What makes attending conferences worthwhile? As I described in Conferences That Work, the two most common reasons for attending conferences are to learn useful things and make useful connections. But there are numerous other ways that conferences provide value to stakeholders. In this post I’ll focus on, arguably, the most useful conferences we can design: those that solve participants’ problems.
A useful taxonomy of problems
When thinking about solving problems, the Cynefin framework provides a helpful taxonomy of problem types. It’s useful because each Cynefin domain requires a different problem-solving approach. Cynefin describes five domains, usually named as: obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder. Check out the above Wikipedia link to learn more about them.
As we’ll see:
Traditional conferences support, to some degree, solving participants’ obvious and complicated problems.
Peer conferences improve this support by allowing participants to share their top-of-mind problems in real time and leverage peer resources to get solutions.
Designing experiments into our conferences allow participants to explore solutions to complex problems.
How to help solve participants’ obvious, complicated, and complex problems at conferences
Here’s a little more detail on the obvious, complicated, and complex problem domains. For each domain, I’ll include examples of meeting processes you can use to satisfy participants’ problem solving wants and needs.
Obvious problems (“known knowns”) have known solutions, often called “best practice”.
For example, how do I:
Determine what employee data to store in the human resources system?
Provide frequent and timely feedback to my staff?
Maximize milk production on a New England dairy farm?
Research a potential client’s financial background?
These examples might remind you of the kinds of topics that routinely appear as the titles of traditional conference sessions. That’s because these are problems to which experts know the answers, or, at least, have plenty of good advice to share. Their expertise can, therefore, be shared with participants via traditional presentations.
Sadly, traditional lecture-style sessions are only good for solving participants’ obvious problems. What’s more, the session will be of little use unless the session content happens to match a participant’s current problem.
Peer conferences reduce problem solving limitations in the obvious domain, by allowing participants to influence the content and scope of meeting sessions in real time during the event. So it’s much more likely that participants’ top-of-mind obvious problems will be effectively addressed at a peer conference.
Unfortunately, the majority of our day-to-day challenges are not obvious. (That’s why we spend much more time and energy working on them than obvious problems.) Complicated problems (“known unknowns”) succumb to expert analytical judgment.
For example, how can I:
Unify my business’s unique branding and marketing needs?
Implement a customer relationship management system for my veterinary circus animal practice?
Provide the best guest experience at my Airbnb castle rental?
Evaluate event production company abilities for a game-changing event I’m planning?
Traditional conference lecture-format sessions provide almost no time for solving participants’ complicated problems. Typically, complicated problems can only be addressed up during a question and answer period at the end of the session, when there is little time to perform the kind of analysis a session expert might be able to supply.
Interactive conference sessions allow more opportunities for participants to share specific complicated problems and get targeted advice. However, few presenters incorporate significant interactivity into their sessions, and this format is more the exception than the rule.
Once again, peer conference sessions provide significantly more ways to solve participants’ complicated problems. There are two reasons for this. First, as above, peer sessions are far more likely to address the actual problems participants are currently facing. And second, peer session formats use the resources in the room — not just the session leadership — to uncover and resolve top-of-mind participant problems. (For more information on how to do this, see my book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need.)
Complex problems (“unknown unknowns”) are even harder to resolve.
Don’t really know what questions to ask to start; and
Cannot accurately predict what the consequences of action would be.
Unlike the obvious and complicated domains, we have to approach complex problems by doing experiments. Cynefin describes this process using the word trio [probe–sense–respond], as opposed to the trios for the obvious [sense–categorize–respond], and complicated [sense–analyze–respond] problem domains.
Complex problems have to be tackled in the same way that scientists use experiments to probe the world around us and gradually build understanding of it.
Thus exploring complex problems requires a probing experiment, from which we observe outcomes, and then, with our understanding perhaps slightly improved, we probe in an appropriately different way again. With persistence and luck, over time we may be able to formulate some helpful responses to the problem.
It may seem strange to run experiments at conferences, but I’ve participated in (and designed) a few conference experiments over the years, and have invariably found them to be some of the most interesting and illuminating meeting experiences I’ve ever had.
The Solution Room creates a host of simultaneous small group problem-solving experiments, designed to support the solving of participants’ current challenges in a single session.
Finally, there are conferences that are entirely experiments!
In the meetings world, the most well known are the series of EventCamps that were held around the world between 2010 and 2014. These were volunteer-run, meeting experiments that explored a wide range of meeting and session formats and technologies. For example, we designed and held some of the earliest hybrid meetings, and introduced the meeting industry to peer conferences, gamification, improv, sustainability issues, and many other, now common, meeting components. These events made a profound impression on pretty much everyone who participated. Many of the people I met remain friends today.
Since 2016, I’ve been participating in the annual, invitation-only Meeting Design Practicum conferences that have been held all over Europe. A rotating crew of two or three volunteers organize these wonderful events. They plan an experimental program and ask participants to contribute in various ways, but are the only people who know the entire program in advance. Truly a unique and different experiment each year!
Conferences that are entire experiments are rare because they are risky. Experiments, by definition, have unpredictable results, which means they may “fail” to produce “desirable” outcomes. The understandable default assumption for most meeting industry clients is that their meetings are “successful”, and clients who are willing for “success” to include novel learning from innovative experiments are rare.
Nevertheless, whether held by the meeting industry for itself or for clients, meeting experiments provide the potential for the participants to work on some of their most difficult problems, those that are complex. Bear this in mind if you see an opportunity to create experimental sessions or events!
Solve participants’ problems!
Whatever kind of conference you design, remember the value of incorporating sessions and formats that solve participants’ problems. It’s no accident that the experiment-rich Solution Room is the most popular and highly rated plenary I offer. Give your participants opportunities to solve their top-of-mind problems at your meetings and you’ll make them very happy!
Image attribution: Cynefin illustration by Edwin Stoop (User:Marillion!!62) – , CC BY-SA 4.0
Once upon a time, I enjoyed a lucrative career as an independent IT consultant. For 20+ years, I turned down more work than I accepted. And I never advertised; all business came via word-of-mouth, from CEO to CEO.
There was plenty of competition, and yet most of my competitors struggled for work.
Want to know one of my secrets?
I’m a generalist.
My clients wanted their problems solved. There were three key reasons why they needed help:
My clients did not know what their problems were. (Yes, this sounds strange, stay with me.)
Their problems were complex, crossing traditional expertise boundaries.
Their problems were presented as technical issues, but invariably involved a critical people component.
When I started IT consulting, I thought companies would hire me because I had specialized technical skills they did not possess. Over time, I slowly realized that what made me valuable and useful to my clients were my abilities to:
Uncover their real problems;
Understand the entirety of what would be need to be done to solve their actual problems;
Diplomatically explore, explain, and convince clients of what needed to be done;
Successfully work with them to devise and implement effective solutions; and
Help them take ownership of the ongoing management of relevant issues so the problems didn’t reoccur.
Today’s hard problems straddle traditional specialities. Being a generalist in the realm of consulting means being willing and able to see and act on a bigger picture than clients typically initially present. For example, no one ever hired me to solve “people problems”, but I can’t recall a consulting assignment where human issues weren’t an important factor. Some examples:
A ten-year-old silent war between two department heads that had never been addressed;
The internal IT staffer who was crippling company growth because he knew far less than he claimed;
A CEO who hired a golf buddy to recommend that an appropriate and functional information system be replaced;
The operations manager who routinely made decisions without the authority to do so.
My successful IT consulting career combined adequate technical knowledge, business managerial experience (from five years managing a solar manufacturing company), good problem solving abilities, continuous acquisition of people skills, creativity, and a win-win mindset that focused on serving my clients rather than maximizing my income at their expense. During two decades of work, I saw many independent IT specialists who were, despite possessing technical knowledge superior to mine, unable to maintain a viable business.
I’m still a consultant today, but in a different field—meeting design. And I’m still a generalist, because good meeting design requires knowledge and skills in many different areas: production, andragogy (how adults learn), facilitation, and people skills, to name a few.
We are living in a world where the commodification of products and skills leads more and more quickly to a race to the bottom—“who can make/do this for the least amount of money/time?” (For example, accountancy, once seen as a secure well-paying profession, is increasingly outsourced and automated.) As a result, the advantages of the generalist mount because relatively few people have the required skill-set to solve problems that cross traditional specialties, and it’s easier to thrive in a field with, say, ten competitors as opposed to ten thousand.
We’re moving from working in the system that is a business, to working on the system. The consequence of this is that its becoming more important to have the general capabilities and breadth of experience that enable us to develop and improve the system in novel directions, than it is to have deep, highly entailed experience in working within the current system. There will always be a need for narrowly focused expertise in highly technical areas, but in the majority of cases the generalist now has an advantage over the specialist.
Are you a specialist or a generalist? How’s that working out for you?
Photo attribution: Flickr user environmental_illness_network
In Part 1, I introduced three distinct categories of learning: factual information acquisition, problem solving, and building a process toolkit, and gave examples of how typical desired meeting outcomes involve different mixtures of each category. Here’s a final example of the complex ways that learning and learning approaches can be affected by multiple factors, specifically the differences between how children and adults typically learn.
Pedagogy and Andragogy In the 2014 post Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way I explained how we typically extend into adulthood the pedagogy we’re all exposed to as kids. The word pedagogy comes from the Greek paid, meaning “child” and ago meaning “lead.” So pedagogy literally means “to lead the child.”
The much less familiar term andragogy, first coined in the 1830s, has had multiple definitions over the years, but its modern meaning was shaped by Malcolm Knowles in his 1980 book The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy, based on the Greek word aner with the stem andra meaning “man, not boy” (i.e. adult), and agogus meaning “leader of.” Knowles defined the term as “the art and science of adult learning” and argued that we need to take into account differences between child and adult learners. Specifically, he posited the following changes as individuals mature:
Personality moves from dependent to self-directed.
Learning focus moves from content acquisition to problem solving.
Experience provides a growing resource for their learning activity.
Readiness to learn becomes increasingly aligned with their life roles.
Motivation to learn is more likely to be generated internally than externally.
My professional life journey illustrates all these transformations. At school I was force-fed a concentrated diet of science and mathematics. Besides making a broad decision to study the sciences rather than the arts, I had very little say in what classes I was expected to take. Since then:
My subsequent career path—elementary particle physics research, running a solar manufacturing business, teaching computer science, IT consulting, and, most recently, meeting design—displays a steady movement from doing what I was told I was able to do to what I chose to pursue for my own reasons.
As a physicist, much of my work depended on what I learned at school, university, and academic conferences. As my experience grew, my professional work became increasingly centered on creative problem solving for clients.
In academia, I relied chiefly on classroom learning. Over time, my 30+ years experience has become key to my effectiveness as a meeting designer and convener.
Discovering that I love bringing people together motivates the work of learning what I need to know to perform my work well.
Although financial factors now play a smaller role in determining how much I work, my mission to share what I think is of value drives my desire to learn how to improve my effectiveness and scope.
Take a moment to review your own professional life and see if Knowles’s maturation concepts reflect differences in how you learned in school and now learn as an adult.
Of course, just as there isn’t a clear boundary between childlike and adult behaviors, there’s no clear-cut distinction between pedagogy and andragogy. Both terms encompass motivations and contexts for learning, and it’s most accurate to view them as endpoints on a spectrum of learning behaviors. Nevertheless, Knowles’s five assertions, each positing progression from passivity to action, provide critical insight into why active learning becomes an increasingly important learning modality as we mature.
Too many events still use child-based pedagogical instead of adult-centered andragogical modalities. By concentrating on the latter, we can improve the effectiveness and relevance of the learning we desire and require from our face-to-face meetings.
When asked, just about everyone mentions learning as a key reason for conference attendance.
So, given the clear importance of learning at events, it’s surprising that we lump distinctly different activities into the single word “learning”. Perhaps this reflects the reality that learning acquisition is a largely unconscious process, in the same way our casual familiarity with snow leads us to possess far fewer words for it than the Inuit. Whatever the reasons, it’s useful to distinguish between three different categories of learning: factual information acquisition, problem solving, and building a process toolkit.
Factual knowledge acquisition involves what it sounds like: learning factual information: multiplication tables, names and typical dosages of medications, foreign language nouns, and the millions of facts that we don’t even know that we know until someone asks us. It also includes sensory knowledge: the ability to recognize whether a skin lesion is benign, the sound of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the feel of satin, the smell of a skunk, or the taste of rhubarb.
Problem solving calls for a different level of learning. In essence, it requires noticing or discovering relationships between pieces of information and using these associations to infer answers to relevant problems. Problem solving provides useful process that operates on our knowledge.
Building a process toolkit is an even higher form of learning. After all, in many situations—for example, multiplying two 4-digit numbers using paper and pen—problem solving can be done by rote. But developing novel process frequently challenges our best minds, sometimes over generations, as illustrated by the growth of scientific understanding over millennia. Whether we construct our own process or appropriate useful process developed by others, building a collection of processes that are relevant to our lives is perhaps the most powerful kind of learning we can perform.
I make these distinctions because any specific instance of learning incorporates a different mixture of each category, and, to complicate things further, the effectiveness of each kind of learning is influenced by disparate factors. As a result, books about learning tend to contain a bewildering variety and quantity of information about aspects of learning.
Let’s illustrate with some examples.
Consider training workers to determine whether an applicant is eligible for government benefit—something that could involve many days teaching a large number of complex requirements. Success might be defined as the workers being able to consistently understand, remember, and apply the correct requirements for each applicant. Such learning will concentrate on acquiring relevant factual knowledge plus the capacity to follow a defined process determined by senior administrators. Factors such as retention of key knowledge, maintaining the level of accuracy necessary to make correct decisions, and the ability to recall relevant material over time are clearly important.
Compare this with the mysterious multiyear process by which some graduate students develop from novice researchers into leading practitioners in their field, which includes attending numerous conferences. This involves all three categories of learning: (1) obtaining a wide range of relevant and not-obviously-relevant knowledge, (2) comfort and familiarity with the discipline’s existing body of process and problem solving, and (3) developing a toolkit of novel process that can, hopefully, extend the field further. While the government workers need to concentrate on retaining well-defined information, the researchers will likely acquire far more information than ultimately needed to make an advance or breakthrough. Consequently, the graduate students need to learn how to refine—both narrow and broaden—their focus on a wide range of information, constantly making decisions on what they will concentrate and what they will, possibly temporarily, put aside. The capacity to do this well, combined with ability to effectively problem-solve and develop novel process defines successful learning in this situation.
So when we talk about learning at meetings, it can be very helpful to be specific about the kind(s) of learning that are desired. Trainings focus on the first two categories I’ve described, while more powerful forms of learning—typically experiential process that introduces tools that can be applied in a variety of future situations—incorporates all three.
In Part 2 of this exploration of learning, I’ll share a final example of the complex ways that learning and learning approaches can be affected by multiple factors, specifically the differences between how children and adults typically learn.