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Ed Bernacki on conference design, innovation and ROI

What a dose of design thinking can do to rethink public service staff conferences

Ed Bernacki - Thursday, January 21, 2016

White Paper Public Service Staff Conferences

The media in Australia reported last year on a government department staff conference that involved an evening boat cruise. ‘A waste of money’ was the claim; easy fodder for right wing newspapers and talk back radio to criticize staff conferences.

The criticism was ridiculous but effective.  It scares the public sector from using conferences as a useful tactic for productivity, collaboration and innovation. This is unfortunate.  Whether we refer to local government, or state, provincial, or federal agencies, we need staff to develop their skills and motivations to want to tackle the challenges facing the public service in serving the public – that’s the rest of us who expect the public service to create innovative solutions to our problems.

It is obvious that we need new ways to design conferences. If we applied a dose of design thinking on the way we design conferences, it is easy to create new approaches based on enhancing the experience of ‘staff’ as participants. Most conferences start with three objectives:

1.  Learning

2.  Networking

3.  Motivation

If we recognize the expertise of the staff sitting in the audience, challenge it, and then focus this expertise in practical ways, we can create objectives for:

4.  Collaboration people need to meet to learn to collaborate effectively.

5.  Innovation what can we create if we harness the brain power of people and collaborate to solve specific challenges during the conference?

I worked with several public sector groups to design in-house staff conferences.  They were inexpensive yet highly effective in achieving results.  They brought to 300-400 staff for about four hours and focused on building a culture of ideas and creativity. One was in-house (in the cafeteria). I then experimented with this format with other public sector events and wrote a White Paper on four models designed to achieve a specific result. This is useful for any staff group of 50 or more people. You can download this.

In-Person Collaboration is the future of conferences

This white paper introduces an idea of four-hour staff conferences. From experience, this seems a useful length of time. It is easy to adjust each to match the available time.  Start your design thinking with one of these objectives:

1. Staff conference for greater individual success

Prompt people to review what made them successful in the past year and to look forward to define strategies to be successful next year.

2. Staff conference for greater team collaboration

Provide people with opportunities to collaborate with people they do not normally work with on meaningful challenges important to the organization.

3. Staff conference for identifying new opportunities

Harness the expertise, observations and insights of staff to create new opportunities for change and improvement.

4. Staff conference to solve a challenge

Solve a challenge or ‘wicked’ problem with the expertise in the room.

I used half day conferences with local government in two countries and several groups within federal agencies. The formats are useful. They are inexpensive. They create results. That is good for the bottom line of any organization, including those in public service. I look forward to the day when a tabloid reports on a government staff conference that solved a difficult problem by bringing staff together for a few hours.   

Download the White Paper. 

You can enhance your understanding of conference design by reading Seven Rules for Designing More Innovative Conferences. See www.InnovativeConferences.com

Demand more ROI from your conferences – please!

Ed Bernacki - Friday, July 24, 2015

“What’s the point of speaking at our conferences; most people do so little with their notes and ideas.” George Grendon, then the Editor of Inc. Magazine said this before he challenged us to help Inc. makes its conferences more effective. 

To start we had to define what makes a conference ‘effective’.

We decided that for a conference to be truly effective, people would act on their ideas after the event.  It was obvious that this would require a new way of thinking about the role of conference speakers and participants.  Coming from a background in innovation, we created recommendations which became a book, Seven Rules for Designing More Innovative Conferences.  The ‘rules’ prompt a different conversation about what is possible when people and ideas come together.

I start with something obvious yet rarely expressed: Rule #1; the true experts at a conference are in the audience, not on stage.  We should harness this expertise for some part of the event.  I discovered that the conference industry did not think like me.  Most conferences are designed on three objectives:

1. Learning

2. Networking

3. Motivation

I don’t know why these objectives are used or sufficient. They could describe off site training. This leads to the most common conference design internationally.

   Opening keynote  
   Workshops – small events use three, large events add more
   Lunch keynote
   Afternoon workshops  
   Closing keynote – and this is repeated on day two.

There is much talk about designing UX (user experience). If you do, this design tells me we want people to sit in the audience, often in the dark, and ask a token question or two.

Where is the ‘return’ for ROI?

I met with a group in the US hosting an internal conference for 450 sales and account managers. A quick calculation told me that it will cost over $1.3 million in salary and expenses. What is a useful return? Sales opportunities identified? Collaborations created? Strategies conceived?

The irony is that most conferences measure your opinion of the speakers, food and venue. Trying to evaluate the opportunities you create at the event is hard.  This does not mean we should ignore more strategic outcomes.  I suggest adding two objectives to stop ignoring the expertise of people who walk into the meeting rooms.

4. Collaboration – the most effective way to network is to collaborate with people to solve a real challenge. 

5. Innovation – what could we create if we harness the brain power of people on specific challenges during the conference?

As a practical and simple example of collaboration, I spoke at a staff conference for 120 people. I was to present for 90 minutes. I stopped after 60 minutes and challenged staff to answer one question: ‘What’s your idea to make this a better company to work for?’ 

I collected 160 pages of ideas. One person said it would be a better company if was not so cold in the office. Their idea was to add more heaters.  It was simple yet meaningful to that person.  Later I distilled these into 40 ideas ranging from practical (the heater) to strategic (markets the company could enter).  The CEO was blown away. He had 40 quality ideas from his staff. Some solved a problem that he did not know was a problem. He said that the cost of the conference now seemed trivial. The ideas gave him a roadmap for improvements for the year. This took just 30 minutes in a two day conference.

I have since worked on many events that use part of the conference to harness the brainpower on real challenges – solve corporate problems, create new business opportunities, build productive teams, etc.

Much more is possible when people and ideas come together if you demand more ROI from your investments in conferences. Ask harder questions of your conference organizers – how else can we get more value from our investment in the conference?