A conference that embraces innovationsby Karen Thoreson
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
—Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist and author, 1982
Margaret Mead was spot-on. Back in 1995, ICMA and the Innovation Groups—now the Alliance for Innovation—agreed to cosponsor a new conference, focused on the great ideas coming from local governments.
Held in Norfolk, Virginia, in April 1996, and Long Beach, California, in May of the same year, hundreds of local government staff convened in those port cities to share their best ideas and learn from each other on how to adapt and change someone else’s success into a project that could work somewhere else. (FYI: The preconference sessions focused on how to use the Internet and why it mattered to local government.)
The response from participants was overwhelming. Half a dozen cities stepped up and offered to host the conference and ultimately the Transforming Local Government (TLG) conference was born.
That model of soliciting great solutions from local governments has proven successful for more than two decades; however, the Alliance knew that success cannot continue to create the same outcomes. Innovation requires constant refreshing, rethinking, and remaking, and that experience of TLG has proved to be true.
The challenge was to continually test new approaches in delivering TLG to ensure that the year-to-year experience for attendees changed, deepened, and improved.
Overview of New Approaches
Here is a summary of what has changed with TLG during the past 23 years:
- Now TLG not only features great successful projects, but also its Fabulous Flops. There often is as much or more to learn from what went wrong and why, rather than what succeeded. (This brings to mind the inventor Thomas Edison’s quote: “I failed my way to success.”) Dissecting a failure is an experiment in diagnosing misplaced assumptions or failed techniques. It is often difficult to attract presenters for the Fabulous Flops sessions, although they are always well attended and a source of candid and creative discussions.
- Exhibitors are an important source of tools, products, and ideas at conferences, not to mention an important source of financial underwriting. TLG is striving to change the conversations between exhibitors and attendees from a sales/lead relationship to a solution-based conversation. Showcasing the Alliance corporate partners as leaders in building solutions has helped them create collaborative, rather than competitive, relationships and brought end-users into a creative discussion on problems transformed into opportunities.
- Not sure what you want to know? The introduction of TLG’s rapid-fire sessions allows attendees to catch five ideas quickly and tests managers’ presentation skills to tell their story in just seven minutes. I loved the manager who shared with me that, “I love rapid-fire sessions, because if I hate one idea, I know that I only have to wait six more minutes to hear something that I am really interested in.”
- Although a key purpose of any conference is the authentic networking that can occur, most conferences do not design for this outcome. TLG now features preconference regional networking and eclectic networking opportunities between sessions like table games, technology tests, and themed flash mobs. Our goal: Get people together and get them talking. Step away from the familiar and introduce something new.
- How to help attendees get the most from the event? Our nextERA group of young and mid-career government whizzes introduced a new session on how to prepare and take home the most from TLG. Now you can see a preconference video or attend an early conference session on getting the most from the conference, all while you are on site.
- Bringing Innovation Academy graduates to TLG is a recent addition. Besides honoring the graduating teams at a private breakfast and all-conference luncheon, the teams get to present their Academy projects in one of the most popular TLG sessions ever.
- A conference innovation that TLG can’t take credit for inventing represents the life cycle of innovation: the conference app. Only five years ago, applications for a phone or tablet were just being introduced as a part of the conference experience. It was a true example of an emerging practice in local government. Would it work? Would folks use it? Was it worth the investment and possibility of failure? We learned many lessons about what got folks engaged with the app—what was positive engagement and what was more of a distraction. Through experimentation, we and other conference organizers have seen this tool move from an emerging technology to an expected and prevailing part of the program.
So how does this story relate to the work that managers do in local governments? They may not be organizing conferences or events but likely have many practices in place that were once new and exciting, and now are routine. How can managers isolate some of those practices—rethink them, refine them, refinish them—to continue to achieve even better outcomes?
Every year, the Alliance staff, along with its conference host and partners, step back and ask:
- What is the experience of our attendees, and how can we improve the experience?
- What weaknesses do we have, and how can we strengthen those?
- What would be a surprise—be memorable—and how can we ensure that everyone has such an experience?
- What fresh eyes can we bring to this event that will keep it being, “The most exciting conference I have ever attended and one that I intend to be a part of in the foreseeable future.”
For the 2018 TLG conference, the Alliance is introducing a new idea to make submitting case studies for the following year easier, quicker, and, hopefully, more fun. The intent is to increase the number of case study submissions by lowering artificial barriers to “entry.”
We want to encourage people not to be timid about submitting case studies and get support from their leadership to take the time to complete an application. In 2018, attendees will be able to complete a brief questionnaire at the conference using a quick link in the conference app the Alliance will provide.
Applicants will hear soon after the conference if the Alliance team thinks the idea is a strong contender and will receive an official invitation to submit the complete case study. This shortened submission process will also be available through a call for 2019 TLG case studies in May or June of 2018.
Again, Margaret Mead knew what she was talking about. The only way change is accomplished is through people working together to make a difference. TLG is one fast-track route to ensuring that happens.
Karen Thoreson is retired president and chief executive officer, Alliance for Innovation, Phoenix, Arizona (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Tacoma in April
The 2018 Transforming Local Government (TLG) conference will be held in Tacoma, Washington, April 3–6. (http://tlgconference.org). Featuring renowned case studies from local governments
across the United States and Canada, keynote speakers will also challenge current thinking and demonstrate new methods of achieving better outcomes.
TLG will showcase the current artificial intelligence pilot that is being conducted with eight local governments using Amazon’s Alexa. The new networking opportunities will bring attendees together in
ways that will create lasting bonds across multiple communities.
Experience enchanting Tacoma, the home of American glass sculptor and entrepreneur Dale Chihuly and cutting-edge technology companies that are working to make the TLG experience especially memorable.