[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!