Friday, July 10, 2009

Notes from the Field - MPI WEC 2009

Here we go! I am off to Salt Lake City for the MPI World Education Congress. I'll be sharing my journal pages as well as other reflections throughout the event. You can check here to see my progress.

I've also been asked by ONE+ editor David Basler to provide their daily newspaper with a graphic for each day's edition. Here's a draft of Sunday's image.

The theme for the event is "When we meet, we change the world." It's an interesting proposition. Peter Block says that every major change starts with a conversation in a small group. So important conversations will be taking place in Salt Lake City. There will be a whole lot more conversations taking place outside of Salt Lake City through a number of social media channels. I'm excited to explore this from the inside, and I'm happy to be able to share some insights with those of you who cannot attend.

Stay tuned...

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Ultimate Networking Event

In a recent #eventprofs chat on Twitter, the discussion briefly turned to the "ultimate networking event". What would it look like? How would it work? Why would it be better than other networking events?

In the interest of full disclosure, it was exactly this line of thinking that led us to create the services that we offer. So I've tried NOT to frame this as a sales pitch, but rather as a thought process that leads to great interactions between people.

First of all, why do we network? We want to connect with new people. These might be people we want to learn from, to work for, to work with, to sell to, to partner with, or a whole host of other variations on those themes. We want to meet people who have similar interests to ours. We want to meet people that might be fun and/or productive to work/talk/play with in the future.

So how do we connect with new people?

Personal Introductions
Perhaps the most valuable way to meet new people is a personal introduction from a trusted third person. I know Andre. Andre knows Barb. Andre knows that Barb and I share common interests, so he introduces us. This is a great, new, "qualified" connection to our network. But what if we're in a room full of strangers...?

Shared Interest
We often want to meet people who share our interests. How, in a room full of strangers, can you find out who's interested in what? This challenge led us to create the "Galleries" concept in the first place. What if you could distribute content and ideas strategically around a physical space? That would allow people to congregate near the topics that were interesting to them, and that would allow them to bump into other people interested in the same topics!

Imagine the Louvre or the Met in New York. You will find a fair number of visitors to the museums who try to wander around the whole place to see every thing. You will also find people who specialize in particular artists or styles or themes. Spend some time in the Impressionist area, and you are bound to find other enthusiasts of Impressionism. And having the topic of your interest (the paintings) all around you, it becomes much easier to find people who share your interests AND to start a conversation with them -- "Don't you love the way Monet uses light and water together?"

IdeaBoards are designed to create the same networking opportunity at meetings and conferences. IdeaBoards are illustrations of the content from keynotes, panel discussions, group discussions and breakout sessions. Our illustrators create these IdeaBoards in real-time, and post them in the Gallery at the end of each session. We can organize the IdeaBoards by speaker, by theme, or by any other topic.

IdeaBoards draw people into conversations. They are a fun, colorful, insightful way to present content. The invite people who attended that session to see what they heard in a new way, and they give people who didn't attend a quick overview of the story and major themes of the session. And as these two kinds of people stand next to each other in the Gallery, they can easily start up a conversation about this topic that they both are so clearly interested in!

IdeaBoards are just one of the tools that you can use to facilitate networking. Twitter feeds, SMS surveys, and content-driven trivia questions (among many others) can help strangers in a crowd to identify others with whom to make a connection.

Working Together - The IdeaLounge
Of course the ultimate test of any networking relationship is how well you end up working with that person. So why wait? Why offer canapes during a networking event, when you can offer tools to get real work done?

We've all spent many hours at these kinds of event, a drink in one hand, an empty toothpick in the other, wishing we could take a great conversation to the next level. We search for somewhere to put our drink down. We fumble for a napkin or the back of a business card to scribble out an idea...

What if you were surrounded by an environment full of collaboration tools AND comfortable seating? Imagine being able to sketch out your ideas on a marker board. Imagine a spontaneous brainstorming session of "the best ideas from this conference". Imagine taking a problem identified by a speaker earlier in the day and convening a quick focus group to come up with solutions, or next steps, or a proposal for funding to solve the problem. In this setting, surrounded by all of these tools, you get to meet people and work together with them! You get to experience how creative they are, how open they are to ideas, how flexible and funny they are when they're engaged in real design and not just cocktail chatter.

Again, marker boards and couches are just a few of the tools that can be brought to bear on the challenge of getting people to work together and not just chit chat. Flip camera can be used to record "great ideas" that people come up with. Digital cameras can be used to capture and share the marker board models and lists. Music can be used to strategically energize or relax the group. Polls (via SMS or informal walk-arounds) can test the mood of a group or introduce discussion topics. And of course wifi access can bring real data, computation tools and a world of other resources to bear on these (initially) casual conversations.

Not that there's anything wrong with canapes, of course. But we can get SO much more out of our investments in networking events!

I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences too! Are there other ideas and tools that I'm missing?

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tips for Unconferences

Jeff Hurt is a meeting planner and social media maven that I've recently had the good fortune to encounter in the #eventprofs chat on Twitter. His background in educational design shapes his entire approach to planning events.

Based on a WordCamp Dallas event he attended, he presents his tips for planning an "unconference" -- a non-traditional gathering where interactions among participants are more important than lectures from speakers. Both may still be included, but the emphasis is shifted towards interaction and co-creation.

Among my favorite tips:

"5. As you plan your schedule, include some adult white space for attendees to digest information, network and learn from others.
Just as in Twitter, it’s not about how many followers you have, conference planning is not about how many speakers you can cram into a day. It’s about the quality of your speaker’s presentations and the quality of the connections one can make."

"8. Unconference organizers should remember that people today are learning in new ways that are collective, egalitarian and participatory.
The best conference learning occurs when there are varieties of ways people can learn from passive listening to collaborative round-table discussions to small group exercise. Retention and learning decreases the more attendees sit and passively listen, especially for eight-to-ten hours a day...

"While trying to have a single-experience for the entire audience is admirable, it is not possible. Nor does it really happen. Everyone brings their own set of learnings, skills and perspectives to an event. Each person leaves with their own takeaways and views. The Internet has turned learning on its head and no one person enters, follows or leaves the social space in a same way."

Events must be valuable for all of your participants and stakeholders, but each of these people will have their own criteria for defining value. This is Jamie McDonough's "Value of One" principle. Our events must create personalized value for every attendee. It is critical first to understand what your different stakeholders want and need, and then you must design an approach to your meeting that allows for this wide range of unique experiences to unfold.

How have you seen this be successful at events? Share your "massively unique" event stories in the comments section!

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Best Seat in the House

You've probably been too busy running conferences and events to watch the behavior of your attendees very closely. Have you noticed how different they are in different environments? Have you noticed when they are engaged and passionate versus when they are quiet and passive?

At Illumination Galleries, we have observed human behavior in all kinds of collaborative environments. We can help you pack the biggest punch into an area of your conferences that our industry has largely ignored. Want to kick it up a notch? Answer the following question:

Where is all of the real action at a conference?
Is it in the plenary during the keynotes? Is it in the breakout sessions? Is it in the lobby outside the meeting rooms? Or is the bar the place to be?

If you answered "The bar!!!" with multiple exclamation points, then you might not want to show this piece to your supervisor. But to be fair, the bar, the lounge, the cocktail reception and the official networking events are all very important venues at a conference. Building relationships is a critical objective for most meeting attendees. Relationships require time for conversations to happen. And sometimes a little liquid courage helps to grease the wheels as well. The "bar" (to include any of the social locations listed above) is the place for social interactions to occur. Some negotiations take place here, but the bar is the stage for building relationships.

The plenary is another universe altogether. The plenary is set up to "broadcast messages" -- from one talking head to many listeners. These plenaries can have more or less energy, more or less interactivity, and more or less entertainment, but the primary function is for a few people (usually in the front) to share their ideas with the dozens or hundreds or thousands of others sitting in the audience. Executives and academics really like this space. This is the world of traditional education, where the expert talks and the little people absorb. Great speakers can make this environment transformational for people in the audience, but there just aren't that many great speakers out there. And for attendees, the more passive ones will like this space too -- this is where they can be most "entertained" with the minimal amount of effort on their part.

The breakout sessions tend to be where more detailed content gets shared, and where attendees get to have some interactions with the experts. These smaller-format sessions tend to be more hands-on, and much more interactive. For people who have come to a conference to learn a skill or best practice, the breakout session is where the most vital interactions will take place. Usually people get to attend sessions that they are interested in, so the audience is normally more focused and engaged. Great collaboration is possible here.

So that leaves us the lobby -- that nebulous "between" space that connects all of the different conference venues. This is where the registration table is normally found. You'll find snack stations and an endless supply of coffee. There might even be some informational or promotional displays here. It may seem a little strange that this area is often described as the most important part of a conference. Why is this area special? What makes this space useful? What can we do to make it even better?

The lobby belongs to the community of attendees. It is the Commons. The speakers own the plenary. The facilitators own the breakouts. The bar is pandemonium. The Commons is a different story. No one is in charge of it, so everyone can use it however they like. It is quiet enough to have important conversations, but generally active enough that you don't feel like you're bothering others (or that others are listening in). It is the central hub of the community, so anyone that you would want to see will walk through there on the way to or from somewhere -- this is where chance encounters and reunions happen, full of laughter and delight.

And this is where new ideas come flooding in like the tide. When people leave the plenary, fresh from a motivational speaker or a dynamic executive presentation, they pour into the Commons to share their ideas. When they return from a variety of exciting breakout sessions, they meet here to share ideas, compare notes and tell each other what they missed in the other sessions. These regular floods of new ideas and new energy keep the Commons at the center of the community of attendees.

This is where connections are made. This is where ideas pop. This is where insight happens. If you want to make a conference sizzle, transform the Commons into THE place to be!

This area gets the least amount of design attention of any venue at a conference, yet this is where the most important conversations are taking place. This is where people are most themselves, are most passionate, are most engaged. This is where the real value of a conference is forged for many attendees. The speakers, the breakouts, and the entertainment all provide fantastic ingredients, but it is here in the Commons that it all comes together to build new connections, new relationships, and new plans for the future.

We created Illumination Galleries to turbocharge the Commons. We decided bring the design brilliance of an opening session to the conference venue where attendees find the greatest value. We create a powerful experience of the meeting's content, of making connections, of building relationships and of producing results. Come visit the website and we'll show you how.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Four Elements of Strategic Value

MPI hosted a great webinar today by Mary Boone, Jack Phillips and Susan Radojevic on the strategic value of meetings. I filled up the marker board in the office with notes. Thought I'd share them here since this information is critical to what we're doing with Illumination Galleries.

Their argument in a nutshell, if I dare summarize. First, the financial crisis and negative press about meetings has put a lot of pressure on the meetings industry, but this pressure should be seen as an opportunity to transform ourselves from a cost center to a source of strategic value for businesses and associations.

Susan Radojevic introduced the concept of Portfolio Management. Companies organize a ton of meetings of all sizes. We generally measure them in terms of efficiency -- how much do they cost this year vs. last year? We should ALSO be measuring them in terms of effectiveness -- how are they impacting our strategic and business goals? Susan proposed a process called Alignment to identify the strategic goals of the company, to identify all of the meetings that are currently held by the company, and to develop and manage a strategic plan to prioritize the meetings that deliver the most business value. This changes the role of meeting planners from procurement experts to strategic players in the marketing function of an organization.

Mary Boone then explored the concept of Meeting Design - "the purposeful shaping of both form and content." First, the meeting designer works with the owners of the meeting to understand both the meeting objectives AND the business objectives behind the meeting. Then the designer culls through a wide range of tools, technologies and collaborative methodologies to craft a program that achieves both the meeting and the business objectives. "Connect. Inform. Engage!" (You will see the same themes all over the Illumination Galleries website as well, by the way.) Not every meeting planners needs to become a Meeting Designer, but planners DO need to learn to work with a much wider range of experts to pull off well-designed meetings, including meeting designers, "creatives", instructional designers, planning experts, social scientists, and interaction designers. We need to shift our 21st century meetings out of the 18th century "broadcast" mode, where "experts" merely talk at an audience. We need to create interactive experiences that get real work done!
Next, Jack Phillips talked about measuring the ROI on meetings. (Thanks SJSmith for the link!) He presented six different levels of measurement, from ___ to actual ROI (comparing the quantitative value of a meeting to the cost of delivery), and argued that only a few meetings require the highest levels of measurement. It is important to really quantify the value of these meetings, however, to improve future events, to engage senior executives better, and to get a seat at the table when strategic decisions are being made about your meetings.

Finally, the panelists gave a brief talk on Advanced Meeting Logistics. Logistics are critical to the success of a meeting. They define the constraints of the event, and they also enable everything that takes place in a meeting. Being flexible with logistics is critical when taking a meeting-design approach, because the form of the meeting may need to change as the needs of the participants change or become more clear. One of the webinar attendees then presented a great case study about the importance of logistics -- holding their first sea-faring event with 300 top executives aboard a cruise ship. "When life hands you limes, we at Baccardi make mojitos!" Love it.

Enjoy the illustrations!

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Peter Block and Communities

In a great book that I recommend to everyone I meet, Peter Block argues that all communities, all movements start as a conversation in a small group of people. This is how ideas form, this is how momentum happens. Yes, great speakers can move huge audiences, but that speaker is building on a platform created by a small group in a room somewhere.

Where are those small group conversations encouraged in conferences today? Where are real relationships fostered? Unfortunately they're relegated to breaks, to "networking" events, and to the golf course. (Nothing against golf, mind you, but is that really the best answer we have to the challenge of forging high-performance relationships?)

"The future is created one room at a time, one gathering at a time. Each gathering need to become an example of the future we want to create. This means that the small group is where transformation takes place... Small groups have the most leverage when they meet as part of a larger gathering....

"To build community, we seek conversations where people show up by invitation rather than mandate, and experience an intimate and authentic relatedness. We have conversations where the focus is on the communal possibility and there is a shift in ownership of this place, even though others are in charge. We structure these conversations so that diversity of thinking and dissent are given space, commitments are made without barter, and the gifts of each person and our community are acknowledged and valued." [Chapter 9 - The Small Group Is the Unit of Transformation]

Block nicely sums up the rules and guidelines for building communities. He identifies the important conversations that need to happen. This is the good stuff. This is how our conferences can be organized. This kind of event would create connections that matter.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

New World of Work

A number of these videos have been flashing around recently. They are each quite impactful, but it is important to look at them with fresh eyes after you've seen a few of them. The temptation is to think "Oh, yes. I've seen that." Look again. You might discover something new.

I watched this New World of Work video while thinking about the future (and the past) of conferences and meetings. World demographics are changing wildly. More people will be retired than are working in some countries. The demographic mix in the US will shift dramatically in the next 30 years, in terms of ethnicity, language, social classes and much more. The best jobs in 2020 have not been invented yet, and they will use technologies that we haven't even dreamed of. These are the jobs that our schools are preparing young people for.

Does this sound like a world in which people will be willing to invest their time and money in a big conference where a handful of people talk at them? No way! This is a world where people will have ultimate choices about how they use their time. They'll be able to do endless things online, on the phone, in virtual worlds. To get people to attend a meeting physically will require a tremendous attractor, and talking heads ain't it.

What can people do in person that cannot be replicated online? Look each other in the eyes. Shake hands. Overhear a conversation and jump right in. Collaborate intensely. These are the experiences that the meeting industry must strive to create, because these are the only experiences that your attendees won't be able to get online.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Schooling Has Patterned Us

Ever find yourself driving in a strange town, passing a large, heavily-fenced structure and wondering to yourself, "Is that a prison or a school?" It turns out that the traditional models for schools, prisons, armies and hospitals were all developed around the same time. Michel Foucault wrote a great book called Discipline and Punish that I was compelled to read in college. It told a fascinating story of how society thinks of the relationship between body and soul. The basic idea is that people who "behave badly" must have a fundamental flaw in their soul. If we can rigidly train the body into a wholesome and productive pattern of behavior, then the defect in the soul will be corrected.

It's not too difficult to find the flaws in this argument, and it actually has some profound implications on our society at large. But this basic argument was used to create schools (create patterns of behavior in young people), prisons (correct defects by keeping them on a rigid schedule), and hospitals (treat the body like a machine). It's all very rational, but it's all very flawed as well.

The model for schools has become the model for our conferences as well. Make expectations clear. Keep to the schedule. Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell 'em, and tell 'em what you told 'em. Structure structure structure. There's no room in most conferences for creation to happen, for new ideas to emerge, and if there is room, it's trapped in a tidy little 60-minute breakout round called "Getting Creative!!!" (why the extra punctuation, I don't know).

So it might be helpful to learn a bit more about schools and schooling, yes? This might help us move away from the school-model in our meetings and conferences. Take a peek.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

Self-Organizing Meetings

Digging a little further into the site... Open Space and UNconferences (not the United Nations, I assure you) are becoming more and more popular as techniques for making large-group interactions engaging and productive. They are certainly far more interactive than your traditional conference model.

This page on the site gives a quick overview of the territory of "self-organizing meetings", plus links to some great resources on both the theory behind the methods and the methods (processes) themselves. Enjoy!

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Thank Doyle and Strauss

All you've ever loved and hated about business meetings can be attributed to Michael Doyle and David Strauss. In the 1970s, they published a book called How to Make Meetings Work. This codified the best practices of meeting preparation, defining an agenda, selecting a facilitator, taking notes, etc. Their distinctions between types of meetings (problem-solving vs. decision-making vs. information-sharing) is useful and helpful as far as it goes.

There's been an unfortunate assumption, however, that this is all there is to meetings. We have believed that small groups can have a variety of types of meetings (best managed by the Doyle & Strauss rule-set), but that once the numbers of participants grew too large, the only possible process was the "sit & get" model of interaction -- one talking head lecturing at an audience. Now, there's been tremendous innovation in this style of meeting - from transparencies to PowerPoint to full-on spectacles with pyrotechnics and the whole nine yards. But the model of interaction is the same - one head talking, hundreds of others listening.

The arrival of Open Space is pretty exciting because it breaks that mold. Using this technique, huge groups of people can have dozens of concurrent conversations to explore ideas, test models and make decisions. It's totally uncontrolled and unpredictable, it's wildly productive and engaging, and it scares the pants off of most people who organize events. We tend to like knowing exactly what's going to happen before it happens (seriously, why does anyone hold a press conference anymore when the content is broadcast long before the meeting itself?). Open Space allows people in groups to interact, to mix it up, and for fun, exciting and scary things to emerge from those interactions.

What the conference world is just beginning to wrestle with is how big the universe of conference models really is, and how to select the right model for the right conference? Bryan Coffman has distilled a useful model for understanding meetings. I referred to this framework in my post on Conceiving a Virtual Collaboration Process.
The entire site is an exploration of these different types of collaboration, defined by the two axes of "Facilitator vs. Agent Controlled-Process" and "Amount of Structure Created by Emergent Rules vs. by Design". The orange arrow designates the direction we seem to be heading in.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

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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