Large meetings stroke owners’ and leaders’ egos, can supply impressive spectacle, 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:
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.
Curtiss 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!
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.
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!
I’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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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?
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.