The 7-hour investment that makes everyone in your org smarter
When COVID hit and conferences hit pause, I got the idea to run my own. Not a big Zoom event with presentations and panels, though. Something simpler: a day of conversations with people from TXI who I didn’t usually get to talk to and whose ideas I valued.
What ended up being about a seven-hour time investment on my part yielded big benefits for me, my team, the people I talked to, and their teams. That’s a lot of impact from about as much time as you’d spend on travel alone for a traditional, in-person event.
Here, I’ll lay out why my self-conference worked so well and what you can expect to get out of a similar undertaking.
How it started: an ever-growing “read this” list
Like a lot of people, I hoard keep a running list of articles I plan to read “when I get around to it.” And not just articles: podcasts I’d like to listen to, videos I’d like to watch, and so on. It probably won’t shock you to learn that I rarely (okay, never) actually got around to reading any of these pieces.
But one day in 2020, I saw that I had a free day on my calendar, mostly because other people on my project teams were taking time off.
And I had an ah-ha moment: why not give myself permission to spend the day catching up on my “read this” list?
And then I had another, even better ah-ha moment: Why not invite people to join me? I wanted to learn, but I really wanted to learn communally. Because the thing that helps me most as a learner is when someone sees something different than what I see. I deeply love that engagement. It pushes me to reframe and reassess, and it’s in that process that I gain new perspectives that influence my work.
The setup: 1 day, 9 half-hour conversations
Quick math aside: 9 conversations x .5 hours / conversation = 4.5 hours + 1 hour of prep = 5.5 hours––not the seven I mentioned in the title.
Here’s the thing: after my first go-round, I realized 30 minutes wasn’t enough time to really get into the meat of things (I recommend 45) and that nine people in one day was probably too many (I think six to seven is the sweet spot). So one hour to prep, plus six to seven 45-minute conversations = seven hours.
I presented my idea for a “self-conference” in a Slack channel I created, inviting people who were interested to join. A handful of folks volunteered, and I recruited a few others, prioritizing people I didn’t get much chance to talk with in my normal day-to-day work.
And then I chose articles from my “read this” list. In most cases, I intentionally chose something that didn't directly relate to our practices or current projects. I gave everyone the option of reading the article before our conversation or during it, and then I filled up my calendar and looked forward to my day of learning.
The outcome: great conversations, great connections, great ideas (+ ripples!)
So how does this seven-hour self-conference make everyone in your organization smarter?
Let’s start with self-conference participants: we had really interesting conversations. Those joyful moments of seeing different perspectives and feeling my perspective change and my understanding deepen happened over and over again. I was reminded how much I respect my colleagues and how interesting and thoughtful they are as a group.
In a conversation with one of our lead engineers, for example, he brought up an idea that never would have occurred to me. I mentioned it to my team the next day. I’m sure he had a mirrored experience, sharing something I said with his team.
In another conversation, about how to have better meetings, my colleague said all the advice out there was malarkey (not their word choice). Their take: better meetings meant fewer meetings, period. Provocative.
I can’t capture every interesting comment or thought here––and that’s part of the point. The self-conference format was unlike any other way of spending time. It deepened my relationships with my colleagues and it pushed me to discover and consider new ideas and frameworks.
And, crucially, these conversations didn’t end when I shut down my computer at the end of the day (I mean, obviously: here I am still talking about them). But the implications of that are significant, especially in our era of often-distributed work.
The takeaway: don’t try to recreate office-based experiences. Reimagine them.
Since the start of the pandemic and widespread distributed work, there has been much conversation about how to recreate those spontaneous in-person interactions offices (and any colocated workplaces) are so good at facilitating.
One thing my day of self-conferencing illustrated was that that’s a flawed way of thinking. The primary value of the impromptu office encounters was not exclusively the encounters themselves but also the way we all brought these encounters back to our teams. It was the ripple effect that ongoing engagement with random people from the organization had.
And that’s one thing a day of self-conferencing helps replace: I took the most interesting seeds from my conversations and dispersed them among my team––and so did the colleagues I spoke with. And then these seeds found places to take root and bloom throughout the organization, making our work better and richer and more thoughtful. And I can’t wait to do it again.