How to design for powerful connection and learning at large meetings

connection and learning at large meetings

How can we design for powerful connection and learning at large meetings?

Although you’d never guess it from reading meeting industry trade journals, most meetings are small meetings, and this is a good thing if you want effective and relevant connection and learning to take place.

Large meetings stroke owners’ and leaders’ egos, and can supply impressive spectacle. They are appropriate places to launch campaigns and mass announcements, and can be very profitable. But they are poor vehicles for creating the useful participant learning, connection, and outcomes that well-designed small conferences can deliver.

So if you are (un)fortunate enough to be the owner or designer of a large meeting, what can you do to maximize participant value?

You need to satisfy four core requirements for optimum learning and connection:

  1. Provide sessions focused on content that participants care about.
  2. Design for small sessions and/or have participants work together in small groups.
  3. Use interactive formats.
  4. Include closing sessions that consolidate learning, build community, and explore the group’s future.

Let’s take a look at each of these requirements in more detail.

Content that participants care about

Traditional large conferences use the “kitchen sink” {aka “spray and pray”} approach of stuffing sessions on every potentially interesting topic into the program. Slightly more sophisticated conferences attempt to determine in advance the topics that attendees say they want.

Unfortunately, years of research by yours truly has shown that when conference sessions are chosen in advance, the majority of them are not what attendees want and need {here’s an example}. It’s like John Wanamaker describing advertising: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

There’s no way to know in advance which sessions you’ve prescheduled will meet participants’ wants and needs.

To be sure of scheduling sessions about content that participants actually care about, you’ll need to uncover and satisfy their actual wants and needs at the event. Luckily, doing this isn’t rocket science — I’ve been crowdsourcing programs in many different ways for 30 years.

Want to learn more? My 2009 book Conferences That Work describes one way to create an entirely crowdsourced multi-day conference. Here’s another way to do it for a one-day conference. If you have only a few hours Open Space is useful (though, in my opinion, overrated). Finally, check out my latest book Event Crowdsourcing which covers everything I’ve learned about crowdsourcing programs at meetings.

Small sessions and/or small group work

One of the reasons why small conferences with a well-defined niche audience work well is that participants don’t have to waste time meeting people with whom they have little in common. Large meetings attempt to create the same environment by scheduling multiple conference tracks and concurrent breakout sessions. Often, however, the resulting sessions are still too large for people to easily make useful connections and/or learn from each other.

Unless you use interactive formats (see below), not much useful learning can happen in an hour with a hundred attendees.

One simple approach to reduce the size of large sessions is to run them simultaneously in several rooms. Or you can repeat them at different times. Distribute interested participants between multiple sessions, either by preallocation (for simultaneous sessions) or personal choice. I use this approach to run The Three Questions as an opening plenary at large conferences.

Small sessions, with thirty or fewer participants, should be the goal. Such sizes invite less formal formats where it’s easier for participants to ask questions, influence what is covered and discussed, and contribute their expertise and experience to the learning environment.

Finally, large sessions can work effectively if they have a significant small group work component. For example, some of the session formats I design and facilitate — for example, The Solution Room, RSQP, and The Personal Introspective — scale to work with any number of participants because most of the important work is done in small groups.

Remember, small is beautiful!

Interactive formats

Designing genuinely useful sessions for large groups is challenging work and typically requires incorporating small group work as described above. However, I have had great success facilitating highly interactive discussions of “hot topics” with hundreds of people. By interactive, I don’t mean that five people monopolize the entire discussion. Typically about forty people are “up on stage” at some point, most of whom had no inkling beforehand they had something useful to contribute.

I call the format I’ve developed the Fishbowl Sandwich, and you’ll find full details on how to design and prepare such a session in Event Crowdsourcing.

Closing sessions

Most meetings squander the experiences they create. How? By failing to provide structured time to consolidate and reflect on individual and group learning and explore consequent future change. You can improve all meetings by including closing sessions that:

  • Help participants consolidate what they’ve learned during the conference and determine the next steps; and
  • Provide an opportunity for participants to reflect on the event, build community, and uncover new opportunities for future activities together.

Luckily, formats that satisfy these important needs — The Personal Introspective and Group Spective — can be run for meetings of any size.

Include them!

Final thoughts

Designing for connection and learning at large meetings by incorporating sessions like the ones I’ve outlined above? Bear in mind that interactive sessions typically require more time than traditional lecture-style presentations. Active learning is messy and risky, and creating an effective and safe learning environment takes more time than simply listening to or viewing speaker content.

About to schedule crowdsourcing, interactive formats, and closing sessions? Investigate the amount of time they’ll need, so you don’t sabotage them by cramming them into a timeslot that can’t do them justice. The links above are good resources. Investigate them, apply their principles, and make your large conferences better!

Passive Programs Past Prime

Passive Programs Sleeping audience 12635014673_d06b960426_k
Passive programs are past their prime.

“Part of the art of making change happen is seeing which cultural tropes are past their prime and having the guts to invent new ones.”
—Seth Godin, Skinny, sad and pale

It took hundreds of years before standard medieval medical practices like blood-letting, exorcism of devils, spells, incantations, and a proscription of bathing were replaced by modern medicine.

Conference programming consisting of one person lecturing at many has been our standard meeting model for hundreds of years. One day I think we will look back on this tradition. And we’ll marvel about how we could believe that it was the best thing to do at meetings.

A fundamental flaw

The fundamental flaw of traditional meetings is that most of the time only one person—the lecturer—is active while everyone else passively listens. Everyone who’s ever taught a class knows that the best way to learn anything is to teach it. But we rarely use participatory session formats where everyone gets to “teach” their understanding, questions, and points of view—and, as a bonus, gets to meet and connect with other participants with whom they share common interests.

Passive programs are past their prime. I think most people don’t use participatory session formats because they aren’t aware of them. Even when they are, they don’t know how to use them effectively and/or are scared of doing something perceived as “different”. Luckily, an increasing number of people are having the guts to create and use powerful processes (e.g. World Café, Open Space, Art of Hosting, and, yes, Conferences That Work) that incorporate what we now know about how people effectively learn, connect, engage, and come to action.

All the above meeting formats are about twenty years old (although they all build on much older informal process). We now possess tools to make fundamental meeting change happen.

My professional life mission is to promote awareness of such tools, work on improving them, and encourage and support their increasing use. Join me and a growing number of others in our mission to fundamentally enhance the quality and value of meetings, one meeting at a time.


This is another post in the occasional series How do you facilitate change? where we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

Photo attribution: Flickr user otacke

Dear Adrian: Answers to participant-led event questions asked at a MeetingsNet webinar

innovativeportalbannerCurtiss Reed and I enjoyed presenting our thirty-minute MeetingsNet webinar Participant-Led Meetings: A Case Study on February 4, 2014, and I’m happy to announce that the webinar is now available free on demand (until February 4, 2015). Just go to the registration link and complete the short sign-up to receive a link to the webinar. We received many good participant-led event questions, and were not able to answer them all in the time available. So I’ve listed them here, together with my answers. I hope you find them useful!

Read the rest of this entry »

A short critique of Open Space

“Cool, even though it seems like he has reinvented Open Space.”
Chris Corrigan comment about this blog

Here is a short critique of Open Space, probably the most well known participant-driven meeting design. Devised by Harrison Owen around the same time as Conferences That Work and presented in his 1993 book Open Space Technology: A Users Guide, this simple approach has become a popular way for participants to choose and discuss topics during their time together.

However, I think that Open Space does not work well for many participants. This has been corroborated informally over the years by every facilitator that I’ve spoken to who has used it. Here’s why.

Open Space poorly serves introverts

Open Space session topics are determined by individuals who stand up in front of the entire group and announce their chosen topic. Generally, this is much easier for extroverts, who have few difficulties speaking to a group extemporaneously, than introverts who tend to shun such opportunities. The end result is that introverts are largely silent during the opening process. The subsequent Open Space sessions tilt towards those proposed and often dominated by a comfortably-vocal minority.

Since introverts make up ~25-50% of the population (higher in some industries, such as information technology), this is not good.

A facilitator told me recently about her experience at an Open Space conference she was running. The acknowledged expert on the conference topic was present. But he was so uncomfortable with the process that he hardly spoke during the entire event.

We know that introverts can bring much to the table (for example, there’s research that indicates that introverts do better on intelligence tests). Using participant-driven process that favors extrovert participation is a disservice to everyone present, not just the introverts. In my opinion, it’s a significant shortcoming of Open Space.

How can we engage introverts at participant-driven events?

Being a recovering introvert (according to the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory these days, I am a weak extrovert, but I didn’t always test that way) has sensitized me to the needs of introverts at participant-driven events, and the Conferences That Work design contains numerous small features that largely level the playing field.

For example, creating a safe environment is vital for attendees to become participants at an event. Conferences That Work’s six explicit ground rules provide a safe, confidential environment that makes it easier for introverts to share at an event.

Another example: I have participants answer roundtable and personal introspective questions alone, in writing before they share their answers. Asking for written responses allows introverts to do their reflective work internally, rather than externally as extroverts prefer.

One more important feature of Conferences That Work is that during the roundtable at the start of the event: a) everyone is invited, in turn, to share; and b) each person gets the same amount of time to speak. (Yes, I have a timekeeper present.) This prevents extroverts from monopolizing group time, and models that sharing by all is an integral part of the event.

Conferences That Work is not Open Space!

Although Open Space and Conferences That Work are both participant-driven designs, there are significant differences between them. Perhaps the biggest advantage of Open Space is that you can use it in a short time period; a few hours are often enough time to do useful work. For events lasting one-and-half days or longer, however, I believe that the additional structure of Conferences That Work creates a more intimate, powerful, and useful experience for participants. Including introverts!

Photo attribution: Flickr user arvindgrover

Two principles for designing conference ground rules

principles for designing conference ground rulesI’ve written before about how to improve your conference with explicit ground rules. Though it’s interesting and enlightening to compare the ground rules embedded in conference designs—for example, Open Space Technology has five ground rules, while Conferences That Work and World Café have six—I won’t do that today. Instead, I want to share two principles for designing conference ground rules.

Ground rules should increase participants’ freedom, not restrict it

  • “Don’t speak unless the teacher asks you a question.”
  • “Pay attention!”
  • “Don’t chew gum in class.”

We’re used to rules like these that restrict our actions and reduce our freedom. But, surprisingly, it’s quite possible to create ground rules that increase our freedom at an event. Here are some examples:

  • Whenever it starts is the right time.—Open Space Technology
  • You have the freedom to ask about anything puzzling.—Conferences That Work
  • Make collective knowledge visible.—World Café

Each of these is a rule that gives permission for participants to act in a way that does not generally occur at traditional meetings. By explicitly giving permission for activities that normally are not associated with Conference 1.0 events, we increase participants’ freedom.

Make ground rules measurable

  • “Listen to others.”
  • “Be respectful.”
  • “Treat people politely.”

Rules like these are superficially appealing, but they aren’t effective because they rely on unmeasurable assumptions. How can we determine whether a participant is listening, respectful, or polite? We can’t, and this can lead to unproductive, time-consuming, and ultimately unresolvable disagreements during an event.

In contrast, here are examples of ground rules that are measurable and thus far less likely to lead to disagreement and subsequent conflict.

  • “Don’t interrupt.”
  • “Stay on time.”
  • “Keep what happens in each session confidential, unless everyone agrees otherwise.”

How were these principles for designing conference ground rules derived?

It would be nice to be able to claim that I first conceived these meta-rules for ground rule design, and then used them to build my conference ground rules. No such luck! It took me ten years to realize that explicit ground rules for Conferences That Work would be useful, and another five to figure out the six I now use. Only recently did I notice that all six follow the two principles I’ve described above.

What ground rules do you use for your events? Can you share any other principles for designing conference ground rules?

Demystifying the unconference

demystify unconferenceIt’s time to demystify the unconference.

Nine hundred years ago, when the world’s first universities began and prestigious libraries might contain a few hundred hand-copied books, the way you learned something was to travel to where a man (in those days it was always a man) knew it, and sit and listen to him teach it to you.

This model for learning sank deep into our culture. Today, on a computer we can hold in our hands, we can search the internet for information or watch videos of the finest presenters. Yet, even though we have amazing content at our fingertips, our meeting designs have not changed much from the classroom model required by the technologies available during the Middle Ages.

Over the last twenty years, new face-to-face meeting designs—such as Open Space, World Café, Conferences That Work, Future Search, and Everyday Democracy—have appeared that challenge the entrenched dominant learning paradigm of passive reception of predetermined information. Although each design has unique features and goals, what they all have in common is that what happens at the event is participant-driven, rather than being largely prescribed by the conference organizers. Such formats are unconferences.

Here are some of the key features of an unconference:

  • You can design them to work on a group problem or goal. Or as a time for individualized learning and sharing. Longer events can also include traditional sessions, keynotes, etc.
  • Meaningful and useful interaction between attendees is center stage, rather than something that happens in the breaks between sessions.
  • The culture is participatory, not passive. This has a highly positive effect on the environment, outcomes, and community created at the event.
  • Learning happens in small groups, rather than in large general sessions.
  • Teaching and learning aren’t fixed roles; a teacher at one moment may be a learner the next.
  • Unconferences harness the experience and expertise of the participants, rather than relying on the contributions of a few outside experts.
  • Participants have more input into and control over their learning and takeaways from an unconference. The event is, therefore, more likely to satisfy their wants and needs.
  • Interesting, unexpected things are likely to happen. While traditional conferences discourage risky learning, unconferences create an environment where participants can create sessions on the spot. Unconferences welcome questions, and encourage sharing.

It’s no coincidence that unconference designs appeared as our society responded to the increased availability of information and ease of sharing made possible by the personal computer and the internet. And yet, despite the pervasive reality of ubiquitous knowledge and connectivity, professional event planners still rarely use these new designs.

One reason is the fear that an unconference just won’t work. I’ve run unconferences for twenty years, and reviewed thousands of evaluations. I can assure you that the level of satisfaction with unconference formats is much higher than traditional events. (One of the reasons for this is that I’ve found that traditional program committees predict less than half the sessions that attendees actually want.) Other reasons include the misconception that crowdsourcing session topics before an event makes it an unconference, the understandable fear of giving up control over one’s event, and general unfamiliarity with unconference revenue models, facilitation requirements, and logistical considerations.

All these barriers to the implementation of unconference meeting designs are readily overcome with education and experience. Most event planners (and their clients) have begun to hear the rumbles of dissatisfaction from attendees who are no longer satisfied flying hundreds of miles to listen to speakers they could have watched on YouTube, or to attend a conference where a majority of the sessions are not what they really wanted. Instead, these attendees are increasingly demanding meetings that concentrate on what only face-to-face events can provide—like Howard Givner’s experience of a recent unconference:

“…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.”

We know how to create these events. Our clients are starting to ask for them. So, if you haven’t already, attend an unconference in 2011 and experience a participant-driven event firsthand. Or talk to people who have. Then you’ll be ready to begin to build unconference designs into your event planning future.

This article was first published in Lara McCulloch-Carter‘s free eBook What’s Next in Events 2011.

Photo attribution: Flickr user stuckincustoms