Innovation Starts With Observing Your Conference Attendees In Action


With today’s tools and environment, radical innovation is extraordinarily accessible to those who know how to cultivate it says author Steven Berlin Johnson.

Some environments and workplace cultures squelch innovation while others breed it he adds.

So what do conference organizers need in order to embrace innovation in their conferences, meetings and events? The Innovators’ DNA authors identified five behaviors—associating, questioning, observing, idea-networking and experimenting—needed to spark successful innovation.

Start With Observation

Innovation does not start with charts, formulas and meetings logistics. It begins and ends with observing people and their human experience says the LUMA Institute.

Innovation requires well-developed, intentional observation. It means that meeting professionals have to step out of their show offices and onto the conference floor to watch attendees in action. Some conference organizers hire an outsider or secret-shopper-attendee to observe attendees in action and experience the conference firsthand.

Ultimately, observation requires an

  • inquisitive, curious mind;
  • impartial and objective thought;
  • and deep understanding and empathy.

And you need to use all of your senses when observing to gain meaningful results.

Four Observation Techniques

Stepping out of the show office and observing what your attendees do at the conference is a great way to discover opportunities for innovation. Here are four methods grounded in ethnographic research to study your attendees’ behavior and interaction from the LUMA Institute.

1. Interview And Focus Groups

Interviews and focus groups are one way to gather information about your attendees’ behaviors. People usually enjoy sharing their experiences and stories with others. Using carefully crafted questions, the interviewer can gain a better understanding of attendees’ opinions, true feelings, successes and struggles with the conference experience. A good interviewer also needs to know how to analyze what is meant from what is said.

2. Fly-On-The-Wall Observations

This stealth approach minimizes your influence on attendees’ behavior. This unobtrusive examination provides valuable information that you might not gain in other methods. Watch people’s actions, behaviors, tasks and flow to capture their natural behavior. For example, instead of observing the speaker, observe the audience’s body language, facial expressions and actions. Be aware of the surrounding environment and how peripheral objects, sounds and other people may affect their outcomes.

3. Contextual Inquiry

“What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things,” said anthropologist Margaret Mead. It’s important that as an observer, we pay attention to what people say and what they do to get a clearer picture of what really happened. Contextual inquiry places the observer in the midst of attendees’ environment with the ability to ask questions about their experiences and behaviors as they occur. Think like an apprentice as you interact with others and ask questions.

4. Walk-A-Mile Immersion

In order to fully understand and empathize with your conference attendees, you need to walk a mile in their shoes. You should take the same journey and experience the conference from their point of view. How many conference organizers, staff and leadership actually sit through all of the lectures and panels offered? How many walk through the onsite registration process to see if it works? The idea is to use the experience to better inform your decision making.

Innovation Requires Change!

Innovation calls for intentional and insightful change. If you’re considering conference innovation, you’re considering moving from an existing situation to new preferred ones.

And observation is the first step in this process. So observe and watch purposefully!

What tips do you have for observing people and their behavior in the conference settings? How do you resist the urge to jump to analysis when observing?


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