Cost-Cutting Is a Near-Constant task of meeting-planning staff. Almost from the beginning of each fiscal year, our collective fear that we won't “hit the numbers” or “make budget” is all-consuming, which can lead to some very ill-considered strategic judgments. The concern becomes particularly acute in the fourth quarter of the fiscal year, especially if the annual meeting or other major conference or trade show is scheduled during that 90-day period. It's a make-or-break time, in which every nonessential expense is frozen in place until it's clear whether the organization will be in the black.

Organizations often have limited resources, and it requires discipline to invest those dollars wisely. This is where innovation enters the picture, because innovation is, in fact, an investment in your organization's future, not a frivolous expense. Innovation is not linear, and it's often messy, but when pursued consistently, it is a remarkably effective way to create distinctive new value for those we serve.

No matter how much “fat” we slice off our budgets, eventually all of our organizations must have financial growth to survive and thrive. But if there's nothing to invest in growth activities because it's all been cut away, eventually all we will have left are the skeletal remains.

Generative Constraints

What can meetings professionals do to turn cost-cutting into an innovation opportunity? First, I suggest applying “generative constraints” to inspire creative solutions to vexing problems. For example, if your opening reception budget has been cut from $3,000 to $2,000, try conducting a brainstorming session to develop ideas that would allow you to hold a spectacular reception for only $1,000! By further reducing the available resources, you open the door to new ideas that might otherwise not be considered.

Core Investment Principles.

Another step is to reduce all nonstrategic spending associated with your meetings, meaning anything that does not directly advance the underlying purpose of the event. We all want to believe that everything we do at our meetings has some kind of strategic purpose, no matter how peripheral it might be. But my advice is to look holistically at all of the meetings that you plan and establish a set of core investment principles that outline the strategic top-priority areas to which your organizations should allocate its resources without exception. Once those principles are in place, use them as a platform for reducing costs and encouraging innovation.

Take Google, for example. The company is well-known for innovation but, contrary to popular belief, it is not innovative because it is a multibillion-dollar company. Google is a multibillion-dollar company because it innovates. While no one expects organizations to become huge enterprises like Google, the ethic of innovation that Google and other organizations embody is something that planners must learn and adapt to their own purposes. If we cannot embrace this way of thinking, we will continue to pay the real costs of failure.

Jeff De Cagna is chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC, Reston, Va. You can reach him at jeff@principledinnovation.com.