“Those doing the work are often the only ones who really understand the context. Leadership is helping build the structure and then protecting the space to do meaningful work.“ —Harold Jarche, work in 2018
I’ve been promoting the Conferences That Work meeting format for so long that some people assume I think it’s the right choice for every meeting. Well, it’s not. Here are (drum roll!) two meeting types and three situations when you should NOT use a Conferences That Work design:
Most corporate events
Many corporate events have a tight focus. Management have desired outcomes for the meeting: e.g. developing new products and services, communicating changes in company strategic goals, training and incentivizing sales teams, implementing successful product launches, etc. The function of such meetings is primarily top-down: effectively communicate management objectives, answer questions, and get employee buy-in. Fixed agenda corporate meetings are not a good fit for peer conference designs. Why? Because they are predominantly about one-way broadcast-style communication. Participants are there to listen and learn rather than to determine what’s individually useful to them or to build intra-company connections.
Special events involve a mixture of entertainment, celebration, and raising money. While some may include impromptu participant involvement, they concentrate on creating a wonderful experience for attendees. Special events are carefully choreographed in advance and participant interaction is generally limited to the traditional social forms of meals and parties. So they are not a good fit for the spontaneous generation of topics, themes, and participant-determined process that peer conference designs generate.
When simultaneously scheduled alongside traditional meeting formats
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen this mistake made … well … that would pay the bill for a very nice dinner out.
When time is short
Participant-driven and participation-rich events are messy and, by the standards of a content-dump-into-listeners-ears event, relatively inefficient. You can share some good information in a ten-minute talk. (Even if most of the audience will have forgotten it a month later.) Try to build connections and learning in a group of a hundred people in ten minutes, however? Little of any significance is going to happen in such a short time.
Valuable peer learning and connection takes time. It’s worth it. If you don’t have enough time, a peer conference isn’t like a podcast you can speed up and still understand. Schedule the time actually needed for the process to work and wonderful things will happen. Shortchanging the time, guarantees frustrated and unhappy attendees.
When a meeting is significantly about status rather than learning and connection
Sadly, in my view, some meetings are primarily about asserting and demonstrating status. Government, political, and, to a lesser extent, academic conferences often fall into this category. If your conference attendees come from a culture where power and influence is firmly controlled by the people in charge, a Conferences That Work meeting design will be a poor fit. A format that does not reinforce their dominance threatens high status individuals.
So when should you use the Conferences That Work design?
I thought you’d never ask. If you have all attendees’ attention and enough time to for the process to work (see above), a Conferences That Work meeting design is a fantastic (I would argue, the best) approach for meetings of communities of practice (this link explains in detail what communities of practice are). That includes all conferences, colloquia, congresses, conventions, and symposia.
Association and client conferences are clear candidates for Conferences That Work. You can easily integrate traditional conference elements into the design, like keynotes, up-to-the-minute research findings, recognition ceremonies, and social events, etc.
You can make existing conferences more participant-driven and participation-rich by carefully incorporating peer conference process into future events. Over the years I have helped many associations successfully make this transition.
But the best time to implement Conferences That Work is at a brand-new conference! (A good example is the edACCESS peer conference, now in its 26th year, and still going strong.) Why? Because people typically create new conferences when they find the need to meet for a new purpose. At that moment in time, invariably, there are no obvious experts to invite. Opening with a peer conference design allows a group of relative strangers with a common interest to make fruitful connections and learn productively about and from the expertise and experience in their midst. The experience is so powerful, that I don’t know of a group that has decided to stop using the format.
“Best” is context-specific, a matter of opinion, and transitory. So, there will always be a next best thing.
When we use “best” dishonestly, we ignore one or more of these realities. We appeal to status, implying that our “best” thing is absolutely best, transcending environment, viewpoint, and the passage of time.
Claiming the highest status for our “best” thing preys on our audience’s fears by offering a simplistic solution. “Believe us, buy this, and Bingo! You can stop worrying that you might have made a mistake!”
Sure, when aware of environmental and personal context, it’s fine to make an in-the-moment judgment that some thing or course of action is the best of multiple alternatives (be sure there are at least three!) We do this all the time.
But when we simply slap on a “Best” label we are selling comforting feelings disguised as our product or service.
Ultimately, what’s important is to continuously strive to be the best, not for the sake of being best, but from a genuine desire to provide the best value / outcomes / opportunities for one’s organization or clients. Rather than feeling proud under the illusion that you are the “best”, work to be proud of your own efforts and achievements (including the learning that occurs when things don’t go according to plan or you take a risk that doesn’t pan out.)
Live with the knowledge that “best”, while well worth pursuing, is a moving fluid target. Remember, there will always be a next best thing.
I’ve just returned from a wonderful 48-hour whirlwind of experiments and play with 30 meeting designers in Utrecht, The Netherlands. We came from Europe, South America, Slovakia, and the U.S. (me) to learn, share, and connect at the first Meeting Design Practicum, hosted by Eric de Groot and his merry gang. Here are nine learnings from the first Meeting Design Practicum
Similar in spirit to the many EventCamps held around the world since 2010, the Practicum was a safe place for event professionals to experiment with techniques, approaches, ideas, and formats without the obligation and pressure of a “successful” outcome for a paying client. We met informally at an ancient Dutch fort, cooked meals together, did our own housekeeping, and quickly built an intimate community with connections that will continue to reverberate into the future.
I can’t give a complete survey of everything that happened at the Practicum. For one thing, I couldn’t attend every Practicum session because we often had to choose between simultaneous sessions. In addition, some of the important take-aways were already familiar to me, so I don’t include them here. Rather, I’ll share new insights that I made an impression on me during our three days together. I apologize for not attributing them to specific people; suffice it to say that every single participant brought important insights and contributions to our gathering.
One of the great concepts Eric & Mike van der Vijver introduced in Into The Heart of Meetings was that of modeling portions or an entire event on the familiar format of what they call Elementary Meetings—such as weddings, legal trials, birth celebrations, etc. The Practicum provided several examples of this.
Our journey through the event was mapped onto a large wall “tree”, with our influences mapped onto the roots at the start, and our learnings added as leaves to the branches as the Practicum progressed.
Participants had the opportunity to share a single short meeting design tip/trick. This was mapped onto the magic competitions of Asterix and Obelix where druids demonstrated their magic to the tribes. On several occasions, those of us offering magic disappeared into a small room, only to reappear wearing impressive druid beards. One at a time, introduced by a flourish played on a trumpet we shared our tips. At the end of the Practicum we chose the most useful tip. The winner, Victor Neyndorff, took home the golden snouieknife (sp?).
Metaphors provide powerful ways to communicate, and I find them surprisingly difficult to discover. A delightful and effective metaphor for meeting design was shared early in the Practicum. Seeing the meeting designer as a gardener maps so many aspects of meeting design process onto the familiar act of gardening that enumerating the parallels is left as an exercise for the reader.
From 2007-8 I was a participant in a year-long leadership workshop held over a dozen weekends. For our last meeting we were asked to bring a personal object and share its meaning and relevance to what we had learned and our experience. I found this a moving and bonding experience, as we told our stories, each linked to an object that we held in our hands or placed at the center of our group.
The Practicum reminded me of this format, thanks to a session on using objects at events. We concentrated on using individual objects with attributes that evoked a desired event theme, message, or mindset. One interesting aspect of this approach is that you could use it to replace the common practice of saturating the event environment with theme/message decor. Imagine—no more branded cocktail napkins needed! Another interesting suggestion was the use of two or more interacting objects: e.g. a mirror ball together with lights held by participants.
Improving a traditional presentation with closing Q&A
Instead of moving straight into Q&A after a presentation, provide a short time for participants to share possible questions in small groups. This helps introverts get their just-as-good-as-anyone-else questions out. It also provides a check for those wondering whether their question is a good one, or optimally phrased.
“Never trust a leader who doesn’t dance at the event party”
I’ll let this stand without comment, except to say my experience bears this out.
A good question for pair-share
“What motivates you the most?” An excellent question for energizing participants by reconnecting them with their personal passion.
Working with status-conscious leaders at events
Some leaders are heavily invested in their personal status. At events, they may insist on speaking at length to everyone, even though the audience may widely consider their talk is a waste of time. We discussed this issue at one of the four Practicum “challenge sessions”. One possible solution suggested was to elevate the leader’s status, for example, by adding a short well-produced video showing the leader to best advantage. Then the leader may accept more interactive and interesting formats, such as an interview by key participants with preplanned questions.
Relief from discomfort
My philosophy when facilitating is to bring participants as gently as possible into situations or experiences that may be uncomfortable, but are needed to satisfy desired outcomes. During the Practicum we went through “a Maori discussion format”. We found an issue on which our group was roughly equally divided and, with the two groups standing facing each other, took turns arguing for our point of view using the format “YOU think that… WE think that…”
I found the format artificial and uncomfortable (not least because none of us had any idea of what the other members in our group actually thought). What was interesting to me was the next step, when we all came together, sharing hugs and reconnecting across the groups, followed by a debrief where we all lay down and spoke about the experience when we felt we had something to say (rather like a Quaker Meeting). The relief felt after the “confrontation” was much stronger than if we had used a less confrontational discussion format. The experience made me think that there may be times when it’s worth increasing the discomfort at some points of event process to improve post-discomfort bonding.
On the last evening of the Practicum, we piled into cars for a mystery outing. Our destination was revealed to be an Escape Room, or rather three Escape Rooms.
We had an opportunity to cooperatively solve (or watch others solve) a myriad of physical and mental problems in order to either escape from a room or, in my case, to compete against another team in an identical room. I had heard about these rooms but never experienced one before. For a group to solve the puzzles, members had to communicate effectively with each other. Our group worked fairly independently, calling out or showing findings to the other members as we found clues and objects needed to increase our score or unlock further puzzles. I heard afterwards that our competitors were less effective at listening to each other, which is why we ended up “winning”. Video cameras watched us as we worked, though the staff told us that the video would stay private.
I had fun working with my six first-time teammates!
The Escape Room experience is an effective way to expose existing or potential communication problems in a group. It could be debriefed afterwards using video of the session. However, it might be a rather negative experience, as there’s certainly potential for intra-team conflict. So I’m not sure if it’s an optimum environment for team building.
I’ve shared nine learnings from the first Meeting Design Practicum that this unique event uncovered. As always, reading about an experience is a pale ghost of the experience itself. Just as important was the opportunity to reconnect and deepen relationships with old friends, and make some wonderful new connections. I hope that Eric and Co will do this again; I will be among the first to sign up!
The problem with many conferences is that limited, unchangeable status is frozen into the event structure. The people who have high status are the ones who have been predetermined to be at the front of the room. Everyone else is just one of the lower-status crowd.
The beauty of a peer conference is that it provides many more opportunities for each participant to be high-status some of the time. The Conferences That Work opening roundtable format guarantees that everyone gets a short time (the same amount for each person) at the front of the room. During the event, you can be a learner (lower status) one moment and a teacher (higher status) the next. And it’s far more likely that expertise or experience you have that others value will be recognized and turned into a learning experience for others.
Let’s be clear—peer conferences don’t impose similar status on everybody. An industry veteran is likely to spend more time in higher-status situations than the novice first-time participant. But a peer conference makes no initial assumptions about who has something to offer, and I’ve seen plenty of situations where an industry novice turns out to have valuable contributions to make from her prior experience in another field.
Isn’t a conference format where everyone gets to be appropriately high-status once in a while healthier than one where a tiny minority get it all? I think so, (and thousands of evaluations back me up!)
Here’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.
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.
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?