it. Even if I don’t have any changes to make, practice typically makes my delivery and the consequent session a little better.

Notice

Noticing stuff that’s happening is a key component of learning from experience.

During The Solution Room, each participant has a turn facilitating exploration and support of another participant at their table. While preparing everyone for this phase, I verbally share a set of directions on how to do this. Here they are:

  1. Read the challenge that is in front of you out loud.
  2. Start asking questions of the person whose challenge it is to clarify the issue. If necessary, encourage everyone at the table to join in to ask clarifying questions and give advice and support.
  3. Take notes of the ensuing discussion on the paper in front of you.

While running recent Solution Rooms I noticed that table facilitators had no problem implementing #1 and #2, but #3, the note taking, was sometimes skipped during the intense discussion that followed each challenge presentation.

Respond

Now I’ve noticed something that could be improved, it’s time to respond. “Respond” means think about what I might be able to do to make my process better.

Typically, for me, this involves musing over a period of time on what I noticed. (I typically run five or six Solution Rooms a year, so there’s no big time pressure to implement a change.) I’ve found this works best when I don’t immediately fixate on the first idea I get. Coming up with three or more options seems to lead to the best outcomes.

I considered rephrasing my instructions, emphasizing the importance of the note taking in some way beforehand or during the “rounds” of peer consulting. Finally I had the idea of creating a laminated card with the instructions on each table, and asking table members to pass the card around to each consultation facilitator in turn.

Implement

The next step then is to implement my potential improvement. For The Solution Room, I need to create the instruction cards and modify my instructions to participants so they remember to pass the card to the next facilitator.

Test

At the next opportunity, I test my change, by implementing it and noticing what happens.

Repeat!

Continual improvement needs an action loop. We go back to practicing, noticing…

Conclusion: Improve your facilitation practice!

I hope this continual improvement practice I’ve shared helps you improve the quality and effectiveness of your facilitation. Do you have your own approach to improving what you do? Share your ideas in the comments below!

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

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Create memorable learning experiences and connections at simple workshops

Create memorable learning experiences and connections at simple workshopsI 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 fired man 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.

Shut up and listen — part 2

Shut up and listen — part 2When I close peer conferences with a Group Spective, there’s always a moment that is hard for me. It occurs during the Plus/Delta, when people are sharing what they’d like to change in the event they’ve just experienced. Participants offer many suggestions, perspectives, and ideas that make the organization’s future activities and events better, and their sharing frequently helps me improve my own work.

And then someone, let’s call them John, comes up to the microphone and says something like this:

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When the audience can’t stop talking about what they did

When the audience can't stop talking about what they didLast week, I led The Solution Room for a group of New York City attorneys. When it ended at 8 pm, after two hours of continuous intense conversation and connection, no one left. The participants, despite having worked a full day before my evening session, hung around and talked and swapped business cards while venue workers patiently reset the room for the law firm’s next business day.

For me, having people unwilling to leave after one of my sessions is over is a sign of success. It’s an example of what Set Godin calls viral work.

Important work is easily dismissed by the audience. It involves change and risk and thought.
Popular work resonates with the people who already like what you do.
Viral work is what happens when the audience can’t stop talking about what you did.

Every once in awhile, all three things will co-exist, but odds are, you’re going to need to choose.
—Seth Godin, Important, popular or viral

I like Seth’s definition of viral work, but I’d change one word to better describe my facilitative work.

“Viral work is what happens when the audience can’t stop talking about what they did.”

Because, it’s not about me.

How often do you get to do viral work? Share your successes in the comments below!

[P.S. I don’t usually photograph the challenge representations drawn by Solution Room participants because they can contain personal information, but I made an exception for the charming image that graces this post.]