Innovative Conferences Are Led By Innovative Leaders


Innovation. It’s the heartbeat and lifeblood of today’s economy.

Innovation. It’s a strategic priority for most executives around the world.

Innovation and creativity. 15,000 CEOs identified it as the number 1 “Leadership Competency” of the future. (IBM, CEO Study, 2010)

Innovation. It’s where you as a conference organizer need to focus your attention, time and resources if you want to continue to compete in the meetings marketplace.

Innovators Think Different, Act Different

Average conferences are planned by average meeting professionals.

Most conference attendees don’t want to pay for an average, common conference. They want something different. They want a unique experience.

Innovative conferences are planned by innovative meeting professionals. Innovators think different. To think different, innovators have to act different.

Authors Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen (The Innovator’s DNA) identified innovators that think and act different. They discovered five common traits of all innovators. Innovators behave as connectors (associating unconnected ideas), questioners, observers, networkers and experimenters.

Five Traits Of Conference Innovators

Innovative conferences are planned by innovative meeting professionals that systemically engage in these five traits.

1. Associating

Innovators connect the unconnected. They make surprising links across industries, knowledge and even geographical regions. They look for the intersection of diverse experiences and new insights. They collect ideas and create odd combinations. They zoom in and out both looking at the big picture and details.

2. Questioning

Innovators question common wisdom. They push assumptions, boundaries and borders. The start with what currently is and then soar to what might be. Like journalists they ask lots of who, what, when, where and how questions. They ask “what is, what caused, why, why not, what if.” Innovators embrace QuestionStorming.

3. Observing

Innovators are intense observers. They scrutinize how things work and are hypersensitive to what does not work. They don’t watch the speaker in a general session. Instead they watch how the audience responds to the speaker. Innovators use all the senses to observe their customers, how their customers respond and how groups react.

4. Networking

Innovators link ideas from their expertise to ideas of others that play in different sand boxes. They intentionally go outside of their worlds to meet people with different backgrounds and perspectives to extend their own knowledge. They attend conferences outside of their industry. They cross-train with experts in other fields.

5. Experimenting

Innovators see their world as laboratories. They try out new ideas and experiences to collect new data. They take apart processes and ideas looking for new ways to assemble them. They test new ideas with pilot projects. They go trend spotting outside of their industry and then experiment with those trends in their conferences.

Innovative Conference Organizers

In order to be innovative, we must ask tough questions that pierce the status quo. We must get out from behind our three ring conference binders and observe with intensity our customers in action. We must network with people outside of the meetings industry. We must embrace experimenting in the name of improvement.

If we change our behaviors, we can improve our innovation. When we put innovation at the forefront of our planning, we can improve the conference experience.

Which of these five traits is the hardest for you to implement and why? Why do so many meeting professionals avoid innovation?

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  1. John Chen says:

    As Past Co-Chair for MPI WSC and MPI Oregon’s Cascadia, my trait that is hardest to impliment is restraint, I love pushing the boundaries on all 5 of these traits, sometimes to my detriment. Mass props to my committee team for guiding me to that was a better fit our level of technical audience that led to a big win. Also, thanks to Sam Samuelson for steering us to hybrid tradeshow/hosted buyer program instead of trying to go directly to a hosted buyer program, that restraint paid many dividends.

    I thinks leaders have a challenge when they ‘Play Not To Lose’ instead of “Playing To Win”, with good reason. If you’re given these big responsibilities, you may feel it’s better to be safe than to risk and fail. Leading a conference is a reflection of how you lead in your business and the audience is your meeting professional friends, sometimes some of the most critical audiences you could work for.

    I think leaders like @samueljsmith and #gmic have shown me the way on how to build a structure that permits experimentation and innovation. Thank you to each of the leaders that taught me something new to use in future conferences.

    Did you ‘Play To Win’ with a conference in the past or a conference you’re planning now? If so, how?

  2. The main problem is you are dealing with administrators who like the status quo and these people sign your checks. I am a “think outside the box” sort of person. I challenged my boss to look at things differently, but when you have been doing the same thing for 30 years, you are not always open-minded. I think this same problem exists in most associations. The world is changing around us at such a rapid pace. If you don’t adapt and give the people the experience they want, you will be a memory.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding to the discussion. Ah, restraint is always a challenge. The authors of The Innovators DNA advocate for pilot projects sometimes as a way to institute change and experiment. I’m like you and like to push the boundaries. Sometimes it’s easier to do when we invent an entire new conference without previous history…like Samuel Smith’s Twin Cities EventCamp that you mention. Then you go “pilot” new innovations in new way.

      Yes, the challenge with many association leaders is that they don’t think they need to innovate. Often boards hire CEO/Ex Directors to keep the status quo because they don’t know anything differently. That being said, there are associations that are looking for people like you that are willing to challenge the conventional and do things differently. If I couldn’t innovate in my association jobs, I started looking for other association leaders that invited creativity and innovation in their management. And, those leaders do exist! Thanks for reading and commenting too.

  3. Melissa M says:

    As a relatively new meeting planner the observer seemed most like me. I giggled when you described it as being hypersensitive to things that don’t work. That’s definately me. It’s interesting because I feel that first you observe everything and see what is ordinary and averag. Now, I’m more comfortable trying to push people to allow the conference to start to do more adventurous things so it can be viewed as more innovative. Now it’s just the challenge of trying to implement those ideas. The hardest trait is probably experimenting. The reasoning is a laundry list of only excuses. I’m curious if most innovative meeting planners had these traits emerge in a certain order or if they just were innately born with these wonderful characteristics?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding to the discussion. I agree that experimenting is probably one of the hardest things meeting professionals can do. We don’t want to disappoint our customers. On the other hand, I think good meeting planners will experiment with at least 20% of every conference and let their customers know that. Whether innovative planners are born with or develop these traits, I think it may be both. For me, I’ve always been kept my sense of curiosity, which really helps. It’s when we lose it that we become stale.

  4. […] They frequently create C-suite level positions dedicated to innovation. They also fill their teams with people who excel at the five discovery areas: associating, questioning, observing, networking and experimenting. […]

  5. […] innovation in their conferences, meetings and events? The Innovators’ DNA authors identified five behaviors—associating, questioning, observing, idea-networking and experimenting—needed to spark […]

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