Insights and Ideas From Meeting-Design Pioneers, Part 2

Sarah JF Braley, senior editor of Meetings & Conventions magazine

In the second of three Q&As conducted by Meetings & Conventions with pioneers in the area of meeting design, we spoke with John Nawn, founder of the Perfect Meeting Inc. Nawn is an industrial/organizational psychologist, who develops formal and informal learning strategies for corporate and association meetings and events. Nawn is passionate about meeting design, and has conducted the only large-scale industry research on the topic, for Meeting Professionals International. He writes, speaks and conducts workshops on how to increase meeting value while reducing overall costs.

How do you define the term "meeting design"?
I use the commonly accepted definition of meeting design as "the purposeful shaping of both the form and the content of a meeting to deliver on crucial business objectives," coined by Mary Boone of the Meeting Design Institute in 2009. The most critical part of this definition refers to delivering on "crucial business objectives," which underscores the current schism between industry professionals who practice design as an aesthetic exercise and those who practice design as a business strategy. Meeting Design is a business strategy, not an aesthetic exercise.

How do you assess the success of the method you are using?
Simply put, you assess success by first identifying business goals and meeting objectives. Meeting design, like all other design disciplines, is a performance-improvement process. In this case, the focus is on improving the performance of your meeting or event. As with every performance-improvement process, meeting design begins by identifying the goals and objectives or your meeting or event. These are your meeting's metrics, without which you simply cannot determine whether your meeting or event is successful or not.

Once you've translated your goals and objectives into meaningful metrics or measurements, you introduce a process or performance intervention designed to impact your stated goals and objectives.

At the conclusion of your meeting or event, you analyze and interpret the data you've collected and determine whether your intervention was successful or not. Successful interventions become part of your new meeting experience. Unsuccessful interventions are modified as needed in future meeting iterations.

This is how the performance-improvement process works for every type of business initiative -- sales, marketing, manufacturing, etc. It works for meetings and events, too.

How can planners convince stakeholders to try something new?
Performance improvement implies change from the status quo. Therefore, meeting professionals must develop competency in change management or they will not be able to implement, much less sustain, meaningful and lasting change.

I'm a disciple of Kotter's 8 Steps to Change Management: Create a sense of urgency. Build a guiding coalition. Establish/communicate a strategic vision and initiatives. Enlist a volunteer army. Enable action by removing barriers. Generate short-term wins. Sustain and accelerate change. And institutionalize change.

There is no easy way to convince stakeholders to try something new. Beware of anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. But following a process like Kotter's will give you the best chance for success.

How can planners with a small budget approach design change?
Implementation costs are always a fair and reasonable criteria to use when assessing design changes. But performance improvement, which underlies every design initiative, is not contingent upon budget. Many of the design initiatives I develop with clients cost less than the solutions they're replacing and sometimes cost nothing at all. The value proposition for using design as a business strategy is about adding value while simultaneously reducing costs. It's about doing things smarter -- not spending more money.

Once you've identified your business goals and meeting objectives and determined which design interventions were successful, you can (and should) apply implementation cost as a criteria and ask whether your design change makes good business sense.

What do you learn from a design failure?
What I learn from design failure is how to succeed, as long as I don't give up. The mantra of startup companies everywhere is "Fail. And fail fast." The implication is we must fail, sometimes often, in order to be successful. As Thomas Edison has been quoted as saying, "I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don't work."

As an industry, I believe we're afraid of failure -- and by implication, of success. Let me explain what I mean by that: Our meetings are designed to accomplish exactly what they're designed to accomplish. On average, participants say 50 percent of the meetings they attend are a waste of time. I don't know how we became an industry with a 50 percent failure rate. Can you name me another industry that tolerates that kind of failure rate and can still considers itself relevant?

If we want our meetings to accomplish something else, we're going to have to design them differently. And that means we must be less risk-averse and more willing to fail. Or, we could keep doing the same thing over and over again and just hope for different results. There's a name for that.

Meeting design, as a performance-improvement process, allows for more experimentation while managing risk.

What are two things planners can do now to get their meetings on the right track?
What meeting designers do differently than traditional planners is identify business goals and meeting objectives for every meeting or event. This is a critical differentiator. The other thing planners must do is determine the business value of their meeting or event. This isn't just about whether your design intervention was effective or cost-efficient. This is about whether your meeting or event had an impact on your business. If you can't determine the business value of your meeting or event, it doesn't matter what design change you implement or what you call yourself. You're on the wrong track and no design is going to save you.

Click here to read part 1 of our series, and click here for part 3.