What Makes for a Compelling Conference on Innovation?

PHOTO BY Graham

PHOTO BY Graham

I'm freshly back from a conference—the Design Management Institute—in Santa Monica.  As I was stewing on my time there, I realized that it was much harder than expected to find a reference point for the experience I'd just had. I've been to plenty of innovation-centric conferences before but none quite like this one. So, I've done a bit of a brain-dump and laid it all out on the table. Here's what it was like:

The basic details: 

  • DMI is aimed at bringing together global design (broadly defined) leaders.
  • It was relatively small, about 100 people, compared to the hundreds if not thousands at other conferences such as FEI or PDMA.  
  • It was a near 50/50 balance of practitioners (design managers) from the industry and consultants (from product design or, like me, service design) - nice to not be viewed as the lone shark in the pool.
  • It was facilitated by an improv group, who jumped in (sometimes literally) at transitions.
  • The content was 90% talks, with one set of break-out sessions, and two "panel" conversations (actually, done in pairs).
  • The theme was Designing the Next Economy.

The positives:

  • The people, the people, the people—from design pros to novices, industry managers to consultants—the conversations were fabulous, the connections even better.
  • The size of the group was perfect – I felt like I met 80% of attendees, vs other conferences where I've met 1%. 
  • Attendees were also a mixed group of first-timers and regulars—and regulars are a great sign that something is working.
  • The content was approachable for someone like me who is not a trained designer, in the classical sense anyway.
  • Selling, while it did happen (and sometimes less subtle than others), was minimal - I've seen much worse.
  • The speakers were from a nice, diverse array of backgrounds, and were impressive individuals.
  • Santa Monica.

The not-so-positives:

  • While a compelling theme, one that interested me in particular as a business designer, it was only covered in one, maybe two, of the presentations - that was a bit disappointing.
  • 18 presentations in two days is just too many to process, and requires way too much sitting.
  • While the improvisers were delightful and brought a much needed energy to the series of presentations, facilitation was too light, and interaction during and between talks was nearly non-existent - there was no ideation, theming, or doing of any sort (with the notable exception of one talk during which we filled out business model canvases, and the break-outs).
  • The presentations lacked actionable takeaways for the audience - many were focused on specific process or methodology sharing (interesting, if new and different in some way)—and there were no "begs" of the audience—that's quite the collective brainpower that went untapped for problem solving—and very few hypothetical "what if's" thrown out for us to think about.
  • Also, the presentations, ironically (for a design conference), were not designed particularly well.
  • Santa Monica is lovely, and going to a conference there might sound like a win, but it was actually torturous to know that, while I was sitting inside a dark ball room all day, the beach was only steps away outside.

Overall, I think a good conference should...

  • Engage and leverage the collective brainpower of the audience (put us to work!).
  • Facilitate interaction as well as networking between attendees.
  • Adhere to the theme – it shouldn't necessarily own the whole conference content, but it should be a guiding element in a majority of the presentations.
  • Change up the delivery (from presentations, to working sessions, to table discussions) regularly.
  • Make you get up every so often.
  • Create a "safe space" that is free of overt selling, so you can learn and talk without the pressure or fear relating to being sold to.

Tell me, what do you think makes a compelling conference, on innovation or otherwise?

- Clay Maxwell @bizinovationist