This has been a subject that I have wanted to write about for some considerable time. Somehow though, I have been procrastinating as it seems, well‌ so mundane. I mean let’s face it, an article about the role and execution of “the corporate conference” is hardly likely to have scriptwriter clambering for the rights to transform it into a Hollywood blockbuster. But my pen (well you know what I mean) can be idle no longer after being subjected to yet another conference fiasco.
In my role as a consultant (people who, if they can’t solve the problem, do their best to prolong it) I get to attend several conferences across a broad range of industries and businesses. Of course the upsides of this are the interesting people I get to meet and locations experienced. However it seems that conferences that are well thought out and strategically utilized within the greater scheme of things are few and far between. Then there is the extravagance that usually accompanies such conferences (especially it would seems those linked to sales) and one cannot but wonder if the resources that it took to stage the conference could not have been better and more effectively utilized within the business.
But let me retreat a little and attempt something of an ‘idiots guide to conference planning’ that hopefully will save some a lot of money or at least ensure that their conference achieves more than they could have imagined. (Please note the use of the ‘third person’ here as not for one minute am I idiotic enough to regard you as an idiot. Notwithstanding my admiration for anyone who can write such a series with that title and still get people to by the books! )
The obvious starting place is to ask, ‘why a conference? It would seem that some ancient wisdom placed a conference in the corporate calendar and whilst there must have been good reason for doing so, the strategic motivation has given way to routine practice. ‚Nobody really remembers why we have the conference in the first place but we just do‛ was one more honest response I once received. By failing to revisit the ‘why?’ question it is easy to lose sight of why it was necessary to have a conference in the first place. I guess challenging standard assumptions and practices within business with the ‘why?’ question would be sound business practice‌ period! Why then are you having a conference? Answers such as the previous one, or derivatives thereof, are simply not good enough. There has to be a better reason than simply tradition or precedent when it comes to staging a conference.
The purposes for having a conference are as varied and surprising as Springbok lineout calls. Reasons can include strategic, motivational, review, announcements, teambuilding etc‌ and invariably when asked the purpose of a conference, one gets a mixture of all of the above and then some. This ‘one-stop’ approach is usually the start of the problem as too much is attempted in too short a time with the inevitable result that none of the intended objectives are really delivered.
A clear, articulate answer to this question will then shape the entire planning and execution of the event. Failure to understand the motivation for staging a conference inevitably leads to poorly executed events. And by this I am not implying that there can only be one singular purpose for staging a conference. However, the more outcomes added, the greater the complexity of putting the event together.
This settled, the next obvious question becomes, ‘who needs to be at the conference? A clearly determined focus will ensure that the right groupings of people are invited. This will extend to what type of external input is required for the conference programme. Shotgun approaches to speaker’s agents to fill the gaps can be avoided by a more deliberate approach to matching the purpose of the conference with resources needed to ensure the desired outcome. To give you a current example: this week a colleague and I are attending the same conference for a large corporate, invited through entirely different channels, to deliver two presentations‌and this is not the first time it has happened.
Conferences are also potentially great places to invite participation from the wider community linked to the business be that spouses, suppliers, clients, strategic partners etc‌but their involvement then needs to be deliberate and aligned with the purpose of the event.
Having determined the purpose for the conference and who should be there, the duration of the event needs to be considered. Again it seems an obvious aspect in planning a conference but so often poorly planned conferences either leave themselves short of time or seem to drag on way beyond their sell by date. In my experience the former scenario, too much to do and too little time to do it in, is the more common of the two. The purpose of the conference will shape how much time is needed and this in turn will be influenced by the numbers attending. For example, if the conference is to be strategic in nature with the intention to invoke participation, the number attending will largely determine the length of time needed. Aside from the old wisdom that holds that work will always expand to fill the time available, enough time needs to be planned to ensure that the needs of the agenda are met. The need to understand the dynamic of process is critical when attempting group formation or agendas that lean towards the strategic aspects, as process requires time. And when insufficient time is allocated to such matters the potential to do more harm than good is a very real threat.
This brings us to our next question‌
What is the desired outcome for each of the agenda items? It is all too easy to add agenda items to the conference list resulting in an impressive mass of ‘work to be done’. However, it is helpful to ask if the item is there for information purposes (in which case a good question to ask is, ‘is there not a better way to disseminate the information?’), discussion, debate and input, for a decision, or for ratification of a decision. Clarifying each of the stated agenda items through this filter can sharpen discussion and remove ambiguity from the conference. Agenda items can then be grouped appropriately. It is always a good tip to create some small wins by dealing with some of the ‘shallow water’ agenda items before heading into the deeper waters and rough seas. Another good tip in handing tough agenda items, especially when deadlocks occur, is to break away and re-establish momentum by dealing with some of the easier decisions / discussions before navigating back into the deep.
Careful consideration to such questions then allows one to plan a conference that is appropriate to the immediate context and beneficial to the greater cause. One needs to step back and review the flow and anticipate energy levels, highs and lows and ensure that there is some sort of continuity to the whole event. Of course considering an appropriate venue then becomes critical. British management guru, Charles Handy talks about the need for structure to precede form. In this context, answering the listed questions concerning conference represents the ‘structure’ and the venue, the ‘form’. The choice of venue needs to suit the purpose and intended outcomes of the conference, not the other way round.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, consideration should be taken to the bigger context. By this I mean looking at the conference in the context of what has gone before and what will come after the event. I believe that it is appropriate to plan conferences in cycles, whether that is in 3, 5 or (put a number in here) years is up to you. By planning ‘conference cycles’ it ensures that you avoid trying to do too much all at once. It also provides greater continuity and develops the corporate strategic muscle of the company.
Remember that whilst there are people who make a living from staging conferences and who, in many cases do a good job, conference is your responsibility. Guard that responsibility and ensure that your conference becomes a vital component in your success rather than a very expensive item in the budget that, when the dust has settled, has accomplished very little.

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