In June I’m stepping down as President and Executive Director of edACCESS, an association I co-founded 25 years ago. This is the third time I’ve left an association leadership position, and I’m going to share some valuable lessons learned from each transition.
The last session of Conferences That Work is called a group spective—a time for participants to look back at what has happened for the group and forward to possible futures together. During the spective, I use a variety of activities to encourage and support reflecting, sharing, brainstorming, and deciding on next steps. One process is a simple go-around, where each participant in turn answers a few open-ended questions about her conference experience and her ideas about what might happen next.
When using a go-around format, the first person to speak can have a significant influence on the subsequent sharing round the circle. Her brevity, tone, and emphasis tend to be picked up and echoed by others, in the same way that a boat’s subsequent track on a river can, in places, be greatly influenced by a minor current at one crucial spot.
I used to worry that this could pose a potential problem—what if the first person who spoke had little to say, or was very negative about the conference?—and I would pick someone to start who I thought would provide a “good” model of how to share at the go-around.
My eyes were opened at a conference where I thought we had, over the years, arrived at a close-to-perfect schedule. At the group spective, I casually chose the attendee sitting next to me to start the go-around sharing—and listened in dismay as he offered criticisms and made pointed suggestions for improvement. The overall tenor of his remarks was quite negative. Other attendees followed his lead, refining his critique and adding their own judgments. Despite my initial consternation, as I listened I realized that good ideas were being expressed, ideas that could well improve the conference format in ways we hadn’t considered. Slowly, my excitement about these new possibilities overcame my fear of the critical tone of the spective.
During the discussion that followed, it became clear that attendees were also pumped up about these potential format changes. Many felt these could make an already great conference even better. Rather than make spot decisions during the spective, we ended up using an online survey over the next couple of weeks to consider and compare the proposed scheduling alternatives.
At the following year’s conference, we incorporated several of the changes suggested at the spective. There was wide agreement that the new design was better than anything we had done before.
It’s scary to let go, to let the unexpected happen. It’s hard to find the courage to watch without interfering, as an unexpected event leads to a host of consequences. As we sit in our boat, formerly safely floating down the conference river, but now suddenly veering alarmingly towards an indistinct muddy bank, most of us have a natural tendency to want to grab a paddle and attempt to wrest the craft back into the middle of the flow. Yet, if we surrender to the current, using our facilitation paddle merely to moderate our speed and make fine course corrections, we may find that the bank, once we reach it, is full of unexpected delights and possibilities.
I’ve never run a conference without using volunteers. Here are six lessons I’ve learned from thirty years of conference organizing.
1) One of the most important ways I use volunteers is during the earliest conference planning stages to determine whether a proposed event is marketable.
Here’s my simple rule of thumb when deciding whether an idea for a conference might work.
Can I find at least five people enthusiastic enough about the proposed combination of topic/theme, audience, location, and duration to volunteer their time and energy to make the event happen?
If I can’t easily find at least five volunteers enthusiastic about a conference, I’ve (painfully) learned that the event is almost always not viable.
2) You’ve got a bunch of willing volunteers—what should you have them do? I try to use my volunteers for creative jobs at conferences. There’s research that indicates that paying people to do work they find interesting can make them less motivated! Here are some examples of conference tasks well suited to volunteers:
greeting arriving attendees
introducing attendees to each other
organizing and running fun activities
In general, I use volunteers for creative work, and reserve mechanical tasks for paid staff.
3) Talk with each volunteer individually well before the event. Ask them how they’d like to help, and come to a clear understanding as to what’s expected from them.
4) Volunteers are sometimes less reliable than paid staff. Make sure you have a few people who can cover for last-minute gaps in your volunteer staff during the event.
5) Reward your volunteers throughout the event. Make sure volunteers receive refreshments, meals, and access to conference amenities. If they are attending the conference, offer them reduced or free admission. Reimburse them for any incidental expenses they incur.
6) Never take your volunteers for granted! Make sure you recognize their contributions, not only publicly, using appropriate perks, awards, and publicity, but also privately. Show them you genuinely appreciate their contributions, and they will become your biggest boosters.
Seth Godin wrote a powerful post today—Secrets of the biggest selling launch ever—about why Apple sold 300,000 iPads on the first day. Here are five of his secrets that are 100% relevant to the fundamental challenges facing event planners today.
2. Don’t try to please everyone. There are countless people who don’t want one, haven’t heard of one or actively hate it. So what? (Please don’t gloss over this one just because it’s short. In fact, it’s the biggest challenge on this list).
Designing events so that they will appeal to the least adventurous attendee guarantees the same-old snooze-fest. Event planners need to aim higher and use innovative formats, even at the risk of jolting people who didn’t expect to be jolted.
3. Make a product worth talking about. Sounds obvious. If it’s so obvious, then why don’t the other big companies ship stuff like this? Most of them are paralyzed going to meetings where they sand off the rough edges.
How many events have you attended that you still remember years later? (Or a month later?) It’s possible to create events that are memorable. And the best ones are memorable not because they had great content or great presenters, but because wonderful, unexpected things happened there. We know how to create events like this: by using participant-driven approaches. But we are afraid to take the risk of trying event formats that are different. If we event planners won’t take the risk, who will?
6. Create a culture of wonder. Microsoft certainly has the engineers, the developers and the money to launch this. So why did they do the Zune instead? Because they never did the hard cultural work of creating the internal expectation that shipping products like this is possible and important.
Until we fully embrace the belief that it’s possible to successfully employ powerful interactive formats at our events, we’re going to be churning out more Zunes than iPads.
7. Be willing to fail. Bold bets succeed–and sometimes they don’t. Is that okay with you? Launching the iPad had to be even more frightening than launching a book…
Apple has been willing to make mistakes: the Lisa and the Newton come to mind. You can’t have great success without risking some failure.
Every time I facilitate an event I welcome the possibility of failure. Not the kind of failure where the event is a total bust—I’m not that far out on the edge—but the failure of a session’s process, or the discovery of a flaw in a new approach. And you know what? The new things I try that succeed more than outweigh the failures I experience. And, extra bonus, I get to learn from my mistakes!
So take some risks with your event designs. Have the courage of your convictions, trust your intuition and be willing to make mistakes.
9. Don’t give up so easy. Apple clearly a faced a technical dip in creating this product… they worked on it for more than a dozen years. Most people would have given up long ago.
I think we face a long hard road in changing peoples’ perceptions of what is possible at an event. It’s not easy to challenge hundreds of years of cultural history that have conditioned us to believe that we should learn and share in certain prescribed ways. But the rapid rise of the adoption of social media has shown that people want to be active participants in their interactions with others, and we need to change our event designs to satisfy this need when people meet face-to-face.
I’m willing to work on these issues over the long haul. Will you join me?