As we get ready at Innovation Excellence for the Back End of Innovation (Oct 9-11, Boston) I’ve been reflecting on the role that conferences play in innovation, the way they offer intense communities of interest, and the multitude of ways that they have caused, provoked and spring-boarded innovations in my life, and the lives of everyone I know. How? Well, if it weren’t for the memes of social media, this piece would be called the Seven People I’ve Met at Conferences that Changed My Life. Good conferences are petri dishes for relationships that inspire and nurture your work, your imagination and your willingness to push beyond your comfort zone. They are fuel. And they are fun. Like a good TV Drama, they’re highly curated experiences – with a narrative arc all their own, serving up people who want to share their own personal bests via speaking, curation or attending. At best they’re a Corporate Burning Man that produces a very different kind of environment then your daily workplaces As such they make the perfect place to submerge your team or CEO for a day or two, because they won’t leave without having their molecules rearranged. Ask Joe Dyer who now runs strategy for iRobot. I watched him do it in Norfolk with 300 Navy and Marine brass. It can happen.
When you can feel a hundred or thousand other minds exploring and breathing life into a critical issue, it ignites (and I know this in my bones) the neural network of creative empathy and energizes own explorations. I have literally gone for a whole decade on the inspired steam of one experience at one conference, one client found, one line uttered (see Tom Peters, Council on Foreign Relations below), or one friend made.
Here then goes a brief hopscotch through the past three decades and a scratch on the surface of the fun and learning that has been foundational to my courage to take risks and push the next idea through.
My hope is that it will inspire and encourage you to join us for the expert mash up at the Back End of Innovation or turn and go to the next conference when you need, want or are simply ready for some powerful, actionable inspiration. We all know that the work of doing innovation, creating, and making any kind of new product, service or model happen, and then sustaining it is very very hard work. Especially in this economy. It takes tremendous patience, will, humor agility, and fortitude. For me, going to conferences has evolved into a strategic choice about how and where to invest my discretionary time, because as I’m about to testify, anything (important) can and will happen when you show up.
In my 20’s, I had the privilege of attending Anixter Intl’s worldwide managers’ conferences, along with hundreds of other entrepreneurial hopefuls. It was my first exposure to the tribe of wire & cable daredevils and the Great Corporate Meeting where sales and operations and engineers came together with a sole purpose – to GROW. And grow we did. Without living through decades of those 15 to 25% growth years, it is near impossible to explain to anyone who wasn’t there the drumbeat of eloquence, entertainment and motivation that Ray Geraci pounded into 3 days. Because I sat at his knee and stayed up all night planning, then partying, then attending those meetings from sunrise on, the Anixter tribe became my tribe, and those conferences set the tone for our culture. I belonged, along with thousands of others, to something we believed in. Those conferences kept a vision of what we stood for palpably ALIVE and as result I poured my soul into my tribe for 15 years. The business grew, and I grew every day as we cycled through 3, 4, 5 business models globally. It was totally worth it.
As a young training director I needed to learn from peers and professionals, not just professors. At the Conference Board’s Management Development Conference I sat in the audience and listened to the eminence gris, John Adamoli, head of a Martin Marietta division, share in stunning detail how they’d transformed the culture from frozen hierarchy to high performing participatory shared-decision-making team. He helped usher in the era of Kaizen and Total Quality Manufacturing. As an encore, I encountered a woman who would later ensure that I’d meet my life-changers Sally Helgesen and Tom Peters. Nancy Badore, then head of executive development for Ford, gave a detailed description of how she facilitated the then CEO’s meetings as a true give and take and opportunity for dialogue. She made me sit up and realize that conversation was a physical tool, to be wielded as easily as a magic marker, and could be used to make leadership accountable. Nancy would later introduce me to Celemi and Klas Mellander who set me (and Maga Design) on the course to make maps. It was my first business conference and one of the best.
3. You’re Exposed to People’s Life Work – Systems Thinking Conference
While seeking to explore the MIT Systems Thinking thinking, I heard fmr. Royal Dutch Shell head of planning Arie de Geuss talk about their work in scenario planning around the 1970’s oil crisis, and the research that became his book, The Living Company. The findings in his research and talk were the culmination of his life’s work – he was committed to help Shell understand what it takes for a company to live more than 100 years, to be sustainable for the human race, and the man himself, were so profound that they entered my nervous system and have never, to this day, ever left. In summary he found that companies that lived more than 100 years changed their lines of business, fully, at least once. His research and grounded wisdom have given me (any many others) the key to the courage to sell and embrace change with his very well grounded research as a guide.
When my friend Joan Steel invited me to a Chicago Council on Foreign Relations lunch featuring business author Tom Peters speaking I had no real expectations. Little did I know I would hear him utter the line that set my heart and career on fire: “If half of the people working for you aren’t weird, you’re in trouble.” They were, and I wasn’t (in trouble.) In fact, I was on to something big. I went back to my rainbow coalition of diverse, crazy, incredibly smart, beautifully technical types (embodied in Louis Stankaitis, Jeff Starzec, Diane Lanigan) who made up the Anixter Global Training & Learning Systems team and we continued to experiment like crazy. It prepared me for the moment when I’d meet Jerry Miller, CEO of Wyncom’s Lessons in Leadership, at, a conference, and he hired me to work for Tom Peters as his product developer. Life works in mysterious ways and people who want to connect mysteriously show up at conferences.
When Col. Herb Harback called and invited me to the US Army’s National Security Seminar because I was Roger Schank’s grad student, I could not know that (in no particular order) I would fail to bring my wallet and sense of protocol to the no-host dinner, and thereby launch a decades-long teasing rant by said Col. Harback…and that I’d also see first hand the War College’s simulation center, and not only really understand the power of simulations for the first time but learn volumes about how the Army fed continuous simulation data to commanders in real time hot spots, or hear General John Nash talk about using economic development strategies to stand down the ethnic conflicts in Bosnia, or sit at dinner with the Commandant, General Richard Chilcoat, who had been Colin Powell’s aide, and talk about the importance of storytelling to a learning culture. Was the Army really more creative and curious than all my corporate counterparts? Roger that. It was my first exposure to the US Military’s culture and ethos of continuous learning, experimentation and lean innovation. I have held every other organization since to its standards, and mine were raised that week indelibly. Find any veteran or active duty military you can buy coffee for (or better yet hire) and you’ll see for yourself.
6. You Meet Life Changing Clients Who Become Friends and More – Fast Company, Philadelphia.
When we interviewed Scott Belsky, CEO of Behance this week (and we met him at a conference – MediaBistro’s Social curation summit, too!) he said that “we get to know each other through our interests.” I now have the great pleasure of working with visual mapping gurus Scott and Rebecca Williams at Maga Design in Washington, DC.
At Fast Company’s 2000 Philly conference I spoke about our interests and work at the Tom Peters Company on “Brand Inside.” Tom was his usual 5 minutes ahead on the powerful and intimate relationship between corporate brands and personal aspirations/talent aka brands and cultures that absorb that lesson about talent, too. One of the people in my session was a young, highly original thinker and Navy civilian named Scott Williams. At the time he was Deputy CIO of Desktop Apps at Naval Aviation (imagine that job and you’ll get a sense of his wiring.) He’d been studying Tom Peters in his Navy Exec Development program and afterwards and over a few short months before 9-11 he began a conversation with me that changed my career, my fortunes, my friendships, my travel schedule, and my life. He was at the conference at the behest of his leadership, primarily three-star Admiral Joseph L. Dyer, who ran the business of Naval Aviation for the Navy, and had a storied career that included leading Test Pilot school and many other less public but equally noteworthy accomplishments, and Susan Keen Dyer, who was the CIO and head of operations. They were struggling with a serious alignment problem among 12 far flung bases and 22,ooo people. The consequences were potentially life threatening to the fleet and as such had real implications for national security. They brought us, the Tom Peters Company in to help. Don’t forget Tom was a Navy Seabee in his civil/mechanical engineering days. They brought me into their community of interest. I brought them into mine. We worked it. We devised a strategy to get the command aligned. One of the tools we used early and often were maps – roadmaps, visual maps, co-created maps, pre-info-graphic-craze maps. All of these maps were directly inspired, in an important nod to linneage, by Klas Mellander and his Swedish company, Celemi. (I learned how to make maps from Klas at a Ford Exec Development session Nancy Badore held – who’d I met at the first business conference I ever attended.) May the circle be unbroken. May you learn and connect with every step you take. Conferences just help you do it faster.
7. You Can Learn from Your Role Models Live and In Person – Crave Conference, San Francisco
It turns out that meeting your heroes can be much more exciting and disquieting than reading their books. When Tom Peters, IDEO’s Tom Kelley and (then SiegleGale, now PopTech’s) Andrew Zolli and I launched the Crave (Design) conference in 2000, Andrew Zolli led us to Peter Lawrence who led us to Robyn Waters, VP of Trend and Design at Target at that time as a potential sponsor. I called her from a cab on the way to the Chicago Zoo, and she actually agreed to sponsor the conference on the spot, but only because she was reading BOTH Tom’s at the time and quoted them back to me from an article she had on her desk. Call in Synchronicity or what you will – but the conference made the meeting possible and the meeting made the next couple years very special.
And though we couldn’t quite get the white and red bullseye flower arrangements she requested to work, she became a dazzlingly important friend and co-conspirator and we got to hear first hand how she dealt with being tossed the very first Target-Goes-Hero Designer, Philippe Starck line to market and promote. Robyn became an important influence on everything new thing we did at the Tom Peters Company, a person to test new ideas, new products, and new plans with and get no-nonsense incredibly valued and valuable litmus-like feedback. She remains to this day, zooming around somewhere in the Southwest, on her motorcycle, that platinum hair flying, an Icon Woman when it comes to Innovation, Trend and Design, capital I, capital T, capital D. Simply put, for us at the Tom Peters Company circa 2,000, no Crave Conference, no Robin. End of story. Period.
I could not end this piece, this testimony to the power of innovation va community via conference-going, without honoring one more person we met at the Crave Conference. Tom Kelley brought in Jerry Hirshberg, the CEO and founder of Nissan Design, and designer of the orginal Round II redesign of the Z. Jerry’s singular career, and work, and deliberate and brilliant approach to building a creative and value-creating company are described in great detail in his book Creative Priority and reflected in the X-Terra and everything Nissan has done since. As a Designer-as-CEO he just had that kind of impact. If you haven’t read the Creative Priority, and you’re trying to create or innovate or just need a mega dose of real world and practical inspiration, don’t do anything else but go directly to Amazon and buy it. Jerry’s book, and Jerry’s life at Nissan Design, and his ability to tell the story of how they did it so simply and directly will affect the way you work. And if you want to see what a post Nissan Design life looks like, check out Jerry’s amazing bamboo paintings. I know because it happened to me (see chapter on Creative Abrasion for details.) Stay tuned for that story in the next installment.
Now. Go to a conference. It’s good for your next project. It’s good for your team and collaboration – heck, go together. It’s good for the economy. And, it’s very good for your creative heart and soul.
Julie Anixter is Chief Innovation Officer at Maga Design and the executive editor and co-founder of Innovation Excellence. She worked with Tom Peters for five years on bringing big ideas to big audiences. Now she works with the US Military and other high test innovation cultures that make a difference.