Last friday, I found myself sitting alone on the patio of the Embassy Suites hotel in northern Phoenix, looking out over an expansive pool area filling up with families most likely in town for the upcoming Nascar races.
I, on the other hand, was just about to fly back home to Sweden, had no interest in race cars, and was feeling lonely for the first time in several days. No wonder, after having attended a five day conference that was actually mostly about me.
Since it’s start in 2000, the Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference has attracted people interested in working with themselves to become more effective in and out of the workplace. Most participants seem to hail from the software industry, which is also the industry in which the conference’s ur-host, Jerry Weinberg, is known, frankly, as an icon. With more than thirty books (among the bestsellers: “Secrets of Consulting”), hundreds of articles published, and numerous well-known immersive workshops conducted, his reputation is well deserved.
Not all participants work with testing, coding or managing software however. One runs a plumbing business, another is a painter. As for geographical origin, people have come from all over the U.S. There’s also a fair number of Canadians and a few Europeans, like yours truly.
The varied backgrounds are important, because AYE is all about the people. Highly intelligent and very humble people, willing to meet, share, learn and have fun doing it, or letting it be emotionally challenging when that’s what’s needed.
Driving home the point that the people should be in the center, the AYE is run as a guaranteed Powerpoint(TM)-free event. Guaranteed. You won’t see a single presentation slide for the duration of the conference. Given the prevalence of presentation slides in every other setting, one of AYE’s claims to fame could be that it may be the only way to avoid Powerpoint(TM) for almost a week.
Instead of talking heads and bullet points, AYE has stories that stick and dialogue that engages. Instead of rows of chairs, AYE has circles. This lays the ground for something else that the conference has: the ability to forge new friendships. I arrived at the conference knowing not a single person. I left only after having hugged and shaken hands with a whole bunch of new acquaintances from all over the world.
Making friends is also made easier by the fact that many participants go out dining together in the evenings. Phoenix is huge, so finding a place that serves food you like is not hard. If by finding you mean locating on Google Maps, that is. Driving to the actual place can be a different story altogether. We temporarily lost a whole car one night, but it contained a complete group, so no one should have had to eat alone.
While very outspoken and easy going, most of the participants seemed to identify themselves as introverts on the Myers-Briggs scale. This is in accordance with what I learned in one of the sessions however – our preferences say little about how we will actually behave. On a related note, I can imagine that if you took almost anyone from this conference and put them in a Swedish setting, that person would surely stand out as the most outspoken in the group. It might be a cultural thing, but it’s probably a safety issue as well. Most participants seemed to consider it safe to speak their minds at AYE.
I also managed to find the time to sit down and talk one on one with Jerry Weinberg for a while, which was rewarding. The only thing more extensive than his experience is his repository of stories, from which he frequently pulls one (often funny!) out to teach an important lesson.
Content-wise, this years’ conference had three parallel tracks, and selecting a session was not always easy, since interesting topics often collided. A pleasant problem for me of course, but possibly frustrating for the hosts.
Given that all hosts of the conference are students of Jerry Weinberg, who is himself a student of family therapist Virginia Satir and the topic of general systems thinking, it isn’t strange that a few core concepts pop up again and again throughout the conference.
To give new participants an opportunity to catch up, a full day pre-conference tutorial run by hosts Don Gray and Steve Smith works through the basics of Satir’s teachings and also lets participants try on a kind of Myers-Briggs-based preference test. I came up as an ENTP, which surprised me, since I certainly don’t think of myself as extraverted. Whichever it is, it was certainly food for thought for me, and the source of an aha-feeling when I thought back on recent conflicts at work.
In summary, the AYE conference was a fabulously useful experience for me, but make no mistake: it might not be for you. Because the conference is highly experiential, some exercises may touch on things you did not expect. At more than one occasion, emotions ran high. Thankfully, the hosts have a very responsible philosophy (“leave no bodies behind”). Things that bubble up in exercises are taken care of in an appropriate manner. Also, one of the first tips given during Sunday’s tutorial was to take care of yourself, which could mean to opt out from exercises or just get up and get some water when needed. All in all very comforting things to know about a conference that managed to aim my searchlights back onto how I myself can be the best tool for improving my own effectiveness.