I will forever be known as the ‘pain guy’ in that crowd

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I didn’t know what to expect going into the Boye 2018 conference. The fact that the conference was in the Danish town of Aarhus, not the most famous of conference towns, should have given me a hint as to the special nature of this festival, which in hindsight seems to be a more accurate word than conference.

By Max Bailey, Chief of Existential Query & Organizational Alchemist at The Tea Makers

I can tell you now that even landing at Aarhus airport was a special experience: It is the smallest airport I ever been in. People at the conference later joked that the person driving the bus, is the same one that checks you in and reads the passport. Nevertheless, this makes for a very efficient process: my bag was delivered in a matter of minutes. After arriving, I needed to get the bus to town.  One of the many wonderful things about Denmark is the ease with which I can get around speaking English, AND the super efficiency and integration of public transport systems. The bus waits until everyone has gotten off the plane and collected their bags, then they make a call for any more passengers before setting off, and then they drop you in the center of the city. Since Aarhus center is quite small, all the hotels are within walking distance.  How happy I was to be in this town, clean, very welcoming and not too formal.

The first clue that the conference would be something special was the ‘jet lag reception’ hosted at a local bar/café. I arrived late but was immediately welcomed in by a rabble of enthusiastic conference goers. It immediately seemed to me that these people, although they were all from different parts of the world and totally different companies, were like some kind of extended family.  There was a lot of laughter and chatter. A beer was immediately thrust into my hand along with the offer of food. I found it extremely easy to get into conversations with people and I quickly found myself talking to Rachel Happe, Co-founder of the Community Round Table, about our shared passions for community engagement and using communities as a force for change inside organizations. I learnt more from that conversation that I had for many months. She would give a keynote speech the next evening that gave me the chance to see the more polished version of the rich conversation I had already had.

The beginning

The conference started for real on Tuesday morning after a superb breakfast at the conference hotel.  We hit the ground running with a great workshop from Rachel on community engagement and architecting behavioural change.  She and her team have done a great deal of research and sharing on how to get communities active: a special interested for me, as I see community as the big lever in organizational and societal transformation.

The afternoon workshop I attended was also pretty special.  Given by Line Morkbak and Andrew Pope, the experience was a mixture of theory, discussion and practical exercises related to unlocking innovation and self organization in organizations.  I had the impression people left with a number of things that they could take home and try out in their organizations directly on Monday morning.

And so onto the social event: an informal walk around the beautiful streets of Aarhus, past the recently modified dockside and via the public library: full of art and a huge brass bell that rings every time a baby is born in the city! Aarhus was the european capital of culture 2017 and so has seen a huge amount of investment and modernisation. This was yet another opportunity to meet new people in a less formal context.  Of course this was not the end: the walk was followed by a 3 course meal of Nordic beauty: salmon and dill for starters, a simple beef main and a dessert of fruit crumble. Excellent quality, but what made it even more memorable was the ease of meaningful conversation with my new friends, Melisa, from Vancouver in Canada, Rose, a young UI/UX developer from a Danish energy solutions company, and Sam, a Swiss tech developer: what a mix of nationality, age and industrial scope.  I felt so comfortable with these new friends that I invited them to play a simple Authentic Relating game: a way to reach a deeper level of human connection. They all went along with it and we went through a deep and shared experience. I’m pretty sure we’ll be in contact for a long time to come.

Wednesday is THE BIG day at the conference, and it became evident to me at the beginning of the morning keynote from Truls Berg. What a great talk on Open Innovation Lab Norway, collaboration between 42 companies as a community.  It was fascinating to hear how new ideas are generated openly between industrial players of different sectors, for example, banking and agricultural production; ideas which perhaps would never have found the light of day without these unusual collisions between people and groups that normally never occur

Later in that day I facilitated a ‘roundtable discussion’ called: ‘slowing down to go faster: leading through listening’. I was very touched to hear how people had such tough experiences of regularly not being listened to at work, and how this stifled the creative flow of collaboration and innovation.  We discussed some very simple techniques to slow things down and pull the collective intelligence from a group, and have everyone feel more connected to life and their peers.

Another social dinner followed that night, yet more great food and drinks and, thanks to Janus’s never ending insistence to create new relationships I had the pleasure of being moved from one seat to another in between courses. I was not the only one.  Although I had a momentary feeling of discomfort, I was glad of the opportunity. More new friends and learning!

So I ended this lovely conference with a improptu talk on pain

Thursday was the last official day of the conference. Once again an eye opening keynote from Scott Brinker about the emergent capabilities all employees and individuals begin to have regarding ‘citizen development’ and ‘citizen analysis’ and just about citizen anything... how it is now possible for a marketer to build apps and have data analysed through systems that avoid her having to be an expert in app development or data analysis. What kind of new possibilities does this open up? What does it mean for yet more decentralisation of authority and development speed?  Whatever it means, the ability of people to be adaptive and resilient seems to me to be the key competence of life. Often called out as a ‘mindset change’, I wonder If there is widespread understanding of what that means on a human level?

Later I saw one of the most interesting presentations I have ever seen: Jonathan Lewis created a whole narrative story of a fictional character going through his career at various types of organization and what she learnt from it.  The point was to show that adult continue to develop their world and self views throughout life and the contexts in which they find themselves are a large part of that. We had multiple chances for short breakout talks in groups to go deeper into the subject matter.  This was a super engaging way to introduce Spiral Dynamics, Integral Theory and the various levels of organizational culture defined by Frederic Laloux in the book Reinventing Organizations.

Fairly spontaneously, Janus asked me to take part in the 300 seconds digital lightning talks, a project that Sharon O’Dea brought to the conference. I was supposed to talk for five minutes on anything.  Of course I said yes, not knowing at all what I would say. What emerged shortly before the moment I had to deliver, was this very point about ‘mindset shift’. In short, that people do the things we do because of beliefs and habits that re-affirm those beliefs; all in the attempt to secure future happiness and avoid pain.  So when people have attachments to predictability, job titles, organizational structures, national identities and various other ideas, they are simply trying to make sense of the world and be happy. Now if we really want people to become more agile, more flexible, more spontaneous, in order to deliver in the era of the 4th industrial revolution, then surely we must accept that this is not a logical, intellectual thing: it is a belief changing thing, and beliefs are normally changed through experience.  Rather provocatively I said that rather than try to create ‘happiness at work’, we could open the eyes of people to the pain and suffering that they most likely already experience, BUT at the same being ready to connect with deep empathy. This is what we at TheTeaMakers we call the ‘disruption-empathy-duality’. Creating experiences of discomfort in order to shine light on beliefs and give rise to the chance to undo those mental models and replace them with more open, softened models. Ones that naturally allow for more openness, collaboration and flexibility.  I don’t yet know if this is a good thing, but I have the impression that I will forever more be known as ‘the pain guy’ in this circle.

So the last social event. A hearty dinner of ribs at the Memphis Roadhouse (vegetarian options were available), followed by repeated games of ‘ping pong go around’ at one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been too.  What could be a more simple business model than a ping pong table, great music and cans of beer sold in packs of 6? Once again, a great opportunity to do more than network, to actually form lasting relationships with new people in a situation that promotes fun, vulnerability and trust.

On the last morning I simply had to give Janus a hug and say thanks.  There was nothing more, or less, I could do. I left with a wealth of new experience, knowledge and connections, and a very tired body. Assuming I will have recovered by then, I’ll certainly be back next year.