Avoiding the Conference Hangover

You’ve just returned to campus from a somewhat exotic location with hopefully better weather than what you are seeing outside of your window right now.

Next to your desk you have a reusable recycled bag filled with flyers, hand-outs, triangle highlighters, USB keys, a key chain that has the world’s smallest computer mouse attached to it and a notebook full of notes. That or you’ve opened up your Evernote account and realized how many notes, ideas, questions, and strategies you’ve heard about from the sessions you’ve attended and quickly close it to handle the 50+ e-mail messages, 10 voice mails, and desk full of Post-It to-dos.

“I don’t have time for this yet. Let me get settled then I’ll go through the conference stuff.”

A day goes by, “Ugh, I have to handle this mini-crisis first. Let me get this settled then I’ll go through the conference stuff.”

It’s Friday. “You know, let me tackle this on Monday when I have a fresh start. I need to give my brain a rest and recover from the traveling. Let me get that settled then I’ll go through the conference stuff.”

Monday comes and so do a new round of e-mails, voicemails, and to-do. All of a sudden you are in April making the rounds of the chicken and cheesecake banquet circuit, then comes May with graduations and hall closings, then June with Orientations, July with vacations, and September you realize that bag in the corner with a layer of dust hasn’t been touched.

Here’s the thing – whenever it is you do decide to digest, decipher, and discuss what you’ve learned I have three simple tips you should follow.

1. You need to STOP
Seriously. Stop. That amazing orientation idea that involved Twitter, balloons, a scavenger hunt, and the faculty in grass skirts cheering students on sounded great in the hotel conference room but stop. Stop before you share it. Stop before you send that e-mail saying, “I heard about this great idea, we should do…? STOP. Why? Because…

2. You need to reassess
You are stopping because you need to get off your conference high and really think about what works for YOUR campus. That huge university with the 5-tiered leadership program that includes off-site retreats and on-campus ropes course training complete with faculty mentors and athletic coaches worked for that campus culture. Look at the structure and the purpose of the program to find the main idea, then reassess what aspects of it would work for you. You may have just heard about a recipe that makes the most amazing walnut-chocolate chip cookies but your campus has a nut allergy. This means you have to adjust and see how you can make it work which brings me to…

3. You need to revamp
That great idea with the enormous budget? Subtract the enormous budget and all you are left with is a great idea. Revamp the plan /program you heard about to fit your campus. Find the aspects that worked really well and could be easily replicated without major cost. Did they have an interesting approach to marketing? Did they tap new resources that also happen to be on your campus? Did they share a tactic that could work with your campus politics with a few tweaks? Start thinking how the ideas could be applied to your campus, not how the programs can be regurgitated and re-manufactured.

What makes me a pro at this? Nothing. I simply have been lucky enough to go to a lot of major conferences early in my career and have come back to campus bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to change the world only to realize, what works at XYZ institution isn’t going to work at ABC institution.

When I do go to another conference (looking at you Indy) I won’t be looking for programs, proposals, handouts, or how-tos. I’m going to be looking for ideas.

Ideas are like recipes. There is always a substitute for an ingredient to make it work for your diet, your guests, your audience; it is just a matter of finding it and that’s my favorite thing to do.

8 thoughts on “Avoiding the Conference Hangover

  1. As always, Joe, great thoughts to chew on. I would also offer that we often fall victim to the shiny, sparkly ideas at a conference, but fail to realize that it’s often the energy of innovative ideas that we are drawn to. So, take the time to question, “What current challenge on my campus might be examined differently?” rather than “how can I make this idea work on my campus?” Starting with a solution and shopping around for a problem is destined to fail.

    • I like that perspective Niki – one of many you’ve provided me with over the years 🙂

      I think you are on the brink of a whole separate blog post around “how does innovation on campus start?” or “I have a great idea, now what?”

      Either one of those could start with, “Find the problems, go from there.”

      Your “starting with a solution and shopping around for a problem” reminds me of the analogy of “when you hold a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts 🙂 Always appreciated!

    • I also wonder if we shouldn’t actually be going into conferences with that train of thought, or something similar. Being at a community college has dramatically altered my approach to attending sessions at a conference. While I like that Joe says he’s looking for ideas, I know I also have to be grounded in a reality that a number of factors (no residence halls, no greek life, no “juniors and seniors”, mostly lower SES, students with remedial placements, etc) play into how applicable a program just might be on my campus. I don’t completely limit myself, because there are some presenters I’d go to just hear them present on the phone book.

      • Chris all this translates into for me is “we need more community college educators presenting at conferences.”

        Which I agree with, there are more college students in community colleges than 4-year schools – time for them to start being represented accurately on conference schedules and in conference crowds.

        I know funding plays a huge role in that but it needs to be addressed.

      • Agreed, Chris. The sessions that stick with me are not necessarily the ones discussing some great new program, but the ones I leave with the feeling, “Well, that got me thinking.”

  2. Thanks for a thoughtful post, Joe. I completely agree that higher ed frequently falls prey to “bright shiny object” syndrome. (e.g. “We need to do Pinterest.”). I do think, though, that when we are attracted to an idea, whether at a conference, in an article, etc.), there’s a reason. I think it’s worth stopping to ask, “Is there a problem that we have that this idea would solve?” quickly followed by, “How would it need to be done differently to work on my campus”.

    • Thanks Deborah for putting my whole blog post in 2 sentences.

      “I think it’s worth stopping to ask, “Is there a problem that we have that this idea would solve?” quickly followed by, “How would it need to be done differently to work on my campus””

      Brilliant! Thanks for reading and sharing 🙂

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