Is your conference more like a pharmacy or a bookstore?


A traditional conference is like a pharmacy. Content is prescribed, and you pick it up in a session. Hopefully it will fix what ails you. Have you met anyone interesting in a pharmacy? Did you create one of the drugs sold there? Probably not.

A peer conference is like a friendly bookstore. Browse the shelves looking for what interests you, satisfies your wants and needs. Relax on a comfy sofa, and check out anything that looks interesting. Fall into conversation with other folks nearby. Yes, you can be guided by those little “staff picks” notices, but perhaps the guy sitting opposite you has some suggestions. And perhaps, one day, you’ll write a book of your own…

Cartoon by Harry Bliss

4 thoughts on “Is your conference more like a pharmacy or a bookstore?

  1. A balanced approach seems best to me. You can’t get good ideas from peers that are as lost and ignorant as yourself on a topic, you want to be guided by expertise and you come to a conference to access that expertise. I hate paying for a conference only to be stuck in group sessions where the biggest blowhards dominate conversation with idiocy. And I totally believe that, despite all the popularity of collaboration in the current era that “all of us are often stupider than any one of us” which is why “built by committee” is an insult not praise.

    1. Hi Linda, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ve written quite extensively about these concerns on this blog, and I encourage you to check out answers in more detail than I’ll give here (use the Search box).

      For example, to respond to your point about being “guided by expertise and you come to a conference to access that expertise” have a look at http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/index.php/event-design/2011/02/how-the-rise-of-online-is-changing-your-events/

      In general you are describing what happens when any meeting is run poorly. Good meeting process, rarer than any of us would like, minimizes or eliminates these issues.

      For example, Conferences That Work avoids generating sessions where people want answers to questions that no one at the conference is equipped to answer. And good facilitation practice (I train facilitators how to run large group discussions using fishbowl) prevents a few talkative people from dominating a group.

      Finally, you are surely not saying that a group of people have collectively less expertise and experience than one of them? Good process allows participants to effectively uncover and leverage the combined expertise and experience in the room, including any “expert(s)” on stage or in the audience.

      I’m sorry you’ve experienced (and you are not alone!) poor process when attempting to work and learn collectively, but please don’t conclude that participant-driven and participation-rich events inevitably lead to poor learning outcomes and frustration. Yes “built by committee” is pejorative, but I’ve seen great work created by groups and committees who know how to or are led to collaborate well. It’s the process that’s key to success or failure of group work, learning, connection, and action.

      1. I remain skeptical. No I’m not saying that there are fewer skills and ideas in a group than an individual possesses. I am saying that group dynamics most often leads to acceptance of the ideas held by the majority while discounting the truly great idea is likely to only be held by the brightest and best of the group. Personally I have been volunteering to do all the work on group projects since about Grade 3 rather than deal with group work and I meet a lot of people like that !

        1. I respect your experience Linda, and used to feel the same way (“Why isn’t my physics lab partner pulling his weight?”) I agree with you that “group dynamics” often produces poor results, but, in my experience working with hundreds of organizations over the years, that’s because the vast majority of people have never had an opportunity to learn how to work effectively with the resources of a group. (Did you get taught how to do that in school? I sure didn’t, and I have a Ph.D. and ten years classroom teaching experience.)

          Take a look at affinity grouping process, which allows great ideas to be generated by individuals that are far less likely to be squashed for mundane reasons. And have you ever participated in trainings with group problem-solving activities that highlight the advantages and pitfalls of the ways that people work together? Experience of some of those might change your mind.

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