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.
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
(Full disclosure: the facilitation needs to be competent!)
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.
CoffeeGate Two hundred people arrived for the opening breakfast at a 2015 Canadian conference to discover There Was No Coffee. The young first-time volunteer staff had forgotten to brew it.
Three days later, people were still grumbling about CoffeeGate. I bet that even today, if you asked attendees what they remembered about the event, most would immediately recall the There Was No Coffee moment. A memorable moment, yes, but not a good one.
Experienced meeting planners know that every meeting has its share of unexpected surprises. While some thrive on the adrenaline rush of dealing with them, most of us work to minimize surprises by anticipating potential problems and developing appropriate just-in-case responses.
Minimizing surprises like CoffeeGate is default behavior for meeting planners. We do not want poorly planned and/or executed events, because the inevitable result will be unhappy attendees and chaos of one kind or another.
Surprising Meetings But not all meeting surprises are bad. Because meeting professionals want to minimize the likelihood of unexpected surprises during execution of the events, there’s a tendency to unconsciously minimize planned surprises for the attendees. And that’s unfortunate — because planned surprises are one of the most wonderful ways we can improve attendees’ experience of the event!
During my 20+ years as an IT consultant and developer, I fell in with a delightful international crowd of software testers: those all-important people responsible for the impossible task of making sure that software works the way it’s supposed to. (Fun fact: the testing community often uses my term “peer conferences” for their get-togethers, due to a chat about meeting design I had with tester James Bach at the 2004 Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference.)
Software testers are especially conscious of the processes they use in their work. So it’s not surprising that when they get together they experiment with meeting formats. A recent experiment is a good example of how creative folks can look at a 50-year-old meeting format, try out something fresh and innovative, and — this is so important — learn from the experience.
During the 3 breaks of TestBash Brighton 2018, The Ministry of Testing (MoT) trialled a new experimental conference engagement method named The UnExpo. The aim of the UnExpo was to boost the awesome community feels that are present at every TestBash and to provide a space in which software testers could converse deeply on topics of interest. Our results suggest that The UnExpo created an environment where software testers felt free to discuss their inner thoughts and feelings on the craft of software testing and their lives working in software development. We believe maximum feels were reached and attendees were highly engaged on a wide range of topics throughout The UnExpo. We intend to run a more streamlined UnExpo at future TestBashes and encourage other conferences run them too! —Richard Bradshaw, Rosie Sherry, Heather Reid, Áine McGovern, and Sarah Deery, The UnExpo: A Novel Approach to Increase Conference Attendee Engagement and Maximise Community Feels
The entire post is well worth reading. It’s a detailed and candid account of the development and testing of a meeting format. Here are a few extracts that illustrate the development and evaluation process:
“We received feedback from the community that they would like more engagement and structured opportunities to confer with other attendees during the breaks of TestBash.”
MoT started with a core component of (any kind of) process improvement: soliciting and receiving feedback from prior experiences. Most meeting conveners concentrate on feedback about:
meeting content (“great speakers!”); or
logistics (“the food could have been better.”)
They shy away from feedback that suggests the meeting format and processes should be changed or improved.
Identifying their Expo (trade show) as a place where engagement and conferring could be improved, they explored using some kind of poster session format:
Our hypothesis: if poster sessions can engage and encourage scientists to converse, they can do the same for software testers too.
However, we felt that the scientific poster session format was too rigid, passive and formal. To maximise the engagement and fun, we encouraged the software testing community to submit to run poster stands that were interactive. Posters could be on any topic attendees were currently interested in; be it technical topics or the human aspects of working in software development. Other attendees armed with post-its, pens and awesome tester brains would then walk around The UnExpo and interact with posters of interest.
Having developed an overview of what would happen during The UnExpo, MoT then designed a detailed implementation. This included:
logistical resources — a Poster Creation Station and appropriate room set; and
a schedule of when the posters would be made and installed for interaction during the three conference breaks. (See the post for full details.)
MoT then describes in detail what happened during the experiment — and they don’t avoid critical observations:
The UnExpo set off to a shaky start during the first break of TestBash Brighton… …it was a logistical pain for TestBash helpers to do the poster swap during the TestBash talks…
Nevertheless, the vast majority of the observations were positive. The post nicely conveys, with numerous pictures and quotes from participants, what the UnExpo experience was like.
The day after the event, MoT ran a Twitter poll for 24 hours. It received 58 votes, with 91% of the voters agreeing that The UnExpo worked.
The post also documents more detailed feedback from Twitter, both positive and constructive.
Finally, the post’s conclusion offers:
commentary on the UnExpo experiment;
a list of the format’s benefits for individuals and the event;
a commitment to run UnExpos at future TestBashes; and
a description of planned format improvements.
Our findings support our hypothesis and suggest that poster sessions can engage and encourage software testers to converse with one another. We believe our tweaks to the poster session format led to highly engaging, interactive and fun conference break sessions where testers could have deep discussions around a variety of topics of interests…
We identified multiple benefits for running a stand at an UnExpo and attending an UnExpo:
Poster presenters got to practise their communication and presentation skills.
Those running stands were able to gather community feedback on their topic.
Posters acted as a handy medium enabling TestBashees to easily engage with others interested in the same subjects as themselves.
The UnExpo led to genuine connections and potential future collaborations being made.
…At future UnExpos, we will run a more streamlined format with a higher number of stands that will run all day. We will also have a small section of stands that are exclusively for those inspired folk who want to book a slot on the day, these stands will rotate each break. We believe this strategy will allow for attendees to continue conversations but also keep the energy and topics fresh!
My conclusion? This post is an excellent example of how to invent, explore, evaluate, and improve new meeting formats. To improve the quality and effectiveness of meetings, this is exactly the kind of focus and work we need!
I’ve just returned from a wonderful 48-hour whirlwind of experiments and play with 30 meeting designers in Utrecht, The Netherlands. We came from Europe, South America, Slovakia, and the U.S. (me) to learn, share, and connect at the first Meeting Design Practicum, hosted by Eric de Groot and his merry gang.
Similar in spirit to the many EventCamps that have been held around the world since 2010, the Practicum was a safe place for event professionals to experiment with techniques, approaches, ideas, and formats without the obligation and pressure of a “successful” outcome for a paying client. We met informally at an ancient Dutch fort, cooked meals together, did our own housekeeping, and quickly built an intimate community with connections that will continue to reverberate into the future.
I can’t give a complete survey of everything that happened at the Practicum. For one thing, I couldn’t attend every Practicum session because we often had to choose between simultaneous sessions. In addition, some of the important take-aways were already familiar to me, so I don’t include them here. Rather, I’ll share new insights that I made an impression on me during our three days together. I apologize for not attributing them to specific people; suffice it to say that every single participant brought important insights and contributions to our gathering.
Elementary meetings One of the great concepts Eric & Mike van der Vijver introduced in Into The Heart of Meetings was that of modeling portions or an entire event on the familiar format of what they call Elementary Meetings—such as weddings, legal trials, birth celebrations, etc. The Practicum provided several examples of this.
Our journey through the event was mapped onto a large wall “tree”, with our influences mapped onto the roots at the start, and our learnings added as leaves to the branches as the Practicum progressed.
Participants were given the opportunity to share a single short meeting design tip/trick. This was mapped onto the magic competitions of Asterix and Obelix where druids demonstrated their magic to the tribes. On several occasions, those of us offering magic disappeared into a small room, only to reappear wearing impressive druid beards. One at a time, introduced by a flourish played on a trumpet we shared our tips. At the end of the Practicum we chose the most useful tip, and the winner, Victor Neyndorff, took home the golden snouieknife (sp?).
Gardening Metaphors provide powerful ways to communicate, and I find them surprisingly difficult to discover. A delightful and effective metaphor for meeting design was shared early in the Practicum. Seeing the meeting designer as a gardener maps so many aspects of meeting design process onto the familiar act of gardening that enumerating the parallels is left as an exercise for the reader.
Objects From 2007-8 I was a participant in a year-long leadership workshop held over a dozen weekends. For our last meeting we were asked to bring a personal object and share its meaning and relevance to what we had learned and our experience. I found this a moving and bonding experience, as we told our stories, each linked to an object that we held in our hands or placed at the center of our group.
The Practicum reminded me of this format, thanks to a session on using objects at events. We concentrated on using individual objects with attributes that evoked a desired event theme, message, or mindset. One interesting aspect of this approach is that it could be used to replace the common practice of saturating the event environment with theme/message decor. Imagine—no more branded cocktail napkins needed! Another interesting suggestion was the use of two or more interacting objects: e.g. a mirror ball together with lights held by participants.
Improving a traditional presentation with closing Q&A Instead of moving straight into Q&A after a presentation, provide a short time for participants to share possible questions in small groups. This helps introverts get their just-as-good-as-anyone-else questions out, and provides a check for those wondering whether their question is a good one, or optimally phrased.
“Never trust a leader who doesn’t dance at the event party” I’ll let this stand without comment, except to say my experience bears this out.
A good question for pair-share “What motivates you the most?” An excellent question for energizing participants by reconnecting them with their personal passion.
Working with status-conscious leaders at events Some leaders are heavily invested in their personal status. At events, they may insist on speaking at length to everyone, even though their talk is widely considered by the audience to be a waste of time. This issue was discussed at one of the four Practicum “challenge sessions”. One possible solution suggested was to elevate the leader’s status, for example, by adding a short well-produced video showing the leader to best advantage. Once this is done, the leader may accept more interactive and interesting formats, such as being interviewed by some key participants with preplanned questions.
Relief from discomfort My philosophy when facilitating is to bring participants as gently as possible into situations or experiences that may be uncomfortable, but are needed to satisfy desired outcomes. During the Practicum we went through what was described as a Maori discussion format. We found an issue on which our group was roughly equally divided and, with the two groups standing facing each other, took turns arguing for our point of view using the format “YOU think that… WE think that…”
I found the format artificial and uncomfortable (not least because none of us had any idea of what the other members in our group actually thought). What was interesting to me was the next step, when we all came together, sharing hugs and reconnecting across the groups, followed by a debrief where we all lay down and spoke about the experience when we felt we had something to say (rather like a Quaker Meeting). The relief felt after the “confrontation” was much stronger than if we had used a less confrontational discussion format. The experience made me think that there may be times when it’s worth increasing the discomfort at some points of event process to improve post-discomfort bonding.
Escape Rooms On the last evening of the Practicum, we piled into cars for a mystery outing. Our destination was revealed to be an Escape Room, or rather three Escape Rooms.
We had an opportunity to cooperatively solve (or watch others solve) a myriad of physical and mental problems in order to either escape from a room or, in my case, to compete against another team in an identical room. I had heard about these rooms but never experienced one before. For a group to solve the puzzles, members had to communicate effectively with each other. Our group worked fairly independently, calling out or showing findings to the other members as we found clues and objects needed to increase our score or unlock further puzzles. I was told afterwards that our competitors were less effective at listening to each other, which is why we ended up “winning”. Video cameras watched us as we worked, though the staff told us that the video would be kept private.
I had fun working with my six first-time teammates!
The Escape Room experience is an effective way to expose existing or potential communication problems in a group, and it could be debriefed afterwards using video of the session. However, it might be a rather negative experience, as there’s certainly potential for intra-team conflict, so I’m not sure if it’s an optimum environment for what is usually called team building.
Conclusions I’ve shared just a few thoughts that were quickly stimulated by this unique event. As always, reading about an experience is a pale ghost of the experience itself. Just as important was the opportunity to reconnect and deepen relationships with old friends, and make some wonderful new connections. I hope that Eric and Co will be encouraged to do this again; I will be among the first to sign up!
At the wonderous Applied Improvisational Network 2015 World Conference (more posts coming soon!) I bumped into Doug Shaw, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa [not shown above; he is far better-looking] and he told me of an unpublished article he’d written on how to make conferences better for middle-aged people like him and me. Doug sent me a copy, I liked it, and he has given me permission to guest post it here…
Hello, my name is Doug. I went to my first conference in 1989. I was young then, and I believed in accessibility — everyone should be able to benefit from a conference. I never thought that one day I would be the one who was having problems benefiting. But yes, I became middle aged, and, well, I’m writing this article…
a. If there is a smallish group, quickly go around and say names. I’ve forgotten yours and I’m embarrassed.
b. Name tags are a boon. Actually I’ve forgotten lots of names.
a. Think about your font size on handouts. Less than 12 pt is cruel. 16 point? You are a mensch. My eyes are in constant flux — I’m not used to wearing reading glasses, sometimes I don’t have them, sometimes the prescription is out of date.
b. Dark text, light background. Blue on blue means you are a rotten human being.
c. I see better if there is strong light.
a. If you aren’t able to speak so I can hear you, get a microphone. I hear better if there is no background noise, it is hard if there is. Hearing aids help if I can’t hear — but the problem is as you get old you still can hear, but you can’t filter out background noise as well.
a. If part of your group participation involves standing up and sitting down… I can do that, but it hurts a bit. If you make me do it multiple times, I’m no longer going to be focusing on your points, I’m going to be anticipating/dreading having to stand up again.
b. I am fighting to change my diet, having lived 40 years eating badly. Go ahead and put out the cookies, but give me something else I can shove in my mouth, too.
a. I’m not asking you to change a word of what you were going to say — but you should know that I’ve been to hundreds of these things, and I am a lot more cynical than I used to be. Clichés make me turn off to you. I know that people’s number one fear is not death, but public speaking. I know that the “jobs of tomorrow” are going to be different than the jobs of today. I know we need to go beyond our comfort zones, think out of the box, adapt to an increasingly global society, etc. Did you know that the phrase “comfort zone” is lazy and comfortable, the phrase “think out of the box” is totally in the box, and that the 21st century is 1/7 over?
b. Motivational speeches don’t motivate me. Not because I’m a curmudgeon, but because I’m already motivated. I come to these things because I want to, not because I feel I have to. It takes more effort now — it means leaving people behind. So I’m motivated. If you spend a half hour with speakers trying to motivate me, that’s a half hour I’m getting impatient waiting for what I actually came for to start. Oh — and I’ve probably seen better motivational speakers than you are supplying. My favorite motivation is, “Hi. Welcome. Now here is content you came to receive.”
a. If there is a smallish group, quickly go around and say names. I’ve forgotten yours and I’m embarrassed.
b. Name tags are a boon. Wait…did I cover this point already? Let me look at what I’ve written so far…where the hell did I put my glasses?
Here are the annotated highlights of an October 2014 etouches webinar on meeting design with Dahlia El Gazzar (host), Maarten Vanneste, and me. It’s just under an hour of video: watch the whole show or use this guide to focus on the topics that you want to hear more about—the choice is yours.
01:30 Dahlia: Introduction.
03:05 Adrian introduction.
04:10 Maarten introduction.
05:00 Maarten: A big picture description of Meeting Design.
08:10 Adrian: Two fundamental reasons why meetings must change: the rise of online, and the change in how we learn what we need to know to do our jobs.
13:05 Maarten: Meeting stakeholders.
16:45 Adrian: One way to get meeting owner buy-in.
19:50 Maarten: The steps for designing a meeting.
30:25 Maarten: A meeting toolbox.
39:10 Adrian and Maarten: Resources for meeting design—books.
44:20 Adrian, Maarten, and Dahlia: Online resources for meeting design.
47:15: Maarten: Answers “Which step do you feel is most beneficial, leading to the largest ROI?”
49:15: Adrian: Answers “Tell me about an epic fail of a meeting design and how you solved it.”
52:05: Maarten: Teasing out objectives from stakeholders.
54:10: Maarten and Adrian: Answer “Where do you see meeting design going in the next few years?”