Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Process for Virtual Collaborative Design

Based on the inputs described in my last post, here is a possible model for a Virtual Collaboration Process.

1. Assemble a Core Team
Instead of gathering 50 or 100 or more participants for a multi-day session, we will start by assembling a Core Team of decision-makers. This might be 10-20 people, and should include some diversity.

2. Define Objectives and Outputs
The Core Team will work with us to define their objectives for this collaborative process and the output they want to receive at the end of the project. We will also define with this group the diverse perspectives that we want to explore through this process (stakeholders, time frames, models of solutions, etc.)

3. Distributed Model-Building
The Core Team will then distribute model-building assignments to small teams and individuals throughout the organization (and beyond). These teams will be asked to spend a small amount of time to build a model, document their work and send their outputs (models) back to the Core Team. This activity could be assigned to existing project teams or other groups. They could be asked by top management to spend an hour on this task during a regularly-scheduled meeting. We can engage a very large population with very little disruption to normal operations.

4. Processing the Models
The Core Team will then have to explore the models that have been created and use them in some way. The Core team would then send out the next round of assignments to the same or different teams throughout the organization. The outputs from these teams is again returned to the Core Team for processing.
This process can engage a huge population, but the primary transformation, insights and decision-making will happen in the Core Team. They are the only group that sees all of the divergent models being created. They are the only group exploring the ramifications of these different models. The Core Team will need to get together periodically during this process, but much of their work can be handled remotely as well. This will significantly decrease the client's cost for travel, lodging, etc. compared to large face-to-face meetings while at the same time increasing the breadth of participation and the depth of the exploration of divergent perspectives.

This process looks very different than a traditional face-to-face collaborative experience. But it uses the same core principles to achieve superior results through different tools and methods.

Here is a short video explaining the whole process:

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Conceiving of "Virtual Collaboration"

There are two possible approaches for exploring "virtual collaboration". The first is to add digital tools to existing processes or to recreate face-to-face experiences digitally. This seems to be the approach of most "collaborative technology" providers -- they want to create digital tools that make it seem like "you're in the same room" with people in other parts of the world. As facilitators of collaborative design, we know that most face to face meetings are highly unstructured and unproductive. Why would anyone want to perpetuate those experiences online in the first place?

The second approach to virtualization is to explore the core principles that makes a face-to-face process effective, and then to apply those core principles to a new, digital environment. The resulting process would leverage the strengths of the new medium rather than faithfully replicating the original face-to-face experience.

So what are the core principles of our face-to-face collaborative design process? What is it that we really do?

Approach to Facilitation and Design
First, there is a rather large universe of collaboration processes. Some processes involve a high facilitator presence (controlling the participants from the front of the room), and some involve a low facilitator presence. Some processes are designed in great detail in advance, and some processes allow the design to emerge through the experience. Plotted on a matrix, these two variable define four quadrants of collaboration.

Templates: Workshops
Most training and workshops fall into this quadrant with high facilitator presence and lots of design in advance. The agenda is established before the meeting and the facilitator runs the whole show.

Coaching: Doyle and Strauss
The traditional facilitation model involves the facilitator as a coach for the group. The group determines the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, and the facilitator focuses on managing the behavior of the participants (ensuring everyone's voice is heard, etc.)

Self-Organizing: Open Space
In this quadrant, there is no design and very little facilitator involvement. The group determines what it wants to do and how it will accomplish it. This is the realm of Open Space Technology.

Design-Intensive: Future Search, DesignShops, etc.
This is the high-design, low-facilitation quadrant where we have historically played and developed our expertise. The design is structured in great detail in advance, but the assignments facilitate the group's work. The facilitator plays a very light and occasional role in the process.

It is my belief that the core of the collaborative methodology that we use ("Collaborative Sessions", "DesignShops", etc.) is model-building. We ask participants to build models of a solution from a wide variety of perspectives, over and over again throughout our face-to-face sessions. An individual assignment asks the participants to build a model of a solution from their own vantage point. A "metaphor" activity asks participants to build a model of a solution based on a different system (a living system, for example, or another kind of lens). A "take-away" activity asks participants to build a model of a solution that does not include a component that is normally viewed as essential. They build models from the perspectives of different stakeholders. They build models of solutions in different time frames. They build models of solutions as if they were a competitor or a brand new start-up. Each of these models highlights new aspects of a final, workable solution. Our expertise is in identifying the right perspectives for building models and then sequencing those perspectives to explore new ideas and then converge on an excellent and innovative solution.

The Anatomy of a Model-Building Activity
Our collaborative sessions are a series of these model-building activities. Each activity is made up of several components. The assignment provides the context, process and instructions for the activity. The team defines the individuals working on the model. The template is the form for the team's final output -- a list, a graph, a flowchart, a diagram, etc. We may provide the team with some resources -- tools, information, materials, etc. Finally, the team does its work in some environment. These five elements combine into the experience of the activity, and the activity produces an ouput - some kind of model.

Types of Activities
There are a variety of different types of modeling activities that we can assign to a team. Orientation activities familiarize participants with the context of their work -- the objectives, the market, the landscape, etc.
activities engage participants in learning about new perspectives or new systems.
activities ask participants to create solutions.
activities ask participants to evaluate one or more possible solutions.
activities get participants to think about other things for awhile to allow the problems to simmer.
activities trade a model for some form of value -- a project plan, for example, might be exchanged for resources to fund that project. Again, our expertise is in identifying which types of activities are appropriate for a group and in what sequence.

So if we assume that the core of our face-to-face collaborative design process is "iterative model-building", then how can we create a virtual process to accomplish the same objectives? It may be valuable to learn from other successful processes for distributed, asynchronous change. Appreciative Inquiry is a successful change model that involves mostly one-on-one interviews between people throughout an organization. The process for creating "Implications Wheels" can engage small teams throughout an organization in a one-hour model-building activity that serves as very valuable input into a core team of decision-makers.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Biometrics and You

Not sure why this has piqued my interest, but Chris Skinner learned a ton of new stuff about biometric scanning. ATM's in Japan don't even need your fingerprint anymore. They scan the unique pattern of veins and arteries in your hand, and you don't even have to touch anything -- very hygienic. Some tidbits on facial recognition as well. Yikes.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Eureka! Novotel's Meeting Spaces

Novotel in Europe has been working with InnovationLabs to redesign its service offering for meetings. These tend to be smaller meetings - the space appears to max out around 20 people.

The tool they've developed for their website is a terrific example, though, of how a space can be reconfigured to support different functions. (Click on the four "plans" on the right side of the screen to see the space reconfigure!) The space can support a variety of different work styles, and this is the first demonstration I've seen of a hotel actually thinking through the process of a meeting beyond when a meal will be served.

They even post sample agendas for how your meeting can be more productive using this kind of space!

(Oh, the whole site is in French, so let me know if you have more questions about the content.)

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Identity on the Web

What does it mean to "have an identity"? On the web? In retail stores? In person? Here's what your bank is thinking. (This has no direct application for me, but the discussion is fascinating.)

Chris Skinner maintains a fascinating financial services blog, and part of the fascination is that he makes financial services fascinating.

And while we're meandering wildly off-topic in the domain of secure online identities, add Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon to your summer reading list. Fascinating vision of encryption and decryption of codes from WWII into the New Millenium. All the more intriguing is that the book is from 1999 and still feels technologically relevant.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

The Power of Diversity

Scott Page published a powerful book in 2007 that deserves a lot more attention than it got. The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies. Scott talked about his ideas at the Thought Leader Forum in 2004. I ate 'em up.

Here is the transcript of his talk, along with some of our real-time illustrations.

First off, his definition of "diversity" has nothing to do with class, race or gender. He cares about "cognitive diversity" -- the mental toolbox that we use to solve our problems. The fun thing about mental tools is that they are combinatorial -- you can use models and methods you learned in algebra and combine them with stuff you learned playing soccer, and you will look at problems in a completely unique way. What Scott found in his research is that teams of people with diverse backgrounds, experiences and yes, IQ's will outperform teams of (literally) rocket scientists on solving complex problems. The scientists are all trained to approach problems in the same way, while the plumbers, gardeners and assistants all look at problems differently.

How can we tap into The Difference at conferences? Most meetings are training grounds for conformity -- abide by the dress code, stick to the agenda, sit quiet and listen, and networrrrrrrrk NOW! We go to meetings to get stimulated. Lots of corporate meetings (at least) are organized to get people "aligned". How can we leverage diversity, and not squash it because it's inconvenient?

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Visualizer

I met the editor of MPI's ONE+ magazine at the World Education Congress in Las Vegas last summer. He thought that Illumination Galleries sounded pretty interesting, if unusual, so he assigned a writer to find out more.

"The Visualizer" is not a title I've ever used for myself, but we're working on a superhero outfit to capitalize on the publicity. The PDF version has lots of pretty pictures.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Designed Meetings

Hallelujah! It is fantastic to discover like minds out there. Mary Boone of Boone Associates just published a fantastic paper on making meetings strategic. From this link, you can download the full PDF of the paper. I highly recommend it.

She talks about several key shifts in meetings. The first is a shift from evaluating meetings based on "efficiency" alone, to evaluating them on both "effectiveness" and "efficiency". Look at how your meetings are impacting your company's strategy and performance, not just how much they cost.

The second key concept is to evaluate all of your organization's meetings as a portfolio -- this includes offsites, trainings, retreats, conferences, kick-offs, and any other gathering that you organize. What are the different components of your meeting portfolio, and how does each component contribute to the strategy of the company? This allows executives to make intelligent choices about where to invest their resources, rather than just cutting items that arbitrarily look "too expensive".

Finally, meeting design vs. meeting planning:

"The problem to date has been that many individual meetings may be expertly planned, but not expertly designed. There is a real and significant difference in these two concepts.

"Meeting design is the purposeful shaping of the form and content of a meeting to achieve desired results. Meeting design incorporates methods and technologies that connect, inform, and engage a broad range of relevant stakeholders before, during, and after the meeting. Good design helps meeting owners establish clear objectives and desired outcomes, integrate the meeting with other communication activities, maximize interactivity, and create a significant return on investment." (emphasis mine)

She goes on to distinguish meeting design from both planning and instructional design.

As we design Illumination Galleries for clients, we focus on precisely these elements -- connections and interactions to achieve results. We base our Galleries on our 20+ years of experience designing and facilitating corporate collaborative sessions to solve strategic challenges. When we looked at the larger world of "meetings", we saw a huge opportunity to make these investments of people, time and resources vastly more productive. We constantly seek out new tools and methods to connect people, to engage them, and to help them collaborate to create real results in these sessions. Otherwise, what's the point, really, of getting all of those people together?

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Periodic Table of Visual Literacy is a partnership that developed course materials for teaching students how to become "literate" in a huge range of visual tools. They've also produced a "periodic table" of visualization methods that breaks out all the tools you might want to use to visualize data, information, concepts, or strategies, with a nice example of each one.

These kinds of tools at conferences make the environment for attendees extremely rich. Instead of just hearing speakers, or just seeing endless PowerPoint slides, attendees can explore information-rich environments that engage them in making connections between the content and their everyday lives. Since most people (in part, at least) learn visually, these visual tools alone can create much more powerful interactions among attendees outside the main lecture hall at a conference.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wisdom of Crowds

Based on my Many-to-Many post a few days ago, invoking "the wisdom of crowds" feels a little bit obvious. But I've had the pleasure to engage with Jim Surowiecki several times over the last few years -- at Michael Mauboussin's Thought Leader Forum, and once at the Santa Fe Institute -- and his ideas merit repetition. And if a speaker at a conference I've worked at happens to support my vision for the future of conferences, all the better!

You've heard the concept by now that "the Many" can be smarter than the Few, even if the Few have higher IQ's. Jim puts several important qualifiers on situations that make this actually hold true. This is an overview of the Wisdom of Crowds theory that he gave in 2004.

So when is the crowd smarter? The crowd must include a diversity of perspectives. The members of the crowd must think independently. And there must be some way of aggregating the independent, diverse opinions of the group.

As you might imagine, conferences tend to fail this test on all fronts. Speakers convey "one message", and attendees are quizzed to see if they "got the message". Conferences ask attendees to ingest and comply, not think independently. And conferences hardly ask people for their opinions, must less aggregate them into something meaningful and creative.

Crowds can be diverse, creative and powerful. Conferences can too!

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Monday, March 16, 2009

"Where the Real Fun Is!"

Great tweet from my friend Dan regarding the recent SXSW conference. The blog post describes the high points of this conference. The most striking one for me begins thusly:

"How were the panels? I only attended 3. Most people quickly realize that sessions isn’t where the real fun is (hint: it’s the lobby!)."

At more and more of these events, the "juice" for attendees is not in the formal program of the conference, but in the interactions with other attendees. Most conferences, however, still focus their investments on the heavy, one-to-many set pieces - keynotes and the panels.
If the "real fun" is really in the lobby, I would love to know how (and if) SXSW structured that fun. How did they facilitate it? How did they encourage it? How did they document any of the great ideas and conversations that came out of it? Does no one else think that THAT should be the new model for conferences?

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Technique - Mind Mapping

Here's a tip for you creatives out there. Mindmapping is a simple technique that helps a group quickly make sense of a whole bunch of new ideas -- from a discussion, a presentation or even a brainstorming session. Here's a nice primer on how to get started:

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The UNconference

A lot of energy is being devoted to new conference models. MPI now calls one of its two major annual conferences "MeetDifferent". We'll explore a bunch of models of alternative conferences here, but I just ran across a great site about UNconferences. "If the agenda is pre-set, it isn't an unconference!" Cool rules that challenge a lot of conventional wisdom!

Friday, March 13, 2009

One-to-Many, Many-to-Many

The traditional conference is based on the idea that a few smart people (the experts) know everything that needs to be known about the topic of the conference. The sponges (the attendees) are there to passively absorb the wisdom coming from the podium at the front of the room.

But that's not how learning happens. That model of instruction only began because there were so few printed books before Gutenberg. The word "lecture" in French actually means "reading". The "lecturer" at early universities actually stood at the front of the room and READ the books out loud to the students. That was the most efficient way to disseminate the information. Once the printing press took off, the role of the readers shifted to that of commentator on the texts. The students could read the books perfectly well for themselves now, so the teachers needed something to do. And you see that the basic model of education hasn't changed much in the last 600 years.

Brilliantly, we've taken that same model into the world of conferences. But you know as well as I do that the most meaningful parts of any conference happen in the hallways, not the ballrooms. It's the people we meet! It's the conversations we have! Yes, speakers can inform and inspire, but it's not until we connect the ideas and the people with our own lives (at work or at home) that these conferences mean anything or make a difference!

Connecting the many to the many -- that's the challenge of the new conference. The collective genius of the attendees far surpasses that of any elite set of speakers. How can we tap into that genius?

The ROI of Meetings

MPI and its associates have just published research that "proves" that meetings deliver the highest ROI among all marketing initiatives.

The research, while clearly more marketing than science, raises some interesting questions. First, how should ROI be measured for meetings and events? (For this research, the pollsters asked marketing exec which marketing approach delivered the best ROI -- and voila! Proof!) The easy stuff to measure (like "satisfaction") is often what gets measured first, and those early measures often then drive decision-making as an organization moves forward. The most important things to measure (like "business impact") are a lot trickier. How can you isolate the impact of one meeting or event in a company's quarterly earnings, for example? Just because it's difficult, however, doesn't mean it shouldn't be done.

How can we more effectively measure the ROI of meetings? offers a nice overview of a more strategic approach to measuring event ROI. And to be fair, each company that organizes events does so for different reasons. A meeting might be "high-value" if it saves cost over the previous year's event through better negotiations. But again, meetings are held for a reason - in theory, that reason should be tied to a company's strategy.

Back to the MPI survey -- "33% of respondents say they will move from event marketing to experience marketing in the next 12 months." Shouldn't events BE experiences? I know there's a technical distiction between event- and experience-marketing, but we've been trapped too long into a model of what an "event" can be. More engagement. More interaction. More real work! It can be done.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Technique - Brainstorming

The purpose of brainstorming in a group is to gather the greatest number of ideas possible. A little quirk of the human mind, however, is called “anchoring” – we are heavily influenced by our first impression of things. Therefore the first idea tossed out in a group setting tends to lead the group down a particular path of thinking and creativity, eliminating a huge range of options that might have been considered with a different “first idea” as a starting point. To minimize this problem, start a brainstorming session by having everyone in the group brainstorm a list of ideas individually on their own sheet of paper. Then start the group brainstorming session. As the energy around one idea path winds down, ask for someone else to call out one of the ideas they wrote down – this will seed another round of group brainstorming.

Assignment: At your next brainstorming meeting, take five minutes at the beginning of the brainstorming to have everyone write down their own ideas first.