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.

The Next Best Thing

next best thing

“Best” is context-specifica matter of opinion, and transitory. So, there will always be a next best thing.

When we use “best” dishonestly, we ignore one or more of these realities. We appeal to status, implying that our “best” thing is absolutely best, transcending environment, viewpoint, and the passage of time.

Claiming the highest status for our “best” thing preys on our audience’s fears by offering a simplistic solution. “Believe us, buy this, and Bingo! You can stop worrying that you might have made a mistake!”

Sure, when aware of environmental and personal context, it’s fine to make an in-the-moment judgment that some thing or course of action is the best of multiple alternatives (be sure there are at least three!) We do this all the time.

But when we simply slap on a “Best” label we are selling comforting feelings disguised as our product or service.

In addition, believing that we have or are the best does ourselves a disservice. We will focus on “best” practices instead of next practices. Consequently, we may maintain the status quo, but with the danger that at any time a competitor could make our “best” second best.

Ultimately, what’s important is to continuously strive to be the best, not for the sake of being best, but from a genuine desire to provide the best value / outcomes / opportunities for one’s organization or clients. Rather than feeling proud under the illusion that you are the “best”, work to be proud of your own efforts and achievements (including the learning that occurs when things don’t go according to plan or you take a risk that doesn’t pan out.)

Live with the knowledge that “best”, while well worth pursuing, is a moving fluid target. Remember, there will always be a next best thing.

Photo attribution Flickr user thomashawk

Next practices, not best practices!

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Photo attribution: Flickr user heygabe

Best Practices look backward, providing advice that worked in the past; Next Practices focus on what to do in the time ahead.
The Internet Time Alliance

I always felt irritated, but never knew why, when I heard someone talk about best practices as the business processes we should strive for. Reading the excerpt quoted above, taken from the Working Smarter Glossary of the Internet Time Alliance led to an aha! moment.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with learning about and comparing different approaches to solving problems or satisfying business requirements. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel or repeat mistakes that others have made.

But when we limit ourselves to the best that others are doing, two things happen.

First, we blind ourselves to the reality that our world is constantly changing, that the best practices of today may become quickly obsolete. As examples, we only need look at how the music & publishing industries continue to cling to outmoded business models as digital distribution becomes commonplace.

And second, we don’t think about next practices: ways we might come up with something better. Example? Unlike the rest of the airline industry, Southwest Airlines has been profitable for 37 consecutive years, not by implementing well-established best practices of the fiercely competitive air transportation business but by introducing new ways (flying out of smaller airports, standardizing airline fleets, employee profit-sharing etc.) to satisfy customers and grow their market.

Learning about best practices is fine for novices who need to get up to speed on what an industry currently does. And implementing next practices can be scary, because they may require us to do things that we, and perhaps no one else, have ever done before.

But, if we restrict ourselves to best practices, then at best we’ll maintain the status quo, with the ever-present danger that at any time a competitor could make our industry’s best practices second best. Instead, focus on next practices. Doing this allows us to be open to reinventing our work, leading us to the potential of a profitable (and interesting) future.