Let’s Hack Problems at Conferences, Not Just Talk About Them

Turning event goers into doers

I've been to my share of conferences and events this year, including SXSWi, TEDx, Massachusetts Creative Economy Summit, Massachusetts Conference for Women, Design Museum, Smarty Network, General Assembly and most recently, Advertising Week. Why do I go?

Illustration: AAD Goudappel

It's important to get out of the office and hear what the rest of the world is up to. But passively listening to others talk about the latest trends and technologies or even share their inspiring stories just leaves me wanting more. No offense, but I don't need more panels on big data, mobile marketing or even ideas worth spreading. I need ideas worth acting on and a clear way to make them real right effing now.

For example, at SXSWi, I was part of a session that crowdsourced ideas "to harness the creative brainpower of conference attendees." Cool, right? But given that the ultimate goal of the session was to find ways for attendees to micro-volunteer that brainpower in real time, I was disappointed we didn't take things further. We could've asked everyone in the session to commit to offering a Google Helpout mentoring session for other attendees while we were still at the conference. But when the session ended, we just patted ourselves on the back and went our separate ways.

Like Libby Delana, founding partner and creative director at Mechanica, who told me recently that she'd rather contribute than commiserate, I think we should use our brainpower not just to collaborate but to make actual change. That's just me. Or is it? I wondered if Libby and I are the only ones craving a little less talk and a lot more action. So I reached out to a few folks who attend and host events to get their take.

I asked Steve Benoit, one of the organizers of MITX Up, which pairs creative and other marketing types with startups in evening-long hackathons, why he thinks there aren't more active problem-solving events.

"One thing we've seen is that you've got a group of people excited about coming together to solve a problem," he said. "But there's often a drop-off in follow-through to either further vet or implement ideas. That's frustrating because it's only natural to want to see your ideas come to life."

Still, Jodi Vautrin of Multi, who has planned lectures, workshops and tours as director of emerging ideas for AIGA Boston, thinks people would rather hack problems than talk about them. "It's my opinion that people are oversaturated with inspiration and starving for how-to," she said. Her proof? AIGA hands-on and tour events sell out much more quickly and more frequently than lecture and showcase events.

Amy Swift Crosby, founder of Smarty, a community where entrepreneurs connect and share ideas, often helps solve problems in real time at events and conferences. But she points out that not everyone grasps the intricacies of doing so.

"The key is a facilitator who can narrow the question enough for it to be relevant for the wider audience, unpack the problem enough for all to understand what is trying to be solved so that the vocabulary or parlance of a particular industry doesn't leave people out, and then address the problem in a way that allows the person to co-author the solution, not just hear from the so-called expert," she said.

So there you have it. Anecdotal evidence that creative people want to experience their learning with real participation rather than passive exposure to "thought-leader" pablum. But how easy is it to unconference the conference format and turn conference goers into conference doers? Starting today, founder Kat Gordon and I will host the annual 3% Conference in San Francisco, where we'll give every attendee a chance to be a truly active participant.

We're going to trial things like a #takethemic hackathon, where everyone shares their voice and ideas with CD and Client Bootcamps; crowdsourced problem solving sessions; Speed Mentoring; and a 25-foot IdeaWall by ideapaint.

How will the attendees respond to having their conference unconferenced? Will they embrace the chance to roll up their sleeves? Or think it's too much work?

We're about to find out.

Rebecca Rivera (@rebrivved) is chief creative officer at the 3% Conference.