Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Co-Creation and Meetings

In a recent webinar, Doug Amann from Pfizer made this point: If we're going to invest all of the money and resources to bring a large group of people together, let's maximize the interaction! "Broadcast" presentations -- one expert talking to an audience -- can be done very effectively online or on DVD's. Why bring people together to listen? What the face-to-face experience is exceptionally GOOD at is individual and small-group interactions. How can we make THOSE interactions the focus of our meetings?

Planners (and event sponsors) tend to rather LIKE the traditional, broadcast-style conferences. They are predictable. They are controllable. We all know how they work. If we can get the butts in the seats, we know (we think) how to deliver a great program (or at least a program kinda like last year's). And frankly, the audience tends to go along with it -- no one's expectations are normally that high. They'll sit in the seats. They'll listen to talks. They'll want to be entertained. And if this experience is comparable to other conference experiences, they'll generally give you positive scores on the feedback forms.

But how does this experience compare to actual meaningful events in our lives? Are we connecting with people? Are we learning anything useful? How will we be different after these events? With rare exceptions, a lecture hall experience will not create these kinds of changes.

So what will? I've been talking about collaboration, networking, and interaction. On a great twitter chat today, the focus shifted to "co-creation" -- working together to build something new. This might be a new invention. It might be a new process. It might be a new way to understand the world. Let's take your understanding and my understanding and see what we can build with a new, shared understanding.

Co-Creation -- the multi-day conference is the perfect venue for this. The conference creates a community -- a group of people bound together in shared experiences, new knowledge, a physical location, and even sporting handy community ID badges. This community builds trust among its members. This trust might be stronger or weaker among different parts of the community, but in sharing a good speaker, a challenging breakout, a karaoke fiasco, we build trust together. With trust and with our shared interest (the topic of the conference), we have the foundation for co-creation.

All we need now is the time, the space and the tools. Conferences tend to pack their schedules so that everyone feels like they didn't "waste their time". It's important to build in time for co-creation. At most events, the "water cooler conversations" happen in the hallways -- how can we create a more formal, useful environment for co-creation to take place? Finally, what tools are needed for co-creation? Marker boards are a great start for brainstorming, mind-mapping, and creating back-of-the-napkin drawings of your big ideas. Writing tools. Drawing tools. Display tools. Diagramming tools. Modeling tools. What are all of the different materials people might need to create something new together?

Make your "attendees" into "participants". Get them creating things together, and they will remember your event forever. "THAT was the moment our organization changed forever."

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Show Me the Value - MPI Webinar

On June 10, Jamie McDonough of Fusion Productions presented his model for creating and demonstrating value in meetings. Jamie gave some tools and models that support the approach to "meeting consulting" that Pfizer presented in last week's post. Once again, here are the notes I took on the marker board in the office while listening to the webinar.

Key points for me:
  1. To be taken seriously, meeting planners need to embrace their role as business people, not logistics managers
  2. Find out what every stakeholder in your meeting wants to achieve at this meeting.
  3. Design an innovative meeting that will accomplish those goals.
  4. Measure the results and share the data.
The biggest value in this webinar was not only this framework, but also the concrete tools presented for each step of the process.

Jamie started with the question about the role of meeting planners. This debate raged in 1995 when the question of meeting ROI first reared its head. "Are we planners, or are we business people?" Then answer then and now is "business people". We manage huge events with huge budgets. Our profession is responsible for over 1 million jobs in this country. We need to be telling our CEOs about the value of meetings before they even ask. Our industry has been hammered by the AIG's and others who could not explain the value of a meeting in a 30-second sound byte. We have to tell the story of our value better.

Jamie presented his "Value Cubed" model. This three-sided model was the framework for the rest of the presentation - Moments of Truth, Value of One, and the Meeting Lifecycle.

A "Moment of Truth" is any opportunity to reinforce the brand promise of a meeting with any of the stakeholders. Look at every touch point to see how it can add greater value. Now, a lot of stakeholders hold a lot of sacred cows around these touch points. "We had two projects screens last year." Or, "I always get picked up by a limo." We have developed an impartial process to evaluate the benefits and costs of each touch point for each stakeholder. It is a huge matrix that includes often thousands of these "moments of truth". It is important to evaluate each one and decide -- rationally -- which ones should be included and excluded.

Which ones add the most value? The ones that predispose attendees to content. The ones that create memorable experiences. The ones that will give the conference life long after the closing session.

The best way to create value is to use a structured, proven process that identifies the priorities of each stakeholder and ensures that their definition of value has been met. Each stakeholder wants the meeting to deliver value to "me", and that value might look very different for different stakeholders. The five-stage process is to 1) identify the stakeholders and their needs, 2) establish measurable objectives for each need, 3) deliver an event that meets those objectives, 4) measure the results, and 5) share the results with all of your stakeholders. Jamie presented some tools and tips for each of those steps.
It is important to remember that C-level executives think differently about meetings than most planners do. They don't care very much about logistical results like attendance or incremental cost savings. They DO care about strategic results in terms of learning, customer impacts or sales results. Ask these executives up front which strategic objectives they want this meeting to impact and how. And when the meeting is over, present the results -- good, bad and indifferent -- back to them. Show them what went well. Show them what needs improvement. And show them how the results from this last meeting will help make the next meeting even better. Executives will be very unlikely to cancel or cut a meeting that is being managed in a strategic and thoughtful manner. Use tools and conversations like these to become a significant player at the executive table.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Role of Meetings in Corporate Strategy - MPI Webinar

On May 15, Ken Kirsh and the boys at Pfizer gave a great little webinar on how to connect meetings to corporate strategy. Top take-aways for me:
  1. Become a Meeting Consultant - ask about business issues & propose solutions
  2. Define Objectives - a happy coincidence that is was also my last post
  3. Measure Results - work with executives to define metrics that matter
  4. Multi-Modal Meetings - do your presentations online, meetings are for interaction! (Also a passion of mine)

Below you'll find my notes on the discussion.

The talk started with Doug Amann telling planners to focus on driving efficiency. Especially in this economy, find the places in your planning process that take the most time, and focus your streamlining efforts there.

Technology can play a role in driving down costs. Use technology when it will support the kind of meeting you want to have. You need to understand all of the technology options out there so that you can provide the right solution for each challenge that your clients or executives present to you.

Now, how can you align your events with the corporate strategy? Ask the executive behind the event what the motivations are behind the meeting. Listen to the words the executives use. Are they focused on innovation? On efficiency? On compliance? Tailor your messages and your solutions to the business challenges surrounding the particular meeting you're involved with.
Measuring Return on Investment is the nirvana of the planning world. It's more often simpler to measure "return on objectives". This does require a lot of time and effort up front to define (with the executives) what measurable, concrete objectives they might have for the meeting. And when you think you're done with the meeting, you're not -- you need to be diligent about measuring results long after the euphoria of the event has faded.

Tom White, also of Pfizer, talked about the "Return on Innovation" - he is normally asked to provide that "something different" or "something extra" to take meetings over the top. He recommends that planners ask three questions. First, what kinds of conversations drive the most value for a company? Internal department discussions? Cross-functional discussions? Conversations with customers? The company should invest in meetings that support the most impactful conversations. Second, how does this meeting make our business faster or more efficient? Maybe you SHOULDN'T wait until the annual meeting for a big discussion or announcement. Don't let meetings slow you down, either. Third, what should be done outside the meeting (before and especially after) to leverage the value of the meeting itself?
Tom discussed three different meeting formats. The traditional "broadcast" meeting involves one person giving a presentation to many people. Technology today is very effective at this kind of interaction -- put it on a DVD or a webinar! Many clients want this kind of meeting, but it's our job as planners to help them think differently.

The second format is a more linear meeting. This kind of meeting normally involves different departments working together to solve particular issues and challenges. These meetings tend to be highly engineered.

Finally, there are the "networking meetings". These meetings are the most difficult to manage, but they can create the most value. Doug said something like "If we're going to invest the time and resources to bring people together, let's maximize the interaction!" (As an aside, this is exactly the focus of Illumination Galleries) The best take-aways from meetings normally happen in the "water cooler conversations", not in the lecture halls. Let's build meetings that focus on those conversations!

The speakers then gave some recommendations on Going the Extra Mile, Managing Cash, and Partner Alignment.
Finally, the speakers wrapped up by emphasizing the new role and skills that are being required of meeting planners. Become a meeting consultant. Learn about the challenges your clients are experiencing, outside of the meeting. Develop new solutions that reflect your new understanding of the client's business. And communicate with executives using language (and data) that matters to them!

Here is the complete marker board. Click on this to see the larger image:

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Defining Objectives

In a meeting world where businesses are demanding real results, the meeting planner needs a new skill -- identifying the real objectives of their clients.

We've been facilitating collaborative meetings for corporate and association clients for over a decade. The first question we ask these clients is "What are you objectives?" This is just the beginning of the conversation.

What we discover more often than not is that our clients don't have a very clear vision for what they want to accomplish in their meetings. They want to "communicate" or they want to "be aligned", but they don't have a clear sense of what that is or how you could possibly tell if you had succeeded.

Helping our clients define their objectives is THE most important part of our consulting work. It is often invisible to the client. It is usually undervalued. It is frequently a frustrating process on both sides. Until you have a very clear understanding of what the participants will have in their hands and in their minds at the end of your meeting (that's my definition of an objective), it is impossible to design a process to make that happen!

So here is how that conversation might go. Let's ask our fictional client what their objectives are.

"We want to get these people together on these days in this city." Ok. That begins to give us some logistics to work with, but these are not objectives. WHY do you want to get these people together?

"We need to talk about this list of topics." This gives us some broad content areas. Great! We're making progress. Within those topics, however, what would you like the participants to create during the meeting?

"Well, we need to make some decisions/get some buy-in/get everyone on the same page!" This is good information. What kinds of decisions do you want this group to make?

"Oh, well, we need to get our priorities straight for the upcoming budgeting cycle." AHA! Now we're really getting somewhere! A list of priorities is a nice, tangible objective. It is concrete. The participants can have a copy of it in their hands. We can look for the list at the end of the session and tell whether or not we have accomplished this objective.

With this kind of objective in hand, we can now begin to explore a whole range of other topics with the client. What items might be on this list of priorities? What were the priorities for last year's budget? What internal and external factors will influence these priorities? How familiar are all of the participants with all of these influencing factors? Should we invite outside experts to share their perspectives on these factors? Should we explore the implications of having different sets of priorities -- how would the organization be different in different scenarios? How will this group make decisions -- is this a democracy or monarchy or something else altogether? What do the participants need to learn about each other and the outside world?

As meetings get evaluated more and more on the results they achieve, meeting planners need to become more familiar with the content and context of these meetings. The people sponsoring the meetings are professionals in their own discipline, but they need help to design and facilitate meetings that will accomplish their real objectives. The meeting planner needs to become a consultant, and it wouldn't hurt to find some professional consultants and facilitators to be part of your meeting design team.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Best Seat in the House

You've probably been too busy running conferences and events to watch the behavior of your attendees very closely. Have you noticed how different they are in different environments? Have you noticed when they are engaged and passionate versus when they are quiet and passive?

At Illumination Galleries, we have observed human behavior in all kinds of collaborative environments. We can help you pack the biggest punch into an area of your conferences that our industry has largely ignored. Want to kick it up a notch? Answer the following question:

Where is all of the real action at a conference?
Is it in the plenary during the keynotes? Is it in the breakout sessions? Is it in the lobby outside the meeting rooms? Or is the bar the place to be?

If you answered "The bar!!!" with multiple exclamation points, then you might not want to show this piece to your supervisor. But to be fair, the bar, the lounge, the cocktail reception and the official networking events are all very important venues at a conference. Building relationships is a critical objective for most meeting attendees. Relationships require time for conversations to happen. And sometimes a little liquid courage helps to grease the wheels as well. The "bar" (to include any of the social locations listed above) is the place for social interactions to occur. Some negotiations take place here, but the bar is the stage for building relationships.

The plenary is another universe altogether. The plenary is set up to "broadcast messages" -- from one talking head to many listeners. These plenaries can have more or less energy, more or less interactivity, and more or less entertainment, but the primary function is for a few people (usually in the front) to share their ideas with the dozens or hundreds or thousands of others sitting in the audience. Executives and academics really like this space. This is the world of traditional education, where the expert talks and the little people absorb. Great speakers can make this environment transformational for people in the audience, but there just aren't that many great speakers out there. And for attendees, the more passive ones will like this space too -- this is where they can be most "entertained" with the minimal amount of effort on their part.

The breakout sessions tend to be where more detailed content gets shared, and where attendees get to have some interactions with the experts. These smaller-format sessions tend to be more hands-on, and much more interactive. For people who have come to a conference to learn a skill or best practice, the breakout session is where the most vital interactions will take place. Usually people get to attend sessions that they are interested in, so the audience is normally more focused and engaged. Great collaboration is possible here.

So that leaves us the lobby -- that nebulous "between" space that connects all of the different conference venues. This is where the registration table is normally found. You'll find snack stations and an endless supply of coffee. There might even be some informational or promotional displays here. It may seem a little strange that this area is often described as the most important part of a conference. Why is this area special? What makes this space useful? What can we do to make it even better?

The lobby belongs to the community of attendees. It is the Commons. The speakers own the plenary. The facilitators own the breakouts. The bar is pandemonium. The Commons is a different story. No one is in charge of it, so everyone can use it however they like. It is quiet enough to have important conversations, but generally active enough that you don't feel like you're bothering others (or that others are listening in). It is the central hub of the community, so anyone that you would want to see will walk through there on the way to or from somewhere -- this is where chance encounters and reunions happen, full of laughter and delight.

And this is where new ideas come flooding in like the tide. When people leave the plenary, fresh from a motivational speaker or a dynamic executive presentation, they pour into the Commons to share their ideas. When they return from a variety of exciting breakout sessions, they meet here to share ideas, compare notes and tell each other what they missed in the other sessions. These regular floods of new ideas and new energy keep the Commons at the center of the community of attendees.

This is where connections are made. This is where ideas pop. This is where insight happens. If you want to make a conference sizzle, transform the Commons into THE place to be!

This area gets the least amount of design attention of any venue at a conference, yet this is where the most important conversations are taking place. This is where people are most themselves, are most passionate, are most engaged. This is where the real value of a conference is forged for many attendees. The speakers, the breakouts, and the entertainment all provide fantastic ingredients, but it is here in the Commons that it all comes together to build new connections, new relationships, and new plans for the future.

We created Illumination Galleries to turbocharge the Commons. We decided bring the design brilliance of an opening session to the conference venue where attendees find the greatest value. We create a powerful experience of the meeting's content, of making connections, of building relationships and of producing results. Come visit the website and we'll show you how.

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