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.

Renting Your Seat at the Leadership Table

One of the best lessons my mentors taught me is that you don't permanently own your seat at the leadership table no matter how talented, knowledgeable, or caring you might be. Part of leadership success is knowing when to exit and create space for the enthusiastic contributions of others.

Yet while at the table we do have to adopt an owner's mindset for the responsibilities and consequences of the contributions and decisions we make while still understanding we are temporary custodians and part of an ongoing leadership legacy. This is true whether we serve in a formal leadership position or if we are someone who simply has accrued access and influence that gets us attention.  Unless we are founding members of an organization, many have come before us and many are still to come.

Embracing our temporary role as owners applies to both formal leadership positions and informal leadership in the moment or a meeting: contribute, but ensure others can do so also.  Effective leadership orientation and transition can reinforce this premise.  Here's an example from my distant past.

1980-81 Executive Board, Illinois Association of Student Councils
As a senior in high school, I had the tremendous honor of serving as the state president for the Illinois Association of Student Councils.  One of the most powerful memories I have about assuming that leadership position involves a simple scrapbook provided to me during orientation to my office.  Bulging at the seams, the scrapbook contained a page or two dedicated to pictures, clippings, and written advice from each of the previous state presidents.

During my term, I often returned to their thoughts for inspiration and perspective.  Each reading helped change my thinking about "making my mark" on the association. The pages reminded me I was one of many. My job was to build on what others had created, add my contributions to it, and turn it over to the next person ... both the scrapbook and my seat at the table.

The time to begin planning for leadership transition is the day you come into office, not a few weeks before you are going to leave.

What rituals could you create to reinforce the understanding you want your volunteer and staff leaders to embrace about their temporary seat at the table?

Enabling and Accelerating Value Acquisition

1. Don't forget: joining is not the same as belonging.
Smart organizations transition new joiners to a sense of belonging and identifying as a community member by quickly connecting them to both the community at large and to specific individuals, resources, and opportunities of interest. I recommend at minimum a plan of action for one day, one week, and one month after someone joins.

2. Foster belonging with customized cultivation.
Smart organizations learn about a joiner's needs, interest, and motivations by gathering relevant data in a simple streamlined manner during the membership application process at minimum.

While other data collection opportunities should be used during a member's experience, failure to collect even the most basic interests during the application process means the membership confirmation and initial invitations cannot be customized. The communications sent are generic, impersonal, and less welcoming. The initial data gathering can be as simple as the tangible-intangible question illustrated or a "APICS What's Your Goal?" as described in this Associations Now blog post from Joe Rominiecki.

3. Focus on enabling and accelerating members' acquisition of value.
A key strategic question smart organizations answer is: How do we make it easier for individuals to self-manage as they desire their membership experience, enabling them to acquire the value they most seek as quickly as possible?  Accelerants should be offered in multiple forms such as these approaches for helping joiners feel welcome:
  • a self-guided online tour
  • video welcomes from members with similar interests
  • a phone call from a membership ambassador with common affinity
  • a public welcome on social media channels
  • an invitation (with discount?) to attend a program of interest 
  • an optional new member "sponsor" who serves a one-stop point of contact
4. Invert the invitation.
Historically in many (most?) organizations people had to become members to contribute as a volunteer.  What if volunteering with others might be what sells some prospects on joining your organization? Inverting the invitation, using volunteering and contributing as a gateway to membership, allows prospects to become connected to your community, both its members and its purpose, in ways that may leave them saying "I want to be a part of this."

5. Help prospects "see themselves" succeeding in your community.
If diversity is about attracting people from different groups, cultures, and interests, inclusion creates an environment where they can succeed. Smart organizations ensure member-facing communications use language, visuals, and examples that are inclusive of your existing community and the diversity you seek for the future. Even smarter organizations ensure that the actual membership experience facilitates success for the more diverse prospects they might attract.

6. Target a type of member.
It may be easier to accelerate members' value acquisition if you aren't trying to be all things to all people. Some organizations see serving members "from cradle to grave" as their purpose or ambition. Given the considerable resources such a focus requires, success may be found in a more narrow niche as suggested by Jason Fried in the book Rework.

Fried's assertion is for "customers," so it may not hold the same potential for associations seeking to be the "voice of the profession" or otherwise be the single home for anyone associated with their profession or industryBut even groups seeking to be such broad umbrellas can benefit by narrowing their value propositions given limited resources:
  • We are best positioned to serve individuals who ...
  • We can enable and accelerate value acquisition for those specific members even more if we ...
7. Promote impact and results.
In many instances, prospects can access content, community, and other traditional value propositions from more than one organization.  It is not unusual to see almost the same list of products and opportunities promoted on the websites of organizations competing for the same potential members.

Prove results, however, are a distinguishing competitive factor.  95% of our members report contracting business from our qualified lead web referral system" is far more compelling than "membership helps you grow your business."  Of course, it is difficult to be selling proven impact if you aren't conducting the research to measure it, or worse yet, aren't providing the programs and services that help deliver it.

8. Renew more than just the financial commitment.
As I have written about before, I see renewal as being more than just dues payment, important as that is.  We describe the process as membership renewal, so the strategic question is: What member affinity do we seek to renew in addition to the financial commitment of dues? Smart organizations view the process as a chance to not just re-up the financial commitment, but also the emotional commitment and connection to the community and the pride and value one feels from being associated with it as a member.


During a recent panel conversation on membership in which I participated, my fellow panelists and the attendees discussed Member Get a Member campaigns.  A light bulb went off for me during that conversation and I suggested a Member Sponsor a Member campaign. Say what? 

As an experiment, imagine your org inviting a small group of existing members to recruit a prospect and sponsor their first year of membership, These sponsors could be afforded discounts to offer their prospect ... on membership, attendance at your annual conference, etc.  The core principle is that instead of just getting someone to join (and then fend for themselves), sponsors help facilitate the transition from joining to belonging for individuals they sponsor.

For more on this topic, here is a PDF with nine posts about cultivating engagement.

Moving from Ideas to Action: Nine Simple Ways for Workshops

In author Daniel Pink's most recent "infrequent and irreverent" enewsletter (you should subscribe), he highlighted six book recommendations in a simple, but powerful way: sharing a core idea from the book's content and his take (or one from the book) on how to put it in action. By making these takeaways explicit, Pink helped me determine if I might wish to read the book itself.

Moving from ideas to action is a goal for many (if not most) learning experiences and content in all forms.  Yet often we leave this up to readers or learners to do for themselves. Nothing is wrong with doing so, but in our information-overloaded world, we may wish to emulate Pink's approach to increase the value of the content we share.

Let me model doing so with this post.  The Idea: using an Ideas+Action summary to increase the value of a learning experience and to facilitate insight sharing among workshop participants.

The Actions: Here are ways to use this format and tool during an in-person session.
  1. Create a workshop handout with multiple Idea+Action spaces. Throughout your program (after major content blocks, before a change in topic, or at other logical intervals) invite participants to reflect on the session and to complete one or more Idea+Action blocks to capture their learning. Here's a PDF of a takeaway sheet I used for a recent masterclass that is similar in spirit.
  2. In the workshop outline/schedule shared with participants list the core idea for each content segment and provide a blank action space for participants to complete as the session progresses.
  3. Make Idea+Action cards. Have learners complete and post during a session. Invite people to browse others' learning during breaks or schedule a "Gallery Walk" for them to do so as a part of your actual session content. Scan all cards and distribute a PDF of them post-session.
  4. Or do a rapid "read and pass" of all the completed Idea+Action cards. Have people pass their card to another, read the one they are given, and then repeat until time is called and cards are returned to their creators (make sure to add names to cards to facilitate this).  To add a bit of physical energy you could have people stand during the exercise.  People also could dot vote on ideas they really like and top vote-getters could then verbally expand on their thinking.
  5. You could pair people for a Think-Pair-Share. Individuals note an idea on a card and then trades cards with
    their partner who then completes the action section. Cards are swapped back and the ideas are discussed. Pairs could join together, swap cards, note additional possible actions, return cards, and discuss.
  6. Mindmap the ideas+actions. Provide a mindmap with all of the ideas noted. Participants branch off the ideas noted and add actions associated with each one. The mindmaps could be personal size, poster size for tables to complete as a small group, or mural size to decorate a wall in your meeting room.
  7. Do an Ideas+Action Drawing. Have participants complete cards and place in a box or bowl when instructed.  Periodically during your session draw a few completed cards, give a prize to the people who submitted them, and invite them to expand in their takeaway.
  8. Display a core idea as a slide and invite participants to Tweet corresponding actions using a specific hashtag to facilitate post-session searching.
  9. Engage small groups in moving from ideas to actions. Provide a few cards to small groups and have each group's reflect on a content segment and note one core theme/idea per card. Have groups swap their cards with another group. Each group now notes possible actions related to the ideas on each card. Repeat this swapping process as desired.  
    What are other simple ways you find effective to facilitate workshop participants capturing core ideas and identifying useful actions?

Five Tips for Giving "Good Interview"

Three interviews in seven days. That hasn't happened to me in a long time. But in the past week, I was interviewed for a one-hour podcast and two magazine articles. In reflecting on these three experiences, a couple of takeaways surfaced that may be of use to you. The podcast, which focus on intentional professional development/learning and much more is available for free in the iTunes store.

1. Prepare to Be Present

Each interviewer shared 4-6 advance questions to help me prepare. Particularly for folks who are detail oriented, the challenge is to not overprepare. For a podcast interview that should sound conversational, this is especially important.

My preparation standard for each interview was the one I use when designing a workshop: prepare to be present.  The question to ask yourself is: What preparation (including reference notes) will allow me to be present, to be actively engaged in the conversation as it unfolds in real-time?

Maybe you need to think through every possible piece of information you will share. If that gives you confidence, have at it. Do overprepare, but just underpresent during the actual interview.

My notes were a single sheet divided into two columns: (1) key points and (2) stories or examples. For each advance question, I noted one or two key points and a practical illustration or two for each point. ProTip: I typed and printed this out in a large font for easier reference during the interview rather than rely on my increasingly poor handwriting. 

2. Pace Yourself

One interview danger is giving rambling answers that make it difficult to follow your main point.  But it also is unhelpful if you are so concise that your comment lacks color or fails to offer a good follow-up prompt for the interviewer. The sweet spot is somewhere in between. In face-to-face conversations, an interviewer's nonverbals can help us with that calibration.

Lacking those cues in a telephone discussion, I create a feedback loop for myself. Every time I start to answer a question, I initiate the stopwatch on my phone. This gives me a real-time indicator for how long I have been speaking and helps me keep my answers thorough, but not excessively long.

3, Get Comfortable and Conversational

Vocal inflection and speaking rhythm make a podcast interview come alive. Who wants to listen to a one-hour recording that sounds like a dry doctoral dissertation defense? The podcasts I find most compelling make me feel like I'm eavesdropping on a conversation among passionate people eager to learn from each other. To project that to a listener, it is important to get comfortable so you can be conversational.

When interviewed for the podcast, I was in relaxed clothing, with a cup of my favorite coffee blend, and seated in the most comfortable chair in my house: I was in my element.  For this interview I had printed out my two-column notes in an extra large font and taped it on an adjacent wall easily seen from my chair. Why? I wanted my hands free so that I could gesture just as I would in an actual conversation. For part of the recording, I even stood while talking to bring even more energy into my voice and responses.

4. Provide Implications and Applications

You want to convey both your personality and the content or insights that readers or listeners can use. To ensure the latter, make an effort to include the so what (implications) and now what (applications) for any ideas or trends you share. Readers and listeners are bombarded with content. Help them to see the relevance of your key points and how they can use your information. Here's an example from a question I was asked for one article: What is one of the best investments an organization can make to enhance the participant experience at its conferences?
My key point (the what): Too many presenters lack training in how to present. Better speaker preparation can yield great returns for a relatively low investment

Implication (the so what): Subject matter experts often lead conference sessions. While they may possess content mastery, they often are less confident and capable in designing meaningful ways to engage participants with it. Session quality is uneven and participants don't get the knowledge they seek.

Application (the now what): I recommend at minimum three simple speaker support resources: (1) teach the fundamentals of great session design and facilitation in a live webinar and/or on demand video clips, (2) provide "before and after" outlines showing transforming traditional session designs into more engaging learning experiences, and (3) gather and publish practical tips from your top-rated volunteer speakers.
5. Offer a Memorable Shareable

No pressure, right? But just as a conference speaker tries to create at least one catchy takeaway that participants share on social media, so does a good interview subject proffer at least one interesting sound byte that an editor jumps to use as an article pull quote.  Help them out by crafting a memorable way to express one of the points you hope has staying power with the audience.

What else have you found helpful to make yourself a better interview?

When Honesty Seems Too Risky


“I’m not sure people are going to be honest here. It’s too risky.”

I’ve lost count how many times this comment surfaces on advance surveys and in real-time conversations. People perceive speaking their mind in the presence of others to be risky.

Sure. We’ve probably all done that risk/return on investment calculation in our minds.

How will I be perceived if I say this?
Everyone else seems to be OK with this, so should I just keep quiet?
I don’t want to be the only one advocating a different path.
I have to be careful since my boss (or other power party) is in the room. 

But what about the risk individuals and group assume when perspectives aren’t shared, yet decisions are still made? What about the long-term consequences of people learning to keep silent when they really want to speak? We pay a very real price if we do not create a culture where a lack of honesty is also seen as risky.

When I’m facilitating a meeting or workshop, I don't question people who say they fear speaking out. It is their truth.

But if people don’t feel they can speak honestly in a discussion, this then becomes the focus of the discussion I first facilitate. 

Here are some of the questions I ask of both the participants, as well as myself.  In some cases, the lack of trust present does not allow for a particular question to be discussed openly, so I have participants note responses anonymously which I then read them aloud to the group.

These questions are not listed in a particular order. I select the sequence in real-time that matches the participants’ needs, our purpose for convening, and how the subsequent discussion unfolds. I welcome your suggestions for other questions in the comments.

  • If one or two people express that honest opinions are unlikely to be shared, do others feel the same? If not, what causes this difference in perceived level of safety and willingness to speak freely?
  • For whom might it be risky to speak honestly and why?
  • Is the challenge with this issue only or others as well?
  • What is the group’s experience with honest discussions on difficult issues? Are there positive examples we can draw learning and strength from for this discussion?
  • What margin of safety would enable greater honesty?
  • How can we create this margin of safety? What is required of individuals? Me as facilitator? The group collectively?
  • Is this a question/topic that participants value enough to challenge themselves, to speak more freely than they might normally do or initially feel comfortable doing? In other words, do people see progress on the issue meriting the potentially high stakes conversation and perceived personal risk?

This last question is an important one. When people want progress to happen and that the issue truly matters, they often are more willing to speak more freely than they initially feel comfortable doing. Absent feeling that the question matters, people often remain more silent even after other adjustments are made to the group process to increase perceived safety and comfort.

Unsurprisingly, members of a group often have different perceptions on how risky it is for them to contribute freely. Tenure, title, and trust are just three of the factors associated with these differences.  

To move group members beyond debating whether or not it is too risky to speak up, I often ask each participant to finish the following: 

"To speak open and honestly, I need _________." 

With responses phrased as a personal expression of need, it seems to help people accept that individuals are in different places and that risk is not perceived equally. They can they support their colleagues as requested.

Trading Cards for Trading Tips

Illustration Copyright: kibsri / 123RF Stock Photo

What do restaurant servers and conference participants have in common?  They love coming home with lots of tips! 

Here is a ridiculously simple way you can enable a greater exchange of ideas at your next meeting, conference or event ... along with some variations to help you achieve other objectives: trading cards with topical tips from peers.

The Benefits
  • Facilitates informal interaction among both introverted and extroverted participants.
  • Enables wisdom sharing from experienced leaders in your profession and organization, as well as individual participants.
  • Offers a fun activity (collecting tips trading cards) that can be sustained throughout a multiple-day event.
  • Serves as a possible annual activity that can turn into a popular tradition.
  • Is an easy way to widely collect individuals' practical knowledge by issuing an open call online.
  • Captures content that can be repurposed in other forms after the conference ends.
The Process
Tips Card from the 2016 ABA Bar Leadership Institute

  • Brainstorm the long-term and short-term possibilities for trading tips cards to generate member value in the areas of community-building, networking, idea-sharing, and learning goals.
  • As with any project, set appropriate goals and objectives, identify evaluation metrics, and craft the action plan to achieve your goals and objectives including specific tasks, timelines, and resource personnel.
  • Collect tips that will support your overall goals and objectives. Craft appeals to possible audiences from which to solicit tips: open call, individuals who have served or are serving in leadership positions, subject matter experts, young leaders or student members, underrepresented voices, award winners, et al. 
  • Create a simple multi-purpose card design for individual tips, one that will look good in print, online, and in slides.
  • If desired, sort and/or tag tips by audience, topic, type, or other relevant search criteria.
  • Plan for how, to whom, and in what quantity you will distribute hard copy tip cards. Design any activities that will use the cards and prepare facilitators to lead the activities.
  • Prepare tip cards in final form(s) for production. Print appropriate number of hard copies. An affordable way to produce high quality four-color tips cards is to use one of the many online postcard printing sites.
The Engagement Options
  • Engage your community (online or at a conference) in selecting favorite tips using judging criteria you offer.  Think broadly about possible recognition categories. Recognize this selection by noting it on tip cards prior to printing or by adding a ribbon or notation in a tips display at a conference.
  • Use tip cards as a business partner sponsorship opportunity. Let sponsors select a tip they'd like to sponsor and pay for the printing of that tip card. Let them add their logo, and space permitting, a tip from their own experience. Sponsors handing out tips cards at their exhibit hall booth might help increase traffic.
  • Print tips in various quantities, so that certain tips are limited edition, making them more desirable for people to obtain. Think of pin collecting/swapping at conferences or reunions.
  • Include special tip cards from your current award winners and distribute those only at the awards ceremony helping spotlight the value award winners offer to people in the room who may not know them.
  • Use swapping tips cards as part of a community-building exercise early in your conference. Have blank cards available and ask participants to note a tip of their own to share. My Power Prospecting format would work well here.
  • Print up a complete set of tip cards on a higher quality cardstock and sell them as a limited edition fundraiser for your philanthropy or foundation and/or offer as a recognition gift to donors at a certain level.
  • Leverage the value of the tips cards at both the start and end of a conference. At the start, have participants form small groups and share the tips they most seek: "I need ideas on how to ... " Then engage the entire room in swapping tips cards, challenging participants to seek tips that their small group colleagues might value before returning to their small group to share the tips they collect.  At the end of the conference, have individuals look though all the tips cards they collected during the event and select the 2-3 they first plan to implement. Then engage them in sharing those tips with other participants.

How else could you (or have you) used simple tips trading cards to help your members, colleagues, or conference participants obtain the ideas and insights they seek?

Avoid Unforced Errors

On March 26, I received a direct mail promotional postcard inviting me to "Register Now" for a special promotion with the hotel chain I most frequent. Always eager to rack up extra points, I immediately went online to the registration page specified on the postcard.

404 Error The page you requested cannot be found.

Ugh. I fired up a second web browser and tried the link. Same result. Fingers crossed, I tried again with the third browser on my laptop, but to no avail.

On Twitter I reached out to the hotel chain's social media staff to inquire why I was unable to access the promotion they had enticed me to pursue.  To their credit, they responded fairly quickly:

"You cannot register for this promotion until April 1. Please try the web link at that time."

I imagine hundreds (if not thousands) of loyalty program members went through this same frustrating experience. 

The brand committed an unforced error.

As a young tennis player, my instructors railed about the evils of unforced errors.  What is an unforced error? The common dictionary definition is:
"a missed shot or lost point (as in tennis) that is entirely a result of the player's own blunder and not because of the opponent's skill or effort"
Forced errors are understandable because an opponent plays a shot so good that your return goes out of bounds or you are unable to get to the ball. Your opponent earns the point. Unforced errors are our own fault and should be minimized at all costs. They give away points. We frequently can anticipate them ... and plan to avoid them.

A common unforced error in tennis is the double fault. You hit your first serve hard and miss. Rather than take the same risk on the second serve and lose the point, you opt for a higher percentage serve, one with a greater margin of safety. Doing so gets the ball in play and makes your opponent win the point by hitting a better shot that is a clear winner or forces an error on your part.

The hotel chain committed a major unforced error by inviting us to join a promotion not yet open. Perhaps the bulk rate postcard mailing arrived sooner than planned, but smart organizations anticipate unforced errors and act to avoid them.  To avoid the unforced error, the company could have increased the promotional launch's margin of safety by:
  • Indicating on the promotional postcard that registration would be live on April 1, possibly playing off the April Fools Day connection: "No joke. On April 1, you can start earning bonus points for all your stays through June 30."
  • Instead of producing a 404 web page error for people trying to access the registration page prior to April 1, a more welcoming temporary placeholder could have appeared: "Oops. You got here a bit early. We can't wait to register you for this promotion on April 1. We welcome you to return at that time."
I hate to lose.  But I really hate losing when I essentially beat myself because of unforced errors. We want to make other people beat us, losing because we encountered an opponent with superior skill.

Action item: at an upcoming staff or board meeting, take time to discuss the idea of unforced errors, brainstorm some your organization may be making now,  and then put systems in place to eliminate or minimize them.

Conference Design: Focus on Function, Not Just Form

“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains or the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”
—Steve Jobs, Founder and CEO, Apple

It used to be that most American homes came with a formal dining room, a room designated for a specific purpose, but rarely used beyond it.  It was a waste of space.

More contemporary home design begins with an understanding of the way the homeowners live and the activities their space must support: eating, socializing, consuming media, sleeping, working, exercising, gardening, and many more.  Just because you will be eating doesn't mean you need (or want) a room for that purpose alone.  The same is true for the home office.  At one time, you may have wanted a specific room for office purposes because you needed the designated space for a desk, a desktop computer, a printer, a filing cabinet, and much more.  Now you can get by with just a few shelves or a small closet given our adoption of laptops and tablets.

Just as this trend in home design can inform the design or remodel of office space, so can it inform our design efforts for multiple-day leadership and learning experiences.  Begin with gaining some clarity around the activities/functions people will want to engage in as a part of your event and the value those activities presumably create.  Then identify ways to infuse and integrate the activities and the throughout the experience, not just in an isolated timeblock specific to one purpose.  Having a networking reception is nice, but creating multiple networking opportunities in general sessions, breakouts, and at meals is even nice. 

Once that is accomplished, dig deeper into the value being sought behind the activities that attendees will want to engage it at the event.  Networking, for example, embraces multiple value propositions: finding someone who can give me a job, finding a business partner for a service my organization needs, diversifying my professional network in general, et al.  Once possible value propositions for any specific function/activity have been identified, look at all the various forms you can leverage to help attendees acquire that value beyond your usual defaults.

In addition to this general emphasis on functions, the value behind them, and diversifying the forms you consider in your design, the following more tactical design questions can help develop a more valuable conference and learning experience.
  1. What are the "must includes" in the gathering?  Think from both a content and a people standpoint: we need to cover this information/these topics, provide these types of learning opportunities, make sure these people have visibility in front of the entire group, involve these folks as presenters, etc.
  2. What are the "it would be nice to includes"?  Example: 10-minutes of comments from the organization's president.
  3. What are the logistics constraints we need to operate under (start and finish times each day, meals, budget, etc.)?
  4. What would you most like people to be saying about their conference experience after it concludes and how they feel about the organization and their role within it?
  5. What might be possible/desirable to do before the event and as a follow-up to strengthen the experience and the overall results you'd like to achieve?
  6. What are your overall desired learning outcomes, the knowledge you want people to leave with, and the actions you want them to feel capable of taking?
  7. Are there any "wild ideas" you've been thinking about that we should introduce into the mix?
  8. What are the unique characteristics of your attendees that should inform the design and delivery of the leadership conference experience?
  9. How can we maximize the interaction among participants, support any collaborative endeavors, and increase their retention, sharing, and application of the content covered? 
  10. How can technologies (both electronic and in other forms) be used to help participants connect to each other, the conversations they value, and the insights they seek?
 What are some other conference design questions you find most helpful?