Participant-driven and participation-rich meeting designs incorporate a braindate’s purpose — one-to-one or small group connection around relevant content — organically into every session. In addition, the beginning of a peer conference uncovers the topics that people want to talk about, as well as providing plentiful opportunities for participants to discover others who share their challenges and interests.
So there’s no need to add a braindate process to a well-designed meeting. Instead make your entire conference a braindate!
For an excellent summary of the work I do, check out this interview and podcast, Creating Conferences That Work by Celisa Steele of Leading Learning. The podcast recording is nicely summarized in the show notes, so you can just read about what interests you, and then listen to any or all of the interview sections from the links on the page.
Good things come in threes. Though I usually overlook anniversaries, I noticed one this morning. The first peer conference I convened and designed was held June 3 – 5, 1992 at Marlboro College, Vermont. So, as of today, the community of practice that eventually became edACCESS has enjoyed 27 years of peer conferences. [That’s 3 x 3 x 3. I told you good things come in threes.]
Twenty-three people came to the inaugural conference. At the time, I had no idea that what I instinctively put together for a gathering of people who barely knew each other would lead to:
a global design and facilitation consulting practice;
over 500 posts on this blog, which has now become, to the best of my knowledge, the most-visited website on meeting design and facilitation;
three books (almost!) on participant-driven, participation-rich meeting design; and
plentiful ongoing opportunities to fulfill my mission to facilitate connection between people.
However, none of this happened overnight. For many years, designing and facilitating meetings was a vocation rather than a profession, usually unpaid. Furthermore, it was an infrequent adjunct to my “real” jobs at the time: information technology consulting, and teaching computer science.
27 years of peer conferences. From little acorns, mighty oaks. I would never have predicted the path I’ve traveled — and continue to look forward to the journey yet to come. Above all, thank you everyone who has made it possible. I can’t adequately express the gratitude you are due.
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…