There are many engagements where I work alongside very smart people. From leading coaches and trainers in the Agile world, to smart teams committed to delivering quality products that solve customer problems. In the trenches there is a constant feel of improvement and curiosity for doing better tomorrow what ailed us today. And a constant enquiring mind as to “why?”

I don’t see the same vigor in Agile conferences. I see a narrowing of ideas presented. I see risk adverse programs that cater to a simplistic mass message. 

This is a similar predicament that technical journals in other fields have faced for years. A huge bias exists for publishing experiment results where an outcome was positive and expected, with rare publication of studies that failed to show expected results (ironically, often more or at least equal learning in failures). The pressure to cater for readers need to see articles from luminary known personalities versus taking a risk on currently unknown often polarizes work in the “old way.” Not to mention the commercial pressure of advertising and sponsorship concerns that shouldn’t influence editorial, but survival to offer anything is dependent on making sure they get value for money and continue support.

The dumbing down process starts silently. Commercial frameworks stifle innovation and polarize messages. Add certification, and you accelerate that stifling of new ideas freely emerging. This is a sure fire way to extinction.

To avoid this plague, here are a few suggestions for balancing a conference program –

  1. Blind submission process – hard to do in reality, but most academic programs are build absent of the authors name or affiliation. The topic is discussed at length. Not, we can’t knock them back.
  2. Conferences should publish in advance the allocation of subjects they want covered. This is crudely done at some conferences by having tracks, but even within a track they should say the percentage of topic allocation they want. E.g. 20% ideas for managing dependencies, 20% ideas for creating safety in teams.
  3. The abstract should be brief during the submission process and then upon acceptance constructed into what the track chair and program desires in collaboration with the speaker (just like an editor in journals and book publishers commonly do)
  4. For abstracts that are important but from a first time speaker, pair the science expert with a luminary speaker and have them co-present or work together. TED talks have shown that given coaching ANYONE PASSIONATE about a topic can make a compelling talk.
  5. At the start of the conference, each track chair should present 10 minutes about the program they have assembled, and help the attendees understand why they should attend each talk. Often, the abstracts are too abstract for people to bother reading, and important sessions don’t get attended because people don’t know what they are about. A good topic title wins out over good content every time.

These are just a few ideas. I want to keep the Agile community vibrant and on a quest for learning. I think Agile conferences are a leading indicator of how new ideas might be lost, and want to avoid that. Not every conference is bad, but some are.