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.
Large meetings stroke owners’ and leaders’ egos, can supply impressive spectacle, 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:
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.”
“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.”
“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.]
Understanding 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 before going back to normal year-round levels.
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 I’m no longer impacted by certain issues that once preoccupied me (e.g., 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
So many conferences are a collection of unrelated sessions. But the June 2015 PCMA Education Conference in Fort Lauderdale showed how a coherent set of meeting goals can be embedded in a congruent conference arc, improving learning and connection amongst attendees. Here’s how PCMA connected the dots.
PCMA Education Conference design and duties
Although PCMA asked me to be the “conference facilitator” and “connect the dots” for EduCon, most of the credit for the conference design goes to the PCMA team. Pre-conference collaboration with the team was a pleasure.
My consequent jobs over the three days of conference sessions were to:
open and close the conference;
interview John Medina on stage and at a “deep dive” breakout;
facilitate a closing public evaluation of the conference.
The conference boasted a record 675 attendees, plus several hundred following the live stream. Being up on stage so much, interviewing, and providing event continuity for as many as a thousand people was a new experience for me—definitely risky learning! Connecting the dots immediately after presentations is hard when you don’t know what presenters are going to say!
When I accepted the offer of facilitating the conference, I only had a rough outline of the presentations. I wondered about the content/learning arc of the event. To my pleasant surprise, EduCon delivered a coherent set of sessions that shared common themes around predetermined goals.
At the opening I told a story and shared the EduCon design goals: experiential learning, risky learning experiments, and meaningful engagement. I’ll use [EL], [RL], and [ME] respectively to indicate how these three themes were woven throughout the event.
John Medina’s opening session immediately touched on some of these themes. He described how prospect-refuge theory suggests that a mixture of private and public spaces provides an optimum environment for events, balancing the needs for safety [RL], frankness, growth and confidentiality with the openness required to spread content.
John also spoke about the importance of high Theory Of Mind—the ability to reason about the mental states of others, what some might call empathy—for creating effective work teams that have high collective intelligence. (There’s a great test of your Theory of Mind ability Reading The Mind In The Eyestake it for free here!) It turns out that women have better theory of mind than men, which is perhaps why there are so many female meeting professionals—empathy is important in our industry [ME].
Interviewing John—who must surely be the easiest person in the world to interview—was a blast! I had 15 minutes with him on stage, followed by 75 minutes in a breakout. For the breakout I simply had the audience sit in curved theater seating facing John and me plus a couple of empty chairs. Audience members with questions walked to the front of the room and talked with him. We could have easily spent another hour with John.
Read my earlier post to learn more about the session crowdsourcing experiment I facilitated the following morning, which incorporated all three goals for the event [EL] [RL] [ME]. A few of the sessions chosen:
Women’s leadership in the event industry (described to me afterwards by several participants in glowing terms);
Cultural issues in international meetings (run by Eli Gorin, who seemed very pleased); and
Selling sponsorship (held in the round).
The personal introspective
After lunch I facilitated a personal introspective breakout session [EL] [RL] [ME], which provided participants the opportunity to think about what they had experienced so far, how their experiences might impact their life, and what changes they might want to make as a result. Afterwards, I received the same feedback independently from many people. They had gone into the session thinking they had little to say, and discovered during the process that there was a lot to get excited about. I have heard this kind of feedback for many years now. Nevertheless, it’s still gratifying to hear the conversation volume rise steadily and observe the palpable reluctance of people to leave their small groups when the session is over.
I attended a few of the other breakout sessions during the conference, and observed a good mixture of [EL], [RL], and [ME] in all of them. The interactivity of the sessions I witnessed was unusually high for a meeting industry conference. All the presenters I talked to had incorporated trying something new during their sessions.
The gift of failure
The second plenary speaker, Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise, spoke to several themes related to the “gift of failure”:
the “deliberate amateur” who avoids the traditional route of learning [RL];
the need for “private domains” that allow creativity to flourish [EL]; and
the “supple grit” needed to know when to keep working on an idea and when to stop before the work becomes dysfunctional persistence [EL].
A group spective
On the final day of EduCon I ran a public evaluation of the conference in 45 minutes using plus/delta. Having attendees publicly evaluate a conference they have just experienced was clearly an [RL] activity! I think it went well; the scribes’ Google doc summary (projected in real time as the session took place) gives a taste…
Our fear of change
The first question Sarah was asked at the conclusion of her talk was on overcoming fear [RL], which segued nicely into the subject matter of the closing session by Mel Robbins, author of Stop Saying You’re Fine. Mel delved deep (and interactively) [ME] [EL] into our fear of change and introduced her 5 second rule—if you have a game-changer impulse, act on it within five seconds or else it dies [RL]—another formulation of improv’s “say yes”.
Mel closed with a powerful call to action, a key component of a compelling conference arc, to take ownership of our lives. After this powerful session, I made brief closing remarks, pointing out how PCMA’s conference goals had been achieved. Finally I asked the audience to stand and applaud themselves, as the people who, collectively, through their own interactions, risk taking, and engagement had made the achievement of those goals possible.
It felt good!
Awesome photo of me at 2015 PCMA EduCon taken by and licensed from Jacob Slaton!
Making 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 :
How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.
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.
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.
Technique: Setting ground rules ‡* Brief description: Setting ground rules before other activities commence clarifies and unifies participants’ expectations. When to use: Start of session, workshop, or conference. Helpful for: Setting the stage for collaboration and participation, by giving people permission and support for sharing with and learning from each other. Increases participants’ safety and intimacy. Resources needed: Paper or online list of ground rules.
Technique: Human spectrogram Brief description: People stand along a line (one dimension) or in a room space (two dimensions) to answer session questions (factual or opinions). When to use: Usually at the start of a session. Also use as an icebreaker before or during the three questions. Helpful for: Allowing participants and the group to discover commonalities. Also use to pick homogeneous or heterogeneous groups/teams. Also use to hear a spectrum of comments on an issue and then view any resulting shifts in opinion. Gets people out of their chairs! Resources needed: A clear corridor space between walls (one-dimension), or a clear room (two dimensions).
Technique: The three questions * Brief description: Three questions answered in turn by every participant to the entire group within a given time limit, typically 1½ – 3 minutes. – How did I get here? – What do I want to have happen? – What experience do I have that others may find useful? When to use: Normally, right after ground rules have been set. Helpful for: Learning about each participant, exposing topics and questions of interest to the group, uncovering formerly unknown useful expertise for the group to share. Resources needed: Question cards and pens, circle of chairs. Do not replace cards with the three questions posted on a wall or screen.
Technique: Fishbowl * Brief description: An effective technique for focused discussion. Works by limiting and making clear who can speak at any moment. When to use: During any conference content or topic oriented session. Also use for conference closing discussion. Helpful for: Keeping group discussions focused. A plus is that contributors need to move to and from discussion chairs, maintaining alertness and engagement. Resources needed: Chairs, either set in two concentric circles or in a U-shape with discussant chairs at the mouth.
Technique: Personal introspective * Brief description: A session where attendees privately reflect on their answers to five questions. All attendees then have an opportunity but not an obligation to share their answers with the group. When to use: Towards the end of the event, usually just before the final group session for a short event. At multi-day events, sometimes held as the first session on the last day. Helpful for: Reinforcing learning and concretizing changes participants may wish to make in their lives as a consequence of their experiences during the event. Resources needed: Chairs, either set in small circles or one large circle, personal introspective question cards and pens.
Technique: Affinity grouping †* Brief description: A technique to discover and share ideas that arise during the conference and group them into categories, so they can be organized and then discussed. When to use: Can be used at any session to elicit and gain group responses to ideas. Also useful as a closing process if action outcomes are desired. Helpful for: Future planning, and uncovering group or sub-group energy around topics and actions. Can be used to guide decision-making by the group. Resources needed: Cards and/or large sticky notes, pens, pins or tape if cards used, walls for posting.
Technique: Plus/delta * Brief description: A simple review tool for participants to quickly identify what went well and potential improvements. When to use: Normally during a closing session. Helpful for: Quickly uncovering, with a minimum of judgment, positive comments on and possible improvements to a conference or other experience. Resources needed: Flipcharts and, optionally, ropes or straps.
If you’ve registered for EventCamp Twin Cities as a remote attendee (it’s free!) you’ll be able to watch a live stream of me running a personal introspective from the comfort and convenience of your web browser of choice on Thursday, September 9 at 4:15 p.m. EST. This will be the first time I’ve ever facilitated a personal introspective with a remote audience, and I’ve added an experimental way for remote attendees to share the results of their introspectives online.
Actually, why restrict yourself to just my session? We have a great set of innovative sessions available to anyone who wants to join the remote audience. I’m also running a fast-paced Pecha Kucha session at 2 p.m. EST the same day, and the conference program is packed with other great content and formats. The organizers have bent over backwards to create a two-way experience for remote attendees; here’s an excerpt from the EventCamp Twin Cities remote audience page:
[You’ll be able…] to view the video stream and the slides from the main sessions, [and have] the ability to participate in the backchannel with on-site attendees and other remote attendees. The official Twitter hashtag is #ectc10. Also, there will be a hybrid moderator that will capture your questions and comments to share with the greater audience. And, we will be using PollEverywhere to allow ALL attendees (face-to-face and virtual) to vote via Twitter or their mobiles when speakers are asking questions.
In addition, Emilie Barta, the virtual emcee will guide you through the event and make sure that you are connected to the face-to-face audience. In between sessions, she will interview speakers, sponsors and attendees to add additional context to your event experience.
I may not see you at EventCamp Twin Cities (though I’ll be scanning and responding to messages via my Twitter feed throughout the event.) But I hope you’ll drop in and see me and the other wonderful people and sessions we’ve created, and interact with us too. Don’t miss this unique opportunity!