TED: A manager’s introduction (#TED)

This week, MIT Sloan Management Review is in Long Beach, Calif., for this year’s TED conference, which starts tomorrow. We’ll report daily. Now in its 25th year, TED remains an unclassifiable event. The letters of the name originally stood for technology, entertainment, and design, but in recent years the tag line for the event has become “ideas worth spreading.”

TED bagThis week, MIT Sloan Management Review is in Long Beach, Calif., for this year's TED conference, which starts tomorrow. We'll report daily. Now in its 25th year, TED remains an unclassifiable event. The letters of the name originally stood for technology, entertainment, and design, but in recent years the tag line for the event has become "ideas worth spreading."

The event is certainly an elitist one. It's expensive, hard to get into, and you're just as likely to bump into web inventor Tim Berners-Lee as Overboard star Goldie Hawn in the food lines. If nothing else, TED is a trip. The veteran conference (this reporter has been to six of them) has gone through many permutations. Under curator Chris Anderson, TED is still full of technology, entertainment, and design, but it has really lived up to the change-the-world rhetoric that was always a bit more under the surface during Richard Saul Wurman's ace stewardship. One high-profile example: Al Gore's warning about global warming turned into An Inconvenient Truth after a movie producer saw him deliver the talk at TED. Last year E.O. Wilson debuted here the first iteration of his Encyclopedia of Life, funded by a TED grant.

The change-the-world attitude gets a bit out of hand: there's plenty of talk about how for the past two years the gift bags, by Rickshaw Bagworks, have been constructed from 100-percent post-consumer recycled beverage bottles, but hardly anyone points out that the bags are overstuffed with non-essential items that have a much greater impact on the environment. Indeed, TED is a place for conspicuous consumption, even if it's relatively sustainable consumption; it's the only conference I've been to in which I've seen anyone drive up in a Tesla. (I've seen two today here as well as an even more cutting-edge vehicle.) Those with similar ambitions to TED's, but a more limited budget, may wish to consider attending the alt-TED BIL, which is also in Long Beach this week (and which I hope to visit while I'm here).

For many years, TED was held in Monterey, Calif., but success has brought it to a larger venue farther south, in Long Beach (there's a smaller, parallel, event being held east of here, in Palm Springs). At Monterey, most of the conference took place in one area. Here, with banners everywhere and events more spread out, it feels like the event has taken over the town, like Sundance does in Park City, South by Southwest does in Austin, and Davos (aka the World Economic Forum) does in, well, Davos. We'll see how that works.

Indeed, just like last year, TED is coming right after Davos, which was a downer and inspired anger from even sober-minded management thinkers. Last year, TED presenter Craig Venter contrasted the optimism of TED with the pessimism of Davos. This year, especially, we could use a little optimism.

Especially if that optimism is realistic. Except for its entertainers, TED is an irony-free zone, a place where earnest speakers talk about fixing the world as if it is not merely possible, but mandatory. As we'll see during the conference, the speakers here have a pretty good track record at improving one or another part of the world. The theme for this year's event is "The Great Unveiling," which refers in part to the conference's new location, but also to new ideas due to be debuted here.

So why should managers care what's happening here? Because the best new ideas helps make good managers better. The joke among TEDsters (an annoying term, yes, but it has stuck) is that attending the conference is an endurance sport. It's one thing to be in a room listening to spectacular insights for a few hours. It's another to be doing so for half a week. Nonetheless, part of the experience you get from being at events like TED is that feeling of being overwhelmed: someone just said what feels like the smartest thing you ever heard -- and then the next speaker says what feels like the smartest thing you ever heard -- and then ... well, you get the idea. It's intellectually exhausting, but it's also thrilling. And, during the best talks, you can't help thinking: How can I act on this?

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