Getting the most out of conferences

The best thing about conferences is that they are a locus for really smart people converging on one topic

black hat conference 2015

A Black Hat conference audience, 2015

Credit: Steve Marcus, Reuters

Although ancient Romans and semi-modern Victorians differed greatly in their attitudes toward things such as morality and public behavior, they were precisely aligned in how they thought about travel: It was a good thing. In both cultures, travel was considered a critical ingredient of one’s personal and professional identity. Travel accelerated learning and expanded the mind. To be untraveled was considered to be akin to being uneducated.

I recently undertook a quick survey of how contemporary organizations view travel — or more specifically, conference attendance. Attitudes have vacillated in recent years, but personally, I like the idea of conferences. To be more precise, I believe great executives and great organizations can develop superior insight through strategic participation in a curated portfolio of conferences. 

Technology executives need to get out more

Alan Webber, the former editor of the Harvard Business Review and co-founder of Fast Company magazine, recalls that prior to the e-commerce era, bosses and managers would see their people at the water cooler and remonstrate, “Get back to your desk and get to work.” 

During the era, this bias toward a sedentary, nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic was displaced in many enterprises. Suddenly, executives who saw people working diligently at their desks were exclaiming, “What are you doing? Get out of here and go talk to somebody!” The presumption had shifted so that “work” was seen as gleaning in-person insights from customers and suppliers. 

In the austerity-focused first 10 years of this millennium, this “go meet somebody” attitude reversed itself yet again, and severe restrictions were placed on conference attendance. Many national and multinational conferences were hit hard, and some, like Comdex, didn’t survive. At the same time, many university-based executive programs designed to develop new skills in next-generation leaders ceased to exist. One knock-on development was the localization of conferences. Recognizing that many potential attendees lacked funds for travel and lodging, some conference organizers attempted to reduce the total cost of participation by bringing the conference to each city — community conferences, if you will. 

For some time now, high-performance organizations have been creating their own conferences. They identify the issues that matter to them, reach out to a broad universe of external voices with provocative points of view and relevant experience regarding that issue, schedule a date and craft an agenda. Disney does this around analytics, Kaiser Permanente around innovation, and GE around everything. Shouldn’t your organization be doing this?     

Opening minds to the possibility of possibility

While researching this article, I learned there is a subdiscipline in the humanities devoted to the study of genius (see Eric Weiner, The Geography of Genius; Roger Lowenstein, When Genius Failed; and Darrin McMahon, Divine Fury: A History of Genius). It would seem that while genius happens in clusters (think Silicon Valley, Paris, Athens and late 18th-century Edinburgh), it nevertheless benefits from periodic walkabouts. Freud did it. Dickens did it. Mark Twain was a big fan of exposing himself to the thoughts of a diverse group of people. 

My friend and mentor, Moshe Rubinstein, one of the world’s leading experts on creative problem-solving, believes that conversation between smart people is the fastest and most affordable path to wisdom. Are you having the right kinds of conversations with the right kinds of people? 

I see conferences as an important mechanism for expanding the universe of smart people you can have conversations with. In fact, most conference organizers have their value proposition all wrong. The primary benefit of attendance lies not in listening to best-selling keynoters. Does one really have to fly eight hours and spend thousands of dollars for information that could be collected simply by reading a book, listening to a podcast or watching a YouTube video? No, but by attending a conference, you gain the benefit of those outside-the-lecture-hall conversations with smart people working hard on the same kinds of problems you are. 

Unfortunately, the way most conferences are designed today, the only places you can meet your peers are in the bathroom or during the overly compressed “feeding times.” Neither is the optimal venue for meaningful experience exchange or executive development. 

A conference game plan 

Before booking any conference, sit down and enumerate your “no-knows” — the things you don’t know and want to get smart about. With these in hand, do some research to find out who the smartest people are in those areas. Where do they hang out? Is there a conference focused on this topic? Is it designed to maximize conversation between attendees, or is it just a bunch of talking heads and sales pitches by sponsoring vendors? 

If the latter, you may want to design a “pop-up guerrilla” conference that coincides with the official conference. You don’t even have to attend the official conference; you just use it as a resource that can draw the people you most want to talk with to the same place. The guerrilla conference is really just a shared space — a dinner, a lunch, a workshop or a party — adjacent to the official conference.  

After any conference, you should capture the knowledge you’ve collected so you can apply it. Write down the names of people you met, what you learned and what you are going to do next. Putting it all down on paper (or in a spreadsheet) will help you see at a glance how valuable your travel was.

Futurist Thornton A. May is a speaker, educator and adviser and the author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics. Visit his website at, and contact him at

This story, "Getting the most out of conferences" was originally published by Computerworld.

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