We’ve all been to traditional meetings and conferences where a few smart people at the front of the room share their knowledge with the audience. And while a good speaker can captivate an audience for a few minutes, the opportunities for meaningful interaction and contribution at these events are limited, if they exist at all. Moreover, these meetings fail to take advantage of the expertise, experience, and ideas of those in attendance who are not speaking.

“Unconferences” or “bar camps” were invented as an antidote to the traditional conference. These events have no pre-determined agenda and no formal speakers.  The topics and groups form organically based on the interests of those in attendance.  These events can be both exciting and interactive, but the quality of the event is both uneven and unpredictable.

We developed NEXT to bring together the best of both formats–the structure and prepared content of traditional meetings and the interactivity and engagement of unconferences. NEXT is designed around well-planned group interaction that yields tangible results. Each participant walks away, not with “one or two ideas,” but with a plan, a product, or a solution created and refined, to some degree, by every person in attendance.


NEXT is an interactive meeting format that weaves together discussion, problem solving, and relevant presentations. It can be executed as a public event, a semi-private meeting (e.g. a user conference), or as a private solution-defining activity within an organization.

The meeting format consists of small groups completing specific, predefined, and carefully outlined exercises that address the meeting theme (public) or organizational opportunity (private). The small groups are carefully organized to support the topic and have the opportunity to both interact with each other and with the attendee group as a whole. This structure can be tailored to virtually any topic or any organization. If desired, small groups may compete with each other or be encouraged to form partnerships and alliances. The meeting is supported by a Web site where pre-meeting interactions, key information, pre-work, and group outcomes are entered and maintained.

The “secret sauce” of a NEXT meeting is the effort applied prior to the meeting to define the topic and supporting exercises, create the program content, determine how the small groups will be organized and develop supporting materials, train team leaders and support personnel, and create the meeting Web site. This preparation provides the structure and guidance necessary to insure that the event is a useful and unique experience for everyone that attends.


How can the NEXT approach be applied?

NEXT meetings are used in two settings: in a public environment (or semi-public event such as a user conference) and in a private setting (within an organization). The format can be used educationally (i.e., addressing industry trends, strategies, burning issues) or within a company to address a particular issue or opportunity (i.e., strategy definition, product development, working through operational issues, etc.).

How can a meeting like this benefit my organization?

For a public NEXT meeting or conference, the sponsoring organization benefits in a number of ways:

.       Community Building: Bringing clients, prospects, and staff together in a non-threatening non-competitive environment to share experiences. This community can become a powerful marketing and member- or client-retention tool.

.       Soft Sell: Every organization exists to meet a need.  By exploring that need with the attendees, they gain a greater understanding of the circumstances that might lead them to 1) buy your product, or 2) become a member of your mission-driven organization. Topics and exercises are structured to highlight the issues that lead someone to action without “hard selling” the organization hosting the event.

.       Product Development: This venue allows an organization to gain a better understanding of the needs of their members, clients, and prospects and develop offerings to meet those needs.

.       Relationship Building: In addition to the community building noted above, this event allows an organization to emphasize its depth of expertise to their clients and prospects. It also allows more of your staff to have direct interaction with your clients or members, thereby exposing the talent in your organization and forging stronger connections with your constituents.


For a private NEXT meeting:

.       Problem Solving: Too often the people required to focus on an organizational issue or opportunity are not afforded the time to do so.  As a result, it takes weeks, months, or even longer to address large strategic or tactical issues and create an action plan.  The NEXT meeting uses targeted, tailored exercises, trained team leaders, and carefully constructed small groups to ensure progress in a much shorter timeframe.

.       Break Down Silos: Pulling teams together in this fashion allows interaction amongst staff that do not work together on a day-to-day basis. The problem addressed will have the benefit of different perspectives. In fact, it is highly recommended to pull in trusted partners and affiliates to insure all perspectives are considered.

.       Relationship Building: Aside from solving the problem at hand, the process of arriving at a solution together builds lasting relationships across the organization.

.       Cost and Morale: How much does it cost an organization to churn on an issue for months?  What is the impact of multiple departments working redundantly and potentially in isolation? The result is often competing or partial solutions, rework, and frustration at all levels. 

.       Change Management: Perhaps the largest benefit of this approach is that the participants become vested in the solution and its success. 


How long is a NEXT meeting?

The event can run from a half-day to two days depending upon the amount of program content is to be covered. Completing one exercise will take the attendees 4-5 hours. At minimum, a half-day is required. Given the level of engagement required at a NEXT meeting, we do not recommend a meeting run longer than two days as participants will reach a point of diminishing returns.  If desired, a networking or relationship-building event, such as a golf outing or tour, can be appended before or after the meeting.

How many people are required for a NEXT meeting?

We have successfully executed NEXT meetings with 50-100 people. That is the recommended attendance, however, variations on the format can be made to accommodate groups of more varied size.

© Copyright 2010 Ann Michael and Michael Clarke. All rights reserved.