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.