Big, Upfront Conferences

I noticed there is a Scrum Gathering to be held in Paris at the end of September. As I plan to be in Europe at that time I decided to submit something, but it turned out I couldn’t. Submissions were closed in March.  I started to wonder what that meant—an Agile conference, closing submissions six months before the event. I was worried about submitting something in the next month or two, knowing my ideas would have moved on by September. What kind of conferences is the Agile community running these days? Certainly not Agile ones.

I get that the organizers want a sense of the program, and want something concrete in order to make a compelling offer to potential attendees, but what kind of presentations will this event consist of? The term “canned” comes to mind. Conference submission forms usually require a lot of information: an abstract, details of the format, learning outcomes, and so on. I guess they wouldn’t be happy if a presenter turned up with something completely different from the description in the brochure, but this rather nails us down to a big, upfront commitment, and allows no development of thought—or at least the sharing of that. Sounds dull to me. But then, most conferences these days, so-called Agile or otherwise, are dull. The only really good parts are the hallway and foyer conversations, the restaurant outings, the walks around town. Which brings me to another concern.

Harrison Owen attempted to capture the spirit of hallway conversation with Open Space—an alternative to the pre-planned, executive-led meeting. But Open Space is designed to be focused on a single driving purpose, not a catch-all for leftover ideas and submissions that didn’t make the cut, which is how it is used in the Agile world today. A common format for Agile conferences is to have two days of planned sessions, carved off into various “tracks” followed by a half-day Open Space session where people just talk about whatever they want, and few have any facilitation skills. Open Space has become a lame tag-on to the big, upfront conference, lip service to the Agile spirit.

If I attend that conference—and I may—I shall be asking presenters this question: How closely will your presentation/workshop match your description? If they proudly tell me “exactly as described” I’m unlikely to attend. I would be seeking an answer more like this: “well, it’s on the general theme, but I’ve developed the ideas over the past six months and I’m more interested in exploring some of the new stuff. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what I’m doing or how it will go”. I’ll join that session. And I won’t stick around for the Open Space. I’ll go outside, into real open space and find people to talk to in the fresh air.

I’d like to see a conference program that just announced people, not topics and titles, people we can look up on their twitter, blogs, books to learn about their thinking and go to their session for the human connection, not the promised skill or technique. Perhaps the submission form for such an event could simply ask: Who are you, why do you care, and what are you passionate about? And the submission process never closes, just in case something wonderful occurs at the last minute.

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