What’s in a conference?

Who would have thought that a conference could be energising, fun, and generative?  Often, they’re over-powerpointed, drab affairs (albeit well-organized) in windowless ballrooms of chain hotels.  This European Organization Design Forum one was different.

Why?   Like classic conferences it had keynote sessions – five over the two days – so not much difference there.  But then it also had three per day concurrent interactive learning sessions, and two streams per day of open space sessions.  Plus, it was held in the magnificent DASA museum of work:  its past, present and future.  If ever a venue matched the conference theme – next generation organization design – this was it.

Even better, the keynotes took place in the light, bright, Energie Hall – we were enveloped with information, artefacts and interactive displays on generating energy. We couldn’t not feel energetic.   We felt the power of physical design and environment on productivity and motivation.

DASA was open to the public as well as to the conference and seeing the child ‘brikkies’ outside doing a very realistic house building job – a terrific exhibit – as we walked to and from the various session rooms was fun, as was the naming of rooms – for the conference only – after organization design luminaries: Edgar ScheinJay Galbraith, Peter Senge and so on (Note: where are the women?).

I noticed a lot of laughter during the two-days. That’s not something you typically associate with a workplace. Here, people really seemed to be enjoying meeting old friends, exchanging notes, meeting new people, telling stories and learning from each other in a relaxed convivial way.

What makes for that, I wondered?  Clearly, the setting was a contributory factor. Watch colleagues become part of a radio antenna, or  play Brainball to see a whole playful side of people you wouldn’t normally see.

Could we replicate that style in a workplace and still meet the objectives and targets we are expected to?  It’s not as if the conference had no objectives –  we were there ‘strengthening our practice’ as one participant put it.  And we did this whilst having fun.  It’s the first conference I’ve come away from thinking I must change my sock purchase habits. Both days we were shown the latest sock choices – brightly coloured, rich design, etc – of the facilitators. Maybe it’s something to adopt as a small gesture of workplace rebellion against suits, ties and ‘business dress’.  (However, see what one style guide says).

Onto the keynotes. They’re hard to get right.  None of the five speakers revealed the inevitable trade-offs, down-sides, politics and stumbling blocks that beset organization design work.  (Or am I making an assumption on this and, for some, it really is as smooth and glossy as the presentations portrayed?)

Nevertheless, it was good to hear Rudolf Stark Head, Transmission Business Unit-Powertrain Division at Continental AG say that changing a business model meant all the interdependencies changed, and Chris Worley clearly define ‘agility’ and reduce some of the confusion that this word causes as we try to design ‘agile organizations’.

Of the six interactive sessions on offer, I spent my two choices on digitalization – one on digitalization of the book industry and the other on digitalization in relation to organization design approaches.  Both sessions made use of a ‘digitalisation canvas’, inviting us to discuss the classic (traditional org), combined (classic+some digital org) and digital (pure digital org).

It was great to come away with some ideas, tool and lines of exploration on whether/how/if classic organizations can become truly digital.

The open space slots enabled anyone to propose and lead sessions and the range of topics put forward by participants was wonderful, 18 contending topics – meaning 15 you couldn’t get to as they ran concurrently across three time slots.   They illustrated the breadth of a community of organization designers united by a common ‘discipline’ but with not a trace of group-think on what it is or how to do it.  In my three session choices: on ethics in organization design, on scaling organization design, and on design innovation, the diversity of perspectives, insights, reflection and interests made for depth and richness of discussion that is often missing from my day to day work.

What did I come back with?  Feeling refreshed by a stream of new ideas I can play around with, and buoyed up knowing there is a community of enthusiastic, creative, challenging and supportive practitioners – willing to lend a hand to others in the field.

How important is a community of practitioners in your field to you? Would you go to a conference to meet them? Let me know.