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Pat O'Toole's Dos and Don'ts of Process Improvement: DONT: Attend Industry Conferences

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Conferences offer one of the best ways to find out how other people have addressed the same day-to-day problems your organization faces. Learn how to be "actively engaged" to exploit every valuable opportunity to gain new insights to benefit your organization.
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At the end of a marathon, each weary runner is greeted by a sympathetic volunteer who congratulates them on their outstanding accomplishment, hangs a medal around their neck, and hands them the coveted Finisher's t-shirt. You're only supposed to reap these rewards if you completed the full 26.2 miles; race officials are always on the lookout for "bandits" who take shortcuts along the way.

A member of my running club prides himself in owning six Twin Cities Marathon t-shirts despite the fact that he's never run the race. Although I hardly condone his behavior, I must admit I'm impressed by the creativity of his ruses.

This past October, about 4 hours after the race had started, he was positioned in the crowd at Mile 26, right by the St. Paul Basilica, just before the runner's take their final turn and finish at the steps of the State Capitol. He was dressed in typical running clothes, carried a typical water bottle, and wore the borrowed number of a friend who had finished legitimately.

As he saw another member of the club approaching the final stretch, he dumped the bottle of water on himself and dashed out of the crowd carrying a pair of dark sunglasses. He greeted his unsuspecting, but too-beleaguered-to-care colleague by putting the dark glasses on him, grabbing his arm, and shouting, "Blind man coming through! Blind man coming through!"

Sure enough, as he "assisted" his fellow runner across the finish line, he not only got his congratulations, medal, and t-shirt, but his picture was prominently displayed in the newspaper the following day!

So what does this have to do with attending industry conferences? Nothing really; it's just a fun story that I love to tell.

Many of us attend industry events like the SEPG and AYE conferences. We convince our bosses that the value to be derived from these forums warrants the investment of time and money. But for too many of us, attending is as far as it goes – we never really take it to the point of being actively engaged.

Conferences offer one of the best ways to find out how other people have addressed the same problems that have your organization spinning its wheels in the mud. Whether it's engaging in a presentation by asking your burning questions, accosting the presenter afterwards, or sharing a meal with a group of strangers and swapping war stories from the home front, exploit the opportunity. Glean and share as much useful information as you can, take copious notes, and most importantly, use the new insights upon your return to work.

If all you do is attend, you'll still get your conference binder and CD – the bandit's equivalent of the marathon medal and Finisher's t-shirt. But a few weeks after your return, if you are still slogging through your job in the same ineffective way, don't be too terribly surprised if your colleagues look at you and think, "Blind man coming through!"

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