Last April we received an intriguing call from the Deputy Director of one of the world’s largest professional Societies..  “Do you remember 5 years ago, at the end of our conference in Dallas, when we all felt we accomplished something very special that we had been trying to do for years?” she said, “Well, we need to do it again, and the stakes are even higher”.

 Back then we had helped plan and execute an organizational change strategy that culminated in what they now refer to as a “watershed event’ — 140 engineers representing 8 different working Boards came together to create a radical change in their Organization’s strategy and structure.  The conference built a consensus that at the time no one believed was possible.

This time they wanted all the Boards and Committees that worked on different technical issues and didn’t know each other, to learn about each other’s work, find ways to collaborate, and create the foundation of the overall strategic plan.  And this meeting, which we facilitated in San Diego last month, led to comments like. “I’ll never forget Dallas, but San Diego was really amazing.”

Over the last 13 years, we’ve learned a lot about how to create events that become “iconic” in an organization’s history. From a conference of all the marketing executives for the largest bank in America, to regional customer service ‘summits’ for America’s second largest retailer, to a senior leadership conference for America’s largest construction supply company, we have evolved a core competency that leverages the tool-kits we normally deploy in smaller, more traditional venues.

These events are high-wire acts, with as much risk of being considered ho-hum as they do being memorable. Yet a watershed event must be more than memorable: It has to either accelerate the direction the organization is moving toward, or create readiness for large-scale organization change.

As we reflected on the ‘highlight reels’ of conferences we have led over the years, we realized that, despite differences of industry and purpose, each had similar recipes for success. Here are the essential few we focus on:

  • The leader must be passionate and integral in the planning process. In San Diego, we worked with a leader who despite having a full time executive job never missed a planning call, worked on a key task by himself, and was the voice of the conference.  We’ve also experienced leaders who act more as sponsors and over-delegate to people who fret about taking any risk. This always results in a conference with more boring talking heads than with true engagement.
  • A planning team must be assembled that reflects the demographic of the conference. We’ve been asked to design conferences without a planning team, except for some human resources professionals or professional event planners. This never works. But a group of engaged people who represent the overall participant make-up always provide great input to conference design. As important, they serve as a vanguard by spreading positive buzz to other participants before the meeting.
  • Community building must be the first task of the event. Most large conferences are composed of people who only know a few others, yet are expected to engage with strangers in rich, and often challenging conversations. If you invest early in relationship-building activities, you speed up the group’s capacity to have higher quality conversations.
  • The conference design must ‘announce a difference.’ Rather than talk about how things need to change, the conference must model it. For example, participants entered the ballroom of a conference we had designed to see 100 chairs in a circle, with no tables to hide behind. And we recently designed a ‘Trade-Show’ activity that challenged various Committees to display their ‘wares,’ and to learn about each other in a new way.  A little theatre doesn’t hurt…
  • People must get up and move. People are often reluctant when asked to change where they are sitting, or to do something standing up. But whenever they do, they enjoy it, learn more, and have more stamina to make it through the entire day. We once opened a conference by asking participants to ‘Vote with Your Feet’ and position themselves across a huge ballroom based on where they lived, what type of job they held, and how many years they had been associated with the organization.  We didn’t just break the ice, we melted it.

Life is too short to waste time in boring meetings that don’t create a difference. We’d love to hear your own conference experiences, as a facilitator or as an attendee. We’re sure there is much more to learn.