It’s not an entrance it’s a layer

At a Marlboro Music Festival rehearsal last week, I heard the words entrance and layer used in a single sentence. And it made me think about meeting design.

entrance layer
Marcy Rosen, right, leads a rehearsal

The rehearsal

On August 8, my wife and I attended a rehearsal of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132 at the 2021 Marlboro Music Festival. Such free rehearsals give the casual audience an opportunity to hear world-class musicians play and learn together. They are very different from a formal concert, and surprisingly, in some ways, better!

After the start of (I think) the third movement, the players stopped, and I heard the cellist Marcy Rosen — “one of the intimate art’s abiding treasures” — say:

“It’s not an entrance, it’s a layer.”
—Cellist Marcy Rosen

They began again.

I heard the difference.

Instead of creating a transition, an entrance to the movement, they created a shimmering context, a layer.

And, me being me, I thought about what Marcy had just said in the context of meeting design.

It’s not an entrance it’s a layer

As spectators, our lives are full of transitions.

And meetings are no exception.

The session ends. A social begins. A chime marks the end of hallway conversations, and we walk to another room to listen to someone else.

When we’re spectators, we notice transitions.

But when we are fully engaged in a meeting, we are just there, immersed in and responding to what is happening. We aren’t looking at our watches or phones. We aren’t thinking about where we’ll go for lunch. Instead, we are in the moment, living in a layer of context.

The art and craft of the meeting designer

It’s a meeting designer’s job to create these contextual layers. Each layer is an environment that supports and enables full participation in and active experience of what’s going on.

A good example of a key meeting layer is safety.

A layer of safety

We don’t hold meetings in burning buildings, on rapidly melting ice floes, or in the middle of a sandstorm. Attendees want to feel safe. But even when our meeting venues are conventionally safe places, they may not feel emotionally safe for attendees to participate in what is going on.

A good meeting designer and facilitator knows this, and designs to create and support emotional safety for participants. For example, they may model participation throughout the event, and allow participants to opt out of any activity. They can also create a culture of listening, obtain agreement on group-wide covenants, strive to give clear instructions, and provide process that is comfortable for introverts.

Designs that incorporate optimal protective process provide an important layer of safety that maximizes participants’ levels of comfort and their readiness to participate in the event.

Other important layers at a meeting

Other important process layers at a meeting include:

  • Incorporating event crowdsourcing which allows participants to design the event and sessions they want and need; and
  • The design of the conference arc, which includes everything necessary for participants to discover, learn, connect, and engage around the topics or issues that brought them together.

And the traditional layers that professional meeting planners provide:

  • Consistent quality of service and experience, e.g., food and beverage, decor, and production;
  • Reliable, timely, and clear information about the program, sessions, meals, exhibits, and socials.
  • A comfortable physical environment throughout the event.

Focus on layers as well as transitions

Sometime, meeting stakeholders concentrate on the transitions at meetings at the expense of the layers. It’s tempting to focus on creating dramatic build-ups to peak moments, or how we will then move participants to an outdoor social. While a session or social is taking place, we may get a little breathing space. Our planning energy switches to preparing for the next transition.

Of courser, transitions during a meeting are both unavoidable and important. But unduly focusing on them at your event can lead planners to overlook the value of creating an environment that powerfully engages participants and builds significant connections between them.

By also focusing on the meeting layers I’ve identified above, you’ll create an improved environment that will amplify value for participants and stakeholders throughout and after your event.

Image attribution: Journal Register Co.

Lessons from my association leadership transitions

association leadership transitions In June I’m stepping down as President and Executive Director of edACCESS, an association I co-founded 25 years ago. This is the third time I’ve left an association leadership position. Here are some valuable lessons learned from these association leadership transitions.

The Solar Association of Vermont

Although the rapid growth of the solar energy industry may appear to be a recent phenomenon, North American boomers will remember the late 70’s and early 80’s when the 1979 “oil-crisis” hit and interest in alternative energy generation soared. I moved to Vermont in 1978 and joined the management of a fledging solar hot water manufacturing business. After a couple of years, I helped to found the Solar Association of Southern Vermont. Eventually we became the Solar Association of Vermont (SAVE!) We’d hold monthly meetings in the tiny rural town of Brattleboro and sixty people would show up. SAVE went on to produce many of the earliest alternative energy conferences in the United States.

But in the 80’s Reagan was elected. He removed the solar collectors that a colleague of mine had installed on the White House. By the mid-80’s oil prices had returned to pre-crisis levels. Interest in solar energy dried up and SAVE meeting attendance shrank to a few people.

What did we do?

We shut SAVE down.

We held a big end-of-the-association party, inviting everyone who had been part of this brief flowering of community interest. Little did we know that our work would set the stage for the meteoric rise of solar photovoltaic systems today.

Lessons

As time passes, the key motivations for an association’s existence can transmute, or even disappear. I’ve worked with hundreds of associations, and seen some continue to struggle on long after their mission has become irrelevant. Check regularly that your association’s mission remains congruent with its circumstances. If not, change your mission or your operations to stay relevant. Or, if necessary, close up shop (not forgetting to celebrate all your good work if you do!)

A local association

After a number of years serving as a board member of a local chapter of a national association, the board offered me the presidency. The national was recommending that chapters fundamentally change the way they operated, a change I agreed with. I told the board that I would happily accept the presidency if we allocated the resources needed to make this transformation happen, arguing that the change would improve our financial resources by allowing us to significantly increase our community fundraising.

Unfortunately, the board refused to allocate the resources I requested.

Consequently I reluctantly turned down the presidency and left the board, as I did not want to lead an association whose board did not support the vision I had for its future.

Looking back on the subsequent evolution of the association, I don’t regret my decision, though I wish I’d been better able to convince the board that my approach was a better alternative to staying with the status quo.

Lessons

Before taking an association leadership role, share your vision for the future and make sure the rest of the association buys into it. If they don’t, don’t take the job!

edACCESS

In 1991 I co-founded edACCESS, a 501(c)6 that supports information technology staff at small schools. Initially, I had a professional interest in the organization’s mission for many years and served for free. As my consulting focus shifted increasingly towards meeting design, I moved into a paid part-time executive director role.

In May, I decided to give up the position, with the goal of making the handover to new leadership as smooth as possible. I announced my intent at the June annual conference and offered to stay for a year in a supervisory role, coaching new leadership as needed.

The existing leadership handled my announcement very well. I told them I would provide any desired assistance and advice around leadership changes, but felt it was important not to be intimately involved in ongoing decisions. I was gratified by the response, which to me reflects the fundamental health of the association I helped to create.

As I write this, the transition is going well. The full year’s notice will allow me to take new and existing leadership through an entire life cycle of core association process. I am confident that the association will be in good shape when I leave.

Lessons

I have seen (and experienced) a number of associations that were severely stressed by the sudden departure of leadership and the total lack of any leadership succession planning. To be honest, edACCESS is small enough that we did not have a formal plan in place. I am glad I have the flexibility to offer what will hopefully be sufficient time and support to allow the association to continue effectively carrying out its mission. Don’t assume that key association staff or board members, will stay with the organization for ever, or give you ample warning before they depart! Pre-emergency planning for leadership, staffing, and succession will minimize the turmoil that can be generated without warning when key personnel leave unexpectedly.

Association leadership transitions

Have you made association leadership transitions? What lessons have you learned that others may value? Share in the comments!

Photo attribution: Flickr user by_andy