Getting Your Virtuous Insurgency Conference Presentation Submission Accepted

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In this post, I write about the goals of the Virtuous Insurgency Conference – DEF 202X, how important the CFS (call for sessions) process is, the top reasons submissions are declined, and other advice on how to write winning submissions. 

I also want to thank the volunteers across the DEF Board and community of volunteers giving hours upon hours of their time, most on top of work and military duties, to ensure that we continue to grow and expand the value that DEF is delivering to support the National Security mission. It is no light request for people to come together to support putting on an annual conference and there are legitimate challenges to evaluating and selecting the content for our events.

Additional note of appreciation to Gene Kim and IT Revolution for giving me the example of this structure for the article in the blog he wrote with the programming committee for the DevOps Enterprise Summit. I’m trying to stand on the shoulders of giants as we go forward with DEF. Any use of his phrasing in this blog is purely out of respect that I cannot hope to be as eloquent an author as he is. Maybe one day…

Our Programming Goals and Resulting Conference Structure

The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) was founded in 2013 as a grassroots, non-profit organization aimed at bringing together innovative and entrepreneurial professionals from the military, government, and private sectors. The goal was to foster collaboration, exchange ideas, and drive innovation to the warfighters, ultimately leading to a more effective and agile defense ecosystem. DEF’s cornerstone event, the DEF Annual Conference, was established as a platform for this exchange and to strengthen connections within the community.

Over the years, the DEF Annual Conference has evolved into a highly anticipated event, characterized by a diverse range of engaging activities, including Lightning Talks, panel sessions, executive plenary talks, technology demonstrations, and more. These gatherings have been instrumental in promoting a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship within the defense sector. Each year, the conference focuses on a central theme that highlights pressing challenges and opportunities within the defense community.

DEF’s success lies in its ability to bring together a wide array of stakeholders, creating an environment that encourages the exploration of new ideas and the development of practical solutions to meet the ever-changing mission needs. The organization’s commitment to innovation and collaboration has driven the growth of the DEF Annual Conference, making it a must-attend event for defense professionals and industry leaders alike.

We recognize that leaders come in all forms—they don’t always have fancy titles, occupy the highest positions in the org chart, or have the most people reporting to them. Innovation and mission effects come from all levels of an organization – even the “Frozen Middle”.

It’s the job of the programming committee to create conference programming to best achieve the community’s goals. Internally, we aim at creating a conference that is even better than those before it—which is no small challenge!

As before, the foundation of the DEF Annual Conferences are opportunities for free and open dialog among attendees around the topics and challenges discussed. One key component of presentations are experience reports—as leaders and adult learners, we tend to learn best by studying how other people in similar situations have solved similar problems. For those of you not familiar with experience reports, they typically include the following:

  • My organization and the mission/environment we compete in.
  • My role and where I fit in the organization.
  • The mission problem that we needed to solve.
  • Where we started and why.
  • What we did, including tools and techniques.
  • The outcomes that resulted.
  • The challenges that still remain.

These talks aim to tally around 25-30 minutes in length, with opportunity for 2-way Q&A. We are looking for experience reports in the following areas (i.e., conference tracks)

  • Standard Experience Report: This is the most general category of experience report, assumed to be presented by a technology leader. If there is a more specific category below, please use that one.
  • Experience Report (Repeat): We often invite speakers from previous years to present on the continuation of their journey. If you’d like to present a continuation story, choose this track. Please see below on how we’ve reduced the number of these talk slots and why.
  • Spanning Innovation/Operations Divide: These are experience reports which are focused on discussing how small-scale innovations were moved out of R&D and delivered into operational mission users. We aim to surface the drivers of success, hurdles and challenges, and mission effects that provided impact for the end users.
  • Case Studies in Collaboration: Where did we see an integrated approach drive outcomes, where individual/ localized efforts have struggled in the past? This could be related to policy, acquisitions, TTPs, capabilities development, and other areas. The aim is to show how others can overcome barriers to collaboration with a focus on driving outcomes. Very broad.
  • Mission Needs: This is exactly what it means, but with a DEF twist – this isn’t your senior leadership PEO Industry Day death-by-powerpoint talk. This is a two-way range where we want operators to bring their needs and challenges, and the audiences are open to discuss in the session how to move the needle towards addressing those needs. We want to bring the end users into the forefront of the requirements and development efforts.
  • Warfighter-derived Innovations: DEF was founded to elevate the junior enlisted and junior officers (but mostly junior enlisted) perspectives, needs, and accomplishments. We want to showcase organic innovation that has been developed by our service members, identify their accomplishments, lessons learned, and where the community may be able to support them to elevate their innovations to support their peers across the department.
  • Messages from the Front: Our service members are conducting operational missions across the globe. The operating environment, threats, and technology challenges are always evolving. Stateside we may not have the insights around what is truly happening and what impacts those changes are having on our fielded capabilities. Where are we experiencing or anticipating challenges? Where are we in a good position, but could use some additional focus or support? What are we learning from our coalition partners? This is a chance to bring that forward to the community in a dynamic forum that isn’t burying it in briefings or formalized studies.
  • What Really Grinds My Gears: Part expressing of grievances, part group therapy session, these sessions are opportunities to elevate where things are dropping the ball, making life harder, and impacting mission – and are often overlooked to pursue other seemingly higher priority efforts. This one could go anywhere, but the intent is to drive towards aligned execution and commitments to make improvements.

We hope for these tracks to make up around 75% of the presentations at the Virtuous Insurgency Conference. We want these to be based on real-life experiences so that others can learn and we can share what we are going through across the community.

Let me repeat that again, just in case you didn’t get that—we want presentations centered around experience reports to equal almost three-quarters of all the talks at the conference, and we want them to come through the Call for Sessions (CfS). So, if you want to speak at the Virtuous Insurgency Conference – DEFx, submit your idea!

We Are Looking for Presentations from All Industry Verticals, DoD Organizations, R&D organizations, and at All Stages of the Journey

“When in doubt, submit.” – You cannot lose by submitting your idea.

One of the great uses of experience reports is to negate objections—in other words, when people talk about bringing real innovation to the operational warfighter, they’ll often hear, “There’s no way that that will work here, because we’re not a [SOCOM Unit, R&D shop, SW Factory, any other excuse].”

The best way to negate these arguments is to show experience reports of other organizations in the with similar mission needs and capabilities. 

There are still some mission areas that we want to hear more from, and services in particular: Navy and Marine Corps, where are you at?

When we look at submissions, one of the first things we look for is the brand recognition of the submitter’s organization. Honestly, we aim to elevate and support the awareness of the more off-the-radar organizations and teams that are living and driving the innovations and mission effects on a daily basis, but are not your widely publicized “Software Factories” or the Worx, X, or other similar “innovation shops.” We want to see the direct alignment and impact to the mission, not just innovation buzzwords that are too often thrown around.

But what if you’re not that far along in your journey? Or if you’ve only developed a localized solution that is proving effective? “When in doubt, submit.” We are looking for experience reports from all stages of the journey, whether it’s early, in-progress, or if you think you’re done, well, tell us why you think so (you’re wrong).

One other thing to consider: Lightning talks are only 5 minute, running clock, auto-advancing presentations. These are fantastic ways to present your story quickly and there is not any standardized format or requirements other than the 5 minute rule: 20 slides total! We’re looking for NCOs and junior enlisted presenters to make up the majority of our Lightning Talks because people need to see the incredible work they are driving in the mission and innovation space. Email me for more information on these if you’re interested.

Top Reasons Submissions Are Declined

After reviewing the declined submissions, here are the top reasons that submissions are declined, along with some recommendations:

“Too Vendor-y”

We are not hosting a Pitch Day conference. Do not pitch your products. There will be specific programming for this in the schedule, but that is not the focus of the conference and what we are looking for in submissions.

Many of the programming committee are from software vendors, and it is not an exaggeration that some of our best friends are from software vendors, services companies, and other industry partners within the ecosystem. However, that doesn’t give freedom to huck your tech solutions on stage. If you cannot talk to specific missions, then use this event as a way to help your BD teams to learn more from the actual end user community.

We seek open and transferable knowledge. Attendees must be able to use the bulk of the presentation’s lessons without buying or using a particular tool or service. (Took this directly from Gene Kim – thanks Gene!)

In general, if you need a specific product to get the outcomes you’re espousing, your submission is likely to be rejected. No one likes a presentation that is just a sales pitch for a specific methodology or product. Also, if you talk about a SAFe (scaled agile framework) implementation you will be rejected without further discussion.

Consultant/Vendor Submitting Without a Client/Customer

We are a community that bridges between the public sector, DoD warfighters, policy makers, academia, and industry. Industry plays a crucial part in the ecosystem and we want to ensure we have their involvement in presentations as much as any other demographic. In almost all cases, consultants and software vendors should submit with their clients. Over the years, we’ve had some intriguing submissions come in from consultants and industry. If you are from industry and can submit with your customer partner, that is the best case. Please be mindful and make sure that the government partner has given consent to submit the presentation, and that they have permissions to present on the topic.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: Innovation Theater

“Innovation theater” refers to the superficial display of progress and change within an organization, often characterized by high-profile events, buzzwords, and flashy presentations without any substantial or meaningful impact on actual processes and outcomes. In the context of the Department of Defense (DoD), innovation theater can have detrimental effects on the organization’s efficiency, effectiveness, and overall mission success. This phenomenon diverts valuable resources and attention away from genuine improvements, leading to a culture that prioritizes appearances over tangible results.

Furthermore, innovation theater erodes trust and credibility between the DoD and its stakeholders, undermining the long-term objectives of fostering true collaboration and innovation within the defense community. To counteract this issue, the DEF emphasizes the importance of measurable outcomes, transparent communication, and a culture of accountability that rewards genuine progress and innovation. Your submissions should reflect these values.

In other words – Don’t bring that nonsense here.

Please check these posts from some of our members:
LinkedIn Post 1: Jer McCoy
LinkedIn Post 2: Schuyler Moore

Other Advice To Get Your Submission Accepted

Here is some more advice on how to get your submission accepted:

  • Be concrete about your outcomes. Either describe metrics or include testimonials about how people have valued your work and the intended and achieved mission effects. Short of having mission stakeholders co-present with you, the best way to convey their appreciation is by quoting them.
  • Ask a programming committee member for help. If they love your story, they will help champion your submission. And if it generates a lot of excitement within the programming committee, we’ll often move to “immediately accept.” In many cases, certain stories bypassed the entire CFS process, and we invited them to speak.
  • Pick a specific problem that you set out to solve. Problems that we all face are fantastic, because they’re likely universal problems that span industry verticals, independent of organization, company size, AOR, etc.
    A submission that describes how you set out to tackle one big problem and goes into detail about how you overcame it is far more likely to be accepted than one that describes lots of problems, but is vague on what you did and what the outcomes were.

Talk about impact. Talk about why the problem was a big problem, and how it negatively impacted people. Talk about what you did, and how it improved things for people. Talk about the mission and organization impact you made, and how it moved the needle for the organization.

  • Share what you learned, and what the audience will learn: if it’s something that resonates with us, and we think it is relevant to the DEF community, we will lobby for it!

Demographics and Underrepresented Communities

Speaking of demographics, innovation and transformative change is not a 20-30 something white, male sport. The DoD is a cross-section of America, we want our presentations to be reflective of this.

We want women in the community to submit, because you have a story to tell. It’s not about tools and skills; it’s about leadership. 

Having women presenters is important to us, and we know that there are many out there leading transformations in their organizations. We strongly encourage women to submit their stories to the CFS either as a solo presenter or as a co-presenter. If you know of someone on your team or in your network who fits the criteria outlined above, please encourage her to submit a presentation. This same goes for anyone from underrepresented demographics within the Department.

Last Advice: Submissions That Are Almost Always Rejected

  • “Why Innovation Is Important,” “Why Innovation/ Transformation/Change Is Needed In The Modern DoD,” “Why Culture Is Important For Innovation”: These are “why” talks that try to convince people that this is important. However, rest assured that the Virtuous Insurgency Conference is a place where everyone is already convinced it is important. We’re all at the conference to learn from people who are pioneering the practices that are helping them transform their organization and processes to achieve greater mission success. (Yes, Simon Sinek advises us to always talk about “Why Before How.” But trust me, if your submission focuses on “why” for a problem that we already know is urgent and important, your submission is almost guaranteed to be rejected. – again, taking this directly from Gene Kim)
  • “Capability XYZ Is Important, And That’s What Our Product Does”: These are the thinly-veiled product pitches. Please see the sections on vendors above.
  • “Doing Something Important with Our Product ABC”: This is a bit more nuanced—this type of presentation talks about an important problem (e.g., automated testing, continuous integration), but is being submitted by a vendor. In this case, I’d recommend the talk get re-submitted by one of your clients, and drop the name of the product being used from the title. (Again, please see the sections on vendors above.)

Finally, thank you. For the work, for your service, and for contributing to the DEF community.

We hope you will join us to share your transformation stories and the impact you are creating!

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