August 9, 2017

Time to Consider a Capital (Human) Campaign

Almost every major nonprofit institution will embark on at least one capital campaign during its lifetime, soliciting significant financial contributions for new buildings, programs, or their endowment.

It's time for any organization that solicits volunteers' time and talent to do the same.  Except instead of raising money,ask for pledges and commitments of time, talent, and leadership.

First, create a compelling vision of the meaningful and bold accomplishments that will be achieved if the goal for volunteer contributions is met.  Make the case compelling, crafting a vivid story bringing to life what this massive influx of time and talent will make possible.  Think like the renowned Chicago architect Daniel Burnham who famously said:
"Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big."
Second, just as with a major fund-raising campaign, have a quiet phase in which you solicit major contributions and matching challenge grants from lead donors and prominent individuals to model the way for the masses.

Third, recruit individuals to serve as team captains, each pledging to reach out those in their circles of influence and to obtain a certain level of commitments and contributions.

Finally, go public with the campaign, sharing your goal for the results you want to achieve and inviting individuals to pledge their commitment to help make the vision a reality.

Too many organizations fail to fully imagine what might be possible from a broader and deeper contribution of time and talent from those who care about their purpose or cause.  And if we never make the ask, individuals can never make the gift of their ideas, insights, and labor to making major achievements possible.

The community is always resource-full.  We just need to be more resourceful in engaging it.

August 2, 2017

A Dozen Ideas for Better Conferences

Revisiting and refreshing some conference design fundamentals can often enhance the value the experience provides to participants. Based on doing exactly that with several organizations this year, here are a dozen (in no particular order) opportunities calling for your attention. In exploring these areas, remain vigilant about your own possible implicit bias ... designing elements that you would like, but your participants might value less.

1. Right after registration check-in is an underutilized opportunity.
Planners spend a lot of time ensuring an efficient registration experience, but often spend no time designing what comes next.  I've checked in and now have a bag full of stuff ... now what? Consider creating a transition space where people can sit, get organized, and get connected.  Components could include light refreshments, welcome ambassadors, a genius bar, a resource area, award winners on display, and more.

2.  General sessions beg to be followed by learning labs.
Many conferences fail to realize an appropriate learning return for their big bucks investments in general session speaker fees and stagecraft. Even the most compelling keynote speech has limited shelf life if application is not examined with like-minded peers. College courses often have lectures followed by intimate learning labs and conference general sessions can do the same. Labs could be organized by job functions, organization size or budget, specific questions or issues, and more. Better yet, also build content application moments into the general session design to make that experience more active and useful.

3.  Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) still receive too little support.
SMEs comprise a large percentage of the presenters at many conferences and still need much more support to move from delivering information to facilitating learning. A basic support menu should include an online resource center, webinars, before and after session design examples, peer coaching, and special attention related to diversity and inclusion commitments.

4.  Create conference core values to infuse identity and intention into your choices.
If I was to watch your conference in action or examine any of its artifacts (marketing, program guides, apps, et al) would I immediately sense how it is different than a competing organization trying to attract the same audience? Applying clearly articulated core values can increase the odds your conference experience has a distinct identity, one amplified and extended in participants' word-of-mouth marketing. I'll address this topic in-depth in my next post in this series.

5.  Attend to the flow as you sequence conference elements.
A great conference experience is subtly orchestrated by carefully sequencing individual conference elements (and individual segments within them) for their effect on learning, connections and community, energy and attention, cognitive overload, and much more. In your design, be sure to consider how moving any individual element affects the overall flow as well as these individual factors.

6.  Some major conference welcoming events are anything but, particularly for introverts. 
A good welcoming event is like curb appeal for a house for sale ... it draws you in and makes you want to see more or it sends you running away.  Every conference has a diverse array of participants in terms of: demographics; interests and needs; connection to your industry or profession, your organization, the conference community; dietary restrictions and preferences, and much more. Create some mock participant profiles that reflect these differences and then consider your welcoming event design through the eyes of these individuals. Dig deep into your design to create a more inclusive welcome. And a big missed opportunity? Making me feel welcome if I happen to miss the big welcoming event.

7.  Design for the ramp-up (pre-event) and the reflect and reengage (post-event) with as much intention and attention as you give the event itself.
Gather folks involved in your conference design and ask each one to write down the percentage of design time and resources allocated to (1) before the event, (2) the event itself, and (3) after the event. After everyone shares, discuss the distributions and what participant value might be created if the time and resources were allocated differently. Too often, what happens before and after receive too little attention and remain too focused on logistics. Both should be about enhancing the learning and connectedness/sense of community your participants acquire.

8.  Enable sharing to spread the conference value far and wide.
What if every attendee is thought of as a learning ambassador, someone who will need to go back and teach others all that was learned from your conference? How might you support them in doing so? Creating shareable snack-size content excerpts (pictures with headlines and takeaways, prepared Tweets and social media status update options with built-in content takeaways, and video session highlights or executive summaries are just a few of the possibilities.

9.  Set yourself up to succeed. Place little bets.
Test your boldest or riskiest ideas where you can learn what works without fear; i.e., a limited attendance or invite only session, a track of conference experiments, an optional experience. Every conference design benefits from experimenting with new ways to support participants' intentions, as well as refreshing the value of longstanding program elements before they become tired and less desirable.

10.  Build learning into your marketing and communications.
Include links to additional resources (ones you offer, as well as a curated and annotated list of external sources that you create) in your online registration materials and session descriptions, as well as registration confirmations and other communications. Do not limit learning to the conference or any sessions themselves.

11.  Connect content to application through the learning experience.
Content without context, reflection, exploration, and application is merely noise that may raise awareness at best. That is not enough. We must help participants understand the implications (so what?) and applications (now what?) of any content covered. Increase the ratio of signal-to-noise in your content and session design and help every presenter do the same by providing at minimum, a list of easy-to-apply hands-on learning formats.

12.  White space is your friend.
Every conference schedule needs breathing room and white space by design. It is why musicians have silence between the notes and wine tastings include palate cleansers between samples. A good conference design does the same.

This is the fourth post in a summer series on the craft of conference and program design.

Previous posts:

July 19, 2017

The Reveal: Helping Make Perspectives and Positions Known

Trainers and facilitators call it a lot of things: making learning visible, getting all the cards on the table, surfacing assumptions and insights, increasing transparency, making the private more public.  Whatever the label, "it" always refers to one thing: making more individual perspectives and positions known so that a group of people can discuss them.

When collaborating with folks on workshop and conference designs this year, I've realized that not everyone is comfortable with how to do this or is familiar with the array of options available to do so.  Let me share a few of the core issues I consider in my designs and some specific tools and techniques I have found easy to use.

The Johari Window is one framework that influences how I think about this work as I will be asking people to make public to others information that currently is private and known only to them.  A workshop or conference attendee's comfort to do so is influenced by many factors including the size and composition of the group, the perceived intrusiveness or vulnerability associated with answering the questions, the level of familiarity and trust that exists among everyone participating, and the potential risks or rewards associated with the sharing. The more challenging the ask, the more support that may be required to facilitate the answer.

One of the most important design decisions then is whether the public sharing of the information will be done anonymously or with attribution.

Anonymous sharing can be facilitated by:

  • Real-time cellphone or tablet polling using Poll Everywhere or a comparable platform.
  • A summary of participant responses to a pre-event survey coupled with sharing a Word Cloud of the aggregate response as a compelling visual.
  • Individuals noting responses on index cards to questions posed and then placing them in topical envelopes followed by small groups each taking an envelope, discussing their card content, and creating a summary for sharing.

Semi-anonymous sharing can be facilitated by:

  • Flag Polling with participants raising a red (disagree strongly), yellow (neutral), or green (agree strongly) paper flag in response to questions posed. 
  • Rapid Response Cards. Individuals write an index card response to a question posed. Cards are then quickly passed and read for a brief time period.  To increase anonymity, cards could be shuffled and distributed prior to the read and pass.
  • Groupies involves participants in a small group individually noting their thoughts on a topic. The table's cards are placed in an envelope and swapped with another table. The new cards are then read and discussed with a summary created or reactions/feedback noted before cards are returned to the original table.
  • Think-Pair-Share invites individuals to first note their thoughts followed by more intimate sharing with one person. The sharing can be repeated with new partners.
  • Sit in a Section uses the room set to facilitate like-minded people connecting as participants sit in a section earmarked for individuals holding a participant opinion/position. You can use tables with different color cloths to achieve this goal or physically label different rows of seats.

Public sharing can be facilitated by:

  • Human Graphs with individuals forming a straight line (zero) and moving left or right based on their level of agreement or disagreement with a statement read.
  • Four Corners in which each corner of the room is labeled with a multiple choice option or a level of agreement and people move to the appropriate space when a question or statement is read.
  • Town Halls where individuals self-select to take a microphone and offer responses or thoughts.
  • Personal Billboards in which individuals note responses on a flipchart to a variety of questions posed, sign their chart, and post it.  All participants than do a Gallery Walk viewing others' postings before open facilitated discussion.

For any of these "reveal" techniques, learning designers also want to consider the introverted or extroverted tendencies of participants and enhance the chosen formats to be as inclusive as possible of either tendency.

Additional key inclusion considerations are the sightedness, auditory capabilities, and mobility of participants. You do not want to select a format that will automatically exclude anyone from fully engaging.

Further, avoid using exclusionary language when introducing the format. Example: In Four Corners, a person in a wheelchair can move to whichever corner represents her opinion, but she cannot go stand in the corner to make her selection.

A well-designed session or conference can include a variety of these techniques or approaches, selecting them based on the nature of the content you want to surface, the time available for doing so, and the energy and engagement the technique should support based on where it falls in the program/event.

While not exhaustive by any means, I hope this overview stimulates your thinking about how to better facilitate participants sharing individual information for group-level discussion and decision-making.

How else have you approached this important work?

This is the third post in a summer series on the craft of conference and program design.

Previous posts:

June 26, 2017

Leveraging the Power of Purposeful Icebreakers

I have written previously about some of the icebreaker malpractice that occurs in meetings. The key question when considering icebreakers as a part of your meeting, workshop, or conference agenda is: 

What ice (if any) needs to be broken to make it easier for participants to do the work they have convened to complete?

In addition to the answers identified, when brainstorming possible activities it is helpful to consider:
  • time available;
  • number of participants; 
  • room logistics;
  • culture of the profession/industry;
  • culture of the organizations that participants represent;
  • learning and engagement tendencies of the participants;
  • facilitator capabilities; and
  • the remaining content for the session.

Let me give you a specific example from a 3.5-hour future trends session I recently helped a professional association design for leaders from several different organizations. The session's purpose is to introduce these leaders to some disruptive industry trends and to help them think about how their organizations can prepare for their impact.

Approximately 85-100 mid-level professionals, about 65% male, will attend.  Futurists and other speakers outside the industry will introduce the trends coupled with self-guided small group discussions and facilitated large group Q&A. Those attending generally will not know many other people present.  They also will not interact with them in the future. Most participants represent professions and organizations that approach change conservatively.

When considering all these characteristics, we decided any icebreakers should help participants be more open to the presenters' provocations and to be comfortable discussing unknowns with each other. In short, help them be less resistant to entertain predictions they might find unrealistic, threatening, or unlikely. We decided to allot no more than 30 minutes for breaking the ice and to do so with two different activities.

Activity One (approximately 10 minutes)
Quotes/Prediction from the Past

Seat participants at tables in groups of six.  Give each table a set of six quotes about predicting the future (some humorous).  Participants each draw one, introduce themselves, share their quote, and briefly react to it.

Basic intros completed. People warmed up a bit to each other and the session's topic. Individuals each contributed to the conversation.  

Activity Two (approximately 20 minutes)
Forecasting the Future

Provide each table a set of 6-8 predictions for society overall. Invite groups to rank the predictions (on flipcharts) in order of likelihood they think they will come true.  Ask groups to post their rankings on a long wall.  Invite all participants to stand, stretch, and review the posted rankings. The session facilitator reconvenes the group, offers some brief commentary about the challenge in forecasting the unknown—using accuracy of weather forecasts as an everyday example—and invites participants to remain open to presenter predictions.

Collaborative discussions and decison-making occurred. Individuals experienced the challenge in managing forecasts. Diversity of thought and opinions surfaced. Opening activities connected to subsequent session content. Energy refreshed via stand-up time.

A few notes about the choices made:
  • Self-guided activities with a high level of structure were selected as the facilitator for the event has yet to be determined and could be someone less experienced.
  • The quote cards in the opening activity loosely connect to the day's content and make it easier for everyone (particularly introverts) to briefly share beyond the usual name, rank and serial number intros.
  • The second activity engages people in low-risk collaborative work in which there are no right answers, hopefully freeing them to participate more fully.
  • Entertaining forecasts for society-at-large in the second activity will hopefully help participants be more open to the external presenters' forecasts for their profession.
  • The collaborative conversations and rankings in activity two model how participants might take the presenters' forecasts from the event and engage their colleagues in making meaning from them.
  • The "gallery wall" display of all table rankings allows people to mix and mingle briefly, refresh their energy, and see the diversity of opinions (and that this diversity is both likely and OK) that may be present in the room.

This is the second post in a summer series on the craft of conference design.
Previous post:

June 21, 2017

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?

May 22, 2017

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.

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.

May 2, 2017

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.