How to run The Solution Room online

run The Solution Room online

The most popular of the in-person sessions I design and facilitate is The Solution Room (here are some testimonials). The 90 – 120 minute session, for 20 – 600 people, engages and connects participants, and provides just-in-time peer support and answers to their most pressing professional challenges. These days, wouldn’t it be great to run The Solution Room online? Well you can!

I’ve described in detail how to run The Solution Room at in-person meetings in my last two books: The Power of Participation & Event Crowdsourcing. The latter has the most up-to-date instructions, but either book should suffice. (Don’t have a copy? For the price of a sandwich you can buy either ebook.) So this post covers just the changes you’ll need to make to hold this highly rated plenary session on an online/virtual platform.


To run The Solution Room online you’ll need:

  • An online platform with seats for all attendees, plus a private/breakout room for each solution table. In this post I’ll use Zoom to illustrate. The number of breakout rooms will depend on the table size (typically six to eight people; see the book). For example, to run The Solution Room with 100 people and a table size of seven, you’ll need 15 breakout rooms.
  • A Solution Room facilitator, plus a couple of staff to assist with table groupings/support, and timing announcements.
  • If you’re dividing participants into heterogeneous groups (the best choice in my opinion), a method of capturing the number of participants and each participant’s number of “years of experience”. You can use a shared Google Sheet for this, like the embedded one below. 
    The above sheet includes a formula that automatically counts the number of people who have entered their name, making it easy to determine how many breakout groups will be needed. It also calculates participants’ grand total of years of experience. Feel free to use a copy for your session, enlarged if necessary.
  • A way for each participant to create a mindmap or other illustration of their current professional challenge that can be shared with the other members of their table. For example, you can ask participants:
    • To have some paper and colored pens on hand to draw their mindmap. This is the simplest and safest option. The resulting drawing can be held up to the camera during the table breakout.
    • To use any drawing program on their computer to create their mindmap. Participants can then share their screen window with the drawing when it’s their turn for a consultation.
  • Campfire and jungle images for the comfort level spectrogram, open in windows for sharing on your online platform.
  • If you’d like to display participants’ before and after comfort levels with their challenge and/or the likelihood they’ll work to overcome the challenge they shared, you can use an online polling tool like Poll Everywhere. Note that you won’t be able to do the dramatic before/after move comparisons online.

How to run The Solution Room online

Opening the session

The Solution Room facilitator follows the “How?” section of the relevant chapter in The Power of Participation (Chapter 34) or Event Crowdsourcing (Chapter 23) with the following modifications.

In advance of the session, ask participants to have available a method of creating a drawing to share with their small group. Provide detailed options, so they know how they’re going to create their drawing and how they’ll share it.

Before starting, have your staff check that every participant is displaying their name in the participant list.

Introduce The Solution Room, and provide the link to the shared Google Sheet years-of-experience sheet (here’s my sample Sheet). Ask participants to think of their challenge, and then enter their Zoom name in the column headed by their number of years of experience.

Once everyone has entered their years of experience, your staff can calculate the number of breakout rooms needed. While you continue, staff pre-assigns participants to breakout room tables using the information in the Google Sheet.

An example of table assignment, using the sample Google Sheet

The sample Google Sheet contains twenty participants. So if we are using a table size of seven, we will need three breakout rooms. Your staff will, therefore, go through the Sheet from the left, down each column, and then to the right, assigning each participant a number between 1 and 3. F0r the example, the three tables will be:

#1: Julio Melia, Marvin Brentwood, Elizabeth Strong, Gurdeep Mac, Liliana Hoffman, Ivor Rennie, Zahrah Valenzuela

#2: Harold Kormann, Fergus Roth, Khi Suliman, Bayley Sims, Arian Faulkner, Alayah Hurley, Adrian Segar, Tyriq Kenny

#3: John Smith, Mario Fernandez, Selina Hatherton, Malaika Byers, Inigo Tyler

Each table contains a mixture of years of experience, from novice to veteran.

The comfort spectrogram

Run the comfort spectrogram, sharing your campfire and jungle images at the appropriate times. If you have a polling instrument, ask each participant to rate their pre-exercise comfort level on working on their challenge on a scale of 1 (extremely uncomfortable) to 10 (perfectly comfortable) and to enter their rating. No polling instrument? Simply ask them to remember their rating.

Running mindmapping

While everyone is still together, give the mindmapping instructions and give participants a few minutes to create their drawings. Ask participants to turn off their camera, raise their hand, or provide some other signal that they have finished. Tell them they can use private chat with the facilitator or staff if they have any questions.

When it’s time for table sharing to start, provide the instructions for table sharing. Answer any questions, and then move participants to their breakout room tables, or tell them their table number and have them move themselves.

Use broadcast messages to provide the midway, two-minute, and time’s up announcements. At the start of the last sharing round, remind tables with one empty seat to use the time for additional consulting.

Ask everyone to thank their table colleagues for their advice and support. Allow a couple of minutes for this, and then bring everyone back together.

Running the closing spectrogram(s)

Display the jungle and campfire images and run the second comfort spectrogram. If using a polling instrument, compare the pre- and post- comfort distributions. Otherwise you can ask people to raise their hand for three options in turn: their comfort level increased, stayed the same, or decreased.

If desired, run the likelihood that participants will work to overcome the challenge they just shared.

Finally, if you have time and the inclination, take some sharing about the exercise, using an appropriate “who goes next” protocol.

That’s it! If you run The Solution Room online, please feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

How to improve your facilitation: an example

improve your facilitationHow can you improve your facilitation practice? Here’s an example that illustrates what I do: a mixture of continual improvement, lifelong learning, and Kaizen.

An example from The Solution Room

I’ve been facilitating The Solution Room, a popular plenary session, for 10 years. It’s a 90 – 120 minute session that engages and connects attendees, and provides peer-supported advice and support for a current professional challenge chosen by each participant. Participants routinely evaluate the session as a highly helpful and valuable experience.

Over the years I have made numerous small improvements to The Solution Room. Here’s the process I use, developed intuitively over time, illustrated with a recent tweak.


Obviously, if you’re going to improve what you do you need to practice. Each time I run The Solution Room is an opportunity to implement any new ideas gleaned from the previous time I ran it. Even if I don’t have any changes to make, practice typically makes my delivery and the consequent session a little better.


Noticing stuff that’s happening is a key component of learning from experience.

During The Solution Room, each participant has a turn facilitating exploration and support of another participant at their table. While preparing everyone for this phase, I verbally share a set of directions on how to do this. Here they are:

  1. Read the challenge that is in front of you out loud.
  2. Start asking questions of the person whose challenge it is to clarify the issue. If necessary, encourage everyone at the table to join in to ask clarifying questions and give advice and support.
  3. Take notes of the ensuing discussion on the paper in front of you.

While running recent Solution Rooms I noticed that table facilitators had no problem implementing #1 and #2, but #3, the note taking, was sometimes skipped during the intense discussion that followed each challenge presentation.


Now I’ve noticed something that could be improved, it’s time to respond. “Respond” means think about what I might be able to do to make my process better.

Typically, for me, this involves musing over a period of time on what I noticed. (I typically run five or six Solution Rooms a year, so there’s no big time pressure to implement a change.) I’ve found this works best when I don’t immediately fixate on the first idea I get. Coming up with three or more options seems to lead to the best outcomes.

I considered rephrasing my instructions, emphasizing the importance of the note taking in some way beforehand or during the “rounds” of peer consulting. Finally I had the idea of creating a laminated card with the instructions on each table, and asking table members to pass the card around to each consultation facilitator in turn.


The next step then is to implement my potential improvement. For The Solution Room, I need to create the instruction cards and modify my instructions to participants so they remember to pass the card to the next facilitator.


At the next opportunity, I test my change, by implementing it and noticing what happens.


Continual improvement needs an action loop. We go back to practicing, noticing…

Conclusion: Improve your facilitation practice!

I hope this continual improvement practice I’ve shared helps you improve the quality and effectiveness of your facilitation. Do you have your own approach to improving what you do? Share your ideas in the comments below!

When the audience can’t stop talking about what they did

When the audience can't stop talking about what they didLast 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.”

Because, it’s not about me.

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.]

The Secrets Behind Conference Engagement

Secrets Behind Conference Engagement

So you’re holding a conference. How are you going to get your audience tuned in and engaged?

Read the rest of this entry »

Two powerful ways to open a conference

Two powerful ways to open a conferenceHere are two powerful ways to open a conference.

If we’re creating conferences primarily for the benefit of attendees, rather than organizers/sponsors/presenters/etc.—yes, I know, it’s a radical concept—what are good things to do during the opening after the customary welcome and housekeeping? Although the answer depends on conference scope, desired outcomes,  group composition, time available, and so on there are two approaches I find especially useful. (My books cover these and several other openings in detail.)

After agreeing on ground rules—essential in my view before doing group work—here’s an outline of two techniques I use extensively:

The Three Questions

Three questions:

  • “How did I get here?”
  • “What do I want to have happen?”
  • “What expertise or experience do I have that others here might find useful?”

are printed on a large card given to each person. I explain that they cannot answer these questions incorrectly, share some examples of answers, allow participants few minutes to answer them in writing on their card, and then give everyone in turn the same amount of time to share their answers with the group. You can run The Three Questions in small groups, or with as many as 60 people in a roundtable. For large groups it’s important to break up the sharing every 20 minutes. Run activities at each break that help group members learn more about the group.

The Three Questions make a clean break with the convention that at conferences most people listen and few speak. They publicly uncover a rich stew of ideas, themes, desires, and questions that is bubbling in peoples’ minds. And they expose the collective resources of the group—the expertise and experience that may be brought to bear on the concerns and issues that have been expressed.

(Want to learn more and can’t wait for my new book? My first book has all the details you’ll need to run The Three Questions at your next event.)

The Solution Room

The Solution Room is an opening conference session, typically lasting between 90 and 120 minutes. It both engages and connects participants and provides peer-supported advice on their most pressing challenges. By facilitating peer interaction and consultation at the start of an event, The Solution Room creates a conference environment that embodies participation, peer learning, and targeted problem solving. By the end of the session, every participant has had the opportunity to receive advice and support on a challenge of their choosing.

A session of 20 or more people starts with a short introduction, followed by a human spectrogram that demonstrates the amount of experience available in the room. Next, we give participants some time to think of a challenge for which they would like peer advice. A second human spectrogram follows which maps participants’ comfort level.

Participants are then divided into small equally-sized groups of between six and eight people. Each group shares a round table covered with flip chart paper and plenty of colored markers. Group members then individually describe their challenge on the paper in front of them using mindmapping. Each participant gets equal time to explain their issue and receive advice and support from their table peers.

When sharing is complete, two final human spectrograms close the session. They provide a public group evaluation that maps the shift in comfort level of all the participants and the likelihood that participants will work to change what they’ve just shared.

Try ’em!

Both of these two powerful ways to open a conference allow people to learn about each other and connect around issues that are personally/professionally meaningful. In my experience, they lead to much more powerful and authentic participant engagement than the generic “icebreakers” (hate that term!) typically used.

The Solution Room—an introductory video

The talented graphic facilitator Kristine Nygaard of Kiss the frog, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at FRESH 2013, has created a delightful one-minute video introducing The Solution Room, a plenary session I facilitate for 20 – 300 people that engages and connects participants, and provides just-in-time peer support and answers to their most pressing professional problems. Thanks Kristine!


The Solution Room—a powerful conference session

Solution Room

There’s been a lot of interest in The Solution Room, a session that I co-facilitated last July at Meeting Professionals International World Education Congress in Orlando, Florida. It is one of the most popular sessions I’ve facilitated at conferences this year. So here’s some information about the session…oh, and don’t miss the two-minute video of participant testimonials at the end of this post!

History of The Solution Room

Ruud Janssen explains that the original concept was co-created onsite at Meeting Professionals International’s 2011 European Meetings & Events Conference by Linda PereiraMiranda IoannouMidori ConnollyRobert BenningaMike van der VijverSimon Bucknall, David Bancroft Turner, and Ruud himself. Ruud produced a short video of the original session, as well as a longer video of participant testimonials.

Minimum resources

  • A facilitator trained in running The Solution Room.
  • Enough round tables seating 6-8 people for every participant to have a seat.
  • Flip chart paper that completely covers the tables, a plenty of colored markers at each table
  • Sufficient clear space in the room to hold a one-dimensional human spectrogram for all participants

Brief description

The Solution Room is a powerful conference session, which not only engages and connects attendees, but also provides peer-supported advice on their most pressing problems. It typically lasts between 90-120 minutes, and can handle hundreds of participants. A session of 20 or more people starts with a short introduction followed by a human spectrogram that demonstrates the amount of experience available in the room. Participants are then given some time to think of a challenge for which they would like to receive peer advice. A second human spectrogram then maps participants’ comfort level.

Next, the facilitator divides participants into small groups of 6-8 people. Each group shares a round table covered with flip chart paper and plenty of colored markers. The group members individually mindmap their problem on the paper in front of them. Each participant then gets a fixed time to explain their challenge to their table peers and receive advice and support.

Finally there’s a public group evaluation. Two human spectrograms map the shift in comfort level of all the participants and the likelihood that participants will try to change what they’ve just shared.

A two-minute video of testimonials from my Solution Room session at the 2011 Meeting Professionals International World Education Conference in Orlando, Florida

Photo attribution: Flickr user tnoc