HR gets messy in Boston. Good stuff happens.


An HR Unconference and a DisruptHR event. On the same day. In Boston. Both very well attended by very energetic HR people. What’s up?

If we were talking about a hackathon or tech start-up fest it would be unremarkable to see some messy meeting formats happening. But we’re talking about Human Resources here. Leaders and up-and-comers who seem to be emerging from their reputational backwater as the function of “No” and summer employee picnics. (Disclaimer: I LOVE HR people and all they do, and I work with them everyday to make their workplaces better.)

Quick pause for comedic context: here’s an example of what HR is overcoming:

Q “How many HR people does it take to change a light bulb?”
“None. They’re used to working in the dark.”
“One. But it will take him a while to get the approvals.”
“We don’t know, their committee is still working on the solution.”
And similar…

Tim Gardner, who blogs as the HR Introvert, flipped the quip around to ask: “How many light bulbs (ideas) does it take to change an HR Person?”

Based on two experiences I participated in last month, one answer is messier formats for sharing, getting and beating around ideas. Both events demonstrated fresh points of view and a growing willingness to take action and challenge assumptions. (Not to mention lightening up with more social connection and less formality that inspire idea sharing.

Here are a few nuggets about what worked and what I took away from these two very different events.

HRLF Unconference
(HRLF is the Human Resource Leadership Forum, which provides speakers and programs and related benefits for area senior HR leaders.)

In case you’ve never participated in an unconference, here’s the quick version:
• You need a big open space with room for informal breakout groups. We had 100 or so people and were at Bentley University’s LaCava Conference Center.
• Topics bubble up – right then and there -- from those with a burning question, hypothesis or something they’re trying to solve. (Some will come prepared with a question or idea they want to pursue.) Each topic originator does a quick pitch and their topic goes up on a wall of session slots.
• The group looks at the instant conference sessions and each person shows up at whatever breakouts they can learn from or contribute to.
• If you’re not learning or contributing, move to another group. It’s ok.
• Like the flipchart notes? Great, take a picture, because when it’s over, it’s over.
• And you take a bunch of great new thought partner contacts with you.

Here are some of the topics surfaced by the group:
• What about the next-in-line High Potentials?
• Are we coaching the leader, or the system?
• How to help my CEO walk the engagement talk*
• What can we do about change fatigue at our company?*
• I’m in the middle of an EVP (employee value proposition) project. How can I ensure it’s a success?*
• Gender equity – getting guys engaged so more happens.

*(I went to these three; happy to share some group aha's.)

DisruptHR Boston
(DisruptHR is “the rebellious future of HR.” As Chief Excitement Officer and Unbridled Talent founder Jen McClure puts it, “DisruptHR events are meant to shake things up, make you think differently - and leave you inspired. [7-14] speakers, 5 minutes each, and slides rotating every 15 seconds. Teach us something, but make it quick!”)

Attracting a somewhat younger HR crowd, it was a packed house at cool Brightcove offices.

Speed speaker line up is here (I believe DisruptHR Boston will post videos there soon) and included:

Regis Mulot, EVP & CHRO, Staples, who I think is a rising local Laszlo Bock when it comes to bright ideas and strong points of view he shares generously.
Ed Nathanson, Founder of Redpill: “Love the One You’re With” – how creative learning strategies can retain top talent. “People are signing up for their dream, not yours.”
Bernd Leger, CMO, Cisco Cloud – about using humor and heart; ask people what they want to do and learn. He summed it up by quoting a Marriott marketing campaign: “Be you, with us.” Love that.
Bill Jacobson, CEO of co-working solutions provider Workbar – “Embrace the Blur” – maybe instead of (or in addition to) “balancing” work and other, we find peace and plusses in how they co-exist sometimes…?
Emma Woodthorpe, CHRO of Mercury Systems – “Glassdoor: Friend or Foe?” Upon seeing deadly ratings on Glassdoor, she asked current employees if that sounded right, and they said, “Hell no! We love it here!” and went about advocating for the company, completely turning around their Glassdoor presence (and fueling already strong employee engagement.)

Do try these at home! Both the unconference and TED-light formats work well for internal company meetings, too, when you want to spur new thinking, connect people with the expertise they’re looking for, and get out of the day-to-day routine for a bit. If you’re intrigued by these and other collaborative discussion formats, check out The Art of Hosting for workshops, ideas, templates, and case studies.