#14: A time and place for everything

How to Make Conferences Great Again.

I’m an author, organizational sociologist, strategy professor, unsuccessful furniture maker, and Xoogler—this is yet another of my attempts to make sense of not-knowing. The ideas below are likely to be only partially baked.


In 2016, I was hired to help develop the program for the fifth instance of the MAD Symposium, the culinary innovation conference in Denmark started by Rene Redzepi.

The four previous MADs had been in an unconventional setting: a 300-seat, bright red, big-top circus tent in a field on the edge of Copenhagen. But the format itself was a standard single-track program of talks about new ideas in food, delivered by assorted famous. My brief for MAD5 was to rethink that single-track program.

What we eventually came up with for MAD5 was a chimeric program. A big chunk of time was taken up with a single-track conference program of talks during which nothing else was programmed, another hefty chunk was for parallel sessions that had been pre-programmed (partly inspired by the unconferences I’d helped organize before), and there was also a small but still significant chunk of unprogrammed time.

The goal was to balance having thematic coherence (the single-track and the pre-programmed multi-track portions) with freeing up as much space and time as possible for attendees to meet new people and hang out with old friends (the unprogrammed portion).

The thesis behind this was (and still is) that the main reason (maybe even the only real reason) anyone goes to a professional conference or any other industry gathering is for the interstitial material.

Nominally, conferences are about some topic of great significance—the latest in management research, or the latest innovations in food, or tasting the current releases of wine available for sale. High-profile events or speakers about these topics provide people with a plausible reason for attending the conference. For serious, expensive industry conferences, they also provide a plausible reason for an employer to pay for the ticket.

But the Real Content happens in the times and spaces between all the content, and isn’t programmed by the conference. You have a great conversation with other recaffeinators at the coffee station during the mid-afternoon break. You go for a drink at the nearby bar with someone you haven’t seen for a year. You end up talking for an hour in a low-visibility lobby corner with other escapees of the crushingly boring panel discussion.

The real virtue of a conference—anything from the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, to a regenerative farming meeting in Cornwall, to the cluster of February wine salons in the Loire—is that it creates an excuse for a crowd to temporarily assemble in the same space around shared interests. In doing so it enriches that particular space and time in opportunities for meeting other people with shared or complementary interests.

At a good conference, you find people who either share or complement your own interests. There are old friends and colleagues you expected to see, friends and colleagues you haven’t seen in years, and people who are entirely new to you. This, to me, is the Real Content. The difference between a good and a great conference is: at the latter, the Real Content is not drowned out by the content.

Like great parties or festivals, conferences have the potential to be great only to the same extent that they have the potential to be completely disastrous.

A conference that is fully programmed in advance will be easier to plan and run—for both organizer and participant, the experience of it will be smooth and trouble-free. There’s clarity and certainty about what will happen and when, and this removes much of the uncertainty. But this comes at the expense of unprogrammed space in which unpredictable, emergent things can happen. In a fully programmed conference, there is no possibility of serendipity and the discovery of the unexpected.

Good conferences are built around leaving space for unexpected meetings and interaction. The truly great conference will invert the highly programmed single-track structure to become unapologetically a space in which a bunch of interesting people meet, during which they have the time to discover the myriad emergent ways in which they have shared or complementary interests.

At this conference, there will be

  1. No talks or events which you feel obligated to attend but are actually deadly boring—and which pull you reluctantly away from the great conversation you were having in the hallway;

  2. Many of spaces of various sizes in which to have anything from a 1:1 conversation to a little workshop or seminar, and easy ways to see which of those spaces are/will be in use;

  3. Very extended breakfasts, lunches, and dinners of a format and with seating that makes it natural to get up repeatedly and move to sit with other people (i.e., not long refectory-style tables);

  4. Organizers actively and continually making connections between participants and areas of emergent shared or complementary interest—human mRNA;

The more unprogrammed time is built into the program, the less certainty organizers and participants have about What Will Happen. In the real world, we cannot attain the ideal of a conference with no program—it’s probably too much uncertainty for everyone involved. But we can attempt to approach that ideal with conferences that have fewer sessions to attend that are definitely useful, and which have few enough participants that the absence of structure doesn’t result in incoherence and collapse.

This would make conference participants more willing to risk spending time on meeting people who they don’t know yet. More importantly, the lack of apparent structure will be slightly discomfiting and throw everyone slightly off guard. This is almost the best thing you can have in a conference if the discomfort and uncertainty is productive and triggers what I call reality mining: paying close attention to the fine detail of situation as they currently exist (instead of expectations about what they should be).

If neither organizers nor participants can go on autopilot, both are forced to work in real time to figure things out. This makes it more likely that they pay close and detailed attention to who and what is really there, and so to see the creative possibilities for connection and commonality that they would otherwise miss. The result could be a conference built around uncertainty (and the emergent potential that enables) which works by design, not in spite of it.

I’d pay good money for that.


How to rock the boat.


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Previous issues can be found here. You can find me on the internet at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.