by Deanna Ting | February 05, 2014
Editor’s note: A truncated version of this story appeared in the February 2014 print issue of Successful Meetings.
Time to be honest with yourself: When you hear words like “training” or “education” used to describe a meeting, what immediately comes to mind? Maybe it’s classroom-style set-ups where you feel like you’ve enrolled back into school. Or a big auditorium where you settle in for a six-hour lecture.

If the very thought instills a sense of dread, chances are your attendees most likely share your sentiments. Not only that, but they might not be learning as much as you would hope.

“We know that the brain can become very lazy, and if it’s in a situation where there are repetitive things happening, the brain will just short cut and jump to the end, essentially going on auto pilot,” explains Greg Bogue, experience architect for Maritz Travel. “Ever drive from home but can’t remember the trip? That’s autopilot, and it happens all the time in meetings. What you need to do is interrupt that autopilot mode with novelty.”

In an effort to introduce some elements of surprise, and to break up the monotony of a traditional educational meeting, many meeting organizers often miss the mark, says David Sibbet, founder and president of Grove Consultants International, and author of the Visual Leadership series of books. “People are trying to figure out how you can get away from meetings that are so repetitious and understood that people just go to sleep, so they come up with these meetings with really flashy videos and sound and having these huge panels,” he explains. “The problem with this is that you’re just broadcasting information.”

To make sure your meeting and its educational content resonate with your attendees, meeting organizers might consider the unconference. “People adore [unconferences] once they’ve been to one. They don’t want to go to traditional meetings or events anymore,” says Adrian Segar, founder of Conferences That Work. “However, a lot of people don’t understand the unconference, and most people tend to gravitate toward what they are familiar with. They’re worried about what will happen at an unconference.”

First Things First

The first step in integrating unconference methods into your educational meetings involves educating yourself about what an unconference actually is: A meeting where most of the content is developed and shared by the participants. It also includes untraditional room set-ups, and a greater focus on interaction, rather than speechifying. To someone used to a traditional meeting, this can sound a little worrisome.

“A lot of my clients are concerned that an unconference will yield chaos,” says Mary Boone, president of Boone Associates. “But we have methods that have been tested over time, that help people self organize at these events.”

But is it really possible to conduct an executive training, or an education-based meeting using unconference methods whereby the learners dictate the content?

“I think there’s a role for unconferences in just about every industry,” says Segar. “I don’t think there’s any industry that couldn’t benefit from an unconference.” Regardless of industry, Segar says all people have a need to connect with others, and to address shared problems and issues in order to learn.

For a financial services client, Boone successfully used unconference methods to help the organization launch a training program for a global organization. They took exercises from the actual training program and use those to do some brainstorming at a leadership conference of about 3,000 people. By the end of the meeting, the group devised more than 4,000 ideas on how to improve cross-selling.

The key to making an unconference method work for your particular meeting, says Boone, is to know that you can apply different methods in different ways. “Some people are purists and want to apply every step of every method but there are also people who borrow particular approaches or aspects of an unconference and apply it in a regular meeting,” she says. “It’s not an either/or.”

The most important concept to keep in mind, according to Boone, is peer-to-peer learning.

Segar, however, warns that an unconference shouldn’t be created as an aside to a more traditional-style meeting. In particular, it is a bad idea to have an unconference track in addition to several other tracks that are run as more conventional meetings.

“Most people don’t understand what an unconference entails, and they’ll gravitate toward what they are familiar with,” says Segar. Instead, he says that organizers should really make sure that they incorporate the unconference methods in ways that don’t marginalize them, and make them a crucial part of the meeting.

The Solution Room

Segar, who has facilitated hundreds of unconferences over the years, says he enjoys opening his unconferences with what he calls the “solution room.” “You have people sit in small groups where they don’t really know each other, and everyone is given the opportunity to think about something they’d like to consult their peers about,” Segar explains. “Everyone has time to draw a representation of their problem and someone in each group facilitates discussion of that problem with the other participants acting as consultants. Everyone gets the same amount of time to share and to get some consulting on it.”

This type of peer-to-peer learning is one of the biggest reasons why meeting organizers should consider unconference methods. “Up to 80 percent of learning in the workplace takes place informally,” says Andrea E. Sullivan, M.A., founder of BrainStrength Systems. “When we interact with other people, we’re always learning by imitation. The best environment for learning is when people aren’t just listening.” She adds, “There’s nothing more valuable than being able to look at a skill, situation, task, or project from many points of view. It enhances all of our understandings of that we’re trying to learn about.”

Not only that, says Sullivan, but we are more likely to remember what we’ve learned from our peers. “It’s inherently more interesting; it’s not some formal presentation of principles,” she says. “It’s about people’s hard-earned examples of what’ve learned and what they’ve seen so the knowledge becomes personal, with a story and more emotional content. We’ll remember something more that we hear from a peer than what we hear from a teacher or lecturer.”

Segar adds that using a solution room “sets a model for social learning.” He says, “It breaks the ice and lets people talk freely.”

Having a free and open forum for discussion was key for Gregory Shook, president and CEO of Essex Savings Bank in Essex, CT. In 2011, he worked with Boone to develop an Idea Jam for his bank and he says that having so many different perspectives included was one of the biggest values from the unconference. He says the meeting also converted many skeptics of unconferences. “The biggest risk in doing this unconference was worrying that it would be a waste of our time. Those people who initially resisted it enjoyed it, and their mind turned around by the end of it. When you gather together to meet in this way, you have plenty of food for thought, and plenty of angles for what you want to visit next time. It adds value to any idea, and to learning.”

Human Spectograms

This, in effect, is voting — with your body. “You get people off their feet and they represent their positions on a particular topic with their body in space,” says Segar. “You might ask them for their opinions about something that might be contentious, and ask them to move to a particular space to demonstrate their position. It’s a form of public voting that’s really public.”

Segar and Sullivan both note that when people move, physically, more blood rushes to their brain, and they tend to learn better than they would if they were simply sitting in their seats.

With human spectrograms, Segar says you can really engage in social learning, another reason why unconferences are great for educational meetings. “You can see who disagrees or agrees with you and strike up conversations,” Segar notes. The simplest kind of social learning, says Segar, is a conversation between two people. “This is the type of learning that the dominant need for executives these days,” he adds.

Segar says that today’s working professionals desire a different kind of learning. “A lot of what we used to go to for executive training is now online,” he explains. “The world has changed. Twenty years ago, what most executives need to learn they could learn in a classroom. That’s no longer true. The reality today is that learning is predominantly social.”

According to Segar, about 70 percent of adult learning is social — learned from peers or within organizations. Twenty percent is self-directed, in which people look things up and research on their own, and 10 percent is formal training, or traditional learning. “You need to offer more social learning opportunities, and unconferences are the best opportunities for that social learning that we need.”

Open-Space Technology

When it comes to meetings that utilize open-space technology, having a good facilitator who knows the ins and outs of open-space meetings is crucial, says Boone. Generally, she says that these types of meeting will present a theme that is framed as a question to the participants. After attendees discuss the theme and question, they can generate different discussion sessions that all relate to that single theme/questions, and all attendees are welcome to select the sessions/topics that interest them most. During these simultaneous sessions, reports will capture what has been discussed, and results are shared with the entire audience at the end of the meeting.

Although open-space meetings might appear to be very spontaneous — and they are in many ways — they involve just as much careful planning as a meeting with a traditional agenda would. “When it starts it starts,” she explains. “When it ends it ends. Whatever should happen will happen. The way it works seems and feels very laid-back, but the underlying structure really holds it together and makes it a powerful experience.”

The freedom for participants to choose to talk about what interests them most is especially appealing for generating learning. Meeting engagement expert Sharon Fisher, CEO of Play With a Purpose, believes this type of learning is ideal for adult learners and working professionals. “Adult learners don’t want to be told what they need to learn. They know what they need to learn and they know what they want to learn,” she explains. “Letting them dictate that is huge. It’s all about relevance to real-life applications.”

Not only that, but the spontaneity factor of open-space meetings also injects some “novelty” into a meeting, making it even more memorable for attendees. “That element of surprise elicits dopamine in the brain,” explains Sullivan. “Any novelty or surprise is a neurotransmitter that keeps us alert, for one thing, and is very strongly linked to motivation. Whatever we learn when we have dopamine running around, we are more likely to remember and to act on that.”

In the 20 years that he has been facilitating unconferences, Segar says he’s noticed a difference between what attendees want to learn about versus what an education committee thinks they want to learn about. “The best organizing committees only predicted half of the topics that attendees wanted to think about; the other half consisted of things that people didn’t even want,” he explains. “When people come to unconference and say, ‘I really want to learn about this,’ they have a much better chance of learning what they really need to know.”

Craig Diserens, executive director of the San Jose, CA-based nonprofit Village Harvest, recently worked with Segar to put together an unconference that utilized some aspects of open-space technology. The June 2013 Community Jam, which involved close to 60 participants from 22 different organizations, was primarily aimed toward community building, but also encouraged the sharing of best practices, bringing up topics that he and his committee had not even anticipated. “That indirect sharing of education was so helpful,” says Diserens. He says that one of his biggest challenges as an organizer was to try to help participants, almost all of whom had never attend an unconference before. “We wanted to help people work within it easily… we wanted to be organized and explicit about how the process worked, and we put a lot of effort into describing the theme, and scheduling topic discussions.”

Visual Cartography

Another way for people to remember what they’ve learned is to have a visual representation of it. This is where the unconference method of visual cartography comes in. It can be as simple as having someone live-draw the discussion of a meeting or even having the participants actively fill out “learning maps.”

“Just using some imagery and drawing tends to spark a creative nerve and stimulates people in that right-brain kind of way,” explains Sibbet. “Participation rates just shoot up, and you have both and inspiration and an engagement factor.”

Boone agrees. “Graphic facilitation and visual cartography are very effective in executive settings,” she says. “Particularly, if you are trying to explain very complex strategies.”

Even the traditional method of taking notes, Sibbet points out, is helpful in establishing memory retention. “When people talk, and somebody writes down what they say, it’s a form of acknowledgement and feedback. But when you think about a normal conference, people aren’t getting any real feedback on whether they are being listened to,” he says. Instead, Sibbet says, visual cartography takes that concept even further.

“A meeting that is recorded visually is one where everyone is being acknowledged and everyone can see whether they’re on the board or not,” he says. “People are always fascinated by live drawings because there’s acknowledgement there. That continual unfolding of the graphics guarantees high participation.”

Sibbet says that, for example, in the 1970s, Volvo sought to train its sales team about a new car by using learning maps, or story maps as they are sometimes called. To do this, he says, Volvo created a poster that showed the car and all of its parts, with each part unlabeled, and the names for each part were located on the edges of the poster. “The salespeople had to match all the part names with the parts. Forty-five minutes later, they know the car inside and out. By intentionally leaving those spaces for people to contribute what they know, they created a sort of adventure hunt. They sparked engagement and, in the process, learning.”

Another unconference method that often uses visual cartography, says Sibbet, is the World Café method. “Having graphic capture is a key part of that process. People might have paper as the tablecloth for each of the tables, and with every round of discussion, different groups will take notes on that paper,” he explains. “Having those graphic notes is fun and helpful. The visual facilitation is a way of supporting the dialogue — the content — of the meeting.”

Personal Introspective

When you take time to ask yourself about what you’ve learned, says Segar, that makes it all the more likely that you’ll not only remember what you learned at the conference but may also encourage you to take action. “Often, a lot of learning and desire for change gets lost because we don’t give people an opportunity to think about what they’ve learned when it’s fresh, and to reinforce that,” he says. “At the end of an event or a meeting, you should ask your attendees a set of questions about what they want to have happen next, and what they’re willing to do to achieve their objectives.”

Segar describes personal introspective as a two-part process, the first being private (just the individual) and the second being shared among the group. “Later, attendees talk about what they’ve resolved to do and what they want to change. They hear amazing stories and are encouraged by hearing other people’s stories.”

That kind of reinforcement through storytelling is a crucial part of learning, says Bogue. “Stories that are wrapped in authenticity not only have an air of believability but they also create and opportunity for recall, for memory.”

Don’t Be Afraid of Change

Perhaps the biggest challenge involved with putting together an unconference is merely taking the first step to decide to do one, or to incorporate its methods. “While it’s scary to try out new things because we don’t always know how it will turn out, I think planners can gather their courage and try something small,” says Sullivan. “They don’t have to do it all at once. They can do a little part. They now their target audience, and they know what will appeal most to them.”

While keeping to the status quo often involves less risk, it also does little to encourage innovation. “There’s a real premium now on people being able to come up with new ideas or fresh approaches to things,” says Sibbet. “One of the things that gets in the way of that is people falling into habitual ways of thinking. This is how companies get into trouble — when people hang on to the old ways of thinking longer than they should. The value of the unconference is that it’s getting people out of habitual thinking. It’s forcing them to think differently.”

Where to start? Boone says planners need to know that there’s a difference between normal meeting facilitation and unconferences. Most of all, meeting organizers need to do their own research as well. “Investigate a lot of different types of methods, and talk to people who have had success, and to those with experience in meeting design,” she says. “But don’t think that one person’s experience will be the same as yours. It’s good to be open to doing new things, but there should always be an objective and result in mind when you choose to do something innovative.”

Most of all, says Segar, don’t forget one of the main reasons why unconferences were created. “You’re building a community when you hold a meeting, when you have an unconference,” he says. “You’re creating a place that people want to return to.” And one where they — and you — will continue to learn.