The Risk in Not Risking

fortune cookie graphic from TMP
Despite the discomfort, for meetings to positively change,
WE need to change.


Copyright 2014, Andrea Driessen, Chief Boredom Buster
Image courtesy of Meeting Professionals Int’l

The meetings industry tends to view risk as a liability. We have (and need!) complex contractual clauses that address indemnity, force majeure and liability. We use carefully crafted check lists so meetings run perfectly. After all, who wants to risk it?

Then we invite imperfect, novelty-seeking, easily bored guests whose input we can’t control; people who crave surprise, creativity and the extraordinary. We know eliciting change is an imperfect science at best. So how do we navigate the gap between staging safe, legal, well-run events—and designing live experiences that leave audiences changed and inspired?

Putting aside insurable risk for a bit, let’s hear from planners who stuck their necks out with thoughtful event risks, and generated more value and impact. There’s an inherent—and crucial—boldness in trying something new and not knowing, for certain, whether it’ll work. For meetings to change positively, we need to change. And change doesn’t happen in the middle. It happens on the edge, where—frankly—it’s uncomfortable. Let’s step out and see what we find.

Aligning meeting brands with public brands

Lorie Thomas, CMP, CMM, director of events for Concur Technologies, helped the travel and expense software company break with tradition five years ago—by taking a risk to start a new one. Concur normally invited travel industry insiders to close its annual client event. But Lorie wanted to try something different and inspire what she calls “a bigger good.” Since then, Concur’s external keynoters have included Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, blind Seven-Summit adventurer Erik Weihenmayer and Grammy-nominated Jewel.

Their unifying intent? Inspire in attendees something beyond themselves, and leave them with deeper emotional connections to the brand. Lorie knows speakers can fail. But every one of hers has been a different kind of win—because her team risks carefully and strategically. In bringing the audiences on story-driven trips in a ballroom, Concur helps clients think differently about themselves in the larger world. And it’s no coincidence that these results align perfectly with Concur’s market-leading position as an innovative travel brand.

Corporate cultures change when meetings change

Imagine trying to set the stage for managers to be more change ready—in a meeting structured the same old way. Talk about a disconnect! Laura Barron, senior manager, field communications at Charles Schwab, needed to increase attendee buy-in on new change initiatives in three divisions. My partnership with Schwab involved communication consultant Brian Walter, who produced two custom formats for Laura’s meetings.

First, a “Fact or Fiction” game, via which everyone was quizzed on their knowledge around the firm’s and industry’s changes over the years. Playful, yet with an important purpose of opening meeting goers’ minds to the company’s change readiness, the game lessened resistance to what came ne­xt in the agenda, and to change in general.

Then the group participated in highly relevant table-top conversations focused on upcoming initiatives that would require them to use their change-management skills. Managers learned from and shared with each other their own best practices for problem-solving.

In another Brian-produced segment, leaders sat on stage in “Hot Seats,” while attendees asked any questions they wished—anonymously—on flash cards. The rapid-fire Q&A, said Laura, boosted managers’ trust of their leaders and was a fresh way to communicate on a human level the challenges and rewards ahead. All without a slide deck getting in the way of having engaging, inclusive conversations.

Laura’s own manager thanked her for raising the bar on their meetings. Attendees expressed appreciation of the new formats. They knew they covered a great deal of important ground, yet didn’t feel rushed—or bored.

Aiming for a higher summit

Since Sept. 2001, the WA State Chapter of Meeting Professionals Int’l and the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Professional Convention Management Association have co-hosted an annual Meetings Industry Summit. In 2014, the planning team wanted to create a decidedly different Summit experience.

Their aims: a hyper-relevant and razor sharp agenda, with actionable content for attendees. After days of tossing around ideas, they lit on the “Accelerate your EventEdge” theme to express the importance of taking risks themselves—and asking the same of attendees—to move everyone, and the industry, forward.

They consciously built in novel ways to experience programming. In selecting keynoters, for example, they steered clear of MPI- and PCMA-“approved” speaker lists—and sought an edgier speaker duo.

Naturally, content needed to cater to planners and suppliers. So beginning with a high-energy opener, they staged a Planner-Supplier “Rumble,” led by Shawna Suckow, CMP. Closing speaker Ty Bennett focused on themes of influence and leadership, and both speakers fostered high levels of participation so Summiters themselves could move beyond their own “edges.”

Previous Summits included a lecture-style delivery of an “industry update.” But this year’s team allowed participants to decide what was current, with a breakout named “Birds of a Feather: A High-Flying, Fast-Paced Learning Lab for your Most Burning Questions.” It was both the planning team’s biggest risk (discomforting!)—and its biggest win (yay!). Each table in the room was devoted to a burning industry issue: What affects will disruptors Airbnb, Uber and Lyft bring? What’s up with net neutrality? How do you do more with less? In short, participants co-created the experience—and later raved about it. The do-better? Clearer and earlier communication about the session’s purpose and how it fit into the broader goals.

Failing forward

Working with a financial services client, I once made the mistake of using too many new formats at the organization’s training event. Change is good—but too much of it, all at once, can backfire. My hard lesson: take incremental risks and achieve small wins over time.

Indeed, an unavoidable component of risk is failure. We usually learn more from messing up than getting it right. Author Harriet Rubin’s advice sustained me as I riskily launched my own entrepreneurship back in 1999. Her words still inspire me in walks to the edge. Rubin writes: “At some point, we all have to decide how we are going to fail: by not going far enough, or by going too far. The only alternative for the most successful (maybe even the most fulfilled) people is the latter. The interesting challenge is to know that if you don’t go far enough, you’ll never know how far you can go.”

–> What risk will YOU take in your next meeting?