There are 5 new posts in "Jeffrey Cufaude, Idea Architects"
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.
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:
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.