Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

October 2012

PCMA Convening Leaders Preview: Morten T. Hansen

By Michelle Russell, Editor in Chief

On how planners should 'fire bullets, then cannon balls' when innovating.


When PCMA 2013 Convening Leaders' Opening General Session speaker Morten T.  Hansen takes the stage in Orlando this January, he will be drawing from several areas of experience.  A former Harvard Business School professor who earned his Ph.D.  from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, Hansen's perspective is global: He is a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and at INSEAD, France - and has also served as a management consultant with the Boston Consulting Group in London, Stockholm, and San Francisco.

Mainly, though, Hansen will be sharing what he has learned from researching and writing two critically acclaimed business books: Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results, published in 2009, and the New York Times bestseller Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck - Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, which he co-wrote with Jim Collins, and which has sold four million copies since it was published last year.

Great by Choice
is based on nine years of research, in which Hansen and Collins undertook a "rigorous, systematic study of leaders in industries that have historically been disruptive, who achieve great performance," Hansen told Convene in a recent phone interview, compared "to those that didn't." Among the book's surprising results: "It isn't the most innovative companies that do the best," nor the ones that changed the most, Hansen said.  "In a world full of change - because innovation is a response to change - there is a certain path of innovation that seems to be much more powerful than others."

We asked Hansen to show how meeting professionals can take that path - and to apply his hard-earned insight from both books specifically to this industry.

You have written that one of the biggest surprises that came out of Great by Choice was that the best leaders were not necessarily the most bold, visionary, or creative, but were more disciplined, empirical, and paranoid than their competitors.  Meeting planners have those qualities in spades - they prepare in a disciplined way for conferences based on what has worked in the past, keeping worst-case-scenario plans in mind.  What would you say to them about their bigger challenge, which is being innovative about their meeting design?

That's a good question.  I travel a lot on the speaking circuit and I do a number of conferences.  I am pretty amazed at their complexity and what is behind a very well-produced conference, so [I have great] respect for that work.  There are so many moving parts and there are many things that can go wrong.  So [it serves meeting professionals well to pay] an unbelievable amount of attention to detail and to be productively paranoid, and disciplined, that's for sure.

How they innovate matters more than how innovative they are.  And what matters is what we call the "fire bullets, then cannonballs" approach to innovation.  In the world of conferences, meetings, and events, the way it would work is to try out ideas in [changing, say, the] format [of a meeting] in a pilot, in controlled experiments that may not be ready for prime time.

I can imagine as the planner, you say, "For the next big conference, I must try out this [idea]." That to me is an uncalibrated cannonball - you try something new on the big stage, in prime time, and it might not work out.  Our approach would be that you might want to try that out in a less important conference.  Then once you have enough proof that this thing is going to work, fine-tune it, and launch it on the big stage.  In other words, you're very disciplined in the way you innovate.

That's what you mean when you talk in the book about scaling innovation, yes?

Exactly.  The other way you could do it potentially is to be much better at learning from others.  There might be other organizations that have done a number of different [things at their events], so you see what works and what doesn't work and try to learn from that.  Learning from other people's failure is a good way to accelerate your own learning.

But it is really important to have that discipline around innovation, not to rush things through.  The companies [that we studied for the book] didn't stand still.  They weren't paralyzed - quite the opposite.  [They said,] we will try things that won't work out, but we will move forward by constantly trying out things.  And once we get it right, then we can scale it up.  [The difficulty with meetings is that] you're like a Broadway production, but you don't get to run the same show a hundred times.

It's got to be a great conference the one time you put it on.  But if you allow yourself to [do] pilots - it could be a smaller audience, lower-level managers, there are all kinds of ways you can make it small and experimental - then you have more confidence that once you do make the changes on the big stage, it's going to work out.

One of the things you talk about in Great by Choice is the "20 Mile March" - pacing yourself and having concrete, clear, intelligent, and rigorously pursued performance mechanisms.  Planners struggle with how to measure the benefits that participants get out of their meetings.  How can you apply the 20 Mile March concept to that challenge?

I think there are two things to think about.  The 20 Mile March is the idea that the path to greatness lies in finding progress markers and being extremely committed to hitting them every quarter or every year, year in and year out - that it's a long march to greatness.  
In your industry, what would that be like? Clearly to me, it cannot be that you're just seeing each event as an isolated event.  What if your challenge is to keep on improving just a little bit every time? You have to then set markers that are pretty hard on yourself.  So first, the attitude towards success is long term, it's across all the conferences and it's focused on a few markers that we know make a difference.  The second important question is, what markers? What do you pick if you are a meeting planner? There's a parallel to my own world here, because I teach a lot of executive education and of course we wonder - if we have a participant executive program for a few days - how do we know we're successful?

Right, how can you measure what kind of impact you've made on the participants?

The only way to measure it today is the evaluation participants are filling out at the end of the program - [i.e.,] on a scale of one to five, rate the speakers, rate the sessions, overall how satisfied are you? How much did you learn? I happen to be very skeptical of the idea that what somebody got out of the program is going to translate into making them better leaders or performers.  We do not know.  So you are in a territory here where it's difficult.

The fundamental weakness of [evaluations] is that you don't know whether even high marks - say someone says [he or she] is really satisfied, that it was a great event, [s/he] had a good time - you have no idea whether that is going to translate into any change in behavior or performance.

One option is to survey people after the conference, three months out.  You might say, "We can't do that - we'll get even less of a response rate." And that's going to be difficult - people might have trouble pinpointing exactly what they took away from it themselves.

The third option - which would be the gold standard - would be that you have somewhat of an ability to track the performance of those who went to your conference against another sample of people who didn't.  That is where Silicon Valley and the Internet are going.  You're tracking people and their behavior performance against others.  You can do it because you have the

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