As I sifted through the nominations for our first-ever AM Innovators project, which seeks to identify people bringing innovation to association meetings, I kept thinking about a story U.K.-based facilitator and marketing consultant Johnnie Moore recently told on his blog (Johnniemoore.com/blog): “A few years back, a well-known consultancy decided to abandon its dress convention of dark suits and white shirts and said folks could dress casual. But quite soon, they decided to make it a bit clearer just what counted as casual and what was unacceptably scruffy. They thought they'd changed, [because] people were no longer wearing the boring suits. But just below the surface, they remained a company fixated on telling people how to dress.”

As meeting planners, you're often stuck in a similar conundrum. At its heart, a meeting is a meeting is a meeting, right? It's getting a group of people together to accomplish something, whether that something is learning how to do their jobs better, understanding regulations that govern an industry, increasing the scope of their professional networks, or figuring out how to build a better mousetrap. The foundations remain the same, as does the basic premise that people really should come to work wearing clothes.

But innovation still can — and does — happen. All it takes is a little shift in philosophy, whether it's changing a fixation on telling people how to dress, or moving away from the idea that the organization is the one to determine the worth of its meeting, rather than its attendees. The latter shift is what allowed one of our inaugural innovators, Dawn Poker, senior vice president and chief learning officer with the Credit Union Executives Society, to do something innovative with her meeting last fall. With its attendee base taking a big hit in the economic downturn, CUES wasn't too sure it would be able to keep attendance up. Playing off an idea from the band Radiohead, which let customers name their own price to download its CD, CUES implemented a pay-what-you-can strategy — and brought attendance up 35 percent in the eight weeks before the conference. The lower revenue from registrations was offset by avoiding hotel attrition fees — and everybody won.

While it's a lot easier to change the window dressing than the window itself, if you want true innovation, you need to get beneath the surface and question the validity of the philosophical infrastructure that shapes your current practice. Congratulations to this year's AM Innovators for being able to do just that.