Monday, January 15, 2018

The Idea Swap

I attended an educational conference last week and a wonderful thing happened to me there.

I got a new idea.

I don't know yet if it's a good idea or a bad idea. Maybe you can tell me. But that's not the point. The fact that something new and novel occurred to me while attending this conference practically made it worth the price of admission.

Here it is.

At a lot of educational conferences there is time set aside for group-based discussions on ideas or problems that the attendees self-identify. My own association, in fact, has often tried something similar. We ask people on their registration forms to list one challenge that is "keeping them up at night." We then take all those responses and sort them into ten or so common topics and post them on a series of tables at one of the conference's networking breakfasts. Go find the topic that most resonates with you, we'll tell the attendees, and talk with the like-minded people at your table about ways to address or overcome the idea.

It works -- to a degree. It certainly helps get people who may not have otherwise spoken to each to speak to each other. But does it actually help our attendees solve the problems they told us about on their registration forms? There's frankly little evidence of that.

So what if we tried something different?

First, rather than ask people when they register what's keeping them up at night, ask them when they come into the breakfast session what problem they are facing that they would like their peers at the conference to help them solve. Not everyone is going to have something -- but that's okay. For this idea, you don't need a hundred people to give you a hundred problems. You only need ten.

Second, once you have your list of ten problems, put them anonymously up on the screen. While people are enjoying their breakfasts, interrupt them and ask them to look at the screen. Tell them that everyone in the room has to pick one of these ten problems to solve. But here's the trick. Tell them that if the problem is yours -- whether you were the one who wrote it down or it is simply someone else's problem that you also share -- YOU CANNOT PICK IT. You must pick someone else's problem to solve.

Third, have everyone re-sort themselves in the room so that they are at a table filled with people who have also picked the same problem as them. I'm not sure how to do that logistically, but I'm sure it can be done. Maybe the tables can be pre-labeled with the numbers one through ten, and then you can use those numbers as an index for the ten problems up on the screen. If you picked problem #5, for example, move to a table with a #5 on it.

Fourth, let the people at the tables talk about ways to solve the problem they have chosen. Ideally, ask them to come up with as many possible solutions as they can, because no single solution is likely to solve every individual variation of the problem that their colleagues might have. To provide an overly simplistic example, if my problem is that I lost my green crayon, and your single solution to the problem is for me to buy a new green crayon, that's not going to work if I don't have the money for any new crayons. I'm going to want to hear multiple ideas for how to solve my problem. Buy a new one, borrow one from a friend, use your blue and yellow crayons together, etc.

Fifth and finally, go around the room and have a spokesperson from each table read out or otherwise describe their list of solutions.

What I like about this idea is that it at least attempts to deal with a fundamental and often overlooked reality of this situation. The reason the attendee has a challenge that is keeping her up at night is because she doesn't not how to solve it. If she knew how to solve it, it wouldn't be a problem that was keeping her up at night. And putting her together at a table with nine other people who are confounded by the same problem won't necessarily help.

So, is this a good idea or a bad idea? I'm open to your perspective, but in a way I'm not sure it matters. What matters is that the conference I attended got me thinking about different ways of doing things in my association. And that, above all else, is frequently what's most needed.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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