Jun 5, 2023

Menus and kitchens

I’ve always thought of conferences (and unconferences) as educational spaces more than communities or marketing channels.

The good ones help people explore widely, orienting to the subject – and at the same time help the more experienced people tackle specific challenges.

Far and wide

Some people want to explore widely. They’re at a point where need to know their options and choose a direction. They want to know what’s hot, what’s happening. They’re energized when they meet a lot of interesting people, and buzz around like busy bees. This helps them find their own agency.

As goals emerge, they want to go far. They want to hear about challenges they’ll face, and might even be able to offer help. These people use big gatherings to reconnect with old friends, or to get to know a few new people better. They don’t go to the talks, they find somewhere chill to hang out. They have agency and direction, and are looking to improve and problem-solve.

Catering to both is hard. It requires sufficient structure for the wide, and sufficient freedom for the far. And it requires you let everyone do both - you can’t rely on VIP areas and speakers-only rooms. Because then talks gravitate to being too high-level and too salesy. Then the most experienced people just find each other and play hooky. This accentuates the problem by leaving only novices roaming the hallways like zombies.

To synthesise both far and wide, it could be helpful to think about menus and kitchens.

A well-curated menu of topics is broad enough that exposes the zeitgeist. You’ll know how well you did by checking if your participants transition from exploring options to choosing some. You’ll observe them feeling initiated, and shifting from passive consumers to expressing their own paths of inquiry.

A thought-out set of kitchen spaces invite people to cook together, to share tricks, techniques, recipes. Hearing about something new usually inspires a high-level conversation, but holding a tool in your hands opens up a totally different side. Real practice-sharing, exposing real challenges and opportunities, shifting from the theoretical to the applied. Thinking about how to let people surface their own experience (whether they have something to “teach” or to “ask”) enables people to spot their wolfpack. You’re not curating topics anymore, but curating ways for people to find others on a similar path. You’ll observe experienced people finding each other in much smaller groups, spending spend quality time together. Hands-on sharing formats, and casual activities do that well. To know if you’re moving the needle here, follow up and observe the number of participants who to get to know each other personally, that found someone who helped them with a current challenge.

What am I up to these days?

I’m a new parent, and prioritising my attention on our new rhythms as a family.

Work-wise, I’m trekking along at a cozy pace, doing stuff that doesn’t require meetings :)

I have a few non-exec/advisory roles for engineering edu programs. I’m also having fun making a few apps, going deep with zero-knowledge cryptography, and have learned to be a pretty good LLM prompt engineer.

In the past, I've designed peer-learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures, The Royal Academy Of Engineering, and Kernel, careering from startups to humanitech and engineering. I also played a role in starting the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.

Contact me

Books & collected practices

  • Peer Learning Is - a broad look at peer learning around the world, and how to design peer learning to outperform traditional education
  • Mentor Impact - researched the practices used by the startup mentors that really make a difference
  • DAOistry - practices and mindsets that work in blockchain communities
  • Decision Hacks - early-stage startup decisions distilled
  • Source Institute - skunkworks I founded with open peer learning formats and ops guides, and our internal guide on decentralised teams