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.

Thinking about Job Terms

The most important job in the country (aside from parent) is arguably the position of President of the United States. The presidential term is four years. You know when you are elected you have four years to make stuff happen.

What do you think would happen if we extended the terms of conference planning teams? A chair now has TWO years to make the ideal experience. I imagine this would work better for regional rather than national but the idea still stands. Give the conference/event planner two years to reach and make their outcomes a reality.

No more one shot deals. No more let’s cram everything for everyone in one 3-day period.

Two year conference chair positions = raised accountability, raised expectations, raised satisfaction.

What if you job was given a term? Would it change what you do or don’t do? Would it make you more focused or more stressed? Share your thoughts and be extraordinary.

3 Habits Conferences Need to Stop

As part of my daily commute, I ride the train for around 50 minutes each way. Most commuters take this 50 minutes to nap, blare their MP3 player, stare off into space, or people watch. A rare few take that time to read newspapers, kindles, books, Sodokus, etc. I’m one of the rare few.

In just over 2 months I have read over 20 books during my commute. One of the books that I’ve read (thank you Cindy Kane and/or Niki Rudolph for the recommendation, I know one of you rec’d it!) is Leading Change by John P. Kotter.

With any book I read, I fold the corners of pages over to go back later and type out great thoughts, ideas, charts, graphs, whatever made me pause and go, “Hmm” within the book.

In Leading Change, Kotter (1996) lays out the 3 habits of ineffective communication and to me they sound eerily close to what is standard procedure for many conferences.

1. Sending out memos with no follow-up or person-to-person interaction.
2. Making speeches and nothing else. 
3. Memos, speeches, materials but no buy in from senior leaders. (pg 9)

Do those three habits sound familiar? I can check my e-mail now and see random e-mails broadcasting call for programs, conference save the dates, (point 1), advertisements of “look who we have speaking!” (point 2), SSAOs creating their own conferences in their vision (point 3).

We are doing conferences wrong with no good reason as to why. (Yes, I should sound like a broken record by now.) 

The #conf30 agenda is to declare an effort to right these inefficiencies and bring the conference up to par. For more about the Conference 3.0 effort, check out the latest discussion here.

Agree? Disagree? Opinion? Let me hear it. Welcome to the conversation.
Cited: Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston: Harvard Business Press.