The Conference Debt You Cannot Afford


There is one debt every conference organizer must face and vanquish.

It can cripple a conference. It doesn’t show up on your profit and loss statement.

What is this debt? Organizational debt—the interest your conference pays when its structures, policies, procedures, practices, committees and leadership roles stay fixed and accumulate even as the world around it changes.* Anyone striving to build a 21st century sustainable conference needs to understand organizational debt, how it impacts their event and how to prevent it.

*Paraphrase of author and organizational development expert Aaron Dignan.

Defining Organizational Debt

So what exactly is organizational debt?

Organizational debt is all the processes, policies, procedures and workarounds that have been institutionalized during the conference planning and implementation phases over the years. These include the compromises made to avoid upsetting volunteers and minimize conflict. Sometimes conference organizers make concessions to appease legacy presidents, committee members or owners of past planning initiatives. Sometimes we bargain with leaders to just get it done and off of our plate.

Before we realize it, these practices become established. Leaders and staff expect these planning routines and complain if we don’t follow them. Over the years, we keep adding more steps and requirements to our planning processes. Before long we have a complex and complicated procedure that doesn’t even resemble the original intent or benefit the conference customer.

Organizational debt is the interest that our conference and company pays when its frameworks, practices and policies stay fixed even though the world around them changes. (Paraphrase Mauro Da Silva.) Organizational debt keeps a conference fixed in archaic practices unable to respond with agility to new opportunities. Organizational debt is a legacy practice that is no longer an asset to a conference but rather a liability.

Petrified Hackitectures

Organizational Debt eventually leads to a conference process that is an accidental framework for planning and programming. This putrefied design is a hackitecture—frozen solid in time and place.

Think about the process some organizations use to pick conference speakers, award lecturers and content for a scientific program. Or the process used to approve posters for an event. Or the process to secure, short, peer-reviewed research speakers to share their work through traditional lectures.

Many of these processes were created a long time ago. Through the years they have evolved into a long list of criteria and an over-burdened complex process. “It’s the way we’ve always done it,” is the cry of the legacy founders even though the process is out-of-date, out-of-step with today’s society or out-of-touch with current science and empirical evidence of what works.

Our conferences end up with hackitectures, petrified designs. The energy and labor involved to understand the internals about these processes are exhausting. Eventually, the conference design is driven by the needs of these hackitectures and organizational debt instead of the target market and future of the profession. Conference organizers and leaders become paralyzed with fear, unwilling to make anything but the smallest changes due to the sheer effort involved. They are leery of rocking the boat and upsetting past leaders. At this point the conference planning practice is in control.

Read the next post to uncover how to refactor your conference organizational debt.

What are conference planning practices you face each year that are riddled with organizational debt? How do you manage conference organizational debt?

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