Why digital tools aren’t always the right choice for events

Every day I receive a barrage of pitches for event technologies. Each one markets digital tools, like apps for marketing, registration, venue booking, staffing, sponsorship, engagement, etc. Newcomers to the meeting industry who experience this onslaught could be forgiven for believing that digital software and hardware technologies are the only tools available and worth considering for meeting improvement.

Well…no.

The reason that digital tool marketing fills event professionals’ mailboxes and feeds is simply that there’s money to make by selling these technologies. Much more money than from tools like the participation techniques covered in my book The Power of Participation, which require either no “technology” at all or inexpensive tools like paper, Sharpies®, and Post-it® notes.

Yes, digital event technology has had a big positive impact on events. For example, no one (except the companies that printed them) regrets the demise of the massive printed conference guides that attendees had to drag around, most attendees appreciate the quantity and timeliness of information available on their mobile devices from well-designed event apps, and voting apps and throwable microphones allow greater interaction between presenters and audiences.

Nevertheless, in my experience, the human process tools I’ve been using and improving for the last twenty-five years provide more benefits more effectively (and, obviously, at lower cost) than current digital tools.

Let me illustrate with a current story taken from one of my earlier careers.

A massive difference
Before accidentally entering the meeting industry, I spent twenty-three years as an independent information technology consultant. During this period I was an active member of the global software development community and my friends included some of the leading practitioners of this challenging art.

Large software projects involve teams of programmers who work together to develop complex systems where a single error can have far-reaching consequences. Everyone makes mistakes, and one of the hardest tasks when developing software in teams is to implement design process that provides the required system functionality while minimizing flaws. Because the system implementation is constantly changing during development, continual software testing is an essential component of the whole process.

As you might expect, software developers are leading-edge creators of software tools. Sophisticated code repositories, automated testing suites, and complex project management tools are routinely used and constantly improved.

And yet, it turns out, some of the most important tools are not digital. Here’s an illustrative tweet from Mathew Cropper, an Irish software developer, and a follow-up response from Canadian consultant Dave Sabine.

“Last week we moved from a purely digital backlog to using a physical wall. The quality of conversation improved massively. It’s like talking with a different group of people.”
Mathew Cropper tweet

“If a team hasn’t yet tried a big, visible, physical wall of roadmaps/backlog/tasks… then any discussion about digital tools is like buying new tennis shoes in order to quit smoking.”
David Sabine tweet

The most sophisticated digital tools that money can buy are no match for a wall full of sticky notes!

Successful process for software development and meetings
There are many reasons why a wall of sticky notes is a useful and powerful tool for successful team software development and effective conference program crowdsourcing and engagement. Both human process environments thrive because a sticky note wall provides:

  • One place to easily capture every piece of information that any individual thinks is relevant;
  • A public display of information that many people can easily view simultaneously for as long as needed;
  • Simple public manipulation options, such as note clustering, inclusion/exclusion, ranking, and public modification;
  • Somewhere for appropriate people to document and discuss progress and develop and implement process; and
  • A natural focus for easy spontaneous conversation, communication, and creativity.

It’s hard for current digital tools to provide any of these benefits as simply and well. Let’s compare for each of the points above:

  • Information capture: Wall requires writing with pens on sticky notes. Digital tools require access to a digital device for each attendee plus the interface knowledge necessary to use it.
  • Public display: Wall requires a flat surface for notes. Digital tools require a BIG (expensive) screen.
  • Public manipulation options: At the wall simply pick up a note and move it. Digital tools would require a big touch screen plus some form of note-dragging interface. [aka Minority Report wizardry]
  • Document and discussing progress & implementing process: Wall layout can easily be repurposed/redesigned whenever needed to accommodate different process tools such as project management or ranking to-dos. Digital tools typically require specific process techniques to be precoded.
  • Focus for conversation, communication, and creativity: Walls provide all the above functionality simply and in ways accessible to any attendee. So they are natural foci for conversation, experimentation, and creativity. The barriers listed above for digital tools make them far less accessible for such purposes.

Given these significant advantages, coupled with much lower costs, it’s a shame that more conference organizers haven’t discovered the value of simple process tools like sticky note walls and are still seduced by the relentless marketing of digital tool suppliers. So to learn more about many other powerful human process tools and how to use them effectively, buy my “tool chest” book The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.

How to use dot voting to choose the sessions your attendees need and want

dot votingHow do we build conference programs that attendees actually want and need? Since 1992 I’ve experimented with multiple methods to ensure that every session is relevant and valuable. Here’s what happened when I incorporated dot voting into a recent two-day association peer conference.

Read the rest of this entry »

Facilitation tool: Capture sticky notes with Post-It Plus

Port-it® Plus
When facilitating, I often use sticky notes as a flexible tool that allows movement from individual work => small group work => a visual summary for an entire group. 3M has just released a useful free tool for iDevices running IOS 8, Post-It Plus, that organizes and documents the results of such activities, which otherwise tend to end up as untidy rolled-up sheets of flip-chart paper or hard-to-categorize digital photographs.

I ran a quick test of the app on a year-old flip-chart sheet with stick notes scattered hither and yon. Post-It Plus quickly identified all the notes (it superimposes a checkmark on each one it recognizes.) If a note is missed you can tap on it to expand it, adjust the edges, tap Done and the note will  be added to the collection. Once you’ve captured all the notes, you can create a Board that holds them.

But that’s just the start. Each Board can contain multiple Groups. Tap and hold a note to move it to a new Group. When you’ve categorized notes as desired, you can name your Boards and Groups appropriately and share them via iMessage, email, Twitter, and Facebook, or save them to your photo library, or export them to pdf, PowerPoint, Excel, or as an image. If you link the app to your paid Evernote account, you can use Evernote’s OCR capability to make all your notes searchable. Integration with other apps, like Dropbox, are also possible, though I didn’t explore this.

Before digital photography, sticky note process was essentially an in-the-moment facilitation tool. Today, even though it’s simple to capture images of a group’s wall work, manipulating the ideas shown afterwards is tedious and rarely done (well, to be honest, I never have taken the time to do so.)

Post-It Plus makes further categorizing and analysis of notes post-session just about as simple as possible. The sharing and export functions make it easy to communicate uncovered themes to others. I look forward to using this app to extract more value from the rich information exposed by group sticky note process. Post-It Plus is a tool with great potential—and you can’t beat the price!

Want to try out Post-It Plus? Download the free app here.

Pick the right sustainability battles at conferences

Simon Sinek 4657383798_a7761bfe79_o In 2011 Simon Sinek keynoted MPI’s World Education Congress. As I and thousands of attendees watched, he began to share his message by drawing a diagram on a flip chart pad. Almost as soon as Simon picked up his marker, people started tweeting that he was wasting paper.

At recent conferences I’ve been asked if I really need to have attendees work with sticky notes and flip charts. People ask, “Can’t they just talk to each other?” I’ve also encountered resistance to requests to print a few attendee tour photos for use in artifact-building exercises.

Let’s put these and similar requests in perspective.

I am a supporter of sustainable events. From 1978 – 1983 I managed a solar energy business, and didn’t do it for the money. I am glad that apps are rapidly making it unnecessary to print the vast quantities of schedules and vendor catalogs that we schlepped around in the past, applaud the installation (and flexibility) of electronic signage, and love the efforts to minimize the appalling food wastage we used to take for granted when running an event.

Yes I know that the flip chart sheets, note cards, and sticky notes produced during interactive exercises are rarely kept afterwards. But they are needed for the experience of creation. Writing something down, sketching, or drawing a diagram provide powerful alternative modalities for learning and sharing that we traditionally restrict to hearing and looking (which often, by the way, don’t translate into listening and seeing). The act of building these creations into an appropriate concrete event metaphor—like the cardboard box bridge participants constructed at the Green Meetings Industry Council’s 2014 Sustainable Meetings Conference—also increases the effectiveness of participants’ experience.

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Let’s take a quick look at the sustainability impact of using these materials at an event, using the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) approach. I’ve rounded off the figures, which I obtained from carbon footprint calculators available on the internet; smaller amounts are better.

  • Making and printing a single sheet of office paper: 10 grams CO2e
  • An average meal: 3,000 grams CO2e
  • Driving a Toyota Prius 300 miles to a conference: 70,000 grams CO2e
  • Flying from Boston to San Francisco: 750,000 grams CO2e

As you can see from these figures, the CO2e contributed by the modest use of sheets of flip chart paper and sticky notes at an event is insignificant compared to the carbon footprint of the meals and travel of a typical attendee. While we should work to use as little of these (recyclable) products as possible, our time would be better spent concentrating on reducing the much larger contributions to greenhouse gases caused by the food consumption and travel to and from our events.

Photo attribution: Flickr user centralasian and Bay Area Event Photography

From broadcast to learning in 25 minutes

GMIC2014 collab session Last week’s Green Meetings Industry Council’s 2014 Sustainable Meetings Conference opened with a one-hour keynote panel: The Value of Sustainability Across Brands, Organizations and Sectors. Immediately after the presentation, my task was to help over two hundred participants, seated at tables of six, grapple with the ideas shared, surface the questions raised, and summarize the learning and themes for deeper discussion.

Oh, and I had twenty-five minutes!

For a large group to effectively review and reflect on presented material in such a short time, we have to quickly move from individual work to small group work to some form of concrete visual summary that’s accessible to everyone. So here’s what I did.

1) My audience hadn’t moved for over an hour, and their brains had, to varying degrees, gone to sleep. So, for a couple of minutes, I had people stand, stretch, twist and do shoulder rolls.

2) Next, I summarized what we were about to do. I

      • Outlined the three phases of the exercise: a) working individually; b) sharing amongst the small group at their table, and c) a final opportunity to review everyone’s work in a short gallery walk.
      • Pointed out the tools available. Each table had a sheet of flip-chart paper (divided into a 2 x 2 matrix), 4 pads of different colored sticky notes, and a fine-tip sharpie for each person.

2014-04-15 14.41.30

      • Explained the four categories they would use for their responses. After introducing each category I asked a couple of pre-primed volunteers to share an example of their response with the participants.
        • REMINDERS. “These are themes with which you’re already familiar that the keynote touched on. You might want to include ideas you think are important. And you might want to include themes that you have some expertise or experience with. More on that in a moment. Write each REMINDER on a separate blue sticky note, which will end up in the top left square of the flip chart.”
        • SPARKS. “Sparks are inspirations you’ve received from the keynote; new ideas, new solutions that you can adopt personally, or for your organization, or at your meetings. Write your SPARKS on yellow sticky notes; they’ll go in the top right square.
        • QUESTIONS. “These are ideas that you understand that you have questions about. Perhaps you are looking for help with a question. Perhaps you think a question brought up by the keynote is worth discussing more widely at this event. Write your questions on a green sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom left square.
        • PUZZLES. “Puzzles are things you feel that you or your organization or our industry don’t really understand and need help with. Write your puzzles on a violet sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom right.”
      • Gave these instructions. “In a minute I’m going to give you about five minutes to work alone and create your REMINDERS, SPARKS, QUESTIONS, and PUZZLES. Don’t put your notes on the flip chart paper yet; we’ll do that communally soon. Any questions?” [There were none.] “Two final thoughts:
        • 1) Words are fine, but feel free to draw pictures or diagrams too!
        • 2) Consider adding your name to any of your notes. We’re going to display your notes on the wall over there. If you have expertise or experience of one of your themes, adding your name to your note will allow others who are interested in the topic to find you. If you have a question or puzzle you need help with, adding your name will allow others who can help to find you.”

3) I gave everyone five minutes to create their individual notes, asking them to shoot for a few responses in each category.

4) For the second phase of the exercise, I asked for each person to briefly explain their notes with the others at their table, placing on the appropriate quadrant of the flip chart as they did so. I allocated each person a minute for this, and rang a bell when it was time for the next person to begin.

5) The final phase was a gallery walk. I asked one person from each table to go and stick their flip chart page on a large blank meeting room wall. Once done, I invited everyone to go to the gallery and explore what we had created together.

Here’s one end of the resulting sharing wall.

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6) Later that evening I had a small number of subject matter experts cluster the themes they saw. (If I had had more time, I would have had all the participants work on this together during my session.) The resulting clusters were referred to throughout the conference for people to browse and use as a resource. Here’s a picture, taken later, showing the reclustered items in our “sharing space”.

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Even when time is short, an exercise like this can quickly foster huge amounts of personal learning, connection (via the table work and named sticky notes), and audience-wide awareness of interests and expertise available in the room. I believe that reflective and connective processes like this should be used after every traditional presentation session to maximize its value to meeting participants.