The meeting industry new normal — Part 2

meeting industry new normalThe meeting industry old normal is over, and many event professionals are hoping and waiting for a new normal. [See Part 1 of this post for an introduction to this point of view.]

What will the meeting industry new normal look like?

One silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic, horrendous though its cost has been, is that it has forced us to think differently. In a July 2020 New Yorker articleGianna Pomata, a professor of the history of medicine, “compared COVID-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—’not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.'” But the effects of these two plagues were remarkably different. (For example, the Black Death increased the power of workers because labor was scarce. In contrast, COVID-19 has forced millions of low-paid workers further into poverty.)

The meeting industry old normal

For centuries, the meeting industry has believed that the “best” and “most important” meetings are those conducted face-to-face. For most of human history, of course, this has been the only meeting option. Technology has slowly made inroads on this assumption, with the development of the telephone, the conference call, video chat, etc. Each new technology has taken away a little piece of the need to meet in person under certain favorable conditions.

The meeting industry new normal

In 2020, we have been forced to think differently. Historians regard the devastation of the bubonic plague as the end of the Middle Ages. Similarly, I think that COVID-19 will turn out to mark the beginning of the end of in-person meetings as the bread and butter of the meeting industry.

What will a new normal for the meeting industry look like? There’s no way we can know. Why? Because the future of meetings is no longer tied to the old paradigms we’ve assumed ever since the first official “conference” was held in 1666. (See my book Conferences That Work for the details.) There has been no new normal since the end of the thousand-year reign of the Middle Ages. Similarly, the forced rise of online meetings has moved us into uncharted and unpredictable territory.

The meeting industry is now, perhaps, in what the founder of VISA, Dee Hoc, called the Chaordic Age. In Dave Snowden‘s Cynefin framework, the meeting industry, formerly rooted in the obvious and complicated domains, has now moved into the complex domain. To solve problems in the complex domain, experiments need to be conducted in order to determine what to do.

One thing to learn from history and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the meeting industry? Don’t waste your time pining for or hoping for a static meeting industry new normal.

Next practices, not best practices

In other words, this is a time for next practices not best practices. Our industry needs to experiment to discover what works and what doesn’t.

This is proving to be difficult.

Even pre-pandemic, it was risky to try new meeting ideas, because our clients, understandably, want successful events. Taking risks increases the chances of failure.

Today, with the current collapse of in-person meetings, it’s harder to find the resources, margins, and willing clients we once had, in order to conduct experiments.

Yet our industry must find the resources, courage, and willingness, to experiment with new ways of convening and meeting formats that respond to these new challenges. We are all suffering now. Those who continue to shoehorn what they used to do into our current pandemic and future post-pandemic environment will continue to suffer.

I’m encouraged that our industry is indeed experimenting with a variety of new platforms, marketing and pricing models, and meeting formats. One of the most interesting and welcome developments is the rapid growth of new platforms (1, 2) that provide online incarnations of traditional conference in-person socials. I see them as game-changers for online events, replacing the hallway conversations that have always been an essential and undervalued component of traditional meetings.

We are living in unprecedented times. Experimenting with new approaches to designing and convening meetings is essential. What may be even harder is discovering what works and adopting it, rather than staying locked in the old comfortable ways of making meetings. Meetings will continue to occur, and the meeting industry will survive. But don’t passively buy into the myth of a new meeting industry normal. That is, if you want to remain a player in one of the most important industries the human race has created.

How to change an organization’s culture

change an organization's cultureIs it possible to transform dysfunctional corporate culture like that of United Airlines into the employee engagement of Southwest? Or the indifferent customer service at Kmart into the customer-first approach of Wegmans?

After over thirty years working with organizations, I think that it’s possible to change organizational culture. But it’s far from easy!

First, many organizations are in denial that there’s any kind of problem with their culture. Getting leadership to think otherwise is an uphill or hopeless battle.

Second, if an organization does get to the point where “we want to change our culture”, there’s rarely an explicit consensus of what we “need” or “might” change.

Third, culture is an emergent property of the interactions between people in the organization, not a linear consequence of deeply buried assumptions to challenge and “treat” in isolation. Prescriptive, formulaic approaches to culture change, are therefore rarely if ever successful.

Finally, organizational culture self-perpetuates through a complex web of rules and relationships whose very interconnectedness resist change. Even if you have a clear idea of what you want to do, there are no uncoupled places to start.

So, what can we do?

For concise advice, I recommend Chris Corrigan‘s excellent article The myth of managed culture change. Read it!

In particular, this excerpt caught my eye:

“Culture is an emergent set of patterns that are formed from the interactions between people. These patterns cannot be reverse engineered. Once they exist you need to change the interactions between people if you want to change the patterns.”
—Chris Corrigan, The myth of managed culture change

This is why process tools like those included in The Power of Participation are so important. Imposed, top down culture change regimes attempt to force people to do things differently. Chris describes this process as “cruel and violent”. Participation process tools allow people to safely explore interacting in new ways. Organizations can then transform through the resulting emergent changes that such tools facilitate and support.

Image attribution: Animated gif excerpt from “Lawyers in Love” by Jackson Browne

Jeremy Lin and the myth of the conference curator

conference curator myth

“There is talent everywhere. We just don’t know how to find it.”
–Jonah Lehrer

Today’s Wired article by Jonah Lehrer describes recent research on the NFL scouting combine that concludes that highly paid sports scouts barely do better than chance at picking great players like Jeremy Lin out of the pool of promising candidates.

Sports scouts, with all the information, statistics, tests, and direct observations at their disposal can’t pick the best players! So why should we believe that “conference curators” can pick the best presenters and presentations?

In my twenty years of organizing conferences, I’ve never found a program committee that predicted more than half of the session topics that conference attendees chose when they were given the choice. During that time I’ve seen no evidence that any one person, whether they are given the title of “curator” or not, can put together a conference program that can match what attendees actually need and want.

Sure, taking a thematic, big picture approach to constructing a conference program and then soliciting appropriate presenters may produce better results than issuing a call for speakers and picking sessions from the offerings of those who choose to respond. If you insist on leaving attendees out of the loop, it’s probably the best you can do. (Sadly, I’ve found that polling attendees before the event doesn’t work.) But it doesn’t, in my experience, create a conference program that truly serves attendees.

The smartest person in the room

It’s elitist and untrue to claim that only “curators” can put together a conference experience that attendees will value. “Attendees don’t know what they don’t know,” says Jeff Hurt. Yes, that’s often true if you’re comparing the knowledge of a single attendee with the knowledge of an expert. But, in my experience, attendees collectively know what they don’t know far better than any outside “expert”. As David Weinberger puts it in his latest book Too Big To Know: “The smartest person in the room is the room.”

Finally, who are these conference curators? Is it possible to be a conference curator for any kind of conference, or do you need to be a subject matter expert on the conference topic? What are the credentials a conference curator needs? None of the articles I’ve read answer these questions.

The conference curator is a myth

I think that the need for a conference curator is a myth created by those who desire to maintain the role of experts in the construction of conference programs. Let it go, guys. The people formerly known as the audience can do a much better job.

I’m sticking my neck out again. It’s a great way to learn. Are you a champion of the conference curator? Chop away in the comments below.

Photo attribution Flickr user nikk_la

The myth of control

apple1984

Misconception 7: Conflict is bad…The reality is that whenever you have more than one living person in a room, you’ll have more than one set of interests, and that’s not a bad thing.
—The Change Handbook by Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, and Steven Cady

Why do we cling to traditional event structure? One powerful reason is because we want to avoid dealing with messy differences of opinion. When we give attendees the power to choose what happens at our conferences, people are going to disagree. And when people disagree, there’s the possibility of controversy and conflict. Who’d want that at their event?

Perhaps you believe that learning is some kind of linear process that happens painlessly. That’s certainly the paradigm we’re fed in school. Even though most of us struggle to learn there, the underlying message is usually “if you were smart enough, this would be easy”.

If you do believe that conference learning should be painless, let me ask you this. Think for a moment about the most important things you’ve learned in your life. How many of them came to you in the absence of disagreement, pain, or conflict? And how many of them did you learn while sitting in a room listening to someone talk for an hour?

Do you want your conferences to maximize learning, even at the cost of some disagreement or discomfort? Or would you rather settle for a safe second best?

We are scared about not having control in our lives and at our events. That’s why we lock down our conferences, forcing their essence into tightly choreographed sessions. Attendees are carefully restricted to choosing, at most, which concurrent session room they’ll sit in.

The reality is that you never had control to begin with, just the semblance. You’ve been kidding yourself all these years. Unless your constituency is bound to your event via a requirement to earn CEUs, members can withhold their attendance or avoid sessions at will.

Fortunately, there are multiple ways to give up the unnecessary control exercised at traditional conferences and give attendees the freedom and responsibility to make the event theirs. All participant-driven event formats like Open Space, Conferences That Work, and Future Search treat attendees like intelligent adults.

What’s amazing to discover is how liberating these event designs are for conference organizers too. When we give up over-control, we become largely freed of the responsibility to choose the content, format, and instigators of our conference sessions, concentrating instead on supervisory, facilitation, and support roles. Yes, the result is an event that is less predictable, and often more challenging. But the richer experience, the creation of an event that reflects what participants truly need and want, and the joy of uncovered valuable, unexpected, appropriate learning make it all worthwhile for everyone involved.