When we launched Uncommon Conferences in 2019, it’s fair to say the business plan didn’t account for a global pandemic the following year, that would bring physical gatherings and international travel to a screeching halt.
In fact, we were relying on an increasingly interconnected world needing collaborative solutions, as well as organisations and participants willing to invest in ‘better conferences’. We saw a gap in the market of engaging, outcome-driven gatherings enabling business communities to work together towards common goals. We wanted to bring joy back into conferences through learning by doing. Cookie-cutter conferences were doing our heads in, and we knew a few things about breaking out of the mould and delivering impactful gatherings that moved the needle.
Enter 2020, time to break out the tequila.
As (very much Type A) co-founders of a small and new business, we rapidly cycled through the 7 stages of grief. “Not the best time to start a conference business, eh?” our mates would chuckle during Zoom happy hour calls. And while they weren’t wrong, we also realised things could’ve been a lot worse.
We found ourselves presented with the gift of time – time to really think about how Uncommon Conferences (or UC) could best support this new reality – both right away, but also into the future.
We resolutely put away the tequila and pulled out the juicer – it was time to make lemonade.
A few truths quickly came to light:
This is not the end of the world
Everyone’s going to need an action plan to cope with our collective new reality
Driving change (in behaviours, policies, mindsets), internally or externally, is going to play a huge role in these action plans
Many of us are going to miss being in physical gatherings
At the same time, we will think long and hard about where and when we do show up in person – so it better be worth it, or it’ll get relegated to ‘I’ll just watch the Zoom recording’
Our key takeaway? Big changes are coming. We’ll want our people and communities inspired and invigorated. We'll need their collective wisdom to create and drive change.
But hang on, many organisations should be able to sort this out on their own, right? That’s what HR, marketing and in-house events teams are for.
So when would you need uncommon lemonade, instead of regular lemonade?
Are you facing a multi-stakeholder complex challenge or issue?
Is there an urgency with what needs to be tackled?
Is there an underlying tension among different stakeholders that needs to be resolved?
If so, you’ve passed what we call the ‘CUT test’ and you’re ready for an uncommon platform.
And what’s so uncommon about it?
In a nutshell these platforms prioritise human-centric design, a high degree of participation in addition to being an open, informal journey focused on creativity and exploration rather than following a rigid agenda. They demand a lot from their participants, and in return offer unfiltered ideas and collective problem-solving. They offer results participants can see, feel and most importantly, use.
This is in direct contrast to the usual conference offering (these days made infinitely worse by being virtual) filled with PowerPoint slides, ‘expert’ manologues, awkward networking and few tangible outcomes.
Which brings us to one of our other big wake-up calls: It’s crucial to distinguish between ‘why your gathering is needed’ vs. ‘what you need to get out of it’. Simon Sinek has popularised ‘why’ almost to the point of ignoring the ‘what for’ – and we’ll admit we joined everyone in falling down that rabbit hole. However, in the spirit of squeezing every last drop out of the proverbial lemon, a post-Covid world (physical or virtual) will demand tangible outcomes from everything, and conferences will be no different.
Just recently we designed and ran a series of virtual workshops for a client who had to postpone the physical event not once or twice, but three times. Everyone was nervous - this was a group of participants who'd bought into the way the physical edition was run and what it delivered, and we knew we couldn’t replicate that experience online. So we went back to the basics of why they loved the event, and designed a virtual experience accordingly. We kept it small, simple, authentic and participant-driven.
Here are some of the comments we got:
“The workshops created an environment that enabled us to re-start critical conversations. The community was clearly engaged and committed to regrouping”
“This was a great week - thank you for putting it together”
“It was an outstanding event and very well run. I especially liked the artist renderings of our notes – great touch!”
The output of these workshops was picked up by trade media outlets, and updated industry terminology was introduced, bringing us back to our very reason for being; and that’s to drive change.
For another client we’re designing a virtual workshop intended to inspire and create a sense of camaraderie. A tall order in the physical world, let alone virtually. But again, getting back to the basics and staying focused on the needed results is helping shape this experience. We’re convinced our client will head back to the physical world as soon as possible, but for now a well-moderated and documented virtual workshop will do the trick.
We’ve seen many organisations make the necessary shift to virtual, and rightly so – it would be disastrous to cut out platforms where colleagues and peers can still ‘meet’ and keep their finger on the pulse.
But we get it, everyone's Zoomed out, so are we - and that's why there are no webinars on our watch. You will not encounter a single PowerPoint presentation, panel of 'experts' or the infamous mute button. It’s cameras on, mics on, and everyone has a role to play. We keep the groups small, so there’s nowhere to hide - and you won’t want to! Like many of you, we dearly miss the power of meeting and interacting in person, so these virtual sessions aren’t intended to replace physical gatherings; but they're all we’ve got for now so let's make the most of them. Particularly if your challenge is time-sensitive and you need your people on it ASAP. Otherwise, we’ll be happy to hear from you when the world has righted itself and we can create a big, beautiful uncommon conference beast, together.