The Unjoy of Panels

I’m a veteran panel moderator. I’ve been doing it since high school, and I think I’m pretty good at it. But I’m thinking about retiring from the business.    (JKL)

Last week, I moderated the SofTECH / SDForum July meeting on “Architecting Community and Collaboration Solutions.” Tony Christopher had suggested me to Ron Lichty, the meeting producer. Ron and I, as it turned out, had met a few years earlier at a GivingSpace workshop. Ron explained to me his goals for the panel, told me who the panelists would be, and I said, “Sign me up!”    (JKM)

The panel went well. The panelists — Tony Christopher, Zack Rosen, Sylvia Marino, and Scott Wilder — were great. Everyone told lots of great stories, but also respected the other panelists, and no one tried to dominate the floor, which made my job incredibly easy. More importantly, the audience was engaged with the topic and the panelists. Ron was great also. He had done a masterful job of organizing the event and preengaging the panel.    (JKN)

The problem was that the panel format was wrong. Panels work best when they emerge as entertaining and informative roundtable discussions. As good as our panelists were, that was not going to happen, because the format did not optimally align with our goal — educating the audience. A panel format can achieve this goal — and ours did — but only in a broadcast model, which does not maximize group potential.    (JKO)

It was clear from an informal poll I took at the beginning of the panel and the number of faces I recognized that we had a lot of expertise in the audience itself. It would have been far more engaging and educational for all involved had we done a more interactive format, where we spent an hour in break-outs, possibly followed by a moderated plenary discussion. The panelists, in this scenario, would have been co-participants with the rest of the audience.    (JKP)

I moderated two panels and gave a talk at last June’s Collaborative Technologies Conference. One panel was in a traditional format for reasons largely out of my control, but I decided to play with the other two formats. In both of those cases, I turned the tables on the audience, rearranging the stage format into a circle, and basically played discussion moderator rather than panel moderator. Several people had already camped out in the back with their laptops open — almost assuredly planning to check email rather than listen to the talk — and a look of fear and shock came over their eyes when I told them to join me in the circle.    (JKQ)

Several people approached me afterwards and praised the format. (My favorite moment was one night at dinner, when I introduced myself to Stowe Boyd, who wrote a great essay on panels. Upon hearing my name, Stowe said, “I want to thank you.” I was completely baffled by this, as we had never met, and Stowe had not attended any of my talks. Apparently, he had heard about my panels — probably from Arieanna Foley — and he was grateful that someone had tried something different.) These folks were clearly suffering from panel fatigue, and just the fact that we were doing something different and engaging improved the experience wildly for them. I guarantee that the circle format was also more informative for the audience as a whole, because it addressed their specific concerns and it introduced a set of viewpoints far more rich than just mine or a panel’s.    (JKR)

As much as people respond to these more interactive formats, they are mere baby steps. Kindergarteners get in circles, for pete’s sake. Pre-school can be fun, but once you’ve been in kindergarten, you don’t want to go back. Facilitation techniques like Conversation Cafe and Open Space are at the first grade level, Aspiration is at second grade, and MGTaylor is at third. The latter techniques augmented with cutting edge collaborative tools is at least the fourth grade level, and we’ve only scratched the surface as to what’s possible. It’s just sad that the vast majority of conferences are at the pre-school level.    (JKS)

There are situations where panels work well as a format, but they are vastly overdone. In any case, don’t let this post prevent you from inviting me to moderate a panel. Just expect me to make some strong demands concerning format.    (JKT)

(See also Mary Hodder‘s excellent panel diatribe.)    (JKU)

J. Fairchild and Community Space

Katrin Verclas, co-director of Aspiration and co-organizer of the FLOSS Usability Sprint, wrote a fantastic piece entitled, “Great Good Spaces for Community, Activism, and Better Software.” It’s no accident that we connected when we first met at the Advocacy Developer’s Convergence last June. Even though our missions are different, there’s great overlap in our thinking and philosophy. That holds true with the other organizations Blue Oxen Associates has partnered with as well.    (ID7)

A critical element in building strong community and in facilitating effective collaboration is having the right space. As Katrin points out, this holds true for both physical and metaphysical (or online) spaces. I had three intellectual inspirations in starting Blue Oxen: Doug Engelbart, Christopher Alexander, and George Lakoff. Christopher Alexander is an architect who wrote about Pattern Languages in the 1970s, which was all about designing great spaces, spaces that were alive, that had this Quality Without A Name. Blue Oxen is trying to understand and discover patterns of effective collaboration, which encompasses issues of space.    (ID8)

When Katrin wrote her piece, we were looking for a space to hold our sprint, and we weren’t finding a place that satisfied us. Luckily, I had a wildcard in my back pocket. Jeff Shults was the manager of the knOwhere Store in the late 1990s, which was MGTaylor‘s showcase for its collaborative environment and process. When the store closed, Jeff purchased all the furniture and bided his time until he could open his own space. That time came late last year, when he struck an agreement with SFIA to manage their new space on 10th and Mission in San Francisco.    (ID9)

I first met Jeff at Planetwork in 2003, but the first time we worked closely together was at the 7-Domains Workshop last July. Jeff is literally an environmental master. He has this sixth sense for configuring spaces to maximize collaboration. He has both thought deeply about the subject and has practiced it for some time. He’s also a fantastic listener, which is an attribute he shares with all the great facilitators I know.    (IDA)

I had seen the space last fall, and to say that it was in rough condition is an understatement. But in early January, when we still hadn’t found a good space, I decided to call Jeff anyway. The transformation the space had made in the course of two months was amazing. Although Jeff hasn’t officially opened his facility, he not only let us use his space, but he agreed to be one of our sponsors.    (IDB)

I can’t tell you how many people walked into our event last week, looked around, and said, “Wow, what a great space!” I’d hear this, laugh, and respond, “You don’t know the half of it.” All of us have an intuition that allows us to recognize a great space when we see one, an intuition that sadly doesn’t wake up often enough. But you have to discover the thinking and hard work that goes into creating such a space before you can truly appreciate it.    (IDC)

Jeff’s company and space is called J. Fairchild. If you need a great meeting space in San Francisco, talk to Jeff and let him know I sent you his way.    (IDD)

FLOSS Usability Sprint, Feb 18-20

Blue Oxen Associates and the good folks at Aspiration are organizing a usability sprint for open source software. The sprint will be held at Jeff Shults‘s fantastic new facility in San Francisco, February 18-20. Those who should apply:    (HTW)

  • Developers who want to improve the usability of their Open Source projects.    (HTX)
  • Usability practitioners who want to help improve the usability of Open Source software.    (HTY)

I got the idea from a breakout session at the Advocacy Developer’s Convergence last June. A few months later, I accidentally ran into Zack Rosen on the CalTrain, and our conversation pumped me up about the idea. The next step was to find a partner in this endeavour, and Aspiration was the natural choice.    (HTZ)

This event is going to be very exciting. It will be the first gathering of developers, usability practitioners, and users devoted to improving the usability of Open Source software. It’s going to be high-energy and productive, as all Aspiration workshops are. And, it’s going to have a real and immediate impact on the quality of several applications.    (HU0)

Most importantly (from Blue Oxen‘s point of view), it will showcase outstanding collaborative processes and tools, both face-to-face and online. As always with Blue Oxen projects, the goal is for this kind of event to be replicable by anyone, and the expectation is that this sprint will be the first of many.    (HU1)

Go to the web site if you’re interested in participating. Contact me if you’re interested in sponsoring the event or if you have questions or thoughts.    (HU2)

Advocacy Developers Convergence in San Francisco

I enjoyed the Advocacy Developers Convergence last week, where about 40 super-passionate folks — mostly developers of advocacy tools — gathered in the Presidio to discuss ways to collaborate. Among those represented were Advo Kit, CivicSpace, IndyVoter, Groundspring, Identity Commons (one of three hats I was wearing), and many, many others. Aspiration organized and facilitated the event, and Blue Oxen Associates provided the Wiki.    (1JJ)

While the scope of projects represented — most of which were open source — impressed me, I was really taken by the collective energy in the room. These weren’t your average techies. These folks cared about improving the world, and their passion was palpable. Even the most hardened cynic would have walked away from that gathering with at least a smidgen of hope about our future.    (1JK)

I wore three hats. First, I was there to facilitate Wiki usage during the event. In this regard, I basically did nothing. Most of the people there were already highly Wiki-literate, and the rest picked it up quickly. Second, I was there to help Fen Labalme talk about the Identity Commons system and to identify other potential early adopters. Third, as always, I was there both to share what I knew about collaboration and to observe and learn from others. I was particularly interested in watching Gunner’s (Allen Gunn) facilitation technique. Gunner, who recently took over Aspiration along with Katrin Verclas, used to work for Ruckus Society, and has facilitated a number of interesting events, including several international Open Source boot camps.    (1JL)

Mapping the Space; Emergent Goals    (1JM)

One of Aspiration’s stated goals for the event was to begin mapping the space of advocacy tools. That begged the question: What exactly is an advocacy tool? It was a question most of us conveniently avoided. Some tools are clearly and specifically designed for supporting the needs of grassroots advocacy, such as email campaigns, volunteer organizing, and friend-raising. Several (most?) other tools used by advocacy organizations (such as MoveOn) have multiple applications — mailing lists, contact databases, and so forth.    (1JN)

We never reached a collective solution to this problem, but we seemed to be moving in the direction that Blue Oxen has already gone in determining how to map the collaborative tool space: Map functions (or patterns) rather than tools, and show how different tools can be used for different functions.    (1JO)

The other goal for the event was to identify and pursue opportunities for collaboration among the participants.    (1JP)

Aspiration’s stated goal for the event was to begin mapping the space of advocacy tools and to facilitate collaboration among the participants. A number of interesting projects emerged:    (1JQ)

  • Several people expressed interest in incorporating the Identity Commons protocols into their tools for Single Sign-On and Data Sharing (all with user privacy built-in).    (1JR)
  • An Open Source legislative contact database that activist groups could freely use.    (1JS)
  • Face-to-face code (and other) sprints. A small group is planning a VoIP sprint somewhere on the East Coast later this summer.    (1JT)
  • Internationalization working group, basically a support group for folks internationalizing their code. One of the great things about the attendees was that international representation was reasonably good. There were folks from Poland, Uruguay, and Canada, and people dealing with many other countries.    (1JU)
  • Technical outreach to organizations. Connecting these groups with the right tools, and explaining to them the virtues of open source. A group is planning to use a Wiki to generate a Nonprofit Open Source Almanac.    (1JV)

The challenge with events like these is sustaining the energy afterwards. Face-to-face events that go well are often victims of their own success, because they create a level of energy that is simply impossible to match online. That said, there are certain things that can help assure continued collaboration:    (1JW)

  1. Individual commitment to shared goals.    (1JX)
  2. Group memory.    (1JY)
  3. Shared workspace.    (1JZ)

This group has all of the above. People were super action-oriented. Tasks were getting accomplished on the spot. Requests for information were often followed a few seconds later by shouts of, “It’s in the Wiki” — music to my ears. In general, folks who easily acclimate to Wiki usage — as this group did — are already inclined to share knowledge and collaborate.    (1K0)

Facilitation    (1K1)

Gunner is both high-energy and easy-going. He’s got a goofy, infectious grin and is quick to drop gut-busting witticisms. It would be easy to ascribe the effectiveness of his events to his personality, but that would be largely inaccurate. A well-meaning and amiable person can easily kill the energy of a group by under- or over-facilitating. Gunner has a strong fundamental understanding of self-organizing systems and very good instincts for when to sit still and when to perturb.    (1K2)

Every good event I’ve attended with large groups of people followed MGTaylor’s Scan Focus Act model, and this was no exception. The beginning of these events are always about discovery and Shared Language. Discovery (or “scan”) is inherently messy and unsettling, but when done correctly, “action” naturally emerges. Most bad events I’ve attended are bad because they try to skip this first step.    (1K3)

Each day consisted of several breakout sessions with groups of three to five people, followed by report-outs, yet another pattern of effective face-to-face events. The agenda for the later breakouts emerged as the event unfolded.    (1K4)

The first day began with a game called A Strong Wind, which was an excellent way both to build energy and to get a sense of who was there. Following that and at the beginning of the subsequent days were In Or Out exercises, a way to get a sense of everybody’s mood and to build individual commitment to the collaboration that would follow. The first day, Gunner asked people to describe their moods in one word. The second day, he asked for colors that described their mood. The third day, he asked people to describe the most beautiful place they knew, be it a geographical location (e.g. California) or a situation (e.g. time spent with family, friends).    (1K5)

As a way to accomodate a number of demos, Gunner organized a Speed Geeking session on Tuesday morning. I’m not sure yet whether I liked it or not. On the one hand, I enjoyed the interaction and the energy. On the other hand, it was incredibly draining for the people giving demos (including me), who also missed out on the demos happening simultaneously to theirs. I think the Planetwork Forum model of eight demos — four minute presentations (PowerPoint highly discouraged) and two minutes of Q&A — followed by two hours of unstructured socializing/networking is more effective, but I’m not ready to discount Speed Geeking entirely.    (1K6)

Good Folks    (1K7)

The most important prerequisite for good events and good collaboration is having the right mix of people. I really like MGTaylor’s strategy for achieving this: The larger the group, the more likely you are of having that mix. This group was relatively small (40 people), and I suspect that Gunner and Katrin’s people instincts played a huge role in making sure we had a good group.    (1K8)

I hate to single people out, because I really liked and was very impressed by everybody there. Nevertheless, I can’t help but mention two people. First, I was glad to finally meet Kellan Elliott-McCrea, the author of Laughing Meme, in person. Time and again, I meet folks whose blogs I enjoy regularly and whose work I admire, and I constantly walk away even more impressed with their authenticity and their decency. It’s how I felt when I first met Ross Mayfield and when I met Seb Paquet, and I felt it again when I met Kellan.    (1K9)

Second, I was glad to meet Mark Surman, who’s based in Toronto. Mark founded the Commons Group several years ago, which is very similar in spirit to Blue Oxen Associates. I meet a lot of like-minded people, but it’s a rare treat to meet someone doing similar work. Mark and his group are doing great stuff. They’re an organization folks should keep their eyes on.    (1KA)