Soccer players “try hardest when they have a chance of scoring, not when it’s an easy shot and not when it’s an almost impossible shot,” writes the author of an article in The Guardian on the neuroscience of uncertainty. “The energy directed to uncertain positive consequences makes football exciting and fun.”
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for the business of planning events — energy directed toward uncertain and potentially negative consequences is called “stress” (see October’s Convene cover story for insights about that). As The Guardian article points out, studies show that it’s when our odds of being successful approach 50 percent that we feel most anxious.
For example, if traffic is going well and you’re likely to get to your meeting on time, there’s no need to worry. And the opposite is also true: If you’re in a bumper-to-bumper jam and it’s highly unlikely you’ll make the meeting on time, you relax, knowing there is nothing you can do. It’s that space in between — when it’s touch and go — that we feel the most stressed. Although the article was written before the pandemic, “touch and go” is an apt description for the environment we’ve found ourselves in for the past few years. Even now, as in-person events resume, it’s difficult to forecast with certainty our stakeholders’ participation — and therefore our organization’s potential revenue — because of economic headwinds, budgetary constraints, a greater ease with virtual events, and, the latest wild card, whether attendees will travel to a meeting in destinations that restrict or ban access to abortion, for political and health reasons.
We can only control the things that we can and work at minimizing the impact of those things we can’t. Disruption is not an exception, and the world only continues to grow more uncertain. The World Uncertainty Index — a measure that tracks uncertainty across the globe by mining the country reports of the Economist Intelligence Unit — has been rising steadily over the past few decades. Not surprisingly, the index shot up in 2020 during the height of the pandemic.
We must prepare our business so we are ready for the next crisis. How do we prepare? By noticing trends and movements that are potentially disruptive. We need to develop our ability to see the larger shift coming at us that is not readily in view. An iceberg makes a handy analogy: We tend to see what’s above the water line and that’s what we react to, making short-term decisions. Imagining what may lie beneath prepares us as an organization to respond appropriately and to minimize the negative impacts of environmental factors that are beyond our immediate control.
In life, nothing good comes easy. I believe our industry has an important role to play for the common good — for society’s good, as we convene people to address our biggest challenges. It’s an incredible responsibility. Let’s not let uncertainty derail us.
No Longer Optional
“Environmental factors” can also be taken to mean the larger crisis of climate change. We have to stop thinking of sustainability initiatives at our events as optional and take a much more proactive approach. It’s not unimaginable that there will come a time when those decisions will be made for us — when governments impose limitations on how often we can travel because of air travel’s carbon footprint, for example.
In the October issue, Convene Deputy Editor Barbara Palmer identifies three post-pandemic trends that are making sustainability more of an imperative for our industry.