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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