One of the most satisfying outcomes of the peer conferences I design and facilitate is how they bring people together who would never otherwise have met — and in doing so change the world.
This is obviously important, but why do world-changing connections seldom occur at conventional conferences?
Here’s an illuminating story from the pages of a New Yorker article about Jim Simons, the noted mathematician founder of Renaissance Technologies, one of the world’s largest hedge funds, and a funder of a variety of research projects:
Traditional conferences focus on a hodgepodge of pre-determined sessions punctuated with socials, surrounded by short welcomes and closings. Such conference designs treat openings and closings as perfunctory traditions, perhaps pumped up with a keynote or two, rather than key components of the conference design.
Unlike traditional conferences, participant-driven and participation-rich peer conferences have a conference arc with three essential components: Beginning, Middle, and End. This arc creates a seamless conference flow where each phase builds on what has come before.
Participant-driven and participation-rich peer conference designs improve on traditional events. They don’t treat openings and closings as necessary evils but as critical components of the meeting design.
Let’s examine each phase of the peer conference arc in more detail.
How do we build conference programs that attendees actually want and need? Since 1992 I’ve experimented with multiple methods to ensure that every session is relevant and valuable. Here’s what happened when I incorporated dot voting into a recent two-day association peer conference.
Here are (drum roll!) two meeting types and three situations when you should NOT use a Conferences That Work design:
— Most corporate events Many corporate events have a tight focus. Management have desired outcomes for the meeting: e.g. developing new products and services, communicating changes in company strategic goals, training and incentivizing sales teams, implementing successful product launches, etc. The function of such meetings is primarily top-down: effectively communicate management objectives, answer questions, and get employee buy-in. Fixed agenda corporate meetings are not a good fit for peer conference designs because they are predominantly about one-way broadcast-style communication; participants are there to listen and learn rather than to determine what’s individually useful to them or to build intra-company connections.
— Special events Special events involve a mixture of entertainment, celebration, and raising money. While some may include impromptu participant involvement, they concentrate on creating a wonderful experience for attendees. Special events are carefully choreographed in advance and participant interaction is generally limited to the traditional social forms of meals and parties, so they are not a good fit for the spontaneous generation of topics, themes, and participant-determined process that peer conference designs generate.
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen this mistake made … well … that would pay the bill for a very nice dinner out.
— When time is short Participant-driven and participation-rich events are messy and, by the standards of a content-dump-into-listeners-ears event, relatively inefficient. You can share some good information in a ten-minute talk, even if most of the audience will have forgotten it a month later. If you’re attempting to build connections and learning in a group of a hundred people in ten minutes, however, little of any significance is going to happen in such a short time.
Valuable peer learning and connection takes time. It’s worth it. If you don’t have enough time, remember that a peer conference isn’t like a podcast you can speed up and still understand what’s said. Schedule the time actually needed for the process to work and wonderful things will happen. Shortchange the time needed, and you and your attendees will be frustrated and unhappy.
— When a meeting is significantly about status rather than learning and connection Sadly, in my view, some meetings are primarily about asserting and demonstrating status. Government, political, and, to a lesser extent, academic conferences often fall into this category. If your conference attendees come from a culture where power and influence is firmly controlled by the people in charge, a peer conference will be a poor fit, as the powers that be will be threatened by a format that does not reinforce their dominance.
So when should you use the Conferences That Work design? I thought you’d never ask. If you have all attendees’ attention and enough time to for the process to work (see above), a Conferences That Work meeting design is a fantastic (I would argue, the best) approach for meetings of communities of practice (this link explains in detail what communities of practice are). That includes all conferences, colloquia, congresses, conventions, and symposia.
Association and client conferences are clear candidates for Conferences That Work. Traditional conference elements are easily integrated into the design, so desired sessions like up-to-the-minute research findings, recognition ceremonies, social events, etc. are not excluded.
Existing conferences can be made more participant-driven and participation-rich by carefully incorporating peer conference process into future events. Over the years I have helped many associations successfully make this transition.
But the best time to implement Conferences That Work is at a brand-new conference! (A good example is the edACCESS peer conference, now in its 26th year, and still going strong.) Why? Because conferences are typically started when a group of people finds the need to meet for a new purpose. At that moment in time, invariably, there are no obvious experts to invite. Opening with a peer conference design allows a group of relative strangers with a common interest to make fruitful connections and learn productively about and from the expertise and experience in their midst. The experience is so powerful, that I don’t know of a group that has decided to stop using the format.
Since 2012, I’ve had the privilege of designing and facilitating the annual Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future Peer Conference. It’s an honor to work on a classic Conferences That Work-style peer conference that’s turned out to be one of the most powerful tools for building inclusive, equitable, and sustainable communities in my home state.
A traditional conference is like a pharmacy. Content is prescribed, and you pick it up in a session. Hopefully it will fix what ails you. Have you met anyone interesting in a pharmacy? Did you create one of the drugs sold there? Probably not.
A peer conference is like a friendly bookstore. Browse the shelves looking for what interests you, satisfies your wants and needs. Relax on a comfy sofa, and check out anything that looks interesting. Fall into conversation with other folks nearby. Yes, you can be guided by those little “staff picks” notices, but perhaps the guy sitting opposite you has some suggestions. And perhaps, one day, you’ll write a book of your own…
Ask me about an environment for learning and I recall sitting in a classroom full of ancient wooden desks, hinged lids inscribed with the penknife carvings, initials, and crude drawings of generations of semi-bored schoolboys. A thin film of chalk dust covers everything, and distant trees and blue sky beckon faintly through the windows at the side of the room. The teacher is talking and I am paying attention in case I am called on to answer a question. If it’s a subject I like—science, math, or English—I am present, working to pick up the wisdom imparted, motivated by my curiosity about the world and the desire to not appear stupid in front of my classmates. If it’s a subject I am not passionate about—foreign languages, history, art, or geography—I do what I need to do to get by.
When asked to think about creating an environment for learning we tend to focus, as I just did, on the physical environment and our motivations for learning.
But there’s a third element of the learning environment that is largely overlooked. Did you spot it? If you’ve read my post Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way you probably did; we have not yet mentioned the learning processes we use as a key component of our learning environment. These processes are so deeply associated with our experience of learning in specific environments that we’re rarely conscious of how much they affect what and how we learn.
Let’s meet Linda, who’s about to discover why using good process can be so impactful.
About Linda Linda’s waiting to get her badge and information packet at a conference registration table. She’s nervous because she’s new to the industry and has only previously briefly met a couple of people on the list of registered attendees. Linda likes her profession, but came principally in order to receive continuing education credits that she needs to maintain her professional certification. She wants to learn more about certain industry issues, get some specific questions answered, and is hoping to meet peers and begin to build a professional network.
At this point, let’s see what happens when Linda experiences two somewhat different conference designs.
Linda goes to TradConf Linda is a first-time attendee at TradConf, a small annual association conference that has pretty much the same format since it was first held in 1982. She received a conference program six months ago and saw a few sessions listed that look relevant to her current needs. After picking up her preprinted name badge she enters the conference venue and sees a large number of people chatting with each other in small groups. There isn’t anyone there she knows. She drifts over to a refreshment table and picks up a glass of soda water, hoping to be able to finesse her way into one of the groups and join a conversation.
Linda meets a few people before the opening session, but no one who she really clicks with. Still, she’s grateful that she can at least associate a few names with faces.
Linda doesn’t find the opening keynote especially interesting. The speaker is entertaining but doesn’t really offer any useful take-aways. And sitting and listening for 80 minutes has taken a toll on her concentration. She follows the crowd to the refreshments in the hallway outside and tries to meet some more people. Linda’s not shy, but it’s still daunting to have to repeatedly approach strangers and introduce herself. By the end of the first day, Linda has met one person with whom she has a fair amount in common, and she bumped into one of the people she knew before the conference. The three of them spend the evening talking.
The next couple of days’ sessions are a mixed bag. Some of the sessions are a rehash of things Linda already knows, rather than covering new techniques, while another turns out to focus on something very different from the description in the conference program. Linda picks up a few useful nuggets from a couple of sessions, and gets one of her pressing questions answered. She connects with someone who asked an interesting question at the end of a presentation. She spends most of her time between sessions with her old connection and two new friends.
The conference closes with a keynote banquet. Linda sits next to an stimulating colleague, but doesn’t get much time to talk to him because the keynote monopolizes most of their time together. They swap business cards and promise to stay in touch.
Afterwards, Linda has mixed feelings about her TradConf experience. She met some interesting people and learned a few things, but it didn’t seem to be an especially productive use of her time, given that she has to get back to work and still grapple with the majority of her unanswered questions. She doesn’t feel like she’s built much of a professional network. Perhaps things will be better when she goes next year?
Linda goes to PartConf Linda is a first-time attendee at PartConf, a small annual association conference first held in 1993. It has a good reputation, but it’s hard to understand what the conference will be like, because, apart from an interesting-sounding keynote from someone really well known in the industry and a few other sessions on hot-topics, the program doesn’t list any other session topics. Instead, the preconference materials claim that the participants themselves will create the conference sessions on the topics that they want to learn about. This sounds good in theory to Linda, but she is quite skeptical how well this will actually work in practice.
A few weeks before the event, Linda gets a call from Maria, who identifies herself as a returning conference participant. Maria explains that all first-time PartConf attendees get paired with a buddy before the conference. Maria offers to answer any questions about the conference, meet Linda at registration, and introduce her to other attendees if desired. Linda asks how the participant-driven conference format works, and Maria is happy to share her own positive experience. They swap contact information and agree to meet at registration.
Linda calls Maria as she waits on line to register. As she picks up her large name badge, she notices it has some questions on it: “Talk to me about…” and “I’d like to know about…” with blank space for answers. Maria appears and explains that the questions allow people with matching interests or expertise to find each other. Linda fills out her badge, and the two of them enter the conference venue and see a large number of people chatting with each other in small groups. There isn’t anyone there Linda knows, but Maria brings her over to one of the groups and introduces her to Yang and Tony. “Based on what you’ve told me about your interests,” Maria says, “I think you guys have a lot in common.” A glance at Yang’s and Tony’s badges confirms this, and Linda is soon deep in conversation with her two new colleagues who introduce her to other attendees.
By the time the opening session starts, Linda has met six people who are clearly going to be great resources for her. She’s also surprised to discover that a couple of other people are really interested in certain experiences and expertise she acquired at a previous job.
The opening session is a roundtable. Linda has been preassigned to one of five roundtables being held simultaneously. Two of her new friends join her in a large room with a circle of forty chairs. A roundtable facilitator explains how the roundtable works, and provides some ground rules for everyone to follow. Over the next 90 minutes, everyone gets a turn to share their answers to three questions. Linda learns much about the other participants and gets a comprehensive overview of group members’ questions, issues, topics, experience and expertise. Human spectrograms, held roughly every twenty minutes, get people on their feet to show experience levels, geographical distribution, and other useful information about the group. Linda notes the names of four more people she wants to talk to during the conference, and discovers that her former job experience is of interest to other people in the room.
At the first evening social, Linda enjoys getting to know her new friends. Everyone spends some time proposing and signing up for “peer sessions” to be held over the next few days, using a simple process involving colored pens and sheets of paper. Peer sessions can be presentations, discussions, panels, workshops, or any format that seems appropriate for the participants’ learning and sharing. Linda suggests several issues she is grappling with and a couple of the sessions she wants get scheduled. Although another topic doesn’t have sufficient interest to be formally scheduled, she notes the names of the people interested and decides to try to talk with them between sessions. She is surprised to find that quite a few people want to learn from her former job experience, and ends up facilitating a discussion on the topic the next day.
The next couple of days’ sessions are incredibly productive and useful for Linda. She gets all her questions answered, meets several people who can advise her on potential future issues, enjoys being an unexpected resource herself, and has begun to build a great professional network by the time the conference draws to a close.
The last couple of sessions provide Linda an opportunity to think about what she has learned and what she wants to do professionally as a result. She now feels confident about beginning a major initiative at work, sketches out the initial steps, and gets helpful feedback from her colleagues. She even has some time to reconnect with now-familiar peers and make arrangements to stay in touch. The last session starts with a public evaluation of the entire conference: what worked well and what might be improved. Linda makes several contributions, gets a clear idea of how the conference has been valuable to the many different constituencies present, and several great ideas emerge on how to make the event even better next year, together with next steps for their development.
Afterwards, Linda has very positive feelings about her conference experience. She got all her questions answered, learned much of value, and built the solid beginnings of a significant professional network. And she’s certain PartConf will be even better when she returns next year!
The impact of good process on the learning environment Linda’s story illustrates the tremendous effect good process can have on the learning environment. The attendees at TradConf and PartConf are the same; only the processes used are different! PartConf’s participation-rich process gave Linda a learning experience that was much more tailored to her and the other attendees’ actual needs and wants than the predetermined program at TradConf. Linda also made useful connections with many more people at PartConf compared to TradConf.
The PartConf design also allows participants to make changes to the conference processes used, either at the event or future events. The learning environment at PartConf extends to the event design—the conference can “learn” itself through participant feedback and suggestions to become a more effective vehicle for participants’ needs and wants.
I have been running conferences like PartConf for over twenty years. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the vast majority of those who attend these events come to greatly prefer such designs over the TradConfs that have been the rule for hundreds of years.
The problem with many conferences is that limited, unchangeable status is frozen into the event structure. The people who have high status are the ones who have been predetermined to be at the front of the room. Everyone else is just one of the lower-status crowd.
The beauty of a peer conference is that it provides many more opportunities for each participant to be high-status some of the time. The Conferences That Work opening roundtable format guarantees that everyone gets a short time (the same amount for each person) at the front of the room. During the event, you can be a learner (lower status) one moment and a teacher (higher status) the next. And it’s far more likely that expertise or experience you have that others value will be recognized and turned into a learning experience for others.
Let’s be clear—peer conferences don’t impose similar status on everybody. An industry veteran is likely to spend more time in higher-status situations than the novice first-time participant. But a peer conference makes no initial assumptions about who has something to offer, and I’ve seen plenty of situations where an industry novice turns out to have valuable contributions to make from her prior experience in another field.
Isn’t a conference format where everyone gets to be appropriately high-status once in a while healthier than one where a tiny minority get it all? I think so, (and thousands of evaluations back me up!)