Successful event outcomes, strange web traffic, and the psychology of motivation

better event outcomesUnderstanding the psychology of motivation can help us create better event outcomes. I’ll illustrate with a story about strange traffic on this very web site…

The other day, I noticed a weird periodic surge of interest in one of my blog posts. Every January 1, page views for this post—but no other—spiked way up and stayed high for 7 – 10 days. Then they went back to normal year-round levels.

It took some head scratching before I finally realized what was going on. The article describes an obscure method for quickly deleting all emails on Apple devices—something Apple didn’t make easy until recently. Apparently, every January thousands of people all over the world stare at the 6,000 emails stuck on their iPhones. They resolve that this is the time they’re finally going to clean them up. So they Google “delete mail”, find my highly ranked post (currently, out of 228 million results I’m #2) click on it and, voila, lots of page views.

Well, lots of page views for a week or so. Then, what I call the New Year’s Resolutions Effect becomes…well, ineffective. People forget about their New Year’s resolutions and go on with their lives.

Why we are so poor at keeping resolutions

Why are we so poor at keeping resolutions? While scientific research into the psychology of motivation doesn’t currently offer a definitive explanation, there are some plausible theories. One of them, nicely explained by psychologist Tom Stafford, is proposed by George Ainslie in his book Breakdown of Will (read a forty-page “précis” here).

As Tom puts it:

“…our preferences are unstable and inconsistent, the product of a war between our competing impulses, good and bad, short and long-term. A New Year’s resolution could therefore be seen as an alliance between these competing motivations, and like any alliance, it can easily fall apart.
Tom Stafford, How to formulate a good resolution

And to make a long story short, he shares this consequence of Ainslie’s theory:

“…if you make a resolution, you should formulate it so that at every point in time it is absolutely clear whether you are sticking to it or not. The clear lines are arbitrary, but they help the truce between our competing interests hold.”

For years, I’ve used this observation to create better event outcomes. Here’s what I do.

If you’ve done a good job, by the close of your event participants will be fired up, ready to implement good ideas they’ve heard and seen. This is prime time for them to make resolutions to make changes in their professional lives. So how can we maximize the likelihood they will make good resolutions—and keep them!

A personal introspective

Close to the end of my events I use a personal introspective to give every attendee an opportunity to explore changes they may want to make in their life and work as a result of their experiences during the conference. (For full details of how to hold a personal introspective, see my book The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.)

At the start of the personal introspective, each attendee writes down (privately) the changes they want to make. Before they do so, I explain a crucial question they will need to answer later in the process: “How will you know when these changes happen?” I give them several relevant examples of vague versus measurable goals and actions, like those below.

PI Goals and Actions 2

It turns out that including the question “How will you know when these changes happen?” and giving relevant examples beforehand is very important. If you don’t, I’ve learned that hardly anyone will come up measurable resolutions that make it crystal clear whether you are succeeding or not.

Even with the directions and support, some people find it very difficult to come up with measurable, time-bound answers. Which is one of the reasons why every personal introspective has a follow-up small group component. There, they can share and get help on their goals. But that’s material for another blog post.

Over the years I’ve received enough feedback about the effectiveness of personal introspectives to know they can be a powerful tool for better event outcomes. As predicted by the psychology of motivation, helping participants make specific, measurable, and time-bound resolutions that are easier to keep is a vital component.

Photo attribution: Flickr user chrish_99

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

One way to build a movement at a conference

USGBC success post-its

On Wednesday, I walked into our boardroom at USGBC for our Green Building & Human Health Summit and I got goose bumps.
—Rick Fedrizzi, CEO of the US Green Building Council

As a devotee of Conferences That Work, one of my greatest challenges and pleasures is creating “just-in-time” process that meets the evolving needs of an event. Here’s a great example of how creative process was used to support the building of a movement at a conference.

Last week I was invited to consult on a two day, one hundred participant “turning-point” summit for the US Green Building Council (USGBC) in Washington, DC. Good process was vital, because a much wider range of organizations had been brought together than at previous USGBC events in order to explore a major long-term expansion of the green building movement.

During the event we dreamed up a simple yet powerful exercise to uncover and communicate participant expectations for the meeting. I say “we”, because at least three members of the summit working group contributed to what became an effective and dramatic way to expose and share what participants saw as successful outcomes for the event. Here’s what happened:

What would success look like?
The summit was designed around a set of “shirtsleeve sessions”, where participants—after some short stimulating talks by expert “igniters”—divided into small groups to discuss three principle goals and formulate key strategies to address them. At a working group meeting at the end of the first day we had to decide how best to use thirty minutes that had been scheduled the following morning before the next shirtsleeve session. Someone proposed that we ask participants to share their answers to the question “What would success look like?” either from a personal or group perspective. The working group liked this idea, whereupon I suggested that answers be written on large sticky notes and displayed in a central location during the day. This allowed the group to view all the responses during breaks, rather than hearing just a few of them in the limited time available.

The participants liked this activity, and soon a large grid of answers had been posted on a lobby wall right outside the breakout rooms, available for all to see.

During the afternoon, another working group member had the bright idea to review and categorize the sticky notes’ contents. At a subsequent working group meeting we agreed that during the closing session she would briefly share seven groupings she had devised that covered just about all the definitions of success that participants had proposed:

  • A “trail map” for the future. During the event, one participant said the meeting was more like a base camp than a summit. The metaphor stuck, and we started thinking of our journey as an expedition that needs a trail map to be successful.
  • Inclusiveness. As the organization adjusted to working with a broader community of interest, issues of how to expand connections and social equity are important.
  • Public relations and messaging. Successfully framing USGBC’s messages so that people understand that choices they make in their home and business can enhance their family’s and employees’ health is key.
  • Standards. How do we emphasize and integrate knowledge and actions that improve well-being into existing standards?
  • Definition and valuation of health and well-being. We need to define and value health and well-being in USGBC’s and the related community’s mission.
  • Research. What do we know, what are the research gaps, and how can we obtain funding to fill them?
  • Paradigm shift. How do we get to a place where the green built environment is synonymous with health?

Building a movement
USGBC audience 2Providing summary feedback at the close of a “turning point” event is very important. Participants have put a lot of time and effort into their work together, and they need to feel heard and receive assurance that what has happened will lead to significant next steps.

At the USGBC summit, the complexity of the issues and constituencies involved, plus the reality that not all key players were able to attend, meant that detailed trail map outcomes would take some time to formulate.

The sharing of participant’s seven categories of success was, therefore, an important way for participants to feel heard and know that others shared their goals and aspirations. As a result, this simple focused sharing of major insights and common agreements became a key ingredient for “building a movement”, a phrase that was heard frequently during the high-energy closing session of the summit. After offering a next step communications plan and an impassioned closing speech by Rick Fedrizzi, USGBC’s CEO, many participants shared that they thought the summit would be looked back on as a milestone moment in the development of green building.

Photo attributions: US Green Building Council