Since 2012, I’ve had the privilege of designing and facilitating the annual Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future Peer Conference. It’s an honor to work on a classic Conferences That Work-style peer conference that’s turned out to be one of the most powerful tools for building inclusive, equitable, and sustainable communities in my home state.
My daughter Cara and her kids joined us last week at our home in Vermont. We ended up spending most of our time goofing around:
How we decide is important because it greatly determines what we decide. Last week we made superficial decisions. That’s a recipe for relaxation and fun—and who doesn’t need some of that!
When it comes to making decisions about meetings, however, many meeting professionals stick with old familiar formats. Keynote, plenary, panel, breakout, social; rinse and repeat. That decided, they concentrate on the logistics: F&B, decor, etc.
Here’s Seth Godin’s take on this approach:
Sometimes, it seems like all we do is make decisions.
Most of those decisions, though, are merely window dressing. This color couch vs. that one? Ketchup or Mayo? This famous college vs. that one? This nice restaurant vs. that one? This logo vs. that one?
Genuine choice involves whole new categories, or “none of the above.” Genuine choice is difficult to embrace, because it puts so many options and so many assumptions on the table with it.
There’s nothing wrong with avoiding significant choices most of the time. Life (and an organization) is difficult to manage if everything is at stake, all the time.
The trap is believing that the superficial choices are the essential part of our work. They’re not. They’re mostly an easy way to avoid the much more frightening job of changing everything when it matters. —Seth Godin, The Illusion of Choice
We have known for a while now that traditional formats are not the best ways for attendees to engage, learn, and connect. The increasing popularity and success of social production (e.g. Wikipedia, Linux, Kickstarter, etc.) parallels the growing adoption of innovative participant-driven and participation-rich meeting formats. Meeting planners now need to take on the “frightening job” of changing conference models to those that give participants real choices about what, how, and with whom they engage, learn, and connect.
There’s a time and place for making superficial decisions. (Like last week!) But when we concentrate on the superficial at the expense of the important when planning our meetings we are doing a disservice to those who spend significant resources of time and money to attend.
We can do better. Yes, it’s scary. But we owe it to our clients.
Shop window photo attribution: Flickr user orinrobertjohn
How do you inspire conference attendees to take action?
This question arose a few weeks ago when I was facilitating Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future, a conference addressing the challenges and opportunities of a more multiracial, multi-ethnic, and multicultural Vermont. Conferences that tackle wide-scope topics like multiculturalism or sustainable business practices are not going to come up with definitive comprehensive solutions to the countless problems discussed, and this can demoralize participants who are hungry for change or filled with a desire to “do something”.
One of the two Conferences That Work closing sessions, the personal introspective, gives attendees a chance to explore changes they may want to make in their life and work as a result of their experiences during the conference. To address the desire for big-picture change, we pointed out at the start of the introspective at Vermont Vision that many of the participants had influence in their professional life (state government, education, law enforcement, faith community, etc.) and we asked each person to focus on what they wanted to work on in their sphere of influence.
Having supported and emphasized the need for personal change during the introspective, we moved to the group spective, the final Conferences That Work session. I often start a group spective by using plus/delta to quickly evaluate a conference. For plus/delta, participants first publicly share their positive experiences of the conference (listed in the plus column of a flipchart or projected Google Doc).
When all positive comments have been aired, participants then list what they would like to see changed in the delta column. This simple technique provides a quick basis for participants to share experiences and move into a discussion about what the group wants to do next.
To transform plus/delta into a tool for action at Vermont Vision, I redefined the two columns as follows:
Plus ==> actions I/we want to work on
Delta ==> issues that concern me but that I don’t know how to address
This allowed us to move from the personal decisions made at the introspective into sharing, discussion, and support of initiatives to which individuals had committed (the plus column). The delta column then allowed us to explore other ideas and who might be able to work on them.
We were encouraged to find that the plus column was much longer than the delta column. Even though significant issues in the delta column remain to be tackled, participants came away from the session knowing that many concrete plans had been generated through our time together. Unlike the outcomes of many conferences that work on problems that seem overwhelming, participants left Vermont Vision feeling that we had built momentum around specific objectives that we had a realistic chance of achieving. Perhaps that why every single conference evaluation asked us to hold this first-time conference again next year!
How do you inspire conference attendees to take action? Share your thoughts!