by Don Peppers
As a business author and professional speaker “living mouth to hand” (as Winston Churchill once described the speaking circuit), over the last 20 years I’ve made presentations in 63 different countries. Which means I have personally had a ring-side, up-close view of literally hundreds of conventions, conferences, and single-company events–big and small, some with trade shows and some without, some open-enrollment and some single-company, both exciting and boring, entertaining and academic.
What I’ve observed is that events are great places to meet interesting people and broaden your own perspective. In fact, without a doubt in my mind, this is the single most valuable benefit attendees get–a broadened perspective and access to new connections. Because when it comes to generating innovative ideas, there really is no substitute for person-to-person interaction.
Economist Leonard Read once used an ordinary wooden pencil to make a fundamental argument about the nature of technology and innovation. As simple as a pencil is, he said, “not a single person on the face of this earth” actually knows how to make one from scratch!
To make an ordinary wooden pencil, after all, you’d have to start by harvesting the wood for it with saws, axes, ropes and other gear, which means you’d first have to mine and smelt the ore to make these tools, raise the food to feed the lumberjacks, build the hydroelectric dam to power the sawmill, and so forth. To mine the graphite you’d have to travel to Sri Lanka, dig it up and mix it with ammonium hydroxide and sulfonated tallow, then bake it at 2,000° F before treating the mixture with candelilla wax, paraffin, and hydrogenated natural fats.
Read’s argument is not just that no single person could ever actually do all these things, but that no single person even knows how to do everything. Absolutely no one. (Quick: Have you ever heard of candelilla wax? How about sulfonated tallow?)
So how is it that pencils appear in stores and on desks if no single person even knows how to make them? Well, they appear in the same basic way that beehives appear in nature. No single bee “knows how” to make a hive, but different bees follow their own instincts and interact with each other until a beehive emerges. Similarly, all human technologies, even the simplest tools, emerge from our social dealings with each other. Each of us acts individually, but our individual actions result in the manufacture of pencils, airliners, smartphones and software apps, even though not a single one of us could actually make any of these things completely from scratch.
And because innovation is such a social phenomenon, the more closely we mingle with and associate with others, the more creative we are likely to be. Cities, for instance, have been found to be much more highly innovative than small towns. If you look at various markers for innovation, such as patents, R&D budgets, number of inventors, and so forth, research has shown that if City A is ten times larger than City B, it will likely have 17 times the number of innovation markers. In other words, roughly speaking, it will be 1.7 times more creative, per capita!
The point is that our own creativity and innovation are stimulated when we have social contact with others, and particularly when that contact is with others who share similar goals as ours – rather like the professionals we are likely to meet at a good conference or event. And from my own observations I’m almost positive that when a large conference is organized so as to mix and mingle people regularly, allowing them to digest, discuss and ruminate about the material the speakers are presenting to them, there is an uptick in each attendee’s “creativity quotient.”
Not all conferences, unfortunately, have the budget to procure content that is both interesting and persuasive, nor do all of them offer the same kinds of networking opportunities for professionals. I’ve even found myself at one or two conferences that drew more speakers than attendees, which tends to suck the energy out of everything.
But one thing any event organizer could easily do to boost the individual benefit every attendee takes from an event would be to provide specific guidance with respect to how to go about it:
- Ask attendees whether they are seeking to consolidate existing relationships or to meet new people?
- Do they want more “how to” expertise or are they gathering industry insights and intelligence?
- From a personal standpoint, are attendees trying to grow their own “personal brand” or are they more interested in making connections with others?
- Do they want to learn more in order to do their current job better, or to get to the next level?
At the event itself, while this might sound obvious, when multiple sessions happen simultaneously the organizer should coach attendees to choose at least one or two sessions on topics they don’t already know a lot about. After all, if you want to learn the most, as quickly as possible, then you need to ask questions for which don’t already know the answers.
A well-organized event can be a great opportunity for attendees to learn and connect, while enjoying the process. And as the organizer, you should make it your mission to provide the professional guidance your attendees need to ensure that they get the very most out of your event.
Don Peppers is co-founder of CX Speakers and the Peppers & Rogers Group. Opinions are his own. You can reach him through his website www.cxspeakers.com.