Six fundamental ways to make a better conference

The other day, a client booked an hour with me to discuss how to make their conference better. Not much time, but enough for us to uncover and for me to suggest plenty of significant improvements.

Thinking about our conversation afterward, I realized that all my recommendations involved six fundamental processes that, when implemented well and appropriately, will make any conference better.

Read the rest of this entry »

Did anyone learn anything?

did anyone learn anythingThe meeting is over. Did anyone learn anything? And how would you know?

An EventTech Chat discussion

I greatly enjoy participating in EventTech Chat, “a weekly conversation about meeting and event technology, including software, hardware, and audiovisual for in-person and online events” hosted by pals Brandt Krueger and Glenn Thayer.

During last week’s chat, one of the topics we discussed was whether there are differences in how people learn online, as opposed to face to face. This led to conversations about learning styles (be careful, they’re mostly mythical and barely useful), the importance of taking responsibility for your own learning at meetings, and how meeting formats affect what people learn.

Are you a regular reader of this blog? If so, you might have guessed—correctly—that I had plenty to say about these important issues. There is plenty of solid research on the best ways to support effective learning. We know that:

Of course, even if we know the best ways to maximize useful learning and connection at meetings, that doesn’t mean we implement them. Unfortunately, our meetings are still full of lectures.

Which brings us to an important question we hardly ever ask about meetings…

Did anyone learn anything?

In my book Conferences That Work, I shared a story about when I—and everyone else in my graduate class—never admitted we didn’t understand what our teacher was teaching us for weeks.

…toward the end of my second year I was understanding less and less of a mathematics course I was taking. The professor seemed to be going through the motions—he asked few questions, and there was no homework. Elementary particle physicists are either mathematicians or experimentalists. I was the latter, so my lack of mathematical understanding was not affecting my research work. But the experience was disconcerting.

And, as the semester went on, the percentage of class material I understood gradually declined.

One day, our teacher announced that we would be studying Green’s Functions, a technique used to solve certain kinds of equations. After the first 20 minutes of the class I realized that I understood nothing of what was being said, and that I was at a crucial turning point. If I kept quiet, it would be too late to claim ignorance later, and it was likely I would not understand anything taught for the remainder of the semester. If I spoke up, however, I was likely to display my weak comprehension of everything the teacher had covered so far.

Looking around, I noticed that the other students seemed to be having a similar experience. Everyone looked worried. No one said a word.

The class ended and the professor left. I plucked up my courage and asked my classmates if they were having trouble. We quickly discovered, to our general relief, that none of us understood the class. What should we do? Somehow, without much discussion, we decided to say nothing to the teacher.

The class only ran a few more weeks, and the remaining time became a pro forma ritual. Did our teacher know he had lost us? I think he probably did. I think he remained quiet for his own reasons, perhaps uncaring about his success at educating us, perhaps ashamed that he had lost us.

When I didn’t speak up, I chose to enter a world where I hid my lack of understanding from others, a world where I was faking it…

…Probably you’ve had a similar experience; a sinking feeling as you realize that you don’t understand something that you’re apparently expected to understand, in a context, perhaps a traditional conference, where nonresponsiveness is the norm. It’s a brave soul indeed who will speak out, who is prepared to admit to a conference presenter that they don’t get what’s going on. Have you stayed silent? Do you?

Silence isn’t golden

Silence during a presentation, and a lack of questions at the end does not mean that anyone learned anything. As Jonah Berger reminds us in Contagious, “Behavior is public and thoughts are private.”

If my teacher had bothered to periodically ask his class whether they understood what he was attempting to teach, or, better, asked questions to check, we’d likely have told or shown him we were lost.

So, how can we discover if anyone learned anything?

Well, I’m sorry, but smile sheets dropped in a box at the end of a session, app-based evaluations, and online surveys that must be completed within a few days do not provide an accurate picture of the long-term benefits of a meeting.

Why? Because we are far more likely to be influenced by our immediate emotional experience during a session than by the successful delivery of what eventually turn out to be long-term benefits.

Three better ways to obtain long-term evaluations of events are Net Promoter Scores, A Letter to Myself, and The Reminder. Check out this post for more details.

Ultimately, we can’t ensure or guarantee that anyone learned anything at a meeting. As Glenn pointed out during our EventTech Chat, the ultimate responsibility for learning is the learner’s. Attend a meeting expecting that the leaders will magically transfer learning to you without doing any work yourself? You probably won’t learn much, if anything.

Nevertheless, we can actively help people learn at meetings by implementing the principles listed above. (Check out my books for complete details.) But there’s one additional thing we can do to maximize and extend learning during our meetings.

How to help people consolidate what they learn at meetings

During our EventTech Chat, several participants shared how they consolidate learning during or immediately after an event. Folks who have learned the value of this practice and figured out the ways that work best for them may not need what I’m about to share (though even they can often benefit).

What I’ve found over decades of designing meetings is that the majority of meeting attendees do not know how to consolidate what they learn there. So I designed a closing plenary that gives each participant a carefully structured opportunity to review, consolidate, and reinforce what they have learned at the conference. They also get to develop the next steps for changes they will work on in their professional lives. It’s called a Personal Introspective, and takes 60 – 90 minutes to run. (You can find full details in Chapter 57 of The Power of Participation.)

Did anyone learn anything? There are no guarantees. But, following the above advice will make it significantly more likely that your attendees will learn what they want and need to learn. Do you have other thoughts on how to improve how you or others learn at meetings. If so, please share them in the comments below.

 

Why I love conference facilitation and design

Here’s an example of why I love conference facilitation and design. After setting up a Personal Introspective this morning (25 minutes) I turned over what happens to the small groups. Watch the listening and involvement of every person as I weave my phone through the circles of chairs.

Read the rest of this entry »

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!

Are SMART goals stupid?

Neil Morrison thinks that SMART objectives are stupid.

A quick reminder from Neil:

SMART stands for:

Specific
Measurable
Achievable/Attainable
Realistic
Time-bound/Timely

The idea being that if you want to set a goal/objective then it should be all of these things…”

So far, so good.

“…which is cute, but wrong.”

Which is where I disagree.

Why? I’ve spent years running personal introspectives: conference sessions for developing plans for personal change that incorporate SMART objectives. Having experienced the development of thousands of these plans, I’ve found that most people struggle to build SMART change goals.

For example, people will say:

“I want to stay in touch with the lab managers in my region.” Rather than “I will schedule a weekly visit to the private lab community website from now on, review the updates, and participate appropriately.”

Or

“I want to treat my staff better.” Rather than “In the next two weeks, I will implement weekly one-on-ones with my direct reports, and give them my undivided attention during our meetings.”

Or

“I will get over my fear of public speaking.” Rather than “I will join my local Toastmasters club when it starts up again in the fall.”

Bearing this in mind, let’s go through Neil’s points:

“My major issue is, that by the very nature of their construct, they’re limiting. They focus you on committing to do one thing, when another – which you may not have come across yet – might be three, four or five times better.”

Um, SMART is not about developing the “best” objectives. You need a separate process for that. Once you’ve come up with relevant goals, SMART becomes a valuable tool to check to see they are actionable. [OMG, I used “actionable” in a post, but it seemed like the right word to use at the time.]

The evidence to this is in the million plus performance conversations that happen each year when an employee is explaining that they didn’t do the five objectives they agreed, but have delivered x amount of other things that have added greater value.

The problem described here is nothing to do with SMART. It’s with managerial process that develops goals for employees but doesn’t include any feedback mechanisms to ensure goals remain relevant. SMART is a tool for testing proposed objectives to see if they’re actionable [did it again]. Period. Blaming SMART instead of poor managerial practices that ignore the reality that continual organizational and environmental change requires timely evaluation of responsive employee goals is like blaming your sneakers for being uncomfortable because they’re red.

“[SMART goals are] entirely left brain and play to a Taylorian vision of business and process. They are the antithesis of creativity, innovation, and the search for exponential value add. It is hard to get passionate, emotional or excited about a SMART goal, because they’re intended to lock down your energy, rather than unleash it.”

Nope. Nothing in SMART prevents you from developing goals that are creative, innovative, and capable of exponential value add. If you decide that having Bono spearhead your product launch is going to make your company the next unicorn, SMART is simply going to remind you that your bold objective should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. While it may be a downer to realize you’ll need a million bucks you don’t have to get Sting involved, you could otherwise waste a lot of time chasing an impossible dream.

“Finally, [SMART goals are] linked to a performance management culture and approach that we’ve all pretty much decided is dead, done and buried – I know, I’ve been writing about it for ten years. The idea that there are such things as performance cycles, that we have the level of predictability and that we can improve organisational performance by setting a bunch of spurious goals and having a bad conversation once, twice or even four times a year through a “performance” review is nothing more than a hopeful, collective misnomer.”

OK, it should be clear by now that I’m separating the limited applicability of SMART goals from the dysfunctional cultures Neil describes where they’re “used” inappropriately. All objectives are developed and exist in a context. Contexts change continuously, so a goal that’s relevant and useful one day can become obsolete overnight. To remain effective, employee and organizational goals need to be responsive to circumstances. Like Neil, I’ve no problem criticizing inflexible performance cycles, spurious, outdated goals, and ineffectual fixed performance reviews.

Just don’t lump SMART goals in with all the dysfunctional managerial gobbledygook. SMART goals aren’t stupid when they’re 1) personal 2) the outcome of effective strategy & analysis, and 3) evaluated, modified, and discarded when appropriate. The sole function of SMART is to check that goals — developed by good process and continually reviewed and updated — are actionable. [Third time’s the charm.]

Image element attributions: Tor Refsland and Your Dictionary

Successful event outcomes, strange web traffic, and the psychology of motivation

better event outcomesUnderstanding the psychology of motivation can help us create better event outcomes. I’ll illustrate with a story about strange traffic on this very web site…

The other day, I noticed a weird periodic surge of interest in one of my blog posts. Every January 1, page views for this post—but no other—spiked way up and stayed high for 7 – 10 days. Then they went back to normal year-round levels.

It took some head scratching before I finally realized what was going on. The article describes an obscure method for quickly deleting all emails on Apple devices—something Apple didn’t make easy until recently. Apparently, every January thousands of people all over the world stare at the 6,000 emails stuck on their iPhones. They resolve that this is the time they’re finally going to clean them up. So they Google “delete mail”, find my highly ranked post (currently, out of 228 million results I’m #2) click on it and, voila, lots of page views.

Well, lots of page views for a week or so. Then, what I call the New Year’s Resolutions Effect becomes…well, ineffective. People forget about their New Year’s resolutions and go on with their lives.

Why we are so poor at keeping resolutions

Why are we so poor at keeping resolutions? While scientific research into the psychology of motivation doesn’t currently offer a definitive explanation, there are some plausible theories. One of them, nicely explained by psychologist Tom Stafford, is proposed by George Ainslie in his book Breakdown of Will (read a forty-page “précis” here).

As Tom puts it:

“…our preferences are unstable and inconsistent, the product of a war between our competing impulses, good and bad, short and long-term. A New Year’s resolution could therefore be seen as an alliance between these competing motivations, and like any alliance, it can easily fall apart.
Tom Stafford, How to formulate a good resolution

And to make a long story short, he shares this consequence of Ainslie’s theory:

“…if you make a resolution, you should formulate it so that at every point in time it is absolutely clear whether you are sticking to it or not. The clear lines are arbitrary, but they help the truce between our competing interests hold.”

For years, I’ve used this observation to create better event outcomes. Here’s what I do.

If you’ve done a good job, by the close of your event participants will be fired up, ready to implement good ideas they’ve heard and seen. This is prime time for them to make resolutions to make changes in their professional lives. So how can we maximize the likelihood they will make good resolutions—and keep them!

A personal introspective

Close to the end of my events I use a personal introspective to give every attendee an opportunity to explore changes they may want to make in their life and work as a result of their experiences during the conference. (For full details of how to hold a personal introspective, see my book The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.)

At the start of the personal introspective, each attendee writes down (privately) the changes they want to make. Before they do so, I explain a crucial question they will need to answer later in the process: “How will you know when these changes happen?” I give them several relevant examples of vague versus measurable goals and actions, like those below.

PI Goals and Actions 2

It turns out that including the question “How will you know when these changes happen?” and giving relevant examples beforehand is very important. If you don’t, I’ve learned that hardly anyone will come up measurable resolutions that make it crystal clear whether you are succeeding or not.

Even with the directions and support, some people find it very difficult to come up with measurable, time-bound answers. Which is one of the reasons why every personal introspective has a follow-up small group component. There, they can share and get help on their goals. But that’s material for another blog post.

Over the years I’ve received enough feedback about the effectiveness of personal introspectives to know they can be a powerful tool for better event outcomes. As predicted by the psychology of motivation, helping participants make specific, measurable, and time-bound resolutions that are easier to keep is a vital component.

Photo attribution: Flickr user chrish_99

Look back to look forward

Janus-VaticanSometimes it’s good to look back to look forward.

From September 2002 through November 2009 I kept a journal, writing each day before going to bed. Every once in a while I’ll pick one of the five thick notebooks I filled during those seven years and read some entries at random.

Why do I do this?

I don’t revisit my journals to immerse myself in my past. Back then, I wrote to capture and reflect on my experience while it was still fresh, to explore how I responded to and felt about the day’s events. I didn’t write for posterity, and there are many raw experiences in these pages that are painful to recall.

Instead, I dip into what I wrote to compare where I was then with where I am now.

Sometimes I discover that life circumstances have changed. Perhaps certain issues that once preoccupied me no longer do. (For example, my financial situation has changed for the better.) Perhaps some issues are still part of my life, but my response to them is different (e.g., speaking in public no longer scares me as much as it once did.) And perhaps I’m aware now of issues that were absent from my journals (e.g., the implications of growing older.)

Whatever I discover, when I look back at what I used to think and do I receive important information.

Often I discover that I am continuing to change and grow in specific ways. As someone who wants to be a life-long learner, someone who doesn’t want to be “stuck”, that is good and encouraging information to have.

I also notice that certain aspects of my life haven’t changed significantly. Frequently, that’s because they are core aspects of who I am and the world I inhabit.

And sometimes, I become aware that I’m stuck in some pattern of behavior or response that I’d like to change. That’s good information too.

Look back to look forward. At the end of a peer conference, a personal introspective allows participants to explore new directions as a result of experiences during the event. On a longer timescale, old personal journals (or any records of past personal introspection) can be a great tool for learning about ourselves and mapping our future path on life’s journey.

Creative Commons image of Janus courtesy of Wikipedia

Satisfy crucial attendee needs with Give and Get

give and getMaking deliberate and constructive connections amongst participants is a core goal of peer conferences, so I’m delighted to see that techniques with the same outcome in mind are beginning to be adopted at traditional events. For example, the March 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review includes an excellent article “Leadership Summits That Work” by Bob Frisch and Cary Greene that focuses on creating effective conversations and outcomes at large and midsize company summits. In particular, Frisch & Greene describe an exercise, Give and Get, for making the most of internal organizational resources:

Give and Get

“Typically, [Give and Get] is part of a breakout session with anywhere from 30 to 60 people. Two charts, one labeled “Give” and the other marked “Get,” hang on opposite walls. On each chart, each participant is assigned a column with his or her photo, name, function, business unit, and location at the top.

In the Get column, each participant posts a card that completes this sentence: “If I could get help in one area that would make me and my team more successful in the coming year, it would be…” The card is like a classified ad, asking for a particular type of expertise or assistance. Perhaps someone needs help developing a product feature, reconfiguring a plant layout, or adjusting a customer contract to achieve a certain outcome. In the Give column, the participant posts a card that completes the sentence “If I could name one area in which my team and I have developed expertise that may be useful to others in the company, it would be…”

After all the Give and Get cards have been posted, participants are given Post-it notes and asked to circulate around the room. If a participant sees a Get that she or someone she knows could address, she leaves a Post-it with a message about how she might be able to assist. If she sees a Give that could be helpful to her, she places a Post-it with a message under the card.

Once participants have posted all their offers to assist and requests for help, they switch rooms with another breakout group and survey the Gives and Gets on those walls. If each breakout room holds 50 people, each participant will see 100 requests for help and 100 offers. Those 200 Gives and Gets typically generate hundreds of Post-its, creating a network of connections across locations, functions, and business units. After the meeting, all the Gives and Gets are recorded and distributed to the appropriate individuals for follow-up.”

Most organizations above a certain size (perhaps 100 – 200 employees) do not have effective methods for fully capitalizing on internal expertise and experience. Resources to solve a tough problem in one business unit may exist elsewhere in the company. Give and Get provides a simple way for corporate summit attendees to connect with useful internal resources. This makes the organization more effective and self-sufficient.

Discovering fruitful connections is an essential component of participant-driven and participation-rich meetings. The Personal Introspective I facilitate at the end of peer conferences also leads participants to reflect on and plan follow up with useful people they have met, via the fifth and last question that participants answer:

“Where and how will I get support?”

When I explain this question, I point out that during the conference participants may have discovered resources that can support the changes they want to make. These resources may be reference materials, they may be other conferences, local or online communities you can join, or, most commonly, people you’ve met. While they’re fresh in their minds, participants write down the names of resource peers and then seek them out to set up follow up meetings or consultations. At corporate meetings, this is the sole outcome of Give and Get, and it’s a valuable one under the right circumstances. By contrast, a Personal Introspective also includes four other questions that, first, uncover desired personal and professional change that the conference may have inspired, and, second, build the next actions to work these changes into participants’ lives.

Use Give and Get to build a useful web of internal resources to support and resolve current internal issues of a medium to large organization, A Personal Introspective is a more general tool that helps participants from both single or multiple organizations to work on individual professional change outcomes and plans, as well as inventorying and connecting with resources available from conference peers. Either technique helps participants become more effective workers in their own right and also for their organization,

Facilitating change: The value of knowing where you are

How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

knowing where you are

Knowing where you are: The Story Spine

Last month, during my immersion into the world of improv at a fabulous BATS Intensive in San Francisco, I learned about The Story Spine, a core ingredient of the improv form. The Story Spine, charted above by my teacher Lisa Rowland, is a blueprint for the dramatic structure of basic stories, whether those told in improv or elsewhere. (Incidentally, it includes all the different pieces of my favorite change model, that of Virginia Satir, which one of these days I’ll find time to write about).

Lisa told us that the first two parts of the Story Spine—Once upon a time… and Every day…— are the platform. Many improv beginners feel compelled to start with something dramatic or unexpected. Lisa explained that this doesn’t work because you can only generate drama when the audience has a baseline from which drama can spring. You need to establish a platform before something new—what in improv is called the tilt—happens. Beginning a scene being pelted with oranges is confusing. Waking up tired on a lumpy mattress with your longtime girlfriend Suzy, entering IKEA to shop for a new bed, and then being pelted with oranges has potential.

Which reminds me (the platform, not the orange pelting) of the second question I use in a Personal Introspective

What is the current situation?

The second question I ask during a closing conference personal introspective is What is the current situation? I used to think this question was the easiest of the five questions to answer. Now I’m not so sure.

Just like in improv, it’s tempting to decide I need dramatic change, and then rush into listing ideas for reshaping your life. The unfortunate reality is that you can’t really figure out where you want to go until you know where you currently are.

Knowing where you are doesn’t just mean the facts of your situation:

  • I have a job with no prospects of career advancement.
  • Our customers are complaining about the amount of time they have to wait on hold.
  • Being responsible for all the logistics of our events exhausts me.

though these are important. It also involves noticing how you feel about these facts, because our biggest blind spots are usually those that are just too painful or embarrassing to notice.

  • I feel angry doing the same dead-end job day after day.
  • If I can’t satisfy every customer, I feel inadequate.
  • I feel selfish if I delegate and take some downtime for myself.

Working on teasing out the feelings behind the facts usually pays rich dividends.

Don’t rush

So don’t be in too much of a hurry to sink your teeth into the juicy possibilities of change in your life. Work on knowing where you are. Be sure to spend enough time figuring out the current situation. Especially the feelings that are driving your desire for change. That will make the tilt, when it comes, all the sweeter.