Conference Notes: Neuroleadership Summit 2016

I’ve been looking for a conference entirely focused on leadership of software development teams, but haven’t found anything since goto leaders seems to have folded (if you have suggestions, comment, please!). But in my search, I found the Neuroleadership Summit, which appealed to the geek in me because of the hard-science aura of neuroscience. I was fortunate enough to attend this year and thought I’d share some of my observations.

General Impression
If you’re used to attending tech conferences, the first thing that will probably strike you about the conference is the diversity of the attendees. While I couldn’t find any published demographic data, I would guess that it was majority female, and it had many more people of color than you would be likely to see at a programming conference. This was a welcome change of pace for me.
The Neuroleadership Institute bills the conference as “the most brain-friendly conference on earth” (you can read some semi-propaganda about this) and I have to say that they certainly put some effort into this. The food served attempted to be more healthy than the average conference fair (mostly succeeding), but most impressively the format of the conference is significantly different than any conference I’ve attended. There are fewer sessions, broken up by more networking times, and most significantly, each presentation included several breaks during which you were encouraged to discuss your impressions with someone sitting near you that you had not chatted with before. While this was cringingly awkward for an nerd like me, it did often lead to insights, and I would say that generally I remember the content better than I normally would. Brain science, who knew, right?

Random quick hit clippings from my notes

  • “Mandatory non-thinking time”: decision making is taxed throughout the day. Before important meetings, set aside some time to not think!
  • Can we improve inclusion by capturing and encouraging curiosity?
  • Comment from Claude, one of the many interesting people I met: “Employees want to please their leader. Possibly in the laziest way possible.”
  • Impressive (scary!) things can happen simply by inducing a slight current to certain parts of the brain. This can be done with magnetic fields. tin-foil hats!!!
  • We still rely on labor policies that were created in the 1940s
  • A suggested strategy for overcoming bias in hiring: think about who will be the best hire 3 months from now?
  • Currently leadership potential is generally determined by self- or manager-based identification, which is a terrible predictor of future leadership performance.
  • Branding for new-agey initiatives can be hilarious. The Army brands its mindfulness training as “tactical breathing”.
  • Want to create culture change? Define a list of habits that embody that culture, and try to instill those. Keep the list small!
  • Feedback offered is almost entirely useless. Instead create a culture of asking for feedback. Thought: isn’t this exactly what we do when we submit a PR request? We should capture that better!
  • If you’re not getting feedback from at least three sources, you’re only getting bias (this one hit me hard)
  • We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.
  • Trying to control your unconscious bias is like trying to control your pancreas.
  • Awesome phrase, and I’ve entirely forgotten the full context: “Deeper thinking at a structural level”
  • People who perform the best feel that they are bringing something unique and important to the team.
  • Instead of calling it diversity and inclusion, we should call it inclusion and diversity.
  • heh… The last thing written in my notebook: “We’re supposed to be sitting here and reflecting on the past few days and they’ve invited the most distracting possible performer to sing while we’re doing this. Instead of being able to think, I’m uncomfortable and NOT enjoying this at all” (to be fair, other’s in the audience seemed pleased)

Useful things for 1:1s based on neuroscience!

  • Best feedback strategy: “You should do more of x”. All negative feedback offered flares defensiveness. (This is exactly the same advice I’ve read in every parenting book I’ve ever read).
  • “What was the most useful PR comment you’ve received lately?” (also: can we build a github plugin to capture this?)
  • “Who on the team energizes you? As in when you walk away from a conversation with them, you feel energized?”

First, a quick complaint: the Neuroleadership Institute spent a little too much time self-promoting during the conference — that became increasingly annoying over time. By the time they brought the entire team on stage (which took a good 10 minutes) for a public thanks at the end I was getting really annoyed with it.
I had a great time at the conference, but I’m not sure I would personally go back. I’m not really the target audience. Much of the audience were professional coaches or HR folks. I would recommend this as a fantastic conference for a new leader (1st year manager?) to attend. If you read Harvard Business review on a regular basis, there’s not much more for you here. If you subscribe but never get the chance to read, perhaps it would be a good opportunity to focus once per year on new research.

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