Every year we decide that it is better not to host an international event by such a small team from Social Innovation Lab. And yet we manage to pull it off every time!
In mid-2017, when the theme ‘Quality education’ came to our plate, we were very confused. None of us were experts in Education and the term ‘Quality’ seemed subjective as ever.
So we reached out to the expert, like anyone else would do and got even more confused. That did not refrain us to turn every stones available. We read a lot, discussed with education experts and researchers, went to field with BRAC practitioners to get the real picture, read a little more and reached out to the sector players through innovation forum. Eventually we came up with a ‘frugal’ concept note and built a profound understanding on Quality Education.
As one of the biggest international events hosted by BRAC, Frugal Innovation Forum (FIF) cannot be limited to Social Innovation Lab’s responsibility. And it wasn’t.
We saw teamwork and ownership from our colleagues from our Education Programme, Advocacy, Communication and Visitor’s unit.
However, there are some common mistakes that we needed to be aware of and being pushed to ‘that far’ helped us gain some solid learning from them.
Here’s a list of mistakes. Some of these we made. Some of these we avoided. But all of these are worth learning from!
Mistake 1: A speaker cancelled? Let’s still go with whoever we have!
We rigorously explored for good speakers, ran numbers of scanning and revised the speaker list ten times a day. There were times when we felt like finding an appropriate speaker given the time constraint is next to impossible. But we were strict in not compromising a quality session for our audience and just filling in speaker positions with whoever was within reach.
We checked if the speaker could really bring in an interesting perspective, we checked if the speaker is really a good communicator, we checked if we could design the conversations to make them more interactive and focused.
Mistake 2: The moderator should know the drill. Let her/him lead the talk.
A right moderator is one who can get the most relevant information of a discussion, understand the audience and coordinate with the speakers. We felt we could do a better job in finding and supporting the moderators. We did introduce them to the speakers, share a brief on the session, and requested them to take the conversation forward. Many we reached out to at the last moment, many we didn’t provide with sufficient instructions.
Mistake 3: Conversation between speakers is enough for a conference
Who would want a very informative session with bunches of yawning audiences! To avoid that mistake we took some bold steps in designing the sessions with presentations, workshop, panel discussion, debate and pitches, which diminished the barrier between the speakers and audiences.
We not only took care of the equal thematic weightage of parallel sessions, but also the timing of placing sessions. Introducing more interactive sessions after lunch when people prone to feel drowsy and less energized worked in our favor.
If all the session duration were for at least an hour and a half long, the conversation could go more in depth and insightful, which was not the case this time, because of the jam-packed agenda.
Mistake 4: Tasks delegated are tasks done!
Organizing a conference at this scale with a small team was possible only because of delegating tasks to other teams and trusting them with their expertise. Ensuring delivery with delegated task on the other hand is a long story of ‘Following up’.
Our approach was diverse.
Organizing scrums work like a package; setting daily targets, aligning one to one responsibilities or tiding them up with weekly accountability, you can’t leave any of these out!
What didn’t work? We failed to communicate some basic terms and conditions with our speakers and had the obvious ‘Duh moments’ afterwards.
Mistake 5: Stress times are productive times
Following up and coordinating among multiple work groups can get incredibly stressful. At the end of the day the core team is accountable for everything.
It’s important to understand that everyone is stressed out and there’s a lot on everyone’s plate. When people are already stressed, stressing them more on finishing the deliverable won’t help. And it’s good to keep in mind that positive feedback a day, keeps the stress away J
We underestimate the power of trust often. Just trusting other people with their expertise and delegating the accountability worked like magic. Other times pep talks and using snacks as incentives helped in pulling up the sock and getting back to the game.
Stress management is key: Don’t underestimate the power of team happiness, yoga, and brownies.
Mistake 6: You want diverse audience in your event. Invite EVERYONE.
Even when we think we’re including everyone, we often miss out on key stakeholders.
We realized pretty late that we forgot to include teacher’s representation and inviting them was not limited to participation. We designed distinguished sessions for teachers, and issued free teachers pass, to ensure they remain a part of the platform. With the representation of policy makers, donors, researchers, development workers and front end practitioners; we tried to ensure diverse participation this year.
The spontaneous participation of youth based organizations worked in our favor in holding the mood of festivity at the event.
However, we missed women representation in tech-based sessions (the only woman who eventually cancelled) and in startup-pitches (only one woman we could include). We failed in leveraging our BRAC wings existing in other countries to ensure the diversity in nationality and participation of Global south, which is a major learning for 2018.
Mistake 7: We have a Register button in website, we are covered!
Initially, when the response rate of registration was low, we went for mass promotions!
Call it the result of proper utilization of social media (e.g Facebook and random messages in LinkedIn) or mainstream media (e.g. Newspaper, blogs, FM radio) or the burning topic of education, the national response to FIF was overwhelming.
We turned down a lot of registrations, because we weren’t simply prepared for it!
For the very first time we collected 100% of the national fees via mobile money. SIL being an advocate of digital financial services, this was a moment of pride for us.
However, offering a registration fee at a highly subsidized rate turned out costly in the end. Next time we need to take the cost recovery model into account.
Mistake 8: If more people sign up for field visit, be happy.
One of the signature offering of FIF has been the field exposure. We wanted to take a step further this year.
Unfortunately we could take only 40 people, because there are huge concerns of logistics, accessibility and safety.
But it went well. We took our delegates to visit a spectrum of schools, some belonged to BRAC, some to the Government and some to the private sector. We held an insight sharing session after the field, where the conversation was very grounded and vivid.
Mistake 9: Conference=Partnership
Truth is, Frugal Innovation Forum offers loads of partnership opportunities every year. Many speakers sponsored their travel this year to pitch their model to the audience. This year, we tried to track them better. But we assumed everyone will come, meet, talk and partner, we just need to track them and support where needed.
However the sessions were so packed, hardly people had the scope to talk. Those who did had to skip sessions. We received feedbacks that they didn’t have much opportunities or privacy to have serious conversations. The icebreaker was helpful, yet not enough.
For BRAC, we identified few key organisations and shared their details with our education programme.
For next year, it would be good to design networking sessions, announce whose coming, identify key partnerships ahead, make BRAC colleagues accountable before the conference, and utilizing the venue better.
Mistake 10: Organisers can listen to conversations. And people learn from conferences.
Not always panel discussions are equally insightful and interesting. Even if 100% of the conversations are great, you can only absorb a fraction of it as an audience.
Recognising this, we wanted to capture the conversations from this year. Not only that, we wanted to frame the conversations into interesting insights.
We learned that in case internal people are too busy managing everything and it’s needed to hire someone to capture the knowledge, preparing well even for the hiring procedure is important. Choose your vendors carefully, ensure you are agreeing on formats, and engage with stakeholders to understand what questions they have that you can answer through your knowledge product.
Big mistakes come with big learning (at huge cost)!
And last but not the least, every year FIF is hosted by a different new team and they work on the basis of old team’s learning which help them make informed decisions. But also trusting a new team with FIF responsibilities ensures growth for both the team mates and FIF itself. The new team offers their ingenuity and creativity which adds up a new flavor to FIF every year.