Do Great Conferences Have a “Special Sauce”?

What makes for a transformational meeting?

I’m asking myself this question because I just attended the best conference of my life. I’m asking it because most conferences, well, suck. And I’m asking it because the people I just spent three days with were continually asking it of each other in order to identify the “special sauce” for themselves – and give us all a better chance of recreating it for more and more people.

The conference in question was WorldBlu live, an annual gathering that is “designed for individuals, for-profit and non-profit organizations who recognize the power of freedom and democracy as a tool for building thriving businesses, promoting innovation, attracting top talent and inspiring full engagement.”

I’ve already written about some of the specific highlights of the conference. Now I want to share the foundations of the WorldBlu “special sauce” that made it such a success – and that any conference planner can replicate, no matter what industry you represent.

1. The People (aka, Widen the Gene Pool) – WorldBlu Live is as heterogeneous a gathering of people as you’re likely to find.  It is, most broadly defined, a business conference, and, true to type, there were many CEOs in attendance, in industries ranging from telecommunications to healthcare to online retail. But there were also human resource professionals. And programmers. And higher education administrators. And musicians. And students. And the people themselves were coming from all across the United States. And Canada. And Denmark. And New Zealand.

This olio of professions, places and perspectives made for conference exchanges where no one could ever safely rely on their own linguistic industry shorthand, or even on an assumption about what one’s training did (or did not) include.  As a result, the conversations formed a powerful double helix of ideas and questions – quite the contrast from the more typical industry-specific meeting, in which the capacity to exchange new ideas – the genetic building blocks that lead to new ways of seeing both the world and our work – is so inward-focused it produces the equivalent of an inbreeding reproductive loop. In short, WorldBlu starts with the assumption that our capacity for innovation grows exponentially when we inquire into core questions with people inside and outside of our chosen fields. And any other conference would be wise to do the same.

2. The Purpose (aka, Start with the “Why”) – As Simon Sinek makes clear in his must-watch TED talk, successful businesses and individuals don’t get better solely by perfecting what they do and how they do it; they get better by understanding why they do what they do, and where that source of intrinsic motivation originates.

The same is true of WorldBlu live. Despite being such an eclectic group, each of us was clearly and powerfully united by the most unlikely of common denominators – a shared commitment to organizational democracy, and, by extension, to create spaces where people could bring their full selves to life and work. It was, put another way, a conference that was designed to reconnect the Me (individual capacity) with the We (collective capacity). And as a result, it was infused with great personal and professional relevance for every attendee.

By contrast, most conferences myopically focus not just on the professional, but also the “what” of what we do. This is what leaves us feeling half-filled, as, indeed, we are. It also prevents us from inquiring deeper into our own sources of passion, strength, and joy – a feeling anyone who attended WorldBlu live will tell you was at the heart of the experience.

3. The Pace (aka, Balance Passive & Active Learning) – Unlike many conferences, in which the majority of people have but one role to play – passive consumer of someone else’s learning experience – WorldBlu Live was designed to strike a dynamic balance between absorbing and co-creating solutions and ideas. Each morning, different people gave short, TED-talk style speeches to the entire conference – and each in response to one of WorldBlu’s ten design principles of an organizational democracy. Afterwards, someone else, from an entirely different organization or industry, spoke briefly about a tool they had used to apply that principle in their work. Then the group transitioned into long unstructured coffee breaks, then box lunches, and then short 45-minute breakout sessions.

I have never seen a shorter time for breakout sessions at a conference, and initially I assumed they would be too brief to yield anything meaningful. What I experienced was the opposite – the brevity encouraged folks to jump right in, and the design assumption was that breakouts were merely a way to help people identify affinity groups, and enable a more useful sorting of the participants so people could have the conversations they were most eager to have with the other people most eager to have them. Consequently, I witnessed something I rarely see in a conference: the complete absence of “drive-by speakers” – the folks who simply show up to dispense their wisdom and then leave as soon as they’re done. As one person put it, “At WorldBlu Live, the speakers were the conference, and the conference was the speakers.”

Imagine if more of our professional conference experiences were characterized by these design principles of people, purpose and pace? Imagine if we started to expect actual learning and fulfillment from these sorts of exchanges, instead of the reluctant knowledge that we will miss yet another opportunity to learn something valuable? And imagine if in the course of our own professional advancement, we made new connections that were equally valuable to our ongoing journeys of personal fulfillment?

It’s possible. I’ve seen it. So let’s stop accepting – and expecting – anything less.

Categories: Democracy, Leadership, Learning, Organizational Change

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


    Posted May 24, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    I loved this…. as a career teacher turned writer/presenter…I’ve always tried to find conferences, learning opportunities OUTSIDE the normal “teacher conference focus” so that I could find out what the “others” were saying about the topics I was interested in…my first such jump outside the norm was to a Julia Cameron’s CREATIVITY CAMP….as a writing teacher, I picked up and loved “The Artist’s Way” then luckily happened upon her Taos Creativity Camp that Cameron only offered two years. It was a life/mind changer for me. It lifted me out of the world of denim with little apples and pencils stitched on and threw me into a world of immense variety of voices, faces, backgrounds, and perspectives. I was the only teacher in the group of around 60 people. Since then I’ve been making the same jump into other worlds…many revolving around the subject of creativity. I sat next to Ken Robinson at a pre-session of the World Creativity Forum last year in Oklahoma City, I presented at the American Creativity Association and in a couple of months will present at the Creative Problem Solving Institute in Atlanta….I speak on how I’ve infused creativity into the classroom despite of tighter and tighter restrictions, the need for creativity in order to engage students in learning, the fact that teaching the “whole child” means teaching for creative thinking as well as critical thinking…. then I sink myself into other’s ideas, insights and discoveries that I would never be able to experience had I simply stuck to the “education conferences” alone…I come away energized and richer. Also, love the way that this conference you attended set itself up for maximizing exchanges….mini-TED talks, how cool!

  2. Posted May 24, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Love this Sam! It is Conference 2.0! it is such a waste of ROI to get everyone together and then not co-create, not move your movement, industry, hobby forward somehow. It is symbolic of the move from ‘having it all figured out and coming to a conference to tell you about it’ to ‘let’s figure it out together. real time. warts and all’. And the latter is so much more engaging and effective. And I think you have nailed the ingredients here.

    I think this is what you meant by pace, but I would just say it is design, and would offer the WB principles can also be used as design principles. That is what we did before the conference is went through each principle and looked at how it was being applied in the conference design. They are a great check to see if your event is itself a freedom centered event, or you will be propagating the tyranny of drive by speakers and handcuffs of no discussion time.

    I also feel a key ingredient is having an over-arching question that the conference or gathering seeks to answer. Together. It can provide some thinking and talks about answer the question, but by posing the question, it immediately engages everyone in the quest for the answer.

    Thanks for capturing this!!

  3. Posted May 25, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comments Mary and Cari — and yes, using the Worldblu design principles is a great self-check for a meeting that is about solving tough problems, not swapping information. I hope we can start seeing more such events in the future — especially in public education!

  4. Posted May 25, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    it takes a special blend of talent & telepathy to break down the energy of an event as you did. thanks Sam … precise, inspiring piece!

    also wanted to add to the Gene Pool at WorldBlu LIVE! … I think there were even a few marketers in attendance who believe that external, traditional marketing just doesn’t cut it any more. they know it’s what’s on the inside that counts – and what ultimately drives stunning, sustainable business results – both “on the inside” of organizations and even more importantly, “on the inside” of each of us as individuals.

    yes, I’m one of those marketers and I heard @willmcinnes express it on stage and during our conversation at the Giants’ game Sat night!

  5. Sheryl Morris
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    When considering whether or not to attend a conference there is the initial excitement of learning new things and being with like minds. Anymore, for me, this excitement quickly dissipates and I decide that it won’t be worth the effort. First, they can cost a lot of money! Second, I wonder what long term goals there are for the conference and those attending. What will come of having had the conference? Will the “best of” be shared at a later date? Third, I think of all those that will not attend, for whatever reasons. Maybe they are introverted and become tense just thinking about being with crowds, maybe they have other obligations, maybe they cannot afford the accommodations, travel, and the conference fee itself.

    Currently I am curious about an online conference to be held in May. (The Whole Child.)

  • Read Sam’s Books