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!

The best way to fundamentally improve your dull conference

The best way to fundamentally improve your dull conference

I’ve been attending conferences for over forty years. Most of them are dull and largely irrelevant. This seems to be the norm, because when you talk to attendees you find they set a low bar for satisfaction— e.g. “It’s OK if I learn one new thing a day, oh, and if I make a useful connection or two that would be great!

For twenty years I assumed this was how conferences were supposed to be. When I began creating conferences myself, I used the same standard format: invite experts to speak to audiences.

Then in 1992, circumstances forced me to do one thing different. Ever since, thanks to that happy accident, I have been designing and facilitating peer conferences that people have loved for over a quarter-century.

“…gets an award for most/best/most thoughtfully organized conference I think I’ve ever been to.”

“I’m an introvert. I’ve never shared as much at a conference before. Your process is brilliant. Thank you.”

“…the truest sense of community I’ve ever felt and it was beautiful to experience. I hope you have the opportunity to experience something like this in your lifetime. It changes everything.”
—Three recent participants on their experience at three different peer conferences

What’s the one key thing I do that almost no one else does?

Read the rest of this entry »

The Secrets Behind Conference Engagement

Secrets Behind Conference Engagement

So you’re holding a conference. How are you going to get your audience tuned in and engaged?

Read the rest of this entry »

“Less Meetings, More Doing?” Nope!

less meetings more doing

“Less Meetings, More Doing?”

Many believe that meetings are an unpleasant evil that sucks time and energy away from getting things done.

That’s unfortunate. Why? Because meetings — when done right — are one of the most powerful business tools for creating the action outcomes that stakeholders and participants want and need.

Over the years I’ve learned through painful experience that blindly doing something, anything, before thinking through what I could be doing and how I might be doing it, was invariably a recipe for wasting a lot of time and energy. Such deliberation becomes even more important when we are working collectively with others on a common project. This is because today, 70 – 90% of what we learn is learned socially, and much of this learning occurs during formal and informal meetings.

Personal outcomes rather than group outcomes

Much has been written about how to run great business meetings (for example, this, this, and this.) Far less about how to create the right action outcomes at large meetings, aka conferences, that professionals attend. Perhaps that’s because the focus at conferences is typically on learning and connection. This focus hopefully leads to relevant personal outcomes rather than group outcomes.

Personal change at conferences is important. After all, if you attend a conference and nothing significant changes in your life, why did you go? Uncovering and working on group outcomes, however, is one of the best ways to build community at a conference. This increases the likelihood that participants will see the conference as professionally valuable, and makes it more likely that they will attend future events.

So how do we uncover and work on personal and group outcomes at conferences? Check out the personal introspective and group spective (including the action outcome version) processes I’ve been designing and facilitating for years. For full details, see my book The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.

Why measurable outcomes aren’t always a good thing

What could be wrong with requiring measurable outcomes?

“Enough of this feel-good stuff! How do we know whether people have learned anything unless we measure it?”
—A little voice, heard once in a while in learning designers’ heads

Ah, the lure of measurement! Yes, it’s important. From a scientific perspective, better understanding of the world we live in requires doing experiments that involve quantifying properties in a statistically meaningful and repeatable way. Science has no opinion about ghosts, life after death, and astrology, for example, because we can’t reliably measure associated attributes.

The power of scientific thinking became widely evident at the start of the twentieth century. It was probably inevitable that it would be applied to management. The result was the concept of scientific management, developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor. Even though Taylorism is no longer a dominant management paradigm, its Victorian influence on how we view working with others still persists to this day.

But we can’t measure some important things

I’m a proponent of the scientific method, but it has limitations because we can’t measure much of what’s important to us. (Actually it’s worse than that—often we aren’t even aware of what’s important.) Here’s Peter Block on how preoccupation with measurement prevents meaningful change:

The essence of these classic problem-solving steps is the belief that the way to make a difference in the world is to define problems and needs and then recommend actions to solve those needs. We are all problem solvers, action oriented and results minded. It is illegal in this culture to leave a meeting without a to-do list. We want measurable outcomes and we want them now…

…In fact it is this very mindset, one based on clear definition, prediction, and measurement which prevents anything fundamental from changing.
—Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging

One of my important learning experiences occurred unexpectedly in a workshop. A participant in a small group I was leading got furious after something I had said. He stood up and stepped towards me, shouting and balling his fists. At that moment, to my surprise, I knew that his intense anger was all about him and not about me. Instead of my habitual response—taking anger personally—I was able to effectively help him look at why he had become so enraged.

There was nothing measurable about this interchange, yet it was an amazing learning and empowering moment for me.

The danger of focussing on what can be measured

So, one of the dangers of requiring measurable outcomes is that it restricts us to concentrate on what can be measured, not what’s important. Educator Alfie Kohn supplies this example:

…it is much easier to quantify the number of times a semicolon has been used correctly in an essay than it is to quantify how well the student has explored ideas in that essay.
—Alfie Kohn, Beware of the Standards, Not Just the Tests

Another reason why we fixate on assigning a number to a “measured” outcome is that doing so can make people feel they can show they’ve accomplished something, masking the common painful reality that they have no idea how to honestly measure their effectiveness.

Measured learning outcomes can be relevant if we have a clear, performance-based, target. For example, we can test whether someone has learned and can apply cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) by testing them in a realistic environment. (Even then, less than half of course participants can pass a skills test one year after training.)

This leads to my final danger of requiring measurable outcomes. It turns out that measurements of learning outcomes aren’t reliable anyway!

For nearly 50 years measurement scholars have warned against pursuing the blind alley of value added assessment.  Our research has demonstrated yet again that the reliability of gain scores and residual scores…is negligible.
—Professor Trudy W. Banta, A Warning on Measuring Learning Outcomes, Inside Higher Ed

Given that requiring measurable outcomes often inhibits fundamental change and is of dubious reliability, I believe we should be considerably more reluctant to insist on including them in today’s learning and organizational environments.

[This post is part of the occasional series: How do you facilitate change? where we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.]

Image attribution: xkcd

Why requiring learning objectives for great conference presentations sucks

Photo by Flickr user orange_squash_123
Photo by Flickr user orange_squash_123

I have been filling out quite a few conference presentation proposals recently, and began to notice a pattern in my behavior. My mood changed when I had to fill out the session’s learning objectives (which are statements of what attendees will be able to do by the end of the session.)

Specifically, every time I had to fill out the learning objectives for a proposal I got really, really annoyed.

Over the years I’ve found that paying attention to patterns like this is nearly always a learning experience for me. And I had just watched Chris Flink‘s TEDx talk on the gift of suckiness, where he makes a great case for exploring things that suck for you…

…so I reluctantly delved into why I started to feel mad when required to write things like “attendees will be able to list five barriers to implementing participant-driven events“.

At first I wondered whether my annoyance at having to come up with learning objectives (with active verbs, please, like these…)

Learning objectives action words
From http://apha.confex.com/apha/learningobjectives.htm

was because I was a sloppy presenter who hadn’t really thought about what my attendees wanted or needed to learn. I imagined the conference program committee wagging their finger at me (or sighing because they’d seen this so many times before). Listing learning objectives was forcing me to face what I should have thought about before I even suggested the session, and I didn’t like being confronted with my lack of planning.

And then I thought, NO. I DO have goals for my sessions. But they’re much more ambitious goals than having participants being able to regurgitate lists, define terms, explain concepts, or discuss issues.

I want to blow attendees’ minds. And I want to change their lives.

OK, I admit that would be the supreme goal, one that I’m unlikely to achieve most of the time. But it’s a worthy goal. If I can make some attendees see or understand something important in a way that they’ve never seen or understood before, so that they will never see or understand it in the same way again—now that’s worth striving for.

Here’s an imaginary example (not taken from my fields of expertise). Suppose you are evaluating two proposed sessions on the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace. The first includes learning objectives like “define and understand the term sexual harassment”, “identify types of sexual harassment”, and “learn techniques to better deal with sexual harassment”. The second simply says, “People who actively participate in this session are very unlikely to sexually harass others or put up with sexual harassment ever again.”

Assuming the second presenter is credible, which proposal would you choose?

Learning objectives restrict outcomes to safe, measured changes to knowledge or competencies. They leave no place for passion, for changing worldviews, or for evoking action.

That’s why requiring learning objectives for great conference presentations sucks.

What’s your perspective on learning objectives?