Last week, I led The Solution Room for a group of New York City attorneys. When it ended at 8 pm, after two hours of continuous intense conversation and connection, no one left. The participants, despite having worked a full day before my evening session, hung around and talked and swapped business cards while venue workers patiently reset the room for the law firm’s next business day.
For me, having people unwilling to leave after one of my sessions is over is a sign of success. It’s an example of what Set Godin calls viral work.
Important work is easily dismissed by the audience. It involves change and risk and thought. Popular work resonates with the people who already like what you do. Viral work is what happens when the audience can’t stop talking about what you did.
Every once in awhile, all three things will co-exist, but odds are, you’re going to need to choose. —Seth Godin, Important, popular or viral
I like Seth’s definition of viral work, but I’d change one word to better describe my facilitative work.
“Viral work is what happens when the audience can’t stop talking about what they did.”
How often do you get to do viral work? Share your successes in the comments below!
[P.S. I don’t usually photograph the challenge representations drawn by Solution Room participants because they can contain personal information, but I made an exception for the charming image that graces this post.]
How do we get people to participate at meetings? How can we design for easier attendee participation?
We know that participants — people who are active learners — learn more, retain more, and retain more accurately than passive attendees. They are also far more likely to make valuable connections with their peers during the event.
Ask a hard question every time we go to a meeting…
All of these are choices, choices that require no one to choose us or give us permission.
Every time I find myself wishing for an external event, I realize that I’m way better off focusing on something I can control instead. —Seth Godin, What Would Happen
All good, but Seth begs this question. What can meeting designers do to make it easier for attendees to participate more at meetings?
Three things to do for easier attendee participation
First, we need to model participation throughout our event. In Spain last month, I was invited for dinner in a local family’s home. Besides being treated to amazing food, drink, and conversation, I was casually encouraged to use a branding iron to melt the sugar on our Crème Brûlée. I was politely asked to help wash the dishes. Being an active participant during the evening, even in these small ways, made me part of the experience. I was not a passive consumer. Participating added significantly to my enjoyment and connection to the kind couple who had invited me into their home.
And third, always remember that we can’t make people do anything. Ultimately what they do is their choice. So it’s important to convey that participation is always optional. I’ve found that when attendees know they have the option to opt out they are more likely to participate.
What approaches have you used to make it easier for your attendees to participate? Share your ideas in the comments below!
Sometimes, the best thing we can do is to ask for help.
I ask for help
I had been fretting for several months on how to move ahead on convening and facilitating more of the participation technique workshops that are dear to my heart. What would the interest be? How would I market them? Which countries and venues should I consider?
The exploratory work involved was daunting. I started some market and venue research in my spare time, but progress was slow. There was so much to do before I could even begin to announce anything.
Finally, I realized I was acting like the person (stereotypically a man, right?) who’s lost and can’t bring himself to ask for directions.
I needed to ask for help.
It was hard for me to get to the point of asking for help. Despite knowing and preaching about the power of networks to create change, I was trained to figure stuff out by myself, and I still often revert to that old mindset. My ingrained instinct is to investigate a situation by looking at possibilities, only finally moving to action once I’ve got a solid plan. Sometimes that’s a good strategy. But sometimes, I need to practice transformational tourism.
Merely looking at [or listening to] something almost never causes change. Tourism is fun, but rarely transformative.
If it was easy, you would have already achieved the change you seek.
Change comes from new habits, from acting as if, from experiencing the inevitable discomfort of becoming. —Transformation tourism, Seth Godin
I became someone who asks for help. In 30 minutes I wrote a request for assistance on this blog and promoted it through my usual channels on social media: Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, and some Facebook event professional groups.
The results were swift and gratifying.
Within a week I had been contacted by numerous friends and colleagues, and had found several partners who were a wonderful logical fit.
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
Giving people the opportunity and support for meaningful emotional experiences gives them the gift of potentially changing in positive ways.
First, ask yourself the following about every question you ask:
Are you asking questions capable of making change happen? After the survey is over, can you say to the bosses, “83% of our customer base agrees with answer A, which means we should change our policy on this issue.”
It feels like it’s cheap to add one more question, easy to make the question a bit banal, simple to cover one more issue. But, if the answers aren’t going to make a difference internally, what is the question for? —Seth Godin
In other words, if any question you ask doesn’t have the potential to lead you to change anything, leave it out!)
Second, think about Seth’s sobering experience on responding to “Any other comments?” style questions:
Here’s a simple test I do, something that has never once led to action: In the last question of a sloppy, census-style customer service survey, when they ask, “anything else?” I put my name and phone number and ask them to call me. They haven’t, never once, not in more than fifty brand experiences.
Gulp. Would your evaluation process fare any better? As Seth concludes:
If you’re not going to read the answers and take action, why are you asking?
Take a hard look at your conference evaluations. You may be surprised by what you find.
If you are a “professional”, doing measurable work can be harmful to your future.
For over a hundred years, management has been obsessed with measuring what workers do. The rationale was to improve efficiency, and cut out the dead wood. Until quite recently, this affected mainly factory workers. White-collar workers were relatively safe.
Not any more.
Computers can apply scientific management principles to an ever-increasing number of professions. The result?
“What’s the close rate, the change in user satisfaction, the clickthroughs, the likes?
You can see where this is heading, and it’s heading there fast:
You will either be seen as a cog, or as a linchpin. You will either be measured in a relentless race to the bottom of the cost barrel, or encouraged in a supportive race to doing work that matters, that only you can do in your unique way.
It’s not easy to be the person who does unmeasurable work, but is there any doubt that it’s worth it?” —Seth Godin, Scientific Management 2.0
Is your mission impossible? If you know your mission — you do have a mission, right? — then your long-term strategy becomes much clearer. You know where you want to go; now, all that remains is how to get there.
Of course, life is rarely that simple.
There’s always that must-do-now stuff that gets in the way. As Seth Godin puts it:
“This interim strategy, the notion that ideals and principles are for later, but right now, all the focus and resources have to be put into the emergency of getting successful—it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because it’s always the interim. It never seems like the right time to stop doing what worked and start doing what we said was important.” —Seth Godin, The interim strategy
How can we stay focused on our mission when there’s always something demanding our attention right now? There are four core steps:
Notice what’s going on. (“A week has gone by, and I’ve spent fifteen minutes, tops, working on my mission.”) Sometimes this is the hardest step. We can’t change when we are unaware or avoiding the changes we really need/want to make.
Make a plan. End/delegate/deprioritize the short term stuff that’s getting in the way. Set goals for your mission-related work.
Carry out your plan. Sometimes this is the hardest step.
Steps 1-3 aren’t a one-time process. Loop ’em. Keep noticing, making new plans, and acting on them. That’s how you’ll grow and, potentially, succeed in your mission.
As Seth concludes his aforementioned post: “The interim is forever, so perhaps it makes sense to make act in the interim as we expect to act in the long haul.”
And remember this.
If you remain continually immersed in interim work, executing your Mission becomes Impossible.
Less perfection, more risky learning — an experiment
Right after the 2015 PCMA Education Conference Tuesday breakfast, I facilitated an experiment that allowed 675 meeting planners to choose sessions they would like to hold. In 45 minutes, hundreds of suggestions were offered on sticky notes. A small team of volunteers then quickly clustered the topics on a wall, picked a dozen, found leaders, and scheduled them in various locations around the Broward County Convention Center during a 90 minute time slot after the lunch the same day. The experiment was a great success; all the sessions were well attended, and, from the feedback I heard, greatly enjoyed and appreciated. Many people came up to me afterwards and told me how surprised they were that such a simple process could speedily add 50% more excellent sessions to the 21 pre-scheduled sessions.
Our desire for perfection
All of us who plan meetings have an understandable desire for everything to be perfect. We strive mightily to not run out of coffee, comprehensively rehearse the show flow, allow for rush hour traffic between the day and evening venues, devise in advance alternative plans B -> Z, and anticipate a thousand other logistical concerns. And every planner knows that, during every event, some things will not go according to plan. So we pride ourselves on dealing with the unexpected and coming up with creative solutions on the fly. That’s our job, and we (mostly) love doing it—otherwise we’d probably be doing something less stressful, e.g. open-heart surgery.
Aiming for perfection is totally appropriate for the logistical aspects of our meetings. But when applied to other aspects of our meeting designs—little things like, oh, satisfying meeting objectives—we end up with meetings that are invariably safe at the expense of effectiveness.
Perfect is the ideal defense mechanism, the work of Pressfield’s Resistance, the lizard brain giving you an out. Perfect lets you stall, ask more questions, do more reviews, dumb it down, safe it up and generally avoid doing anything that might fail (or anything important). —Seth Godin, Abandoning perfection
We took a risk on a less-than-perfect outcome at our PCMA Education Conference crowdsourcing experiment. “What if hardly anyone suggests a topic?” “What if one or more of the participant-chosen sessions turns out be a dud, or nobody shows up?” “Suppose we underestimate the popularity of a session, and the scheduled space is too small to hold it?” (In fact, due to the limited locations available, we had to hold several sessions in one large room, and there was some auditory overlap that had to be minimized by a quick seating rearrangement. Lesson learned for next time!)
This is a superior kind of learning—risky learning. We try new things with the certainty that we will learn something different. Perhaps we’ll learn something important that we would not have learned via a “safe” process. And we are prepared for the possibility to “fail” in ways that teach us something new and fresh about our process.
I’ve been running crowdsourcing of conference sessions for over twenty years. So I was confident that there would not be a shortage of session topic suggestions. But I had never before run crowdsourcing with 600+ participants. Could I get their input in 45 minutes? Would a small group be able to cluster all the suggestions in another 30 minutes, pick out juicy, popular topics, and then be able to find session leaders & facilitators and schedule all sessions before lunch?
We took a risk trying new things, and I appreciate the conference committee’s support in letting me do so. The end result was a great learning experience for the participants, both in the individual sessions offered and the experience of the process used to create them. And we learned a few things about how to make the process better next time.
How much risk?
So we need less perfection, more risky learning at our meetings. But how much risky learning should we incorporate into our events? There’s no one right answer to this question. Ultimately, you have to decide what level of risk you, your clients and your participants are willing to accept. A healthy discussion with all stakeholders will help ensure that everyone’s on board with what you decide. But, whatever your situation, don’t aim for perfection, or playing it safe.
Build as much risky learning as you can into your events. I think you’ll find the resulting outcomes will surprise and satisfy you.
What’s more important at a meeting: engagement or perfection?
To dance with customers in an act of co-creation: This is part of 37Signals’ secret. From their book to their blog to their clearly stated point of view about platforms and the way they do business, they invite customers to debug with them in an ongoing dialogue about finding a platonic ideal of utility software. They don’t promise perfect, they promise engagement. —Seth Godin, What is customer service for?
Sometimes you go to a meeting where not screwing anything up seems to be more important than anything else. Such meetings often execute impeccably—and yet something is missing.
Engagement is the heart and soul of a meeting. Cold perfection is admirable, but inhuman. When you are open to the unexpected, and dance with it rather than fight or deny it, you open your event to the possibility of participant engagement around human imperfections and marvelous opportunities that are always present when people meet.
Engagement or perfection? Don’t promise perfect, promise engagement.