Today’s meetings need to give meeting-goers many options, not just a few. But this doesn’t mean filling the conference program with every conceivable session topic. To be enjoyable and productive, meetings need white space: free time for attendees to do what they want and need to do.
When we preschedule an entire conference program, each attendee’s only remaining choice becomes which sessions to attend. It’s like how the news industry uses of polls, as described by Jeff Jarvis:
“Polls are the news industry’s tool to dump us all into binary buckets: red or blue; black or white; 99% or 1%; urban or rural; pro or anti this or that; religious (read: evangelical extremist) or not; Trumpist or not; for or against impeachment. Polls erase nuance. They take away choices from voters before they get to the real polls, the voting booth. They silence voices.” —Jeff Jarvis, Polls subvert democracy
Predetermined meeting programs silence attendee voices in the same way.
So how do we give meeting-goers many options without taxing their stamina and powers of concentration?
However, meetings have tremendous potential to change lives. Attendees have something in common: a profession, a passion, a shared experience together. They are with people who, in some way, do what they do, speak the same language, and face the same challenges.
What an opportunity to connect with like-minded souls, learn from each other, and, consequently, change one’s life for the better!
Unfortunately, most conferences squander this opportunity. Learning is restricted to broadcast-style lectures, Q&A is often more about status than learning, and attendees have little if any input into the topics and issues discussed.
Peer conferences support change
The peer conferences I’ve been designing and facilitating for 28 years are different. Yes, you can’t make people change. But, as Seth Godin points out, you can create an environment where they choose to!
Peer conferences create an optimal environment for supporting attendees in the difficult work of making changes in their lives.
Peer conferences do this by providing a safe, supportive, and participation-rich environment that includes the freedom to choose what happens.
A safe environment supports attendees taking risks: the risks of thinking about challenges and issues in new ways.
The supportive environment of a peer conference provides process tools that allow attendees to freely explore new possibilities.
A participation-rich environment ensures that attendees are likely to connect with peers who can help them or whom they can help, thus building networks and new capabilities in the future.
The freedom to choose what happens at a peer conference allows attendees to collectively create the meeting that they want and need, rather than be tied to the limited vision of a program committee or the vested interests of conference stakeholders.
These are the core design elements of peer conferences that make them so successful in creating change. Their very design maximize the likelihood that participants will choose to make useful and productive change in their lives.
Peer sessions provide greater connection around content
The most important reason people go to conferences is to usefully connect with others around relevant content. But our conference programs still focus on lectures, where a few experts broadcast their knowledge to passive listeners. During lectures there’s no connection between audience members and no connection around lecture content. Here are five reasons why.
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?
One of the easiest, yet often neglected, ways for meeting professionals to improve their craft is to obtain (and act on!) client feedback after designing/producing/facilitating an event. So I like to schedule a thirty-minute call at a mutually convenient date one or two weeks after the event, giving the client time to decompress and process attendee evaluations.
During a recent call, a client shared their conference evaluation summaries that rated individual sessions and the overall conference experience.
This particular annual conference uses a peer conference format every few years. The client finds the Conferences That Work design introduces attendees to a wider set of peer resources and conversations at the event. This year, The Solution Room, was a highly rated session for building connections and getting useful, confidential peer consulting on individual challenges.
As the client and I talked, we realized that the evaluations had missed an important component. We were trying to decide how frequently the organization should alternate a peer conference format with more traditional approaches. However, we had no attendee feedback on how participants viewed the effectiveness of the annual event for:
making useful new connections;
getting current professional wants and needs met; and
Adding ratings of these KPIs to conference evaluations provides useful information about how well each event performs in these areas. Over time, conveners will see if/how peer conference formats improve these metrics. I also suggested that we include Net Promoter Scores in future evaluations.
The client quickly decided to include these ratings in future conference evaluations. As a result, our retrospective call helped us to improve how participants evaluate his events. This will provide data that will allow more informed decisions about future conference design decisions.
Do your evaluations allow attendees to rate the connection and just-in-time learning effectiveness of your meeting? Do they rate how well your meeting met current professional wants and needs? If not, consider adding these kinds of questions to all your evaluations. Over time you’ll obtain data on the meeting designs and formats that serve your participants best.
Today, communities of practice — groups of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and actively engage around what they have in common — have become essential sources for productive learning, because they provide crucial bridges for social learning between our work community and our external social networks.
Here are four tools for creating, supporting, and enriching communities of practice.
Listservs are an old but still surprisingly useful technology. They manage a list of subscribers and allows any member to send email to the list. The listserv then sends the message to the other list subscribers. Listserv software is available on multiple platforms and is free for up to ten lists of up to five hundred subscribers which should be sufficient for most communities of practice. Yes, it’s true that numerous commercial alternatives exist. But self-hosted listservs don’t rely on commercial providers who may close down or change services with little notice or recourse.
Slack can be used free for basic support of communities of practice (up to 10,000 messages), though many useful functions are only available in paid versions ($80+ per person annually). All Slack content is searchable. The product, initially targeted at organizations, has been evolving into a community platform. Because of its cost, Slack is probably most useful for communities whose members already have corporate access.
The ability to converse with community members via audio/video/chat on a scheduled or ad hoc basis is an important tool for maintaining and growing community connections online. For many years the free Google Hangouts was my go to tool for this purpose, but the service has become almost impossible to use on an ad hoc basis and Zoom seems to be the most popular replacement. For short meetings (up to a maximum of 100 participants for 40 minutes) the free Zoom Basic will suffice, but most communities will be well served by Zoom Pro (unlimited duration and participants; $180/year). Any community member who has a paid Zoom plan can host a video/web conference. So this tool can be a cost-effective way for communities of practice to keep in touch.
Do you use other tools to create, support, and enrich your communities of practice? If so, share them in the comments below!
How can we build connection and engagement with people with whom we work?
My wise consultant friend Naomi Karten tells a short story about a client’s unexpected reaction. Frank had a bad experience with an earlier information technology project, so Naomi’s team gave him three possible approaches to a major system design and a list of the pluses and minuses of each.
“The plan was to let him select the approach he preferred in hopes that he’d gain more trust in us as a result…”
“…Frank jumped up, shouted, ‘How dare you develop options without my input!’ and marched out of the room…”
“…Instead of his seeing the options as giving him a say in our efforts, he may have seen us as preventing his input into the very idea of options. We saw ourselves giving him some control. He may have seen us as taking it away.” —Naomi Karten, The Importance of Giving Others a Sense of Control
At traditional conferences, attendees choose from predetermined sets of sessions chosen by conference organizers. Think about your experience of such events. Have you found that much of the time, none of the choices supply what you actually need and/or want? Sadly, we’re so used to this state of affairs, we accept it as normal.
Conferences don’t have to be designed this way. Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve discovered that peer conferences, where participants determine the choices, provide a much better fit between the wants/needs of the attendees and the conference program they construct on-the-fly. This leads to significantly greater connection, engagement, and satisfaction.
Sometimes, giving people a limited number of options is not enough. Giving up control over the choices at your conferences by handing it over to the participants — using proven process, of course —is one of the best ways to build trust, connection, and engagement at your events.
Job obsolescence caused by increasing computer automation Every adoption of new technology has led to a shift in the world of work. Books and the industrial age fundamentally remade human society. Now the exponentially increasing power of computing is making rapid inroads into professions that have been the safe purview of well-paid workers for centuries.
It’s likely, for example, that in my children’s lifetime (and perhaps mine) we’ll transition to a world where most vehicles drive themselves. In the United States alone, there are currently 3.5 million professional truck drivers who stand to lose their livelihood. Other threatened professions, according to Martin Ford in his book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, include warehouse workers, cooks, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and programmers.
While some work is clearly destined to be taken over by software and machines, never to be performed by large numbers of humans again, recent history also suggests that adding technology to the workplace is likely to transform, rather than eliminate, many jobs. In addition, new jobs will appear that offer alternative work opportunities.
So how do we prepare workers for these changes?
“The evidence suggests that while computers are not causing net job losses now, low wage occupations are losing jobs, likely contributing to economic inequality. These workers need new skills in order to transition to new, well-paying jobs. Developing a workforce with the skills to use new technologies is the real challenge posed by computer automation.” — James Bessen, Why automation doesn’t mean a robot is going to take your job
Peer conferences, therefore, are what we need to prepare workers for the continuing and accelerating transformation of the work marketplace. As Niels Pflaeging recently put it (paraphrased by Harold Marche):
“´Machines can solve complicated problems. They cannot solve complex, surprising problems’. Valued work is no longer standardized. Therefore a standardized approach for education and training to support creative work is obsolete.”
I’ll repeat that: “…a standardized approach for education and training to support creative work is obsolete.” Say goodbye to traditional conferences — and say hello to peer learning!
Magical events change peoples’ lives. Great events foster passion by providing well-designed opportunities for significant engagement with peers. For passion and engagement, you need a tribe—be it two or a hundred other people—with whom you relate and connect while you’re together at the event, and, hopefully, afterwards too.
For passion and engagement to be possible, what should we avoid?
“If you want people to become passionate, engaged in a field, transformed by an experience — you don’t test them, you don’t lecture them and you don’t force them. Instead, you create an environment where willing, caring individuals can find an experience that changes them.” —Seth Godin, “Will this be on the test?”
Hmm…don’t test, or lecture, or force people to do what they really don’t want to do.
“Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Citadel”, 1948, translated from the French
Remember the Compact Disc [CD]? Or, if you’re old enough, like me, the long playing record [LP], aka “vinyl” records?
For many years, the music industry primarily sold “popular” (i.e. short form) music as rigid collections of individual tracks. If you liked something you heard on the radio and wanted to buy it, you were forced to buy the artist’s “album”, which often contained many other pieces of music you didn’t care for. Unless the track you liked was released as a “single” (for which you paid a premium) you couldn’t buy it by itself.
We all know what happened. CD ripping, and later the internet, made it possible for the music lover to pick and choose her music purchases one track at a time. Adore four tracks on a Manu Chao album? Just buy those four!
Why did this happen? Because great music albums that tell a compelling musical story from one track to the next are the exception rather than the rule. Most albums are disembodied collections that, apart from perhaps the artist’s and producer’s minds, have no perceivable flow from one track to the next.
Traditional meetings are also collections of disembodied sessions. But they have not changed in the same way.