We tried something new at our semi-annual Download conference in November, and it was quite a hit. We called them Flash Projects (think of this as the conference version of a flash mob, not HTML5’s nemesis) and it offered a way of working together and creating something for others within the confines of a conference setting. It turned out to be fun and productive, and gave teams a chance to get to know each other in a way they wouldn’t have during a regular discussion session.

Here’s what we did.

During each concurrent session time slot, we offered a Flash Project topic. We chose topics where some best practices exist, where the core problems around them haven’t been solved, and where there are multiple right answers. Our topics for this Download were: Learning Evaluation, Aligning with Core Values, Onboarding New Hires and “Pimp My LMS.”

You’ll notice that those topics are awfully broadly defined. That’s on purpose. Once they arrived in the room, each project team received three discussion questions for their topic to suggest different ways in which the team could pursue the topic. (We had a little fun with this, delivering the questions in a Mission Impossible themed envelope, then leaving the room.) Each team had just one flip chart page, and some markers – and no designated official facilitator. The directions were intentionally short — enough to keep the team on track, without stifling creativity. With 30 minutes to work, and an empty room to work in, the teams had a lot to accomplish. And accomplish they did.

As can be expected, each team worked differently. One team even drew a tree as an organizing theme for their response. Complete strangers came together and pooled their knowledge. At the end of 30 minutes, they hung their poster in the main conference room for all to see, and they presented their results at the end of the Download to the entire conference. Steve Gill even blogged about his Flash Project experience here.

In upcoming blog posts, we’ll share what the teams came up with. For now, here’s what we learned about this type of exercise:

  • Choose topics that are interesting & meaty topics. Interesting topics will draw people to the session. (10% of the Download attendees participated in a Flash Project.) Meaty topics still have unanswered questions worth working on.
  • Keep the directions sparse. Provide only as much guidance as you need to keep the groups on track, without bogging them down with a lot of rules. It’s likely they’ll break them anyway, or waste time debating them.
  • Keep the sessions short. Half an hour seemed to be plenty of time, particularly because we didn’t expect anyone to come with material prepared. A short time period is easy to risk on a new experience.
  • Don’t do too many of them. It’s an interesting way to engage and learn, but you know what they say about too much of a good thing.
  • Let the group self-manage. You don’t have to assign a leader for the group. The type of person who chooses a session like this is likely to be someone willing to step up and participate, if not take charge. Our groups tended to self-correct when they got off topic, and the uncomfortable periods in the beginning when no one knew how to dive in were very short.
  • Keep the reporting out time short. Groups should report out their best results, not all the discussion it took to get there.

This was an experiment for us, and it worked out really well. We’ll continue to have Flash Projects at the Download – join in even if you’re just interested in the experience of it.