Dying, Boundary And Emerging Meeting Practices: Barbecuing The Sacred Cow

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Does your organization have any meeting planning practices that are sacred cows?

Don’t you wish you could grind them up for a barbecue?

Well, it’s time to kill those traditions and make way for new, emerging ideas.

e4 2011 Innovation Labs

Recently I attended Experient’s e4 2011 conference, “Outside the Lines” as one of their Innovation Lab Facilitators. Participants didn’t move from breakout to breakout each day. Instead they committed two days to deep dives in facilitated collaborative discussion about a specific topic.

At Experient’s opening general session, Dr. John Medina answered six questions about the human brain that directly linked to each of the Innovation Lab topics. He set the stage for the entire experience.

Each Innovation Lab facilitator was charged to help participants identify:

  • One key outcome
  • Four to six emerging practices

Graphic facilitators assigned to each lab also captured the discussions and thoughts using visual language.

Identifying Content And Speaker Selection Approaches

My Innovation Lab topic was content, delivery and speaker selection. We used a consensus-based collaborative exercise. During the process we inventoried our approaches, practices and trends for selecting content and speakers. The results were astounding and provocative.

Content and speaker selection practices were then placed into one of four categories:

  • Boundary – bleeding edge ideas, radical thoughts, ideas not in good currency
  • Emerging – experimental ideas who time has come, approaches getting some backing and resources, practices gaining in popularity
  • Established – tried and true practices, status quo ideas, well-funded approaches, ideas hard to dislodge, standard operating procedures.
  • Dying – ideas who time had come and gone, outdated, irrelevant

Here’s the diagram we used in this process.

Here’s our graphic facilitator’s mural using the same wave. Hannah Sanford did a great job capturing our discussion too. More of her images will appear in future posts. Click on the image for a larger view.



Light The Match

What were our results? Well, It’s time to ignite that organization sacred cow barbecue.

Here were the sacred cows, those dying and dead practices, for content and speaker selection.

  1. The Call For Speaker Proposals
  2. Volunteer committees selecting content and speakers.
  3. The Talking Head/Lecture

The Key Outcome And Emerging Practices

Here is the key outcome and four emerging practices that the Content/Delivery Innovation Lab participants identified.

Content/Delivery Key Outcome:

Meeting Professionals need to become Content-Curator-Strategists.

Think about art museum curators as an example. The role of the traditional meeting planner is shifting from managing the logistics to designing the experience. Several organizations in attendance now employ meeting strategists instead of meeting planners that focus on content curation and design, not just logistics.

Content/Delivery Emerging Practices

1. The role of the volunteer conference committee must change into an advisory role and not one of approving and selecting speakers.

We don’t allow volunteers to select conference cities, hotels and food and beverage. Why do we allow them to pick speakers and content which impacts the participant’s experience? Crowdsourcing some speakers and topics is ok. Allowing the selection of the content and speakers by a few volunteers is out.

2. Innovative group learning formats.

Individual learning was out. Group collaborative learning is in. Knowledge sharing, structured informal social learning, peer-to-peer and facilitated discussions are the best approaches to conference education and sessions. Facilitators are in and speeches and lectures are out.

3. Reinventing the general session.

The traditional general session with all its organizational marketing hype and chest-thumping is dead. Conference attendees avoid unwanted interruption advertising. General sessions need to establish an overall theme and bookend the experience with intention about topics, not organization commercials.

4. Using visuals appropriately.

Visuals, both moving and static images, are extremely important to conferences, especially since we are visual processors first. PowerPoint doesn’t kill people. People do. Meeting professionals should help train speakers on how to use PowerPoint appropriately.

Which of these practices surprise you? Which ones will be the most difficult to implement and why?

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  1. Mary Boone says:

    Jeff, this is a great post. There’s only one thing missing here and that is the “how” question. What you say is true, but how do you teach people the change management skills they need to get these innovations adopted in an organization?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for the great question!

      Dr. John Medina, e4’s keynote presenter, actually addressed this question before we moved into our faciliated Innovation Labs. Here’s a summary of what he said.

      The brain does not care about change. It’s actually used to change because it’s changing all the time. Our brains are constantly adapting.

      However, our brains care about loss. If we feel we are losing control of something we become fearful. Fear can paralyze us from any movement. The best way to make these changes is to do it incrementally and help people understand that they are gaining control over new things by letting go of the old. In the above situations, it’s about helping others understand the meaning behind the changes and their new roles, plus focusing on the added value and outcomes that will be achieved.

  2. I’m a big fan of William Bridge’s book, Transitions, for thinking about how to help people navigate change, and he echoes the letting go/new beginnings language you use Jeff.

    I wonder if scientific/technical groups will feel differently about changing the proposal review process than other associations. I find scientific and technical groups to want a pretty strong say in anything related to content (sessions, journal, etc.).

    I think one of the biggest challenges will be meeting planners who define their work by logistics, not learning, and certainly not experience designers or strategists.

    And while I hate to say it, some associations (more than we would probably care to know) still do have volunteers involved in picking the host cities. Ugh.

  3. Jeff-
    Glad to hear that facilitators are “IN” and speeches and lectures are “OUT”. Now we just need to educate the meetings world about the value of facilitation. Just like speakers, we are seen as a commodity – and just like speakers, there is a wide range of skills and abilities. I walk in both worlds – as a certified speaking professional (CSP) and a certified professional facilitator (CPF). Currently, the meetings industry places far more “value” (and by value, I am saying that they pay more money and attention) to hiring a speaker than a facilitator.

  4. WOW – Great post with powerful outcomes.

    Having served as a lab facilitator at e4 too, I can tell you that much of what was discussed in your lab spilled into ours. Our task was to identify key drivers for attendance AND the attendee experience. By the way, most participants felt destination was having less impact on attendance, while content & networking were spiking even higher.

    Our lab outcomes ended up as 3 lenses to apply to other decisions:

    1. People: Show me you know me! Leverage the data we already have AND collect more of it. Make sure what we’re delivering (both at events and digitally) is laser focused on current AND emerging needs. (PS: If your speaker decisions were made 6 months ago, do you think the world might have changed over the past 180 days? Are we missing the mark on new hot topics?)

    2. Marketing: Move away from milestones and timelines. Marketing needs to be a continuous, year-round effort to inform, inspire, connect, collaborate… If members/attendees are connecting regularly from afar, they’ll want to attend events to have richer F2F exchanges with these contacts.

    3. Delivery: This speaks to Mary’s point – the HOW we do it. Are we delivering in a way that fits the learning style for our audience? Are we staying in the loop to help them process and apply all these great discoveries after the event? This point was our lab’s “unfinished symphony” so the dialogue continues…

  5. thom singer says:


    Wow, this is a powerful article, and so true. People are demanding more value from the meeting, but too many conferences are just doing the same old / same old year over year.

    I am finding that meeting planners who are willing to do even small changes are finding great results. A focus on creating a conference culture and putting the audience as the priority is making meetings better.

    Associations that are continuing to let certain “power broker cliques” control their conferences are seeing a decline in attendance, while other conferences are growing in this economy. Hmmmmm.

    I mentioned this “power broker cliques” theory to an association executive who felt powerless to stop these volunteers from making speaker selections and putting their friends on the agenda. Is that a common problem?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      There were some academic, technical. scientific folks in the facilitation that I did and they did feel it was important to focus on curation. They saw a strong need to move away from peer selected content at conferences. However, they felt that peer selection of content was still on target for online articles, abstracts and papers, which I agree.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. (And reminding us that some associations still have very old-school dead paradigms when it comes to conference process!)

      I think the meetings industry is still learning about the benefits of facilitation and facilitated sessions. Very few conference organizers have a good understanding or experience with facilitators. As more and more subject matter experts fail at delivering presentations, the meeting professionals start looking elsewhere for help. Your blend of presentation and faciliation skills is perfect for conferences of today.

      Thanks for sharing and reading!

      I like your three lenses: “Show me you know me,” “Move away from milestones and timelines in marketing,” and “Helping our participants process and apply the information they are hearing and learnning.” Good stuff.

      The “Power Broker Cliques” that you mention is a common problem in many associations. Unfortunately, it’s a systemic problem when the association leadership (staff included) doesn’t understand Association 101 basics like: Board directs, Committees Recommend and Staff Implments. Too often, the association is still working under a volunteer-driven model where the volunteers do the staff’s job. That’s how they started but as they grew, they didn’t transition into a strategic model of governance. That’s one way to keep an organization from thriving in today’s world.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. Denise says:


    I thoroughly enjoy this dicussion and the information regarding the selection of speakers. I find myself agreeing in many instances and on the other side, I find myself wondering about the reason for the trend to eliminate committees for speaker selections. As a meeting planner the challenge to incorporate the requirements from the health care continuing education world and the needs for the modern attendees is quite invigorating. The needs for both worlds continue to clash in to one another and provides me the reason to research and develop means for extra networking and face-to-face experience in slightly unique deliveries.

    It keeps the program fresh and this format allows me to baby step our attendees in to a new way of experiencing the Conference without causing fear regarding the “shake-up” of how it has always been conducted. So, far the feedback is the Conference is better every year and the content continues to improve.

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