Inside the Secret Overlap Conference

Posted by: Michael Arndt on August 3, 2009

This is a guest blog by Venessa Wong, who joined BusinessWeek’s Innovation+Design team in June.

Here’s the problem in trying to get a group of hybrid thinkers together: standard industry events for designers, business execs, and other professionals don’t cater to them. The solution? Create a conference that is as tricky to categorize as the people who attend it. On July 24-26, a diverse group of 50 people gathered, by invitation only, for an under-the-radar event called the Overlap Conference in Monterey, Calif.

I spoke with attendee Michael Anton Dila, partner at Toronto-based design consultancy Torch Partnership, to learn what went on at the clandestine affair.

overlap photo.jpg

The “unconference,” as attendees call it, started in 2006 and is a part-professional, part-recreational retreat for “people who believe that interesting things happen at the edges and intersections between disciplines, and that these overlaps are at the core of innovation,” according to group’s bare-bones Web site, theoverlap.org/2009. It is explicitly not for pure networking.

This year’s motley bunch included an assorted portfolio of designers; businesspeople, investors and MBA graduates; a tech systems architect who was also a former Navy Seal; and a tai chi master. The mean age was in the high 30s, with several people over 60 and a few in their mid-20s. “Despite coming from different backgrounds, we’re all risk takers We don’t fit in normal places so we make positions for ourselves,” says Dila, 45, who also has a PhD in philosophy.

You must know someone in the so-called club to get invited—conference organizers change annually and the event is not promoted. Planners capped attendance at 50 people and there is no intent to let in more. The fee: $850.

Days started around 8 a.m. and ended at 6 p.m. Attendees broke into teams and dove into exercises revolving around a theme of 3 P's: practice, prototyping, and play. One challenge—redesigning the evening news—led to a round of "bodystorming," in which teams acted out ways people might consume the news in the future. One team chose to personify news on the iPhone. Other exercises required traditional sketching with papers or computers. To break personal walls, volunteers gathered around a fireplace to share true, private tales. “It involves personal risk,” says Dila.

The lesson from the conference? For Dila, it was the value of designing something that permits others to participate and is never really finished. In the real world, this can mean things from open platforms and software to products and services where the consumer is always involved in improving and evolving the design.

“This is precisely where innovation comes from, being sideways and joining things that don’t conventionally belong together or crossing wires and getting a different kind of fire going,” he says.

Reader Comments

Michael Anton Dila

August 3, 2009 6:33 PM

A couple of small addenda to Vanessa's piece. The first is that I am permanently lapsed in my Ph.D., which means that thought I defended, my revisions to my dissertation were not accepted by my committee and I permanently "retired" from academic philosophy in 1996. Also, I wanted to note that Overlap has been "hiding in plain sight" since the first Overlap in 2006. It's existence has certainly been under the radar, but not unknown.

Todd Zaki Warfel

August 3, 2009 9:02 PM

The mix is as motley every year as the problems we tackle. Another thing that makes Overlap so great—names only. We don't start with the typical "here's my title and what I do for a living." We're all level-set on the same playing field.

Put people together on the same playing field without boundaries and there's really no limit to the happy accidents and innovations that occur.

Dennis J Schleicher Jr

August 4, 2009 12:16 AM

On the bodystorming workshop, if you'd like to "Try it at home" here is where you can find more information. I think everyone had a great time with it and I encourage you to try it as an innovation tool.

Tips for Better Bodystorming
http://tibetantailor.com/?p=1035

Bodystorming Resources
http://tibetantailor.com/?page_id=35

Steve Portigal

August 4, 2009 10:17 AM

Yeah, but Michael, the "clandestine" thing is an angle. "Invite-only" - you've gotta know someone, etc. So what if those aren't strictly true, if there's online discussion available (say, our blog) back to the first event, or if there was an active Twitter thread (and even a parody thread) going on...that is nowhere near as sexy as making it sound exclusive, elite, secret, etc. Disappointing, BW.

Nabil Harfoush

August 4, 2009 3:36 PM

As an Overlap 2007 participant, I'd like to shed some light and share some thoughts about Overlap.Too long for a comment here, so I posted it separately at:
http://www.nabouchronicles.com/

Erin Liman

August 4, 2009 7:47 PM

What brings me back to Overlap year after year is the diversity of people, the level of engagement, and the flexibility to enable emergent topics of interest to the group. This year, what was fascinating to me was to see the progression from individual headspace infographics (http://tiny.cc/TkwYM) we created to the relationships between these topics, and the collaborative prototypes and conversations created from these headspace mash-ups.

Michael Anton Dila

August 5, 2009 11:07 AM

Steve Portigal makes a great point that is worth drawing out. The point of Overlap has never been secrecy, but there has always been a tension between its "open" ethos and the decision that the intimacy & engagement of the gathering have been best served by a selective process of inclusion and a small group of attendees.

Ultimately, I think this nets out by creating an ever expanding network from which people are self-selecting for their interest in innovation and high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

It is worth noting, that in any given year roughly 2/3 of the attendees are coming for the first time. So, while the gathering is small, the event is certainly not an echo chamber. This design for diversity is also why a new group organizes Overlap each year and why is moves geographically as well.

Overlap is only a "well kept secret" in sense that the small, little known, but fantastic, mid-western Quaker college I went to was and is.

Krista Sanders

August 5, 2009 11:41 AM

One of the most refreshing aspects of Overlap was how malleable everything was from the agenda to the topics discussed and the activities we used to engage ourselves. People were literally thinking of new ways to play with their ideas and spark creativity in others right there on the spot, and anyone could propose these new options. If the group felt like that was an interesting enough path to take, we would. If that simply meant taking a walk as a group, we did. If that meant taking an extra hour to complete an activity because we had collectively decided to take it one step further, we did. That kind of flexibility is generally unheard of when it come to organizing a larger group of people. For a "motley" bunch of creatives, I think we wouldn't have it any other way.

Victor Lombardi

August 5, 2009 1:28 PM

The videos from Overlap07 capture some of the flavor of that year's event, at least what happened during the actual sessions, as opposed to over the campfire later...

http://theoverlap.org/2007/

I revisit the Jeanne Liedtka video now and then for her penetrating insights.

Patrick Keenan

August 5, 2009 3:23 PM

It is a disservice to say that overlap happened, and it is over.

As the days go by I am hit with new realizations of what overlap "was", "is", and "can be". Reading over the other comments, I can tell there is not only an interest in the experience that was had, but an interest in continuing and exploring this territory.

My thoughts (here: http://patrickkeenan.me/) address the comfort with ambiguity that people shared, but one thing that I have realized now is the resolve in its certain continuation.

I don't believe that confidence would scale much past 50 people. And its clear that the model has spread. Let's keep that up, keep the happening closed, and the effects open.

Julian Bleecker

August 6, 2009 10:30 AM

Rather than this sense of exclusion, I found it instrumental to my sense of achievement, time well-spent, etc. of the workshop to be almost entirely due to the fact that I really only knew 2 of the 50 people. Deliberately or actively slipping amongst new and different "tribes" — especially in the design/tech/business formations — is as crucial to professional growth as looking at the world from new angles. The opportunity to listen to different perspectives, learn a new technique or pattern or problem, test some ideas with strangers, etc. — these are all requirements for becoming better at what it is one does, especially in design.

Chris Ortiz

August 6, 2009 10:32 PM

2009 was my first Overlap. The richness and creativity of thought was like an hourly continued feast. What's more the infused atmosphere was one of generosity and openness. If you take those underpinnings and populate it with brilliant minds, active dialogue, energetic play and gentle, albeit large, egos . . . you will begin to picture Overlap.

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