Saturday, November 14, 2009

Showdown at the Meetings Corral: Face-to-Face vs. Virtual

In my opinion, well-designed face-to-face meetings will be the premier leadership medium of the 21st Century. While some people think virtual meetings will overtake face-to-face, I think they're fooling themselves. Live meetings are now, and will continue to be, an essential means of managing our way out of the economic crisis we currently face and navigating our way into a vibrant future.

Of course, many organizations are turning to virtual alternatives to bringing people together with tons of intriguing technologies that can be used before, during, after, or yes, even in place of, a face-to-face meeting. Twitter, threaded discussions, teleconferencing, web conferences, webcasting etc. are all being used frequently to augment face-to-face interaction.

I've been a strong proponent of collaborative technologies to connect, inform, and engage people for over two decades. However, I also believe that there is no replacement for face-to-face meetings. This is why Presidents and Secretaries of State don't conduct diplomatic missions via web conference.

There are three important ways that face-to-face meetings differ from virtual ones. First, in our information-saturated world, getting people's attention gets more difficult all the time. Face-to-face meetings provide an unparalleled opportunity to capture people's attention -- it's a maximum bandwidth situation, so to speak. (This of course assumes that the meeting has been well-designed to hold participants' attention and appeal to all five senses.)

Second, there is the immersion factor. Face-to-face meetings can last days, not hours. And the experience is full immersion. While you might be able to hold a threaded discussion over an extended period, you don't have everyone engaged at once for hours at a time.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, is the speed at which trusting relationships can form. People will develop deeper levels of trust at a greater rate of speed in face-to-face meetings than they do in virtual ones. Trust is directly correlated with the speed at which you can do business.

What we're obviously moving towards is a "both/and" versus "either/or" situation in the form of hybrid meetings that integrate face-to-face with virtual elements. In other words, it's time to put the guns back in the holsters and shake hands.

Moving into the future, we'll have more holographic videoconferencing, virtual world interaction, dynamic visual cartography tools and much more. However, now matter how ingenious technology becomes, nothing will ever replace face-to-face interaction.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Reframing life: White Coats and A Wheelchair

Today I was sitting in the reception area of a major medical center. While I was waiting, suddenly, right next to me I heard fearful groaning sounds coming from a man who was backing away from three people in white coats walking towards him. It was clear from his behavior that he was developmentally challenged, and everyone in the reception area starting shifting in their seats.

The three "white coats" were trying to calm and coax the man to come with them. It wasn't working. He began groaning louder and saying "No!"

Suddenly, one of the women trying to help him said, "I wonder if a wheelchair would help?" Another of the trio quickly went to get one and they brought it towards the disturbed man saying "Would you like to ride? Do you want to go for a fun ride?" Bingo! He immediately calmed down, started smiling, and hopped right in the chair. I wanted to give a cheer! Everyone immediately relaxed.

I thought about how important the concept of "framing" is. I thought about my own fears and how I could reframe them to not only be less scary, but even fun -- like the wheelchair. I wondered at the lightening speed of emotions and reactions that we all experience in life -- whether it's in business or in our personal worlds.

If we can just remember to reframe, then, in a silvery second, terror can become joyful anticipation, anger can become happiness, despair can become hope, hate can become love.

I know it can happen. I saw it today.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Three Ideas for Fixing Town Hall Meetings

Can you believe the video footage coming from these health care town hall meetings in the U.S.? There must be a lot of mothers out there wringing their hands or turning over in their graves. The heckling, rude comments, and outright rages are both embarrassing and counter-productive.

How can this situation be remedied? As a person who has been designing interactive meetings for long time, I have a few suggestions:

1. The only people who should be allowed in the room are people who have some level of familiarity with the health care bill that they are there to comment on. A summary of the key points of the bill should be put together by a bipartisan entity and made available online and in public libraries. An online test of some key points in the summary would be the entry "fee" -- you would get your ticket from a website where you took the test. (Note: Most public libraries provide access to the internet for those who don't have their own computers.)

2. Before any discussion at all begins, the entire group should be made aware of guidelines for behavior during the session. Any breach of these guidelines should result in immediate expulsion -- they've managed to do this in courtrooms for years.

3. Break into smaller groups! Leaving the whole group sitting opposite a lone figure on the stage makes for a mob environment. You can't have a real "conversation" between 1 person and hundreds of people.

A traditional Town Hall meeting is not necessarily the best format for an interactive discussion about a highly controversial topic. Reformating the meeting to include pre-work, small group interaction, interactive technologies and clear behavior guidelines would go a long way towards creating a much more civilized dialogue.

A terrific model for completely "remodeled" town hall meetings comes from a group called "America Speaks" -- you can learn more about it here...

If we bring more civility to these dialogues on health care, we can tap into the best thinking of well-informed citizens to solve one of the most important issues of our time.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Faux Content

Bad content is proliferating on the web like the newly planted mint in my garden. It seems that everyone is happy to share content freely with others, just not very good content.

Here are some examples.

I was invited to a virtual trade show recently. The good news is that the cost to me monetarily was zero. The bad news is that I was treated to a boatload of content for which I had absolutely no use. The presentation I attended was full of research that looked intriguing at first because it had a lot of interesting mathematical equations and research terms but ultimately it simply confirmed what I knew on the basis of common sense. (Not to mention the fact that the "presenters" were sponsors.) The vendor "brochures" contained the same stuff that I wouldn't pick up at a regular trade show, and the chat session I attended was full of questions like, "How do I turn off my pop-up windows?"

Then today while I was browsing Twitter, I was directed by a fellow Tweeter to a YouTube video that was described as "deeply inspiring." What the guy in the video essentially said was "Do what's right, not just what's expedient." Wow. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say something like that before. I truly was hit the stop button and check my email instead.

My final example comes from a well known technology website that offers "White Paper Membership." This was the most disappointing experience of all because after I reluctantly gave them my name and email address, what I received in return was a recent white paper that could have been written almost a decade ago. It was chock full of generalities and sorely lacking in specific examples and useful information.

I think part of the reason this content problem is starting to become more prominent is that we have begun to devalue "intellectual capital." We've operated on the assumption that you can get content for free for quite a while now and as "crowdsourcing" has gained in prominence we have become less and less willing to pay for content. I think that subject matter experts are now starting to realize that giving away a lot of content for free doesn't necessarily result in a sale down the line so they're pulling back on what they provide gratis.

Of course there are exceptions and daily I find things on the web for free that are fantastic, but I think what we'll see more of in the future are micro payments for truly useful content. I used to think that I'd never (or very rarely) pay for content on the web but I've been fooling myself that I'm getting something for nothing when in fact, I've been emptying my "time and attention" wallet to pay dearly for faux content.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Virtual Meetings Mania

Well, the cycle has come around again. Over the years people have developed a strong appetite for using virtual meetings at various points in time. During oil crises, after 9/11 and more recently because of the economy and flu viruses. My phone calls and emails are full of questions about what technologies to use and how to design interactions in virtual environments.

Here's the thing. Virtual meetings are fantastic. I know that because I've been designing them for about 20 years using the full range of technologies from teleconferencing to Twitter. However, it's easy to be seduced into thinking that virtual meetings are going to save you a pile of money or that they're a viable alternative for replacing all or most of your face-to-face meetings.

Virtual meetings require just as much careful design as face-to-face meetings... and that costs money. You need bandwidth... and that costs money. You need marketing... and that costs money. Certainly there are ways to save money by using electronic alternatives, but don't fool yourself into thinking that just because Skype is free that you're going to slash your meeting budgets to zero.

During times like these, I always try to remind people that they need to think about the effectiveness side of the equation. Will the meeting medium you choose deliver the value you're looking for? Will people be more or less engaged by the way in which you set up interaction? What is the real purpose for your meeting and how should you appropriately integrate technology?

Technology-driven approaches to communication have a long history of a very high failure rate. Instead, use a purpose-driven approach. If you focus on your purpose and design your interaction around it, you'll be much happier with your results.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Pretty in Pink

About a year and a half ago, I wrote an entry as a guest blogger on the Cognitive Edge site. The title of the piece was "Brainbows to Black Holes" but it was really about the connectedness of things. You can find the original piece here:

This week, the friend I reference in that article died. Today I attended her funeral. I live in such a small town that I was able to walk to the funeral from my house, walk from the church to the cemetary, and walk from the cemetary back to my house. While I was making those walks, I was thinking about a lot of things, but mostly I was looking directly down at my pink and green shoes and thinking about my friend.

She requested that her friends wear pink to her funeral. There were hundreds of people there and it was quite a sight to see a sea of pink at a funeral. Even many of the men were sporting pink ribbons on their lapels and pink ties.

The result of this very simple but elegant gesture was that we were all smiling when we saw each other and her spirit seemed all the more present. So, in the end, it was just as I had said about a year earlier -- her spirit was as vibrant as the colors I mentioned. What I didn't count on was her figuring out a way to remind us of that after she left us. She has taught me a new lesson in connectedness.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Steal this Article

Because I had been hearing a lot about attrition in conference attendance, I decided to write an article about how to help potential conference participants put together a business case for attending conferences and events. WOW! What a reaction! I don't think any article I've ever written has prompted so much of an immediate positive response.

I guess this article has proven to be useful to a lot of people. I'm putting the link here in the hopes that those of you who put together conferences and events will find it useful:

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Visual Cartography

For almost a decade now, I have been incorporating the use of visual cartography into the meetings work that I do. Visual cartography (a term coined by David Sibbet for this context) is the use of visual images to guide or capture the content of a meeting. Here's a link to a cool animation of some the images David did for the TED conference:

This past Tuesday, a new Twend (that's a friend I made on Twitter -- sorry, but I couldn't resist) of mine named Jay Smethurst did some very cool images of the "No Turning Back" webinar that MPI sponsored featuring me, Susan Radojevic and Jack Phillips. You can take a look at them here:

Jay will be joining us at our WEC session on July 13th in Salt Lake City. You can watch him in action there in our live session on The Case for Meetings (1:45-5:30 pm MT).

The use of this methodology is really particularly well suited to situations where you are trying to make complex concepts easily understood.

I strongly suggest checking out David Sibbet's work. He is a long time friend and colleague and his company has created numerous templates that you can use for meetings even if you're not an artist! Here's the place to look...

Enjoy! And let me know if you have any questions...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Taking time for reflection

In the past couple of months, I've officially become a Twitter fanatic. Because I'm following some really smart people, I always find information that is relevant to my work, and I'm also finding that people are starting to use the direct message function as an alternative to email. So, I've got to check in at least once a day and usually more.

Of course, I get about a zillion emails a day -- like everyone else. And of course I'm on Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Skype, Plaxo, etc. and I talk on my cellphone enough to worry about all those electronic waves my head is absorbing. Oh, yes, and I do have clients and "regular" work and I'm writing a couple of books.

Yep, it's official: I'm busy. And I'll bet you are too.

I find that as things get busier, it's even more important to push the "pause" button occasionally. In a communications model I developed, I put "intrapersonal" communication at the center. It's critical to take time for reflection in both your life and your work.

I build reflection time into the designs I do for meetings -- participants need time to digest ideas and develop new ones. I council senior executives to build "white space" into their calendars. And I hold a very small retreat once a year for some of the top senior communication professionals in the world to come and just have a good conversation with their colleagues.

I live in Essex, CT and yesterday I had meetings in New York. I love to take the train so that I can work while I'm going into the city. But yesterday, I decided I was just going to look out the window -- on the way down and on the way back. It was wonderful. I noticed daffodils, a huge line of people at a highway exit hoping to be picked up for day work (much much longer than usual), crumbling infrastructure, unfinished building projects, a Broadway Poster for Mary Poppins (I need to take my son!), the familiar area surrounding the train station in the town where I used to live, the faces of people waiting on train platforms, an egret in a pond right beside the track and much more. Looking out the window for a few hours reconnected me to the world.

So my advice is, "Take a break." Everything will still be there when you get back.

Friday, April 10, 2009

My First Post -- Welcome Readers!

Hello and Welcome to my new Blog!

I've had people hounding me for some time to start my own blog and now I'm finally doing so.

This blog will be about communication and leadership and all the tools at hand to do a better job of both. Many of you will know me from my recent involvement in the meetings industry. I'm convinced that face to face meetings will continue to be one of the most important leadership tools of the next century. So you'll be hearing a lot about how I think leaders need to rethink the concept of meetings.

My work in the area of leadership is focused around how to lead differently in an age of complexity. My award-winning Harvard Business Review article (written with Dave Snowden) is going to serve as the foundation for an upcoming book. You'll see some enticing excerpts from that here as well.

I'm a Twitter fanatic so I'll be posting snippets there that will lead you here.

In the spirit of interactivity, I'm always interested in engaging in a dialogue around the topics that matter most to my readers. So please, send me questions, ideas, or topics for discussion here. I look forward to hearing from you and to sharing ideas with you in the future.

If you want to know more about me and/or my company, visit for more information.