Dear Adrian—More questions about event process design

Event Design MagicDipesh Mody, writing from Mumbai, India, asks five great questions about event process design. I’ve interspersed my answers after each question.

Q. Dear Adrian,

I have now read both your books and have truly enjoyed reading them. Your work has been very inspiring to many; and I am certainly one of them.

While your book is very well written and structured, I had a few questions for you and I am hoping that you will find the time to respond.

1. After the peer group session sign-up and once the time and space is allocated, who decides which technique to use? Is it the volunteer facilitator of the peer group? If yes, what if the volunteer is not familiar with these techniques? Will he invariably choose a roundtable technique?

Yes, the volunteer facilitator(s) of a peer session is/are responsible for determining the format used in the session, and, as covered in The Power of Participation, there are a number of basic formats that can be used. For many years, I’ve given every attendee a one-page peer session facilitation handout (free download) at the start of the event. This short document explains what’s involved in facilitating, offers a suggested step-by-step process, and includes some tips for effective facilitation.

Analyzing thousands of evaluations of Conferences That Work format events, it’s very rare to see a complaint about the quality of peer session facilitation. So I believe this simple handout is an effective tool for volunteer facilitators to do a decent-to-good job at facilitating a peer session. While I could include some additional opening techniques such as Post It, described in The Power of Participation, it’s possible that making the handout longer might reduce its overall effectiveness.

In India, and other regions where organizational cultures tend to be more hierarchical than those in North America and Europe, participants may be less comfortable taking responsibility for leading a session. Under such circumstances, taking twenty minutes at the opening of a peer conference to explain basic peer session leadership techniques can be helpful.

2. From what I understand that certain sessions only a trained facilitator can run them such as world café, fishbowl or a human spectrogram? Is my understanding correct? If yes, then such techniques can only be used involving the entire group. For e,g, if the conference size is 50 people then all 50 people need to be in that one session when a human spectrogram technique is being used? Is my understanding correct?

I think it depends on what “trained” means. I have not received any “formal” facilitation training, but I experienced World Café, fishbowl, and human spectrogram process run by others before I attempted to facilitate them myself. I think many people who have experienced a human spectrogram once could successfully facilitate it under similar circumstances, and there are plenty of good resources (including The Power of Participation😄) for other group work techniques.

As participative techniques become more frequently used at conferences, attendees are increasingly likely to be capable of facilitating them, and I expect the requirement for a “trained” facilitator will decrease over time.

3. About the beginning and the end sessions, I am quite clear but for the middle sessions is there a particular sequence (s) that works best based on your experience? For e.g. use fishbowl to gain a deeper understanding of top six issues and then follow it up with world café to discuss solutions to these issues (assuming we have 6 tables with five people on each table: Conference size 30 people). Then use a human spectrogram to vote on the proposed solutions and to select the most plausible ones.

Again, the answer to your question depends on the circumstances—in this case a session’s desired outcomes. It sounds like you are asking about process to explore and choose solutions to problems. Because meetings are held for many different reasons, there’s no single process sequence that’s appropriate for every situation.

The Conferences That Work format, for example, works very well for a group of peers who are meeting to learn and connect for individual reasons, determine common ground, and discover and act on opportunities available to the group.

If, as per your example, the meeting is to learn and discuss six pre-determined important issues, you might well use techniques like fishbowl and World Café as opening and mid-course process. If attendees don’t know each other well, an opening roundtable would be useful. Or if the important issues were unknown or unclear at the start of a meeting, introductory educational sessions plus affinity grouping might be appropriate.

As far as discussing solutions is concerned, while human spectrograms are a useful tool to gauge sentiment, outcomes are more typically determined by process prescribed by the norms of the group, organization, association, or corporation stakeholders.

4. About world café or human spectrogram or voting, while a volunteer team can assist in framing the right questions as pre-work but my experience shows that getting them to contribute on the questions is difficult as they don’t have time to devote on such pre-work activities due to work related and other commitments. Further, on page 222 of Power of Participation, you have identified questions for collective attention, for finding deeper insights, for forward movement etc. In light of this, would it be a good idea for the attendees to frame the questions during the conference beginning? In your experience would this work?

In my experience, if you are going to use World Café at an event, pre-work defining good table questions is essential. While there are frameworks that can be helpful in devising Café question rounds (e.g. those for sense-making by Chris Corrigan and strategic planning by John Inman), I think it’s very hard to build consensually-good questions on the fly at the event unless participants are patient and willing enough to spend a significant amount of time. It’s akin to bringing a large group of people to a building site and asking them to collectively design and erect a building from scratch. Not impossible, but difficult!

5. While your book does provide model conference schedule but it falls a bit short of getting a real sense of what a real schedule looks like. It would be really great if you could add a few real examples of conferences you facilitated. It would indeed be useful to get a sense of how you mixed and matched various techniques (fishbowl, world café, spectrograms etc.) during a lets say three day conference around a particular theme. It would be a great addition to what a truly amazing book it already is.

Dipesh, I think that’s a good idea in principle. However, I’m wary supplying such examples unless they include extensive background on why the specific types and flow of process techniques were used. The danger of providing condensed examples is that some readers will be tempted to copy them verbatim for events that involve participants, logistical constraints, and desired outcomes that are significantly different from those that generated the example design. End result—a design that doesn’t satisfy stakeholder needs, leading to poor evaluations and, perhaps, the conclusion that these new-fangled event designs “don’t work.”

There are so many factors involved in creating a good event design that I estimate a useful case study of a single event design, one that comprehensively covers the reasons for the design choices made, might require 10,000+ words and many days of work! A worthy project, but one that may have to wait a while…

Best regards,

Dipesh Mody, India

Thanks for your thoughtful questions, Dipesh. I hope these answers help a little in your quest to produce fine events in India!

Best wishes,

Adrian Segar

Adrian & KaylaAnother issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions sent to me about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).

Passive Programs Past Prime

Sleeping audience 12635014673_d06b960426_k

“Part of the art of making change happen is seeing which cultural tropes are past their prime and having the guts to invent new ones.”
—Seth Godin, Skinny, sad and pale

It took hundreds of years before standard medieval medical practices like blood-letting, exorcism of devils, spells, incantations, and a proscription of bathing were replaced by modern medicine.

Conference programming consisting of one person lecturing at many has been our standard meeting model for hundreds of years. One day I think we will look back on this tradition and marvel about how we could believe for so long that it was the best thing to do at meetings.

Read the rest of this entry »

Two principles for designing conference ground rules

I’ve written before about how to improve your conference with explicit ground rules. Though it’s interesting and enlightening to compare the ground rules embedded in conference designs—for example, Open Space Technology has five ground rules, while Conferences That Work and World Café have six—I won’t do that today.

Instead, I want to share two principles for designing ground rules.

Ground rules should increase participants’ freedom, not restrict it

  • “Don’t speak unless the teacher asks you a question.”
  • “Pay attention!”
  • “Don’t chew gum in class.”

We’re used to rules like these that restrict our actions and reduce our freedom. But, surprisingly, it’s quite possible to create ground rules that increase our freedom at an event. Here are some examples:

  • Whenever it starts is the right time.—Open Space Technology
  • You have the freedom to ask about anything puzzling.—Conferences That Work
  • Make collective knowledge visible.—World Café

Each of these is a rule that gives permission for participants to act in a way that does not generally occur at traditional meetings. By explicitly giving permission for activities that normally are not associated with Conference 1.0 events, we increase participants’ freedom.

Make ground rules measurable

  • “Listen to others.”
  • “Be respectful.”
  • “Treat people politely.”

Rules like these are superficially appealing, but they aren’t effective because they rely on unmeasurable assumptions. How can we determine whether a participant is listening, respectful, or polite? We can’t, and this can lead to unproductive, time-consuming, and ultimately unresolvable disagreements during an event.

In contrast, here are examples of ground rules that are measurable and thus far less likely to lead to disagreement and subsequent conflict.

  • “Don’t interrupt.”
  • “Stay on time.”
  • “Keep what happens in each session confidential, unless everyone agrees otherwise.”

How were these meta-rules derived?
It would be nice to be able to claim that I first conceived these meta-rules for ground rule design, and then used them to build my conference ground rules. No such luck! It took me ten years to realize that explicit ground rules for Conferences That Work would be useful, and another five to figure out the six I now use. Only recently did I notice that all six follow the two principles I’ve described above.

What ground rules do you use for your events? Can you share any other principles useful for designing ground rules?

Demystifying the unconference

THe ShaftNine hundred years ago, when the world’s first universities were being founded and prestigious libraries might contain a few hundred hand-copied books, the way you learned something was to travel to where a man (in those days it was always a man) knew it, and sit and listen to him teach it to you.

This model for learning sank deep into our culture. Today, on a computer we can hold in our hands, we can search the internet for information or watch videos of the finest presenters. Yet, even though we have amazing content at our fingertips, our meeting designs have not changed much from the classroom model required by the technologies available during the Middle Ages.

Over the last twenty years, new face-to-face meeting designs—such as Open Space, World Café, Conferences That Work, Future Search, and Everyday Democracy—have appeared that challenge the entrenched dominant learning paradigm of passive reception of predetermined information. Although each design has unique features and goals, what they all have in common is that what happens at the event is participant-driven, rather than being largely prescribed by the conference organizers. Collectively, these formats are known as unconferences.

Here are some of the key features of an unconference:

  • Unconferences can be designed to work on a group problem or goal, or as a time for individualized learning and sharing. Longer events can also include traditional sessions, keynotes, etc.
  • Meaningful and useful interaction between attendees is put center stage, instead of being something that happens in the breaks between sessions.
  • The culture is designed to be participatory, not passive. This has a highly positive effect on the environment, outcomes, and community created at the event.
  • Learning happens in small groups, rather than in large general sessions.
  • Teaching and learning aren’t fixed roles; a teacher at one moment may be a learner the next.
  • The experience and expertise of the participants is harnessed, rather than relying on the contributions of a few outside experts.
  • Participants have more input into and control over their learning and takeaways from an unconference, and thus are more likely to satisfy the goals for the event.
  • Interesting, unexpected things are likely to happen. While traditional conferences discourage risky learning, unconferences create an environment where sessions can be created on the spot, questions are welcomed, and sharing is encouraged.

It’s no coincidence that unconference designs were developed as our society responded to the increased availability of information and ease of sharing made possible by the personal computer and the internet. And yet, despite the pervasive reality of ubiquitous knowledge and connectivity, these new designs are still rarely used by professional event planners.

One reason is the fear that an unconference just won’t work. I’ve run unconferences for twenty years, and reviewed thousands of evaluations, and I can assure you that the level of satisfaction with unconference formats is much higher than traditional events. (One of the reasons for this is that I’ve found that traditional program committees predict less than half the sessions that attendees actually want.) Other reasons include the misconception that crowdsourcing session topics before an event makes it an unconference, the understandable fear of giving up control over one’s event, and general unfamiliarity with unconference revenue models, facilitation requirements, and logistical considerations.

All these barriers to the implementation of unconference meeting designs are readily overcome with education and experience. Most event planners (and their clients) have begun to hear the rumbles of dissatisfaction from attendees who are no longer satisfied flying hundreds of miles to listen to speakers they could have watched on YouTube, or to attend a conference where a majority of the sessions are not what they really wanted. Instead, these attendees are increasingly demanding meetings that concentrate on what only face-to-face events can provide—like Howard Givner’s experience of a recent unconference:

“…one of the most innovative and eye-opening professional experiences I’ve had. Aside from coming back with lots of new tips and ideas, I easily established triple the number of new contacts, and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to.”

We know how to create these events. Our clients are starting to ask for them. So, if you haven’t already, attend an unconference in 2011 and experience a participant-driven event firsthand. Or talk to people who have. Then you’ll be ready to begin to build unconference designs into your event planning future.

This article was first published in Lara McCulloch-Carter‘s free eBook What’s Next in Events 2011.

Photo attribution: Flickr user stuckincustoms

A better tool for conference calls: Maestro Conference

Visual Recording of NCDD Confab. Note Conferences That Work at upper left!
Visual Recording of NCDD Confab. Conferences That Work included at upper left!

Graphic created by Teresa Bidlake, of Concepts Captured

Taking part in a traditional conference call is rarely much fun. Here are some irritations that you’ve probably experienced:

  • Poor call quality. Some callers are faint and/or there’s noise on the line. Any noise at any caller’s location, like someone yelling in the background or answering another call, is picked up and broadcast to everyone on the call.
  • There’s no way to know when someone is about to speak; awkwardness abounds as people start to talk simultaneously.
  • Only one person can speak at a time, and they have to address the whole group.
  • There’s no way to know who wants to speak, to ask or answer questions.

So my expectations were not high a couple of days ago, when I joined 77 people (!) on an “NCDD confab” on online engagement. NCDD is the nonprofit National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, a network of over 1,200 members working on conflict resolution and public engagement practice.

What a contrast! Instead of the usual conference call hell you’d expect on a call with nearly 80 people, our two hours together were surprisingly enjoyable, in large part because we used Maestro, a conference call / online tool that combines traditional conference call features with the ability to create small group conversations amongst the participants on the same call.

Here’s why using the Maestro Conference system worked so well for this large group:

  • The Maestro system allows the call organizers to easily create small breakout groups at any time during the call. During our call, we were twice split into small groups of 3-5 people to introduce ourselves and discuss a given question. Chimes and messages informed us when were halfway through our allotted time, and when we had a minute left to go. When the small group discussion was finished, we were smoothly reunited with the entire group. In addition, organizers can join any small group and ask or answer questions at any time.
  • Individual telephones can be selectively muted by the Maestro system, so we heard no distracting sounds from participants’ phones. When the event organizers were speaking, all phones except theirs were muted. If they asked someone to speak, just that phone would be un-muted. The resulting call quality was excellent. In addition, the system’s call quality was uniformly high throughout our two-hour call. I heard no pops, hissing, or other annoying noises.
  • Maestro includes a simple but effective backchannel method for call participants to signal conference organizers, by pressing numbers on their phone keypad. (There’s no annoying sound heard when people do this.) This can be used to quickly poll participants, to ask the organizers for help, to opt-in or out of a topic or choice, or to indicate that the participant has something to say to the whole group. We used all these options during our call, including: answering a four yes/no question poll of the entire group in a minute; queuing up individual participants to speak about their experiences; and opting in or out of having our emails made available to other group members.

Here’s a short video from Maestro Conference that illustrates these points:

From the organizers’ perspective, Maestro Connect uses a web interface, which seems to offer an easy way to control the abilities I’ve described.

Pricing seems reasonable; and a free 30-day trial is available, as well as discounts for non-profit and solo practitioners.If you’re into such things, Maestro Conference has an affiliate program, (and I am not an affiliate).

During the call, I spoke to the entire group once, met and conversed with people in two small discussion groups, World Café style, and voted on questions that were asked. Sandy Heierbacher of NCDD and Amy Lenzo of World Café expertly facilitated the call, with a couple of assistants helping out as needed. The time flew by, very enjoyably.

In conclusion, this service, when appropriately used, can turn the normal broadcast-mode experience of a conference call into a much-more participatory and interactive time for callers. I don’t have experience of managing a Maestro Conference, but, as a participant, it seemed to be a straightforward process with no glitches. If you have a need for a superior kind of conference call, this service is well worth checking out.