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Meeting & Event Planning

The Perfect Meeting: Unconferences, Collaboration and Millennials

Posted August 28, 2014 By Christopher Kelly

Mary Boone is an award-winning author, speaker, and consultant who specializes in meeting design and collaboration. Her company, Boone Associates (based in Essex, CT), is a leading authority on high performance collaboration and engagement. We sat down with Mary to discuss what it means to engage in “high performance collaboration” and to get her expert take on how to design the perfect meeting.


Tell us about your concept of “high performance collaboration.”

Collaboration itself is a bit of a buzzword. Because we currently have so many technology tools at our disposal, we’ve seen an increased interest in collaboration. But there’s a difference between collaboration and high performance collaboration. What we have now is four decades worth of social science research that can inform the quality of communication and collaboration, but we haven’t been applying these scientific results to what we do. Collaboration tools in organizations are often used ineffectively. Giving your employees technology requires the conscious design of the use of that tool in order to achieve high performance collaboration. Companies need to apply science to the way people collaborate as opposed to just buying the latest gadget that will increase the wow factor in their meetings. There’s a lot still to learn. There’s still a “silo” problem in organizations where departments don’t collaborate, and there’s still the problem of companies having failed mergers or failed strategic alliances. These problems are indicative of a lack of care and conscious design of the way people interact to achieve a goal.


Are unconferences the future of conferences?

Unconferences are based on methods that have been around for over 30 years in the field of organizational development. They are used in specific ways in organizations to create highly participative meetings that not only allow people to gather valuable information but also to provide an experience that is powerful — a collective experience of working together and creating participant-generated content in a meeting. However, there is a method underlying their participation. While they may look on the surface to be very unstructured there’s actually a core structure to all of them. When designing a meeting, there are a lot of different methods that can be applied. The question is to figure out what methods you want to apply because it’s possible to take an eclectic approach – which is what I do – in order to achieve your goal.

Call them unconferences or whatever you want, but participative approaches to all types of conferences, meetings and events are the future of conferences. People won’t sit in passive mode anymore and absorb information for hours on end. People are designing meetings now. We are starting to understand that there are many options to broadcast information before and after the meeting. It’s an egregious waste of resources not to have people in a room interacting with each other. Every planner should have a good understanding of a broad range of participative approaches.


What are some easy, low-cost ways a planner can design an “unconference”?

I have a lot of clients – from companies that have tremendous resources to those that have very few. You don’t need a lot of money to apply an idea and you can scale expensive ideas in creative ways. For example, yes it might be nice to be able to use the latest mobile app – but perhaps you can adopt the way you use and display Twitter to achieve the same goal. A lot of people don’t use Twitter in breakout sessions. People are told to take notes on flip chart paper or notepads, etc. but why not post ideas in hashtags so you can share information with people external to the meeting? When you apply the unconference method of Open Space you take furniture out of room and you just keep a circle of chairs. Altering the environment in a simple (and completely cost-free) way like that can lead to a different experience altogether. You could also hold the meeting in an unconventional place. You could get input from people before they even arrive at the meeting. Some unconference methods don’t cost a lot. All of these things are part of good design thinking up front. That’s the ultimate thing you can do: very carefully design the meeting rather than just focusing on logistics for a “Wow” factor.


How else can a planner design the perfect meeting?

Planners must have a clear understanding of how this meeting can connect to the strategies that are important to the organization. Let’s say you’re designing a corporate meeting for senior executives or designing an annual conference for an association. The way you start with design is not to just ask yourself what the meeting objectives are, but step back and ask yourself what does the organization want to accomplish in the next 12-18 months? How do the meeting’s objectives align with that? That’s a step that a lot of people leave out. They look at what they did last year, and how they can make it more exciting, but they should be looking at what they can really accomplish with this gathering. Also, when you’re designing, it’s not just aesthetics – it’s the form and content of the meeting. It’s applying design thinking to a meeting. Now that you’ve thought of what your organization wants to accomplish (eg. increase membership in a certain demographic segment), then you ask: what contribution is this meeting going to make to that? If the goal is to increase membership, then they may be willing to sacrifice a certain amount of revenue to get more members. If that’s the case, you want your meeting to be aligned with that goal. Next, ask yourself: how do we design this meeting so that it delivers on these goals for the organization? Think not only about the environment but also the methods you’re going to be using, what technology, what stakeholders will be affected by this meeting. A lot of times people think in terms of participants – but they’re only one stakeholder group. Numerous groups can be affected by the outcome of a meeting or what happens during the meeting. And then, after you have taken those things into account, you can start to make selections on what methods you want to use, whether you want to try an “unconference” method, or something more traditional.


Give us an example of one your favorite, well-designed meetings.

A few years back, I worked with a group that was trying to implement an approach called Operational Excellence that was used for many years by GE. I was working with two senior leaders who designed an educational experience around Operational Excellence. They worked on this because they wanted to encourage people to become more efficient and effective at their work. They wanted to create a road show around their Operational Excellence training program so they asked me to design a session to introduce the concept at a 3,000-person leadership meeting. I asked about the key strategic objectives for the organization that year. They said the top executives wanted to increase cross-selling of products across different parts of the organization. So, we introduced the concept of Operational Excellence by actually working on this real-life challenge of increasing cross-selling. We had the participants go through some of the exercises from the training. We used a visual cartographer to draw tabletop maps, we had computers on every table in the room running a very sophisticated ARS, and these tools were used to gather information and ideas from people at the different tables for how cross-selling could be improved in the organization.

The result was 4,000 ideas for cross-selling. The organization then put those unstructured ideas into the ARS. And, at the back of the room there was a team that was going through the ideas in real time, crunching the qualitative data (a pre-meeting survey helped us generate categories that made sorting the ideas easier). The team then narrowed those 4000 down to the 10 most frequently occurring ideas and the room voted on the top 3 ideas for cross-selling. After we narrowed it down to the top 3 ideas, we then asked for volunteers who wanted to make these ideas happen. We had 1,000 volunteers from which we randomly selected project teams. The project teams were brought to the center of the room, applauded, and stayed onstage to hold their first project team meeting before the conference ended.

This goes to show that the future of conferences is not just more input and interaction but actually accomplishing work in the room rather than just talking about it. All those ideas came to fruition in that meeting. It’s not necessarily new technology that’s making this happen. It’s the intention on the part of the people designing it. That’s one of the most exciting, satisfying strategic conferences I’ve ever designed because of the creative design elements and more importantly, the impact.


What should planners take into consideration in terms of meeting technology?

In terms of technology, people want the latest and greatest. But, ultimately, it’s just a device. Ask yourself: why do you need it? There’s an assumption that people will be impressed and excited about using new technology, but technology- driven decisions versus objective-driven decisions can cause a lot of issues and problems. Not enough care is given to the why and how of using technology. Ask yourself, have we really got the bandwidth capabilities we need for this meeting app? How savvy is our group about downloading the app properly? There are lots of logistics challenges that people don’t take into account. When you’re designing a meeting, you have to take into account a number of things: the business objective, the nature of your participants and how tech savvy they are, the culture of the organization and how open they are to new ideas, and logistical concerns: do we have what we need to make the app work the way it’s supposed to work? You also have to be sure to have the staff to handle issues on site. Cloud-based mobile apps can go wrong at any moment, so there needs to be staff on site to handle any tech problems that may arise.


How do you combat distraction from social networking and mobile apps?

Personally, I’d never say “Turn off your phones.” That’s my responsibility as a meeting designer. I believe it’s our responsibility, as planners or designers, to use the technology appropriately, to understand the science behind human interaction and collaboration, to know how to balance the use of technology appropriately and design for experiences that make people want to put their phones down and not force them to do it. When people first started using mobile apps at events and conferences, executives often wanted to ask attendees to turn off their phones and pay attention. I think that’s crazy. We are working with adults, not pre-schoolers. It’s up to the designer and executives to make sure we’re using the participant’s time in the most effective way. If we’re engaging them in an activity, then they will make good decisions about when they should use their devices.

When I’m attending a conference and I see people constantly isolated in corners, engaged with their electronic devices rather than being engaged with the meeting, I know that there’s a problem with the design of the event.


What are your thoughts on collaboration and millennials?

Millennials have a predisposition to be more collaborative. They grew up using these tools. I worry about stereotyping, but I do think that you can say that millennials have had access to tools and the impact the internet has had on the democratization of organizations and relationships has made them want to participate and have their voice heard.

When I talk about collaboration with millennials, everyone knows what I’m talking about thanks to social media! Personally, I love it. Peer to peer interaction is powerful. Social media and peer to peer communication are coming into their own and millennials are well positioned for that. What will convert other generations is a positive experience and that’s what the designer’s responsibility is: to create an environment where peer to peer, collaborative exchanges create a positive experience for everyone and results in people wanting more, regardless of their age.



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