How to run an agile conference

Conferences. How often do you attend them? These days I try to attend at least two a year, but they are often expensive, especially as the cost to me includes lost income. So when I do attend them, I want to know I am going to get my money’s worth. Not in the contents of the branded swag bag handed out by the numerous sponsors, but in learning. I want to hear new things, or different perspectives on old things, but above all I want to be made — or at least, invited — to think.

I don’t think that makes me any different to any of the other attendees of conferences. But that primary need is so basic that it is apparently occasionally forgotten by conference organisers. Allow me to explain:

Recently, I attended a conference for which the high-level programme was published on the website many weeks in advance; but only the names of the speakers and the timings. What was conspicuously absent was the abstract — the subject — for each talk. I assumed a detailed programme, including the abstracts, would be available upon entry on the day. But they weren’t. The only things handed out at the registration desk were the same high-level programme published on the internet, an A4 writing pad and a cheap (unbranded) pen. I asked the organiser (and sponsor) about this and was told “we are busy printing them. They will be ready before the end of the first keynote.” I was more than a little surprised by this, and said so. What annoyed me even more was that, when a hastily typed and printed programme was handed out, it was wrong.

So, how could this have been avoided?

Imagine, if you will, that you are the Product Owner for a conference. What do you mean, conferences don’t have product owners? Why not?

As a prospective attendee of a future conference, I need to know only a few things — what is the conference all about, when will it be held and where. Most, if not all, organisers get this bit right. That, after all, is the easy bit. Most, if not all, publish a programme of talks in advance, too. Now, let’s look at what attendees might want once they get to the venue.

As an attendee, I want to know who the speakers are, so that I can decide which sessions I attend

As an attendee, I want to read the abstract for each talk so that I can decide which sessions to attend

As an attendee, I want to know where each session will be held, so that I know where to go for each

etc. etc.

Yes, if I was running a conference, I’d ensure I acted as the Product Owner, and wrote up requirements in the form of user stories, based on the needs of all of the stakeholders: attendees (delegates), speakers, sponsors, venue management, organisers, caterers, and possibly others. I’d make sure that each of the stakeholders was represented in that organising team and ‘wore the appropriate hat’ when generating these requirements.

Then I would prioritise them in a backlog, gather my organising team around me and a (virtual?) kanban board on a regular basis — perhaps even daily — to ensure that each requirement was being addressed, and everyone got what they needed.

For the record, there was a lot that the organisers of that conference got right. The food, for example, was delicious.

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