4 people to avoid at your next Innovation Conference

7 06 2010

[tweetmeme]It’s conference season again, and I find myself in the enviable position of being able to attend many of the top conferences on Innovation, Collaboration and Social Media and just soak in the rootin’, tootin’ and high faluttin’ knowledge that pervades the atmosphere at a good conference.

This week (June 8-9th) is no exception –  I’ll be at the World Innovation Forum in New York City (#WIF10 if you’d like to follow that conference on twitter), a conference with superlative speakers, and an equally interesting attendance – and if I’ve learnt anything from nearly a decade of going to innovation conferences, it’s that you can learn just as much from the people attending a conference as you can from the speaking panel. Yet, in the same way that a speaker can turn out to be a bad penny at a conference, so can your interactions with fellow attendees.

Over the years, I’ve started to realize that I’m now able to process who’ll be interesting, and who won’t, pretty quickly and thought I’d share my observations with all of you, so that you can tell the “Makers” from the “Fakers” at the conferences you go to.

Innovators come in all shape and sizes, so pointing out physical attributes to look out for won’t work – that guy dressed in the 60s suit with the bell bottoms in front of you could end up being Kodak’s leading patent holder. The sharply dressed young lady with the expensive looking briefcase, could be the newbie software salesperson for a start-up populated by teens only just learning to spell the word “innovait..innovato…inovatii”…ah, you get my point. So the only way to truly figure it out is by listening to them and watching for certain key phrases that indicate it’s time to lace up your running shoes and head to the auditorium door for a quick getaway.

1. “Sammy Satisfied” – If anyone comes across as being too smug, too sure of themselves, and too happy with their own achievements in innovation, it’s time to back away. Why? Because Innovation is driven by a lack of satisfaction in the status quo.

Top innovators are always looking to change things because they know that taking time to sit back on their laurels is just giving the competition time to catch up. Find someone who’s satisfied with what they’ve achieved, and you’ve found someone who maybe used to be an innovator. Test them – ask them “Yes, but what are you doing that’s new, now ? “ and watch them nervously start to sweat.. The good news? If you find yourself talking to a Sammy, you can probably just wander off whilst he’s in mid-sentence – he’s unlikely to notice anyway.


2. “Tommy the ToolMan” – usually leads with “so, what kind of tools are you using internally?” or words to that effect. Even worse is when Tommy can’t stop talking about the tool he’s using – the back end, the front end, the features and functionality…urrghhh! Treat potential Tommys with the same suspicion you would if someone randomly asked you “so what car do you drive?” as you stepped out the door of your workplace. Why? Because tools don’t really matter.

Let me clarify – tools are important, having the right tool will turbo-charge your innovation program (especially if you have ambitions to embrace collaborative innovation processes), and having the wrong tool can just as easily sink it. But let me now tell you the secret of successful tools from someone with over 7 years of experience with one of the leading software companies in the field, and had a big hand in developing the innovation management software market to where it is today…….. Tools don’t really matter. Processes do.

Ultimately there are only two things that a good innovation tool really needs to do (feel free to copy this into your next RFP):

1) Be flexible enough to support whatever collaborative process you are trying to put in place to meet your business goals

2) Stay out of the way (be reliable, embrace good collaborative practices, not force you to work around the software to achieve your aims, etc)

It’s not a long list, but you’d be surprised as to how few vendors can fulfill those two basic requirements – mainly because a lot of vendors develop software that is technically excellent and/or visually pretty, but overlook the intricate ways in which humans actually want to and need to interact with each other. My former software clients weren’t successful because of the tool the sales guy sold them – they were successful because of the way they used it. If you’re talking to someone who suggests to you otherwise – run.


3. Peter Private – Peter talks in short phrases, measuring his words and being careful with what he says. He thinks he’s like a corporate James Bond, protecting the secrets of his company by sharing little, and listening intently. Peters are inherently worried about letting the “cat out of the bag” – about saying too much and getting into trouble. Talking to a Peter is not only frustrating; it’ll be fruitless too, as you’ll get no benefit from it.

You see, innovation is all about sharing – it’s about openness – it’s about embracing the world as a potential knowledge source – but to get, you need to give too. I’ve found that people who are truly successful in the innovation field embrace this principle across all of their interactions with people. Being open is like a bug or a virus – once you realize that the best ideas are frequently elsewhere, you’ll be on a mission to find them everywhere all the time.

You don’t have the time to establish trust and sign an NDA in the short time allotted at a conference – so if you find yourself speaking to a Peter, then it’s time to make your excuses and fake a bathroom break to relieve that irritated colon of yours.


4. Christopher Clueless – With a subject as increasing in popularity as Innovation, it’s no wonder that conferences are filling up with charlatans jumping on the bandwagon to try and make a quick buck – and Chris is no exception. Having probably read one or two books on the subject and with no practical experience at all – he comes to the conference armed with a series of “innovation catchphrases” to give you advice with and lull you into a false sense of security/trust/interest.

My favourite of these: “Innovation should be everyone’s job” – probably one of the dumbest things ever said on the innovation circuit – usually used to eschew the presence, or need for, innovation leadership. Whilst true, to an extent, that innovation should be a part of every employee’s business life, it still needs to be someone’s responsibility in order to ensure success.

Hear that, or any of a myriad of well known phrases (you’ll usually know if they turn up during the conference by the stifled giggles coming from the bloggers’ gallery above you) and it’s time to excuse yourself from the proceedings to search for that 7th cup of coffee to take you through the rest of the afternoon.


The trick to getting the most from the speaker panel is easy – listen carefully and glean insights that you can take back to your business.

The trick to getting the most from the attendee panel though is to talk openly and talk to a lot of people – spread yourself out, meet new people at every break, collect a ton of business cards and build a network . A network that will probably not include Peter, Tom, Chris nor Sammy though.

What other types of people do you find at conferences? Share in the comments below!



20 responses

7 06 2010
Renee Hopkins

Great post, Boris! What about “Nancy Know-It-All” (not all the annoying people are men!). She’s the one who already knows about everything you might say, and yet somehow everything she has to say is something YOU already know. Conversation’s dead before it starts. A lose-lose.

And “Sally Sales” — every conversation turns back around to something her company has to sell to you. You look so much more credible when you acknowledge that your company isn’t the center of the innovation universe, and are able to tell people how your companies tools and theories “fit” in the grand scheme of things.

7 06 2010
Boris Pluskowski

Love those two Renee!!

7 06 2010
Jeffrey Phillips

Hey Boris, I like your list. There’s one I would add “One tool Tim”. Innovation is often so siloed and fractured that consultants are too comfortable with one tool or technique and recommend that tool or technique in every situation. For example, “open” innovation zealots may constantly recommend open innovation when a skunkworks might be more appropriate, or TRIZ adherents may recommend TRIZ when customer experience tools or techniques make more sense. My recommendation – be wary of anyone who suggests that any one tool or technique is perfect for all situations.

7 06 2010
Boris Pluskowski

Good call there Jeffrey – you definitely need more than one arrow in your innovation quiver!

7 06 2010
Michele Egger

Boris – EXCELLENT! I’d love to see you do a flip that talks about how you get on the right folks’ “dance card” and them how to stay connected with these folks beyond the conference.

7 06 2010
Boris Pluskowski

Ah Michele – the holy grail….. I’ll tell you all as soon as I find out myself! :p

7 06 2010
Geoff Carss

great post Boris. How about Harry (or Harriet) the hippy. Laid back, innovation is cool, chilled etc – not often seen at conferences (to corporate – not their natural habitat.
You could do a species description of each sort – native habitat, what they ‘eat’, calls, maybe not mating habits……. way too far

7 06 2010

Boris, Can you recommend your favorite conferences and rank and tag, including any with potential conflict of interest (with a caveat)?

7 06 2010
Chris Andrews

Ok, as a Chris myself I take exception to that last one. But while we’re having fun lets also point out “social sarah” — the person who gives the speech about how social is changing the world, with no practical advice for the audience about what that really means for their business. I’ve heard this “social is the future” speech 50 times in the last five years, but no one seems to be pushing the envelope towards the real business value of social technologies– something my enterprise clients (who are particularly interested in the idea of working with innovation brokers) care deeply about. It seems to me that getting very tactical about the elusive term innovation is what is often lacking from these events…

8 06 2010
Eric Braun

This is so true of the technology world in general. So often, the people using and implementing a technology are too busy doing it than talking about it. The ones spending the time thinking about how to talk about being an expert often are not. The key is to identify those who may not articulate it as well but who are truly good at actually innovating and bringing it to an organization.

Wisdom can often be found between the lines.

8 06 2010
Jim Estill

The challenge is quickly identifying which is which and moving on to find the right people.

8 06 2010

Good post and comments especially Eric’s. I would add “Method Mary.” Mary is highly articulate and offering a method or process story for innovation that sounds compelling. Problem is Mary has never really DONE anything. Like “Technique Ted” they are highly narcissistic. They love to be called ‘thought leaders.’ These phonies usually never had a real job. They are not innovators, they are ego-consultants. Oh, you probably won’t run into them in the audience, since they have nothing to learn. Problem is, they will be on the dais with the other blowhards. Beware of ALL innovation conferences. Innovation is hard work built on authentic conversation. It is NOT found in snazzy ballrooms in hotel resorts or desert casinos. -j

8 06 2010
Gregg Fraley

Nice post, I’ve met many of these characters…

I have, however, said pretty much that “innovation is part of everyone’s job” before! I’ve never meant it to mean you don’t need leadership. I think strong in innovation leadership is required, even in a very holistically innovative organization. I’ll be sure to say both from now on! One of the reasons I say it is because there are some great examples of big ideas coming from employees who aren’t typically involved, who are outside of product development, or are actually isolated rebels, troublemakers, and oddballs. Also, if you set an expectation in an organization that you really want ideas, and they are honored, you tend to get them.

I’m also resonating with jheuristic’s remark about Method Mary. One way to spot value at a conference is to look at the BIO and see if the speaker has ever met a payroll, started a company, or actually created a product. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s a bit of proof.

9 06 2010
Paul Hobcraft

what about “wacky patty” -comes only for the networking opportunities and free stuff, wears all those colourful outfits so you can see her coming and head the other way!

Or “muttering Jim”- the one that has seen it all, only comes because its a day out of the office and goes on and on about that one conference in 1999 that really was a conference

or “clever Penny’ the one that knows it all, period!

10 06 2010
Bloody Hell

How about Stella Stereotype Freak: avoids everyone she sees at the conference???

10 06 2010
Julian Keith Loren

Boris, wonderful, funny and spot on!

Companies would also have better outcomes if they were on the lookout for some of these characteristics in their internal innovation teams. There are a list of characteristics that are important to look for when monitoring the “health” of an organization’s Innovation Culture. These characteristics are innovation-hampering because they create walls, and, Boris, you’re right that in many respects “it’s about openness.”

Innovation-Hampering Wall Creators:
* Smugness – Boris’ “Sammy Satisfaction”
* Cynicism – Paul’s “Muttering Jim”
* Zealotry – Boris’ “Tommy the Toolman”
* Distrust – Boris’ “Peter Private”
* Defensiveness – Maybe the real issue with Renee’s “Nancy Know-It-All”
* Disrespect – Boris’ “Christopher Clueless” thinking that big-value Innovation is easy (unfortunately those 2 innovation books that he read may have told him that explicitly).

Weren’t you looking for a book idea? 😉

11 06 2010

How about – Alan the Acronym King. This poor chap is so full of acronomous phrases and anacronyms that you need a handbook to follow his diatribe. Various ramblings from Alan usually have folks saying “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – Over?”

13 06 2010

What about Anthropology Archie. He’s the one over excited about experimental people mix and observing their behaviours in a freak show kinda of way.
He wants fireworks and paradigm shifts to occur before his every eyes (and infront of the camera he has installed to record it all). And then makes video clips and films to populate his blog and social networks and conference presentations to make him sound so very academically bright. But he lives off of everyone else’s ideas as he has never had a good one of his own.

18 06 2010
A list of innovation lists « Imaginatik Blog: Collective Intelligence, Idea Management, and Crowdsourcing for the Enterprise

[…] Boris Pluskowski: “Four People to Avoid at Your Next Innovation Conference” – Beware of the “Corporate James Bond” and other likely faces at your next […]

20 06 2010
Matt Chapman

This is a three pint posting (there must be so many characters out there to write about) – that needs a bar somewhere at the next conference to turn into one of the funniest chapters I’ve read for a while.

So my couple of adds:

Clueless Clive/Chloe the CEO – Invited by the conference organisers as a Big Name (more so their company than him/her). They spend 20 minutes presenting the company – just in case you hadn’t heard of Mega-Corp the largest company in the world. Then probably 10-15 minutes for videos from the marketing team – showing you how cool they are. Then 5-10 minutes on products/services everyone knows about that are kinda innovative/yesterdays news. No insight into anything useful to share or explains how the company did anything of interest to the audience. Hopefully no time for questions and then a quick exit to a waiting limo!

Professor Pete the Academic – (now this is not a dig at Academics I assure you all). This innovation presentation presents reams and reams of quantitative research, standard deviations – table after table, graph after graph – none of it readable in a conference presentation. Where it started no-one knows – where it will end is anyones guess but by slide 60 you neither care or want to know what is relevant anymore or why you actually decided to show up? – For me this is the best reason to have Innovation’s Got Talent – 3 Big Red Crosses and you have to meet Ant & Dec!

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