A prescription for better conferences: Permission

How are conferences like our everyday work? We’re afraid to miss a meeting (or a breakout session) because we might miss something important, but invariably the more valuable conversations and connections happen outside of meetings. Conference planners are starting to recognize this and have tried to implement schedules that have it both ways: lots of sessions broken up by short bursts of “networking.” (There are conferences designed around Open Space technology and unconferences, but these are still few and far between.)

Jethro, Rob, Jeremy and I went to the Transform conference at the Mayo Clinic last month, and before we left we decided to design an intervention to help us overcome this problem – not the structure of the conference, but our own fear of missing out if we didn’t make it to every session. What we needed was a way to avoid the trap of believing that if we weren’t using every minute to plant ourselves in the right sessions, we were wasting our time.

The tool we designed is a cross between a prescription pad and a permission slip: a form that we could fill out for each other (and for other people at the conference) that gave us permission to do the things that we knew would be good for us, but that we feared would be perceived (by ourselves and others) as wasting time. We included some examples, such as Skip a session and go for a walk, Let someone know they moved you and Get angry, plus a space to fill in activities that we recognized as important in the moment.

We handed out dozens of permission slips to others, and each of us found we were better able to take time to reflect, eat, exercise and generally do the things that make us better collaborators and people at a conference. Surprisingly, giving ourselves permission to take breaks and reflect made our whole experience of the conference better. Not only were we able to connect with people between sessions, but we spoke up more during sessions and found that we were better able to listen to speakers and engage with other people at the conference.

We’re releasing this tool under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License. You can download it here, print it out, and bring it along to your next conference.

This tool was inspired by conversations with Patti Anklam, a colleague and friend of the Action Mill.

Nick Jehlen's picture
Nick Jehlen is a partner at The Action Mill