A fair amount of my work this year has been collaborating with organizations to refresh the design and impact of the conferences they offer. In a few posts this summer I will share some lessons learned. The first lesson, while obvious, seems vastly ...

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Use Specific Metrics to Drive Better Conference Design and Results

A fair amount of my work this year has been collaborating with organizations to refresh the design and impact of the conferences they offer.  In a few posts this summer I will share some lessons learned.  The first lesson, while obvious, seems vastly under-applied in conference design: specific metrics drive better design and results.

Ask 1000 meeting planners to list the goals for any of their conferences and one of the most common replies will be: to facilitate participant networking.  Ask those planners how they know if their conference will have done so and you will more than likely be met with blank stares.  Herein lies the problem and the opportunity.

Facilitate participant networking, while an admirable intention, lacks the specificity required to truly drive results-oriented design decisions. Vague goals lead to vague tactics: “Well, we have an opening networking reception and we encourage participants to sit with new people at our meals.”

In working with one organization to redesign a flagship conference, we explored what type of networking participants would most value. That discussion produced a much more measurable intention and outcome: Participants will have at least five substantive conversations with individuals they previously did not know.

Look at the three key elements of this goal:

At least five
We have a specific number to design for and to evaluate.

Substantive conversations
We aren’t talking about cliché “how about this heat?” buffet line chats.

Previously did not know
We are expanding people’s network, not amplifying their existing connections.

How did this inform conference design decisions?

We first examined the conference schedule for the opportunities most conducive for the discussions and identified four.  We then drilled down into what learning or interaction formats could be used to facilitate the required discussions occurring.

New design choices included different room sets to better enable thoughtful discussions; facilitation instructions with specific questions to help participants dig deeper; meal table seating by different characteristics; and an exercise in which participants build on one substantive one-on-one conversation by joining with another pair and cross-pollinating their ideas and insights.

Ensuring people would connect with others they previously did not know proved challenging. We ultimately decided achieving this intention required that participants be willing collaborators. 

To enlist them in this role, these are some of the tactics
  • sharing this conference goal in the promotional materials and the on-site app and program book; 
  • spotlighting tips for deeper networking from seasoned attendees
  • sprinkling “Got Your Five?” prompts throughout the conference venue via signage, staff and volunteer buttons, and general session slide decks
  • adding a field to the conference badge—“Talk with me about ____”—to facilitate conversations among strangers;
  • scripting into the opening welcome key information about this goal and how participants could make choices during the conference to ensure they leave having meaningfully connected with five new people; and  
  • giving participants a “Got My Five” card to track their conversation/networking progress that, when completed, is turned in for a free registration drawing for next year’s event.

Ah yes, five. How did we address the missing fifth connection I mentioned earlier? 

In the scripted welcome comments about this goal, the speaker will highlight the four moments in the conference schedule designed to ensure a substantive conversation with a newcomer can occur.  Participants are then told that whether or not the fifth occurs is up to them and the choices they make on how to engage with other attendees during all of the remaining events on the conference schedule.

To measure whether or not all of these efforts are successful, a simple question was added to the conference evaluation: How many substantive conversations did you have with people you did not previously know before this conference?

The bottom line:

Vague goals or intentions that cannot be measured effectively are unlikely to inform conference design choices in meaningful ways or produce the intended results. You have to get specific!

How might you use more specific metrics in your conference goals to drive more intentional design decisions and achieve greater results?

Disrupting the Status Quo

If my recent conversations are any indication, a lot of people find disrupting the status quo increasingly appealing. Their motivations range from simply wanting to create meaningful change to positioning themselves in their organizations as unafraid to go bold or big.

Listening to these folks from very different organizations talk about disrupting the status quo, I noticed a potentially limiting pattern: most focused almost exclusively on the programmatic or policy change itself. What they see themselves disrupting is the established way of doing things or a program or policy that has outlived its usefulness ... the status quo.

But what they also are disrupting, and what in many cases will be the real resistance to their efforts, is the status of individuals associated with whatever they hope to change. In short, they are playing with the pecking order of who has what power and prestige in their organizations, something folks generally do not want to lose.

Successfully disrupting the status quo requires effectively attending to the relationship dynamics for those whose status will be disrupted in addition to articulating the merits of the tangible change proposed. Like salt and pepper they go hand in hand.

Facilitated Results Are Not Guaranteed

So you can guarantee we will have a strategic plan completed at the end of the session?

I paused momentarily, looking at both of them and thinking about the question.  I was trying to recall how I might have answered it much earlier in my career.

20+ years of facilitating had taught me the only truthful reply was this:

“No. Regretfully, I cannot.”

Much as one expects to hear “fine” when asking others how they are doing, I don’t think my actual response initially registered with them as they nodded somewhat enthusiastically, almost as if on autopilot.  But as their expressions slowly shifted to incredulousness and concern, I knew I had been heard.

Wait. You’re saying you can’t guarantee what we will have done by the end of the session? How can that be? I mean, why would we want to hire you if we can’t be sure what will happen?

I assured them their inquiry was neither unexpected nor uncommon:  “Investing in a facilitated process of any kind is a major commitment, both for the client and the consultant.  Knowing it will produce the desired end result is a logical expectation.”

Yes, it is. That’s why we need a guarantee for the final outcome.

I knew that my personality and approach would be a good fit with this organization; the mission, vision, and core values resonated with me; and I wanted to do the work for them.  So I did something I normally do not do and offered them this:

“I do not normally do this, but I will guarantee we will have a plan completed at the end of the session if you will guarantee me that:
  • The scope of work you have outlined does not reflect any unconscious bias or inappropriate intent either of you might possess as this would significantly impede my ability to do the work we have outlined.
  • All participants in the actual planning process will answer the advance surveys by the deadlines specified and complete the necessary pre-work so that we can maximize the limited face-to-face session time.
  • I will have unfettered and timely access to the people and information I need to really understand the culture of your organization and how this planning process and the work we do fit within in it.
  • All participants will be present and engaged for the full session, doing whatever advance planning is required to focus exclusively on our work and not be making calls or checking email except in genuine emergency situations.
  • The group’s members already possess the level of trust in and knowledge about each other that our strategic conversations and decisions require or they will act towards each other with generosity and open-mindedness if they do not. Purpose will matter most to our process, not politics or personalities.
  • Participants will not sabotage the discussions by acting on hidden agendas, and that they will respond honestly when at the session’s onset I ask everyone to share with us any vested interests they have in our work and any deeply held beliefs or biases they bring it.
  • You understand producing a finished plan requires decisions to be made, not just discussions to occur. Therefore, all staff and all of the session participants will maintain a bias for action throughout the process. In particular, this means during the session we will not expend excess attention or time on wordsmithing the perfect language, opting instead for a standard of “good enough for now.”
  • We collectively agree the process and the in-person session will be messy at times, that this is normal and not cause for concern, and that we work collaboratively through the mess by surfacing what seems to be happening in the moment and how we best respond.”
As you might expect, I had stunned them into silence.
We sat in it for a minute or two as they absorbed what I had just outlined.

So what you’re saying is …

I rarely interrupt, but I cut them off. “Let me finish that thought for you.  What I am saying is that success is dependent on everyone, not just me.  You can never outsource ownership of the outcome. Holding me accountable for my contributions must be matched by holding all other players accountable for theirs, including yourselves. My work is helping all of you do the work.  Whether or not we complete it cannot be my responsibility alone.”

It will be interesting to see what happens next.
Bottom line?
Be a bit skeptical of facilitators who give you a 100 guarantee about what they will get a group of human beings to accomplish … and be prepared to make your own commitments if this remains an expectation you hold.


We Should Do a Podcast!

Only 13 days into the month of March and already I have heard this sentiment expressed in meetings of three different organizations: we should do a podcast!

Awareness and consumption of podcasts has steadily increased for years.  For insights and evidence about the growth in podcast popularity, look to these posts and fact sheets from Edison Research, Ad Age, Pew Research Center, and the always helpful Jay Baer. In fact, I am writing this post while listening to Pod Saves America and Think Again (from Big Think), two of my favorite podcasts.

But a podcast should not, dare I say cannot, be a tactic chasing a strategy.  Yet a fear of missing out (FOMO) seems to drive some podcast advocates more than a clear set outcomes and success metrics for how this potentially resource-intensive media approach would serve their organization's mission, vision, and overall communication strategy.

Not wanting to burst others unbridled podcast enthusiasm in these conversations, I ask probing, yet relatively nonthreatening questions, including:
  • How might a podcast further advance the current communication strategy?
  • What new stakeholders groups might a podcast reach or for which existing stakeholders might a podcast better reach?
  • Which issues or messages might a podcast amplify more powerfully than other media?
  • What stories do we have to tell that might be best served in a podcast format?
  • How might podcasting leverage the caring and capabilities of more volunteers or more partners in supporting our work?  
While your mileage might vary, I have found greater success with these more strategic level questions (whether asking them as a volunteer, a board member, or a consultant) than ones that presume we will do a podcast and all we have to figure out is who, how, and when.  This approach echoes Simon Sinek's advocacy for focusing on the why first, albeit it here on more of a programmatic level.

It is human nature to see others experiencing success with something and want to copy it in our own efforts.  But we must resist doing so without a strategic examination of whether or not doing so aligns with our mission, vision, values, and strategies for success.  Having a set of questions and/or a more comprehensive process in place for doing so needs to be a part of every organization's culture.


Let's Take a Field Trip!

Remember how exciting it was to take field trips as a kid?
Escaping the daily classroom grind for something different and interesting?

I am convinced that field trips, or what I call Discovery Trips, are one of the more effective, but underutilized staff development opportunities around. As I noted in my TEDx talk on lifelong learning (four years ago today), intentional diversity and ongoing discovery are part of a lifelong learning commitment.

To make the most of this simple idea, collectively decide on what would be of value to discover. For what areas or issues do you seek new ideas and insights? What different exposure might help stimulate some fresh thinking? What places or issues have you previously not explored? The answers will help you purposefully select locations and sources for your field trips.

Team members could visit different locations/experienced for broad learning or the same one (perhaps at different times) for deep learning from a single source. Using a common observation framework for notetaking helps facilitate subsequent debrief and discussions as a team.

The debrief and application is critical, but don't make it overly complex. Try this simple framework:
  1. Observation: What did you notice?
  2. Implication: What might that mean for our work?
  3. Application: How do we want to be/do different as a result?
Don't micro-manage trip scheduling. Let people plan their own outings consistent with their energy and workflow. Do give them a deadline for completing their discovery trip and do schedule the team debrief well in advance.

Consider making this an informal and ongoing part of staff development. Imagine giving every team member $10-20/quarter (perhaps less often if you are a very large org) to visit a museum, restaurant, coffeehouse, or store to learn about service, experience design, & more. If you are in a large organization, perhaps require they partner with someone outside their department.

Discovery (aka Field) Trips may be of particular appeal to introverts on your team. They can take one on their own or with a partner.  The trips also can neutralize hierarchy since everyone engages equally, as well as involve people in cross-functional sharing and learning.

I've curated virtual field trips as an appetizer for participants in a strategic planning or design thinking session to do online prior to an in-person meeting. Engaging everyone in field research is an effective way to get them fully involved in discussions from the onset.

Over time, colleagues may start viewing their daily life as a field/discovery trip and bring back ideas from what they notice. Wouldn't that be great?

P.S. For a more comprehensive look at Life's A Great Teacher and lifelong learning, here is a 25-minute video of my talk at an ACPA convention.


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Contact Jeffrey at info@ideaarchitects.org for custom-designed keynotes, workshops, and retreats.

I specialize in the design and facilitation of highly engaging learning experiences (individual workshops, retreats, or complete conferences), compelling keynotes, and teaching presentation and facilitation skills to subject matter experts

to enhance their competence and confidence.

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