Do you have an overwhelming urge to pound your head against the wall when your great idea on improving the annual convention is shot down because “we have always done it that way,” so why change anything? Just say no to that kind of thinking, say the authors of We Have Always Done It That Way: 101 Things About Associations We Must Change. “Meetings are bastions of orthodoxy,” says co-author Jeffrey De Cagna, chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC, Reston, Va. “There are elements that no one questions, and the assumptions behind why they exist are never challenged or tested. That has to change.”

You may not always like or agree with the authors' ideas on what meetings-related sacred cows belong in the barbecue pit, but, as Susan Sarfati, CAE, president and CEO of The Center for Association Leadership and executive vice president of ASAE and The Center, said in her forward to the book, “The group's goal is not to generate consensus around their solutions, but to spark controversy, create new discourse, and, hopefully, identify breakthrough solutions.”

Here are 10 of the many traditions the co-authors would like to blow up when it comes to meetings, and what they'd replace them with.

  1. Preaching to the Choir

    Most meetings cater to the views of the association's base: its leaders, staff, and volunteers. De Cagna says, “Let's reflect the full spectrum of views, even the ones that are outside of the mainstream of the association's beliefs. If you stop thinking of the meeting as being about that small cadre of members and start thinking of it as a gathering of a much broader audience and community, then there's good reason to make your meeting about more than the 20 or 30 sessions on the same topics with little variation from year to year.”

    But that could mean including controversial topics. So what? asks De Cagna. “That's how people get interested in what you're doing. It creates passion and excitement, even if it also can create some pushback against the organization,” he says. “If meetings are viewed just as ways to implement traditional approaches, you lose the opportunity to set the association up for a more prominent role in the community it's trying to serve.” Meetings that water down or sanitize controversial topics to minimize controversy and maximize efficiency don't provide the rich experience today's attendees crave. “You get that richness by expanding the perspectives, not narrowing them.”

  2. What's Good for One is Good for All

    Co-author C. David Gammel, CAE, president of High Context Consulting LLC in Silver Spring, Md., says that sometimes you're better off dealing with people individually instead of issuing blanket statements. If, for example, one exhibitor crosses the line with advertisers, don't send out a statement to all exhibitors admonishing them or asking them not to do something they probably wouldn't have thought of doing anyway. “If you constantly send out those messages, instead of talking about the value of the meeting, you're being counterproductive.”

    Similarly, don't have blanket policies and disempowered staff who can't make exceptions, says co-author Mickie S. Rops & Associates Inc., Overland Park, Kan. “I once had a boss who insisted that I follow ‘the rules’ and deny the occasional speaker request to add an extra hotel night to their stay,” she says. “The proposition was win/win — the speaker gets to stay another night in a beautiful hotel, and we save hundreds of dollars (in the days of Saturday-night discounts). It sounded like a no-brainer to me, but my boss was a rule-follower, so we followed the rules, spent more money than necessary, and disenfranchised member speakers. I've also seen managers hold firm to a ‘no rental cars’ policy for staff when the cumulative cab-fare costs will double or even triple the cost of rental.”

    While some policies and procedures need to be enforced consistently under all circumstances, others are enforced just because they exist, without any consideration of why they were created and if that reasoning still applies. “It is important for meeting planners to look at the policies, procedures, and even unwritten rules. Consider which of them are truly non-negotiable and which [can be negotiated],” says Rops. “Then consider how you can empower your staff to make exceptions, when warranted. You'll need to invest some time in training and providing guidance on when exceptions should or should not be made.”

  3. A Good Session is a Popular Session

    The old metric of success — people standing in the aisles and maxed-out session rooms — also needs some rethinking, says De Cagna. “That's a way of looking at whether something was popular, but not whether attendees are learning anything.”

    For example, he cites a session he co-led on knowledge sharing and knowledge creation. The session leaders covered the room with maps, diagrams, text, and other things having to do with knowledge sharing. They then handed out an instruction sheet that told people to find something that moved them, energized them, or drew them for some reason, and then to find other people who felt the same way about that object and have a conversation about it. Then De Cagna and his co-leader left the room for 20 minutes or so. When they returned, conversations were flowing, and they facilitated the rest of the session by asking how people felt about what they just experienced and showing them that this is the way the actual knowledge environment works. You don't always have someone there to guide you.

    But, the objection goes, people may not like that. They may leave. “So what if they leave?” De Cagna says. “What matters is that some people will stay, and they will get a real education in what it's like to do X or Y. It's interesting that so many organizations are paying lip service to encouraging originality, but what they're really looking for is something that sounds or feels original but really is nothing new.”

  4. Complex Meetings Need Complex Solutions

    Gammel says that sometimes we get in our own way and complicate things that don't need to be complicated. Take the registration page on a meeting Web site. “Look closely at the process people have to undergo to register for your conference. How many screens do they have to go through? How much data do they have to give you? Winnow it down to the bare minimum required. You can collect other data from them at other times, but your key objective here is to get them registered for the conference.” Since Web sites usually are developed by consensus, they often end up being a laundry list of everything everyone wanted instead of focusing on what they need to achieve — getting people to register for the conference — he says.

    The more complicated the meeting is, the greater is the need for simplicity, De Cagna adds. This could mean spending more on signage and less on floral arrangements and banners, because “there's nothing more frustrating than not being able to find your way through a convention center. How do you make it easy for people to find anything related to the meeting? That's the biggest challenge for citywide, multiproperty meetings,” he says. “The easier we can make it for people to find the session, person, or exhibitor they want to find, the more they can focus on the social and content-related things that really matter to them.”

    De Cagna also asks, why not include a “download to calendar” button on the meeting Web site, as some airlines do, so those who prefer to look at the schedule on their own BlackBerries can do so easily, without having to type everything in? The programming expertise to do this exists, and it's relatively inexpensive, he says. “Meeting professionals are demanding that hotels, convention centers, audiovisual companies, and others they deal with make it easy for them to work with that company, and now meeting professionals' stakeholders are demanding the same from them.”

  5. If We Say Ii, It's So

    “People get on the band-wagon that an organization's culture is important, so they put up posters about customer service, or quality, or teamwork,” says co-author Jamie Notter, principal and co-founder of Association Renewal LLC, Gaithersburg, Md. “But if you say a core value is teamwork, and you give bonuses based on individual performance metrics, people aren't going to be team-focused.” It's not enough just to say something is true, especially when it comes to meetings. For example, he says, if your meeting theme is “connection” and you're spread out over 25 hotels, are you practicing what you preach? “A lot of a meeting's success is around image and marketing and creating a mind-set of what the meeting will be. You have to be very careful that the experience matches that expectation.”

    And that goes double when it comes to diversity, which all too often is looked at as a numbers game, says Rops. “As a meeting planner, you must stop yourself from the ‘token minority’ mind-set. Simply counting heads to ensure you have a certain number of minorities on the program is doing your attendees and yourself a disservice.” Instead, she recommends considering how you can add depth of perspective and a variety of ideas to the event's conversations by bringing together different members of diverse groups — different backgrounds, different cultures, different ages, and even different personalities or styles. “Yes, heads may knock a bit, but out of that collision just may come a few (or many) great ideas.”

  6. It's all about the Annual Meeting

    “We're moving toward a tipping point where as many people feel comfortable living their lives online as they do in the physical world,” says De Cagna. “That's very threatening to associations because they are, understandably, about the face-to-face component. There's a concern, which I think is largely misplaced, that blogs, podcasts, wikis — all these technologies — will supplant what [associations are] trying to do over time.” Instead, he says, associations should think of these tools as companions to the face-to-face experience, and embrace them rather than feel threatened by them.

    Think about it: If 5,000 of your 20,000 members come to the annual meeting, how are you serving the needs of the other 15,000? “There are all those people who proposed sessions who could not be accommodated at the meeting — you can't do 1,000 sessions if you have space for only 300,” says De Cagna. “Why not reach out to those who didn't get on the schedule and ask them to record two or three 20-minute segments on their topic, which can be posted to the association's Web site and made available to all members. We could call it, ‘The Annual Meeting, Podcast Edition.’”

    And it could benefit the attendees as well. De Cagna suggests recording these alternative sessions in advance and pre-loading them in MP3 players that are handed out to attendees (you can embed the cost of the MP3 players in the registration fees — and you don't need expensive iPods). That way, he says, you could add a new dimension to the experience by letting those who don't want to sit in a session learn something valuable on their own. “It closes the gap between those who primarily value face-to-face experiences and those who equally value virtual experiences. Those of us who are comfortable in both venues have a responsibility and an opportunity to bring both sides of learning and social association experiences together around meetings.”

  7. What Happens at the Meeting, Stays at the Meeting

    Gammel says that the Web is changing the expectations of those coming out of school now about how they interact with companies and associations. “They're used to MySpace, FaceBook, and other sites where they can have an impact. They're either adding content and building relationships through a site, or rating products and posting reviews.” So, when they join an association and learn that someone new to the field probably won't have much impact for the first 10 years, they will not be happy about it. While he admits that most organizations aren't going to be willing to let attendees evaluate speakers online, for example, “because sessions that bomb are going to bomb more publicly than in front of just the 20 people who attended. [But] you have to have an organizational culture where having something bomb publicly is accepted as a learning opportunity in and of itself.”

    Most associations don't have that culture, though, to which Gammel says, “That'll have to change.”

    Creating greater involvement, participation, and transparency, Gammel says, will help associations get back to their roots. The life cycle of an association, he says, begins with few staff, and the group is peer-driven and full of passion and involvement. As the group grows, you add a bureaucracy and more staff, and the passion and involvement of the rank-and-file members diminishes. “Just letting people do something as simple as commenting or rating something, or adding a page to your site for them to contribute to, allows people to feel they have made a meaningful contribution to their profession, particularly for those who are new to the field, and [this] brings back some of that passion.”

  8. Content is King

    Not anymore, says Rops. Now that associations vie as content producers with everything from journals, magazines, blogs, white papers, books, competing conferences, and e-learning, to name a few sources, context is sharing the throne. “Context is critical for understanding and thus for learning,” she writes in the book, “because it is context that gives meaning to content.” Some of her suggestions include planning tracks “as coordinated curricula with identified learning objectives for each session that complement and build upon each other”; setting attendees up with materials they can read ahead of time so “the speaker can take attendees to the next level of understanding, rather than just summarizing the book's contents”; and encouraging speakers to offer more than talking heads by building meaningful case studies and problem-solving activities. “Attendees can get the basic content elsewhere; have the speakers help attendees see how they can apply the content in their worlds,” she writes.

  9. You have to Please Everyone

    Notter flat-out says that you can't please everyone. One association he works with is undergoing a series of focus groups to differentiate the needs of the various generations that make up its membership. It's important not to view the membership as one giant lump, of course, but once you add an age-demographic question to your speaker evaluations to determine what speaker-related generational differences there are, you have to make some choices. “What if everyone under 50 loved a speaker, and everyone over 50 hated him? In some cases, you just have to choose who you want to please with your meetings,” says Notter.

    Another association he works with is identifying the different niches that make up its constituencies. But what do you do with that information? “Do you want to run 16 annual conferences, one for each niche? There may be tracks and sessions you highlight in certain ways to appeal to those niches, but if it's people over 50 or in a certain niche that drive your success, they have to come first.”

  10. Session Evaluations are Meaningful Planning Tools

    “There's a fundamental problem with speaker evaluation sheets,” says De Cagna. “They assume you can judge every speaker on the same set of metrics.” For example, he says, take a speaker presenting on a Web-based topic who uses the Web to demonstrate ideas, rather than giving a paper handout. Should that speaker be marked down for not providing the handout? If a speaker gets all 5 ratings because she does some fairly basic material really well, and another takes risks and pushes back on attendees' assumptions and doesn't score as well, does that mean that the attendees didn't learn from the latter speaker? “It's like the difference between giving people a bowl of ice cream and giving them a bowl of spinach that they know they should eat, but don't like,” De Cagna says. “Too many evaluations just ask if they liked a session, not whether they learned from it.”

The problem, he says, is that many associations, because of the large number of speakers at their annual meetings, ask questions about only the lowest common denominators, such as speaker knowledge of a topic and whether or not they provided handouts. “You're not going to learn anything about whether the speaker made a difference, based on those types of questions,” he says. And those 1-to-5 Likert scales have to go, he adds. “Unless it was really great or really awful, most people just pick the No. 3. You have to look at the comments to find anything meaningful.”

De Cagna proposes that associations, instead, aim to provide more meaningful comparisons among different types of speakers by providing different types of evaluations. “It would be relatively easy to come up with three or four categories on which they'd be evaluated and to ask speakers to identify the category their type of presentation belongs in. Then you'd get an evaluation report that would be more meaningful.”

For more challenges to conventional wisdom about associations and their meetings, see We Have Always Done It That Way: 101 Things About Associations We Must Change, available at

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Tell us what you think: Are these folks on the money? Prophetic? Deranged? Naive? Drop Editor Sue Pelletier a note at, or call (978) 448-0377 to share your views on these proposals or your own take on what we must change about association meetings.