Fight Club: What I Learned from Being IA Summit 2017 Conference Co-Chair

[Originally published on Jul 17, 2017]

“Everyone has an epic story…” All Things Considered, NPR, May 15, 2017

Everyone does have an epic story of some proportion. The following is mine, a curious choice as there are many events in my life that others would consider epic. Hands-down, being co-chair for a professional conference that turned into a melodrama of Shakespearean proportions trumps them all for lessons learn and irony.

What’s the first rule of Fight Club?

There seems to be a code of silence between conference co-chairs to sweep under the carpet all contention and unpleasantness that took place. This is done in the hope that a perfect front can be presented at show time. However, if you look close enough, the facade has cracks showing. The smiles are a little too thin, eye contact between co-chairs too brief, if it occurs at all, and rarely are all of them seen together in the same place, at the same time.

The problem with codes of silence is that they often perpetrate a flawed system. With that fig leaf, I enter my last stage of catharsis from being a co-chair for a professional conference. I document my experience here with the hope that change will result. Or, should you be asked, that you enter with eyes wide open.

Now, let’s talk about Fight Club.

Every project is a client project, even volunteer ones.

This seemed like an innocent assumption at the time. An important page on the website was not engaging users by the site analytics. There was no mystery here as the page was an exact duplicate of a print brochure. Surely all UX professionals know that reading behavior is different online than with print. Users scan the copy like hummingbirds, dipping their beaks in areas of interest.

In this case,the successful site content would present the user with enough information to inspire the call-to-action and download the beautifully designed brochure. Painful Lesson Learned: Evidently not all UX professionals knows this.

My plan was to run an A|B test with shorter copy and a more prominent call to action for a period of time and compare user engagement metrics with the complete print brochure version. The ignited a very contentious co-chair meeting, our last meeting as I recall. When I tried to defend the A|B test as standard operating procedure for client sites, my co-chairs contemptuously reminded me that this was NOT a client site but a conference site, as if not worthy of client-level work. Wait? What? To mitigate the ensuing drama, I restored the page copy to its brochure matching completeness. No testing for effectiveness allowed.

In my book, my work on the conference should be no less that what I deliver to my clients. Planning a conference is not a portfolio project, not a proof-of-concept and definitely not a career enhancer (despite that seductive promise when invited to be considered or the addendum to one’s social profiles). It can be hard, good, work. And, if you are lucky, and I like to think I was, you leave behind something better for others to build on.

We must eat our own dog food.

I cannot count, using all fingers and toes, the number of sessions, workshops and webinars on Design Thinking that I have attended. As a result, I was caught entirely by surprise when this was not to be my conference co-chair experience. Of course, you cannot always apply the entire design thinking methodology. However, a discovery session is critical to any project success if only to illuminate work styles and understandings. This was not of interest to my co-chairs despite repeated offers from me to travel, at my own expense, for such a working session.

Guess what happened? There were repeated disconnects of understanding about what it meant to “own” something, communication style clashes, management and collaboration misunderstandings. Seven months in to an already shortened schedule the conference co-chairs stopped meeting all together. At first, I thought it was because I could no longer do the 7:30 AM Sunday morning conference calls due to schedule change at my end. I asked for suggestions on alternative times and received no response. I discovered later that, as efforts to have me removed as co-chair were unsuccessful, my co-chairs chose to leave me out all together.

Working alone is easier if one has a staff of minions to do one’s bidding without question, prescience towards the future and universal knowledge about past and present. Sadly, this is rarely the case outside of Dr. Who. Conference planning should include the same behavior that we all learned at the playground: My toys are not yours; ask before you assert yourself into someone else’s area. One does not always get to have their way; learn to deal with it. Contention happens; appreciate the differences and find middle ground.

There’s more to project management than “filling out to-dos in Basecamp.”

Yes, an actual quote from the co-chair that took over project management when the other had to take a break. It was the response when I brought up a previous conference co-chair’s one piece of sage advice: “Whatever you do, get a project manager.”

While you can put on a conference with an approach to project management that approximates a circus clown car, I do not recommend it unless you’re blessed with the enormously talented, and entirely independent, event planning staff from the sponsoring agency. Website content calendars found wanting, for reasons never articulate, were ignored in favor of suspiciously similar marketing calendars that were equally ignored. Standard website publishing processes were dismissed in favor of an email toss over the fence or a drive by mention on one of the many Slack channels.

An independent project manager is a shield from a much harder road to success or the road to perdition. Luckily, our conference suffered the former and not the latter.

Project managers regularly juggle a flaming torch, fire ax and running chain saw. They do so much more than “fill out to-dos in Basecamp.” The project manager documents meetings and decisions, oversees the project plan, calendars and work flow, arranges for speaker slides, mediates disagreement from a project-centered point of view, keeps the trains running on time. Abandon all hope if you elect to have one of the co-chairs assume the role.

Micromanagement is not leadership.
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I am not unsympathetic to the years long desire for my co-chair to shine in the spotlight; a desire that was born long before the role became shared. However, for me, being chair of a conference should be more about the present and future than rewriting past conference volunteer experience.

My experience is that trying to do everything results in doing nothing well. So is the case with your conference staff, volunteer or paid. Guidance is better than dictatorial direction. Let capable people contribute fully and exceed expectations is the prize. Mistakes will be made.

Do unto workshops and sessions as you would have them do unto your workshops and sessions.

It is very difficult to put together a program that will satisfy the strong intellectual curiosity of the attendees and support the mission and reputation of the conference. Session reviewers are the unsung heroes of any conference for the care they take to winnow down a blessed abundance of submissions. Once finished, harrowing negotiations that include risk, retribution and redemption begin. Session selection is a process that makes the Dayton Peace Accord look like choosing best baker on the Great British Baking Show.

Transparency Alert: There may have been a method to the madness that I am not aware of as some of the final decisions were made during my punitive conference co-chair time out.

Create the program around the workshops and sessions as submitted instead of the reverse. There is nothing to be gained and much lost by conditioning acceptance on changing the length of a workshop to fit a certain slot. As was proven with our conference, the 1/2 workshop lengthened to an entire day was reviewed by attendees as thin. The all-day workshop shortened to 1/2 day went at an eye-crossing pace.

Knowing when to leave the stage is better than hanging around like Banquo’s ghost.

Lyndon Johnson was right when he said that hindsight is 20/20 vision. In hindsight, I played my own part in the behind-scenes-drama of that Kabuki theater. I should have been more skeptical when asked to consider co-chair with the skepticism reinforced by the lack of logical reason given. I fixed what I saw needed to be fixed, fell on my sword when the occasion warranted Most important to me, I built a solid foundation for the area that I “owned” and turned it over to the new conference co-chairs.

The conference that I co-chaired was a success, one of the more successful in the series. It could have been so much better. Next year’s is in the planning stages with co-chairs that have never worked together. I wish them all goodness with no drama, tight smiles or gritted teeth.