I’m always hunting for cool association stories. Jenny Levine, Strategy Guide at the American Library Association, knows that and suggested I check out the conference she just attended: “It was innovative, interactive, thought-provoking, inspiring, and more.” How could I resist?
The conference wasn’t organized by ALA or any other association, but by several library professionals with a promise – “at R-Squared, The Risk & Reward Conference, learn to take smart risks to move libraries forward” – and a vision:
“Faced with diminishing budgets, new technologies and changing customer needs, the traditional library faces extinction. We must adapt and innovate to transform from a quiet storehouse of books to a dynamic center of free engagement with knowledge.”
Hmm, libraries, associations, not so different.
350 attendees took the risk at the cost of $495 for registration and travel expenses to beautiful Telluride, Colorado. Were they rewarded? Oh, yes. I’ve read many reviews, but this one from Jill Hurst-Wahl, MLS, may resonate with all you conference goers out there:
“The Risk and Reward Conference has thrown down the gauntlet for other conferences. It has said, in essence, “yes” people do want an interactive and immersive experience. Yes, people are willing to stay in the same track in order to have that experience. Yes, keynotes can be interactive. Yes, you can dress down and still be professional…and learn. Yes, we are ready to move away from the current conference mold.”
At R-Squared they took advantage of their location with the most alluring list of preconference activities I’ve ever seen: painting class, mountain bike outings, create a play in a day, rock and roll camp, high ropes course, and rock climbing.
Get out of the echo chamber
The program was split between interactive keynote sessions and immersive group experiences. The keynotes featured speakers from outside the library industry – museum, advertising, retail, and architecture professionals.
Jill Hurst-Wald said, “We need to get out of our element and out of the echo chambers that exist in our organizations and in regular conferences…and into environments that help us think about innovation.”
Plan for active engagement
Attendees spent the rest of their day in one of four immersive group experiences:
- Creative spaces – explore and rethink public space
- Culture – create a vibrant, creative organizational culture
- Customer curiosity – design services/programs that nurture curiosity and creativity
- Abundant community – strengthen the library’s role as catalyst for social engagement
The immersive experiences moved R-Squared beyond the typical best practices conference. Michael Stevens said, “By contrast, I would call R2 a conference up on its feet.” He believes face-to-face conferences should spend time on active engagement, and save best practices for online conferences.
“I believe that active engagement promotes learning and transformation more than sitting in the room and watching PowerPoint or Keynote slides go by. We were up, we were talking, we were writing and sharing. We were walking around the room answering questions.”
Leave the comfort zone
Topher Lawton said the immersive experiences took people out of their comfort zones.
“Every track pushed participants to strive for lofty goals in little time, learning just how much can be accomplished with a plan, a team, and a deadline. In my session, we explored the entire pre-brainstorming process and transformed a week of library events, all in a single morning!”
One of the conference’s goals was to help people get comfortable with taking smart risks. Lea Susan Engle said, “Today our team took calculated risks. We all did things that scared us. We did things we didn’t think we could do.” They learned new ways to communicate and collaborate, and went home with newfound confidence and strength. Not a bad take-way.
One of her teammates, Kieran Hixon, said something that might touch a nerve: “It got me thinking about what really is a risk. Is it…touching the snake? (Climbing a) rock wall? Is it knowing our profession will become irrelevant if we don’t touch our own version of snakes?”
Unleash the inner creatives
The organizers report that the majority of attendees left R-Squared self-identifying as a creative individual, one of their main goals. I’ve been to conferences with creativity rooms but there’s never enough time to visit them, not if you want to attend sessions and find time to eat and go to the bathroom. R-Squared put creativity front and center. It wasn’t an extra; it permeated the entire conference.
The program opened up the mind, loosened inhibitions, and applied creativity to library challenges. Heather Acerro said, “I am leaving Telluride with a composition book filled with ideas. If 85% of them are garbage, I still have a ton of fantastic ideas.”
Shake it up
“Our profession is ripe for a shake-up in this regard,” said Michael Stevens. “I think we’re getting a little tired of talking heads conference models and the classic format of walking to sessions and sitting for 45 minutes, lather rinse repeat.”
Is your profession ripe for a shake-up? A few words and phrases kept popping up in the posts and tweets of R-Squared attendees: transformational, inspired, renewed, ready to try new things, tribe, incubator, catalyst. How do your conference evaluations compare?
Deirdre Reid, CAE is a freelance writer who is waiting for the association version of R-Squared, but doesn’t want to hold a big snake.
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