Better Conferences

Better Conferences

I’m becoming increasingly dissatisfied with conferences, both as a speaker and as an attendee. Rather than rant about their present format (be that speaker-led, open-space, or what-have-you), I thought I’d make a constructive suggestion about a different format for conferences, a format that I myself would prefer.


Seems to me that the very idea of “Conference” has become detached from its roots:


[kuhn-fur]  verb, -ferred, -fer·ring.

verb (used without object)

  1. to consult together; compare opinions; carry on a discussion or deliberation.

[C16: from Latin conferre  to gather together, compare; from com- together + ferre to bring]

The Problem

Let me start out by describing the problems I have with existing conference formats.

  • Push – Most often, know-how is “pushed” at the participants by people with that know-how, albeit with the best of intentions. Many times these good intentions go awry and create waste:
    • Wasted time for speakers sharing know-how that few if any folks find valuable
    • Wasted time for participants hearing about stuff that lacks relevance for them personally
    • Presentations / lectures being the classic form of “push”
    • This all seems contrary to what we in the Agile and Lean communities have learned about the benefits of “pull”.
  • Not purposeful – Folks generally drift in and out of sessions with little purpose and little idea in advance as to whether a particular session is going to serve their needs  (“fit”). Further, few folks I have met at conferences come with any kind of specific “learning agenda”.
  • Unconscious incompetence – how do folks get to find out what they don’t know, that might be valuable to them in their current situation, or their future? [My thanks to @papachrismatts for this suggestion.]
  • Structure set at the outset – Particularly an issue with open space, where, even though the agenda is co-created at the outset, there is little  or no flexibility in time slots, nor much evolution of the agenda or timing structure after the start.
  • No adjustment to the process/structure during the event. Even within a one-day conference, participants are learning about the format and how it suits them. I would favour a means to encourage and incorporate that learning through ongoing evolution “in flight”.


As I see it, folks participate in conferences to the following ends:

  • To learn (from acquiring a basic awareness of things unknown, through to detailed and specific know-how)
  • To socialise
  • To share (e.g. mutual learning)
  • To proselytise (e.g. to promote ideas)
  • To promote (the profile of oneself or one’s organisation for e.g.commercial purposes)
(And let’s not overlook the organisers’ purpose: whether it’s about community, or more commercial ends).

A Solution

My solution to the above collection of problems and requirements would be to have conferences where:

  • Attendees each have their own “ignorance backlog“, drawn-up in advance, and evolving throughout the conference. For those for whom this might prove a challenge, the conference could and should provide some guidance, in the form of e.g. coaching, in the construction and evolution of this backlog. I for one would be delighted to volunteer for this duty.
  • Knowledge is pulled, on demand, by the attendees, from the pool of available “subject-matter experts”, and in accordance with their “ignorance backlogs”. Given the likely ratio of learners to subject-matter experts, this pulling may necessarily happen in groups, rather than on a one-to-one basis. Although, this format does afford the delicious possibility of allowing anyone (attendees included) to play the part of subject-matter expert in at least some subjects. As Ackoff and others have said, “in the classroom, the teachers is always the one that learns most”. So I posit it would be for the best to encourage non-subject-matter-experts to do as much of the “teaching” as possible.
  • Sessions are organised on-the-fly, with duration, location and participants “pulled” according to availability and priority.
  • The core of the conference organisation task would involve:
    1. Delineating the topic landscape (scope).
    2. Finding the venue, sponsors, etc
    3. Encouraging folks to participate
    4. Cataloguing the expertise present on the day,
    5. Providing the “ba” (spaces where mutual meaning can emerge)
    6. Facilitating the scheduling (times, durations, locations) of the “ba”.
    7. Consolidating the experience via follow-up activities (photos, slides, videos, blogs, etc).


Risks I can envisage include:

  • Folks with knowledge may be reluctant to spend their own coin to particiapte, given that “speakers” often get their expenses reimbursed (and sometimes fees, as well) as part of the “deal” (i.e. in token exchange for sharing their know-how and experiences). I do have some tentative – i.e. not yet well-formed – ideas on how to address this.
  • Folks looking to proselytise or promote their ideas, company or personal brand/celebrity may be unwilling to participate fearing a dilution of their profile. I am less concerned by this, as personally I  dislike being sold to, favouring rather co-learning with like-minded others.
  • Organisations sponsoring their employees to attend conferences in this kind of format may wonder if they’re getting value for money, and may baulk at the unconventional nature of the format. Given the likely much improved outcomes (in terms of participants’ learning, experiences) I suggest this might be an initial hurdle but less of a longer-term issue.
  • Participants coming unprepared/unbriefed for such a format may not get as much out of the conference as they would if skilled in this particular approach.


Let’s not overlook the key role of sponsors and sponsorship in reducing the financial risks inherent in organising conferences, and in making conferences financially viable. I for one understand less than I’d like to about the motivations of sponsors and how – or even if –  their needs can be met by this format.


I’m not going to name this new format. As Ohno said: “Don’t codify method”. Maybe you might consider the advantages of so refraining, also?

Given my proposal of this kind of format as a means for mutual learning (or co-exploration of a topic/topic-set) it might be more suitable to refer to everyone as “participants”, “co-learners” or even “conferrers”, rather than split people up to different categories such as attendees, speakers, etc.

Early Trials

We have trialled some aspects of the proposed format at the various Rightshifting conferences of the past two years. I’d love for folks who attended those events to share their experiences of the format, here.

– Bob

  1. Tobias said:

    I like these ideas. Especially like the “ignorance backlog”. This kind of format encourages true engagement, and gets past the “feed me” attitude many attend events with. I agre that both the traditional conference and the Open Space formats are not meeting the needs of the way people work these days—or perhaps, the way we’d like to encourage people to work. Interested to see how these ideas emerge, and happy to do my part in piloting and experimenting.

    • Hi Tobias,

      Thanks for your feedback. Let’s se if we can’t all trial some new ways of finding meaning together. See you at the ba! 🙂

      – Bob

  2. pklipp said:

    I like the principles you’ve shared and I’m always keen to try new things with ACE!, the conference that created the format now used by the ALE conferences that Jurgen initiated as well as others. The ACE! format is designed to minimize formulaic content in favor of voluntary interaction, and I’d be very interested in getting your input on the design of ACE! 2012. One thing we could add is a good mechanism for attendees to broadcast their expectations so that speakers could attempt to adapt their talks to the needs of the audience as far as possible. We’ve got three months to go, so there’s still lots of time to innovate.

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. I’d be delighted to share my views in the context of ACE! 2012. I favour the principles underlying e.g. “Competitive Engineering” by Tom Gilb for surfacing expectations – through quantification and (maybe also) impact estimation. I don’t know if it would be too much to ask all attendees and speakers to grok Planguage or similar, though?

      – Bob

  3. Nicole Rauch said:

    Hello Bob,

    these are interesting suggestions, thanks!
    I do not really have a clear idea of what you mean by “ignorance backlog”. Is it a list of what the person does not know? Or what he wants to know? How does this play together with “unconscious incompetence”? I’d be grateful if you could elaborate a little on this.


    • Hi Nicole,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. By “ignorance backlog” I mean a list of things (ideas, topics, etc.) a person feels might be useful to know, or know better. I am grateful to a number of folks for pointing out the challenge that “unconscious incompetence” poses here. I posit that anyone building their “ignorance backlog” (aka learning backlog) will benefit significantly from help from others who may be able to suggest useful additions to this backlog. Would you like more elaboration yet? Do let me know. 🙂

      – Bob

  4. Interesting ideas Bob.

    Clearly vast majority of conferences out there seem to map into your “challenged” conference category. However you’ve ignored many small conferences that are achieving what you want (and may be more.)

    Those smaller conferences might not be popular. Mainly because they are not run with a commercial interest and don’t usually have a budget to make a splash. Also when the size of the conference increases you get very different dynamics.

    I can speak for conferences I’ve been part of. Have a look at or or or (I’ve not attended, but heard a lot about.)

    SDTConf is in its 7th year. You can talk to people who’ve attended it, it always been about “gathering & learning, by doing not just talking.” As someone described it, its, “Google without the browser!”

    Participants have to submit a Position Paper ( to participate in the conference. Each day, we kick off with a lightning talks over breakfast, followed by creating an initial agenda for the day put together by the participants. This agenda does change quite a bit as participants learn and discover interesting ideas/problems. We wrap the day with participants sharing a key learning. An organizer job is to get people together and then their job is done. Its 110% self-organized there after.

    We’ve had sponsors who’ve sponsored the conference in kind (they bring food/coffee or tshirts or pay for the venue.) Mostly because they believe in promoting the concept without really having a marketing agenda.

    As a organizer I get to meet, hang around and learn from really great folks. Good enough incentive to keep running this conference for the last 7 years. Its not just me. Others have also run this conference. Its certainly spreading.

    There are no speakers. We only have participants.

    Agile Coach Camp is taking off in a much bigger way and has had its own evolution and regional customization.

    Having said that, I’ve also organized conferences which are not pull based, where speakers come and present topics. Very different in nature and feel.

    Are they bad? Should we stop doing them?

    Absolutely NOT.

    They have a market and they solve a problem. Which is the reason you see so many of them running year after year. One might over grow this model, but there are always new people who need this form of a conference.

    Anyway, I would love to see you run with your idea and put together an actual conference. Talk is cheap!

    • Hi Nashjain,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      I avoid large conferences like the plague, so my comments above really apply to the smaller formal conferences, plus open-space events like last week’s Agile Coaches’ Gathering (London, UK). I have not been to many code retreats nor any coach camps.

      For me, the key absence from any and every format in which I have participated has been the lack of explicit purpose. Not so much for the event as a whole, but from the perspective of each participant. Of course, it may be that some folks come along armed with a steely, laser-focused purpose, and just don’t talk about it much.

      I will continue to trial these ideas in those conferences where the opportunity presents itself – like the Rightshifting events mentioned in the post.

      – Bob

  5. Really interesting point of view you have here Bob. And as I agree with you, I would also add 2 more things:

    Firstly, we need to get real partitioners to start going to conferences (and share), dont get me wrong: I like consultants and coaches, but I actually miss real people from the trenches. Practical examples, real situations. Developers, testers… and managers too!

    Secondly, I would like to see – and I already proposed this to ALE – all Speakers joining in the first day and doing a kind of lightning talk where they would simply present themselves and explain what their talk, in coming days, will be about… this would help me more than a headline when I have to choose which talk to attend to.

    My 2 cents.

  6. valueglide said:

    Hi Bob

    Like this post as you propose your alternative as well as the problem.

    I would like to find out more and experiment.


  7. I’m in Brazil and would like to apply these techniques here.

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