The Solution Room is rapidly becoming a popular meeting plenary. Invented at MPI’s 2011 European Meetings and Events Conference, the session fosters active meaningful connections between attendees, and provides peer support and solutions to the real professional challenges currently faced by participants.
I’ve facilitated many Solution Room sessions, and it’s been consistently rated one of the most effective and appreciated formats I use. Participants really enjoy the opportunity to meet a small group of peers in a safe, intimate, and relevant manner, and be both a consultant and a consultee on current professional challenges that each group member chooses. Here are some testimonials from an MPI session:
Unlike many participatory formats, The Solution Room scales beautifully, whether there are 30 or 1,000 people in the room. Apart from the preliminary table set up (small rounds covered with paper tablecloths), the resources needed are modest: colored Sharpies, sound reinforcement, and a good facilitator.
Although the format was originally conceived as a closing session, I’ve found it to be a great opening plenary, especially if time or space constraints prohibit running The Three Questions roundtables. By ensuring that each small group contains a mixture of newcomers, experienced, and veteran professionals, first-time attendees get to know peers with industry experience (and the veterans often learn a thing or two from the younger folks at their table).
You can tell that Solution Room sessions are a success when they end — and no one leaves. Instead, the small groups go on talking about everything they’ve discussed; they don’t want to stop sharing. I see a lot of enthusiastic business card swapping at the end, and participants have told me later that they made valuable long-term connections through the meeting and sharing that took place during the session.
Want to learn more about how to incorporate The Solution Room into your next event? You’ll find everything you need to know to run The Solution Room in Chapter 34 of The Power of Participation. Or contact me — I’d love to facilitate a session for you!
“I know the world is crazy right now. I know it’s hard to find the good in the news but you won’t find it there because the news asks you to be only a passive consumer of the world’s pain and joy. What we need to do is rise from our seats and participate in the world as fully as possible.” —Chris Corrigan, Pick up the unclaimed portion of joy
We know that participants — people who are active learners — learn more, retain more, and retain more accurately than passive attendees. They are also far more likely to make valuable connections with their peers during the event.
I spent the summer of 1973 working for the Long-Range Studies Department of the British Post Office, a long-defunct group that attempted to predict the exciting future that new technologies would surely bring about. The Post Office had just built a few hideously expensive teleconferencing studios, connected by outrageously expensive telephone trunk lines, and one of our jobs was to find out what they could be used for. Could businesspeople be persuaded to stop traveling to meetings, to sit instead in comfortable local studios hundreds of miles apart, handsomely equipped with cameras, microphones, screens, and speakers that magically allowed them to meet as well as if they were all in the same room? Why yes, we concluded brightly in our final report:
“A substantial number of business meetings which now occur face-to-face could be conducted effectively by some kind of group telemedia.”
Forty years later, “group telemedia”, now known as virtual meetings, are firmly established and increasingly popular. Solomon’s New York Times article quoted above explores how some corporate shareholder meetings are now held virtually. The biggest advantages of virtual meetings are clearly convenience and much lower costs: no travel, venue, or F&B expenditures.
There are, however, some downsides.
Solomon points out that virtual shareholder meetings typically pre-empt meaningful shareholder interaction; convenient if management is facing awkward questions.
“It was no coincidence that the CSX Corporation held its 2008 meeting at a remote rail yard in New Orleans, the same year it was the focus of a shareholder activist putting up a proxy fight. In previous years, it had held those meetings at the luxurious Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, which the railroad owned at the time. A virtual meeting eliminates the potential for a public relations disaster.”
He contrasts such approaches with what some companies do:
“Think about the extravaganza that is the Berkshire Hathaway meeting. Days of talking and showing off the company’s products, including copious amounts of treats from Dairy Queen, a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary. The Walt Disney Company’s meeting is also known for highlighting the company’s latest movie or ride. Even children can ask questions; one recent interaction led Disney’s chief executive, Robert A. Iger, to give a private tour of Pixar to a child. Some companies are local legends where the entire town will gather. It is at these meetings that connections are made between the company and its shareholders.“
“By forcing everything onto the web, we lose the personal interaction. Everyone logs in and watches a preprogrammed set of questions and answers. And then everyone goes away. Management’s worldview is reaffirmed in the 10 or so minutes it allows for questioning, and there is no engagement except with those investors who own a portion of shares large enough to personally meet with management. It’s a modern world that is frightening in its disengagement.”
Online meetings offer a convenient and low-cost way to receive content, and they can provide limited interactivity. Yet you can also abandon one with the click of a mouse. Such meetings require little commitment, so it is harder to successfully engage participants when the cost of leaving is so low.
If you think of a meeting primarily as a way of transferring content, then online meetings seem attractive, inexpensive alternatives to face-to-face events. If, however, you value meetings as opportunities to make meaningful connections with others, face-to-face meetings offer significant advantages.
I believe that the unique benefits of face-to-face meetings will continue to be valued. The advantages of being physically present with other people, dining and socializing together, the serendipity of human contact, the opportunity to meet new people in person rather than hear a voice on the phone or see an image on a screen, the magic that can occur when a group of people coalesces; all these combine into more than the sum of their parts, building the potential to gain and grow long-term relationships and friendships. Anyone who has been to a good face-to-face conference knows that these things can happen, and that, either in the moment or in retrospect, they may even be seen as pivotal times in one’s life.
Here’s an effective variant of pair share—a fundamental participative technique that fosters connection and learning via discussion with a partner during a conference session—that was conjured up the other day by Malii Brown while we were co-facilitating a peer conference roundtable.
To keep participants alert during round-the-circle sharing at roundtables, I break every 20-25 minutes, either for a short bio-break or a relevant exercise involving movement. I often use pair share as one of these exercises (see The Power of Participation for a complete description) by asking participants to stand up and spend a few minutes introducing themselves to someone they don’t know.
On this occasion, Malii and I were alternating facilitation, and she got to introduce the pair share. Malii asked everyone to find someone they didn’t know, but when everyone was paired up she simply said:
“Share with each other what’s on your mind right now.”
Here’s a video excerpt of the resulting pair share. (I’ve removed the sound to maintain confidentiality, but you should know that the volume was substantial!)
I liked the energetic conversations Malii’s suggestion triggered, and have added this prompt to my mental toolbox for future use. This is a nice example of the kind of learning that can occur when co-facilitating—thanks Malii!
When people are asked why they go to meetings, the top two reasons they consistently give are to learn and to connect with others. Both reasons are rated of similar importance (although there’s recent evidence that connection is becoming more important than learning.)
So why do we structure traditional conferences like this? Conference lectures only focus on learning (that is, of course, assuming people are learning from the lecture, which is by no means certain.) No connection between attendees occurs during a lecture. Connection at a traditional conference is, therefore, supposed to happen somehow outside the sessions, in the breaks and socials. Unfortunately, breaks and socials aren’t great ways to connect with people at conferences.
So traditional conferences are heavy on lecture-style learning and light on the connection that attendees desire!
Luckily, there’s a simple way to redress the balance between connection and learning at meetings.
We live in a world full of explanations. Sometimes it seems that we should be able to explain everything with the right words.
And yet it’s so hard to convey what an interactive participant-centered event is like to someone who hasn’t experienced one. I’ve tried to explain to over a thousand people the power and value of the Conferences That Work meeting format. Some people “get it” right away. But a significant number remain skeptical, somewhat unconvinced.
I end up advising people they have to participate in a Conferences That Work event to truly understand what this kind of learning and connection can be like. When they do, 98 percent become converts. The most common comment on evaluations is: “I don’t want to go to traditional events any more.”
Why does this happen over and over again? Perhaps it’s because we live in a world where people are led to expect “experience” as something produced by a minority and broadcast to a group: experience as entertainment. Somehow we ignore the reality that the most important learning moments in our lives invariably occur when we participate and connect via sharing with others. Entertainment is fine when we’re tired and want to zone out in front of the TV and watch a movie. But entertainment rarely leads to long-term learning, growth, and change.
I salute and appreciate the growing number of people who are willing to risk saying “Yes!” to an event experience they don’t understand. Eventually, perhaps, participant-driven and participation-rich formats will become the new normal for face-to-face events.
Until then, we need to remember that, sometimes, words are not enough.
Silvia Pellegrini of Events Uncovered TV interviews me about how I got into events (0:00), why participation at events is so important (4:40), participant-led formats (7:10), an overview of the Conferences That Work meeting format (8:10). Silvia’s questions touch on: the difference between child teaching and adult learning (13:40), the social construction of knowledge (18:00), running your own Conferences That Work (20:45), how and why public feedback is built in to the closing session (21:10), session formats used (22:15), and why it’s easy to find others who share your interests at Conferences That Work (24:30).