Conference reflections

Before attending the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition I wondered if I had fallen out of love with my profession.  I’ve spent so much time outdoors this year, and in ways that I haven’t yet fully explained, this has changed my life.  How would the experience of an HR conference be after all this time?  I’ll give a little digest of some of the things that struck me during the two days, and then I’ll finish with the verdict on my love story.  If you’d like some in depth run downs of the content of the conference, there are some brilliant blog posts written by those with far faster fingers than me.  Doug Shaw has cleverly put all the blogging content in one place.   Now here are my reflections, in no particular order. Some are about the content. Some are about the delivery.

The physical stuff is hugely important

I would say that, wouldn’t I.  This year has brought it home to me, that us humans are physical creatures and we need not to be folded into chairs for hours on end.  More of that in a future blog post.  During the conference there were many reminders of how important it is to be able to see tangible things; not just bits of paper.

Crossrail gave the best example during their presentation, when CEO Andrew Wolstenholme showed photographs of employees carving their names into the wall of a completed tunnel.  The sense of pride in a huge achievement was so strong we in the audience could feel it.  Those engineers will be able to tell their families that they built that, and that their names and the dates are there for all to see on that tunnel wall.  Pick any theory of motivation you want:  carving your name on the tunnel wall ticks all the boxes.

On a more personal level, in 2012 the CIPD conference ended with the Olympian, David Weir letting us folks in the audience go up and hold his gold medals.  A year on, I had several conversations with people reminiscing about holding that chunk of gold metal.  For me and others I spoke to, it is a glowing memory that still makes us smile.  When I work in places where there is a less tangible product, I want to find opportunities to use lasting things you can touch and see, and that have meaning: to find the equivalent to a tunnel carving or a gold medal.

The CIPD is making lots of progress

Below are a couple of examples of things I liked from the conference.  For a more thorough explanation of the relevance of people management right now, take a look at Flipchart Rick’s blog.   Meg Peppin wrote a terrific blog post which includes a description of Peter Cheese’s visible, walk-the-talk leadership during the conference.   (Peter Cheese is the CIPD’s Chief Exec).

The conference itself was better than last year, and much of this was down to the decision to hold it over two rather than three days.  Two days made for more energy and buzz, and less Conference Fatigue.  The people manning the stands that I spoke to in the Exhibition area also said that they’d been much busier than last year.

I also liked that the CIPD is making much more of an effort to tell its members about the great research work it does.  That research has been excellent for many years now, but I’ve often felt that it was a secret, only available to geeks like me who like to squirrel around to find useful stats and ideas.  This year there was a dedicated seminar area in the Exhibition zone, where researcher after researcher stood up and explained their findings.  Loads of it is stuff that can be used by us in our jobs.  More please!  I’d love to see a summary of the key findings of the year being presented by Peter Cheese as the opening keynote.

There are still a whole lot of dodgy presentation visuals out there

I was surprised to see many presentations with awful visuals.  Some were crammed full of diagrams with loads of text, which of course were unreadable.  Many were the old hat title and six bullet points layout, which doesn’t chime too well with the current focus on neuroscience (it’s not brain friendly).  A couple of presenters seemed locked into talking through their slides rather than talking to the audience and using the slides as a visual aid to illustrate their points.  There are plenty of online resources (google Garr Reynolds or Nancy Duarte), but I think that the easiest way to make a massive improvement to the way you use presentation visuals is to buy a book called Presentation Zen.  Of all the presentations I saw, Crossrail did by far the best job with their slide deck.  Also Dan Pink’s was slick and effective – as you’d expect from a best selling author who is a keynote speaker at many many conferences.

Pack the right amount of clothes

No I’m not talking about the amount of bags in the boot of my car.  I saw a number of presentations where people had too much to say in the time they were allocated.  They had too many slides, and felt compelled to race through them all.  I do feel it is important to fit the content to the time available, and to the audience.  I went to a very interesting presentation about neuroscience and human behaviour at work, given by Jacqui Grey of the NeuroLeadership Group.  Jacqui did a great job of focusing on the elements of her presentation that she felt would be most relevant to us.  It looked from the handout pack we got that there were a quite a few more slides in her presentation than the ones she went through, but she slowed things down and gave a really good explanation of how we respond differently to other people and situations depending on whether we perceive a threat or a reward.

Audiences love to get involved, kind of

paper aeroplaneJacqui Grey again.  She got us all making paper aeroplanes.  Why?  After our planes had fizzled disappointingly over the shoulder of the person in front, or for the lucky few, soared high towards the stage, we were debriefed.  It turned out that we had to identify our thoughts as we commenced the exercise.  Some of us had positive, ‘oh isn’t this fun’ ‘I wonder how far my plane will fly?’ thoughts.  Others wondered if their plane would fly or if they could remember how to make an aeroplane.  The different ways of thinking affect our state of mind as we approach a task.

Dan Pink had us identify our dominant hand, then click our fingers five times, then using the fourth finger of that hand, draw a capital E on our heads.  (If you want to do this little experiment then try it before you read the explanation at the bottom of this blog).  Having said that it works well getting audiences involved, it’s interesting to see what a shy audience the CIPD one tends to be in comparison to others I’ve seen.  At one point Dan Pink asked people to call out suggestions or ideas – I forget exactly what it was – and he got a totally flat response from all 1000 plus people.  Now, if he can’t get the audience responding, no one can.  I did a presentation last year in the Exhibition zone, and found that I had to work really hard to get participation.  So, the learning point for me is that with a quieter audience, it’s best to stick to easy practical activities that don’t involve calling things out.

Ask why.  It is still the number no.1 way to doing things better

Of all the sessions I attended, the ones that I found most useful were where companies had challenged existing wisdom, and done something different.  For example, Jeff Turner from Facebook explained that people managers in his company are not paid any differently to individual contributors.  People choose to become a manager because they want to, rather than for the status or salary.  There is no stigma about deciding to stop being a people manager, and returning to being an individual contributor.  Jeff also took us through Facebook’s model of management, which was beautifully simple, and reminded me of one of my all time favourite quotes:

The best form of simplicity emerges out of the far side of complexity.

Or words to that effect.  I’m not sure who said it.  But I say it a lot, because to me it is about doing the reading and the research, discussing and consulting with people – giving yourself a headache with the difficulty of the subject. But then struggling on through all that divergent thinking to the stage where you boil it all down to a something that is simple to use and communicate.

Back to the love story

So, that’s a few lines about the things that stood out for me at the conference.  Now, what about my story?  Have I fallen out of love with people management and development?  No.  Not at all.  I absolutely loved meeting up with people at the event – old and new friends both.  It’s brilliant to feel a part of a community of people who are great fun to be with, generous, interesting, opinionated.  They also pick up my jacket when I lose it on a night out.  In terms of my own thinking, I’m probably more radical than I ever have been, in terms of not wanting to follow the herd with their established ways doing things (unless there’s a good reason).  I’ve come away with a long list of ideas, articles to read, thoughts to pull together, people to meet up with.  I’m as excited as I ever have been about being innovative and clear thinking in helping the next company I work for to be a place where it’s people can thrive and give of their best.  I’m still in love.

Footnote:  Dan Pink experiment.

The finger clicking is irrelevant; just a distraction.  The experiment is really about the E.  People draw the E in one of two directions.  Some draw it the way round that would mean that others could read it, were you to have drawn it in pen.  In research experiments this correlates with behaviour where a person is more likely to be attuned to taking other people’s perspectives.  The other way to draw it is so that it’s the right way round for you.  The research shows that if this is the case you are taking your own perspective rather than considering other people’s.  Neither is right or wrong – it’s simply useful to be aware of our tendencies and be able to dial up the other mode when we need to.  Especially its important when wanting to influence others, sell, motivate, etc, to be able to take another person’s perspective into account. 

7 thoughts on “Conference reflections

  1. Your enthusiasm is boundless and infectious Flora! Thank you for so many nuggets: Love the Crossrail story – SO agree about having the tangibles/making things simple. And would have loved to have heard Pink.
    Perhaps there’s a book in you?

    • Aww Shona :-))
      You’d have liked the Crossrail session. I do enjoy all those case studies the best. Dan Pink – v good but you’ve read the book and seen the videos so you’ll have got all the same info.
      I’m not convinced about a book for me. I really love the immediacy of blogging and the conversations that follow – just like this.

  2. Interesting conclusions on the Dan Pink experiment – seem to remember Stephen Covey (7 Habits of Effective People) saying the same thing – ‘Seek first to understand and then to be understood’. Always served me well but that was centuries ago in a previous life!!!! x

  3. Nicely done Flora – this is a helpful write up thanks. I wasn’t at the Crossrail session – Rob Jones and I have a long standing obligation to avoid each other’s sessions at conferences 😉 Sounds good – you are not the first to say so.

    I agree that it would be great to hear more from the CIPD by way of a keynote or main session – and I’d prefer to hear from Peter and others too. Johanna Ratcliffe for example. She is one of a bunch of CIPD people who doing good work and being responsive on behalf of herself, her team and the CIPD. No disrespect to Peter – but I think sharing that stage would be hugely powerful. I’m going to blog about this point based on the somewhat enjoyable, hoc, dinner conversation a few of us had last week 😉

    Appreciate the name check thanks – and although I tried to collate as much blogging and other output as I could – I’m sure I didn’t quite get it all. Curation is hard work!

    I share your frustration over too many clothes and dodgy visuals. It worries me how little people seem to think about the audience when they’re slaving away over a hot PowerPoint stove building crappy, un brain friendly material.

    Good work – a very useful enjoyable read.

    • Thank you Doug. Yes, a shared CIPD keynote would be fantastic. I think they need to borrow some of that strut-your-stuff attitude from our outgoing brothers abc sisters across the pond. Well, we all do from time to time, don’t we?!

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