Two ways to take a hard look at conference evaluations

evaluationSeth Godin wrote a great blog post about survey questions—and applying two of his insights will make any conference evaluation better.

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?

Design conferences for a connection economy

Connections_17204781164_e80dd1bc82_k
Useful knowledge increasingly resides in our social networks, not in our individual heads. Consequently, we are moving from an industrial economy to a connection economy: one which creates value by concentrating on building relationships rather than stuff.

In the connection economy, there’s a dividing line between two kinds of projects: those that exist to create connections, and those that don’t.
—Seth Godin, First, connect

Are your conferences designed for a connection economy or an industrial economy?

Photo attribution: Flickr user ch-weidinger

Measurable work—it’s a trap!

It's a trap!
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 have allowed scientific management principles to be applied 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

I’ve written elsewhere about why measurable outcomes aren’t always a good thing, and my skepticism that ROI can be measured in social media.

Nevertheless, Seth’s last sentence is worth repeating.

It’s not easy to be the person who does unmeasurable work, but is there any doubt that it’s worth it?

Mission Impossible

Mission Impossible 8477081649_e951df1931_oIf 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Make a plan. End/delegate/deprioritize the short term stuff that’s getting in the way. Set goals for your mission-related work.
  3. Carry out your plan. Sometimes this is the hardest step.
  4. 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.

Photo attribution: Flickr user taylor-mcbride

Recipe for better meetings: less perfection, more risky learning

London Underground sign
London Underground sign

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.

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, and 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.

Here’s what the guy I quote more than anyone else in this blog has to say on the topic of perfection:

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?” “What if 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 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.

So 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—and 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, and I think you’ll find the resulting outcomes will surprise and satisfy you.

Promise engagement at your meetings, not perfection

Man & woman dancing

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.

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Produce for a micro conference market

Lego_Dreamforce_02

Fifty years ago, producers and marketers got smart. They saw the miracle of mass marketing and they adopted it as their own. They amped up mass production and bet on the masses.
The smart creators today are seeing the shift and doing precisely the opposite:
Produce for a micro market.
Market to a micro market.
—Seth Godin, Mass production and mass media

Despite the status associated with big conferences, most meetings are small meetings. Whether by accident or design, in today’s world this is a good thing. The heyday of the large amorphous conference—where plenaries consist of well-known people trying to entertain or inspire you, meeting important people by chance is unlikely, and you’re uninterested in most of the sessions—is past.

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If you can’t sell it, you can’t build it. But.

Lego city 7373799876_60fc952ad6_k

Architecture students bristle when Joshua Prince-Ramus tells them that they are entering a rhetorical profession.
A great architect isn’t one who draws good plans. A great architect gets great buildings built.
Now, of course, the same thing is true for just about any professional. A doctor has to persuade the patient to live well and take the right actions. A scientist must not only get funded but she also has to persuade her public that her work is well structured and useful.
It’s not enough that you’re right. It matters if it gets built.
—Seth Godin, If you can’t sell it, you can’t build it

A great reminder from Seth, as usual.

But.

As a consultant you have no authority, only influence. And sometimes you will fail.

Even if you’re right and do an amazing selling job, sometimes you will fail.

Because sometimes it’s not about you, it’s about them.

If you can’t handle failure—having your great advice ignored—you won’t be consulting for long.

Photo attribution: Flickr user norio-nakayama

Conference size and “success”

audience at big conference 2805860205_18b3dd9dc3_oHere’s the beginning of a blog post by Seth Godin with every occurrence of the word “organization” replaced by the word “conference” and the word “traditional” added to the first sentence. I think it still works, don’t you?

As a [traditional] conference succeeds, it gets bigger.

As it gets bigger, the average amount of passion and initiative of the conference goes down (more people gets you closer to average, which is another word for mediocre).

More people requires more formal communication, simple instructions to ensure consistent execution. It gets more and more difficult to say, “use your best judgment” and be able to count on the outcome.

Larger still means more bureaucracy, more people who manage and push for conformity, as opposed to do something new.

Success brings with it the fear of blowing it. With more to lose, there’s more pressure not to lose it.

Mix all these things together and you discover that going forward, each decision pushes the conference toward do-ability, reliability, risk-proofing and safety.
—Seth Godin, Entropy, bureaucracy and the fight for great

Judging by their favorable evaluations, conferences that use the Conferences That Work format are highly successful. Yet they don’t grow significantly bigger, even though some of them have been held for years. Participants discover that effective intimate learning and connection that occurs requires a small event, and the maximum number of attendees is capped to ensure that the attractive conference environment isn’t lost by the consequences Seth describes.

Last week I spoke to a veteran of large medical conferences who bemoaned the time she had wasted attending such events. She told me that the talks were invariably on already-published work, with people presenting for status or tenure reasons. Apart from the schwag and meeting a few old friends, she did not enjoy or find her attendance productive and was looking forward to a much more rewarding experience from the small conference I was planning for her group.

Her comments are typical, in my experience. Unfortunately, the size of a conference is usually assumed to be a metric of its “success”. From the point of view of organizers and presenters this is true: the bigger the conference, the more status you receive. But from the point of view of the customers of the conference—the attendees—after 30+ years of attending and organizing conferences it’s clear to me, both from my own experience and from that of hundreds of attendees I’ve spoken to, that, all other things being equal, smaller well-designed conferences beat the pants off huge events in terms of usefulness and relevance.

What do you think? What redeeming factors make larger conferences better? Are these factors more important than the learning and connection successes that smaller conferences provide?

Photo attribution: Flickr user markizay

Attendance versus participation

“My philosophy is that it doesn’t pay to go to a conference unless you’re prepared to be vulnerable and meet people, and it doesn’t pay to go to a Q&A session unless you’re willing to sit in the front row…

There are more chances than ever to attend, but all of them require participation if you expect them to work.
—Seth Godin, On doing the work

Seth, I couldn’t have said it better.