Designing a Breakthrough Business Conference

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Organizations routinely undertake to organize a business conference at an exotic location, either as a yearly or a half-yearly event. These are often termed as a strategy meet, a sales conference, annual team meet, etc. and organized for varied team sizes. The purpose of these events is part celebration and part business planning (i.e. reviews, goal setting, visioning, strategy formulation, action plans, etc.). Organizations invest a significant amount of their resources (both time and money) and some team members make huge efforts in making such events, a remembered one for all attendees.

This article would like to provide insights as to how organizations can optimally leverage the collective time and power of the teams to achieve higher impact at such events. These get-togethers offer a unique opportunity to collectively move the organization forward. It can be a platform to literally invent the future, rather than keep living in the past. It can also be an opportunity to unleash the cumulative creative energies of the teams & foster greater ownership. It can be a magical event, rather than an outing to remember!!

All it takes is as much focus on planning & designing the conference, as is given to the selection of locations, booking of resorts & tickets. We, the authors, have had some experience in designing & conducting successful business conferences & would like to share our experience & offer some practical insights, which can help turn your next such outing into a high energy event with tangible outcomes.

The greatest contribution that the Learning & Development (L&D)/ Organizational Development (OD) function can offer to the Business/Function heads is to help identify a methodology which can underlie the design of such a conference. We, at C2X, have deployed certain systematic methodologies and the one that we have successfully deployed most is known as Appreciative Inquiry (AI); especially a powerful, applied and experiential variant of the AI methodology known as AI Summit. AI emerged from the doctoral work of David Cooperrider & Frank Barrett at Case Western Reserve University where they were working under the guidance of their thesis supervisor Suresh Srivastava. To appreciate means to ‘value’ & to inquire means to ‘ask questions’. At a fundamental level, AI seeks to uncover what creates value in the organization as of today. And in this process, also create greater value & propel the organization forward in the future! In the past few years, it has gained significant traction as a positive methodology for organization change & development.

The starting point of AI is the unconditional positive question, which moves the inquiry towards what is working well, what is giving life to the organization; to discover the positive core. For example, try out a positive question for yourself: Think back to a time at work that you recall as a highpoint of your career at your current organization (or your previous organization) and answer: 1) Please describe what happened & what made it so memorable? 2) What did you learn about your strengths and gifts?

In an AI Summit, which is typically a two day event, teams discover this positive core and utilize the AI methodology to co-create a compelling future, which they want to live into. Compared to the traditional top-down approach where the leader typically does a “tell & sell” of his/her vision, AI seeks to get the vision co-created. In the Tell & Sell approach, the leader tries to galvanize the team, whereas AI is an organic process where the very act of creation & contribution fosters a sense of ownership. In today’s context, where organizations grapple with releasing the creative energies of members & ensure “discretionary effort”, such an approach towards business planning can be quite empowering.

There is another quagmire in which traditional business planning conferences get stuck. Very often while planning their objectives teams turn to the past & start setting “incremental” goals. This is akin to inflation linked goal setting. This can quite literally create a “gravity pull” which can be quite difficult to escape.

The AI Summit approach side-steps this quagmire quite beautifully. Once the positive core is identified, the teams move into creating the vision of the long term future. Known as “dreaming” stage, it literally transposes the teams towards releasing their fondest hopes & deepest desires. This future, once envisioned, can & does have a “magnetic pull” for the teams which have contributed towards creating it.

Once this compelling future is envisioned, the business goals/projects/initiatives emanate from this imaged future, leveraging the best of the past and the “gravity pull” of past is defied. Hence this vision of the future provides the organization with the ‘escape velocity” to move into the next orbit.

Though the AI Summit methodology is quite powerful on its own, we, at C2X have added another powerful dimension to it i.e. Experiential Learning. In essence it is about creating a few experiences for the group & then correlating the data generated then & there, with validated & researched models/frameworks. The leadership team gets involved with the entire team and they together experience it. Genuine bonding happens.

Participants are able to see beyond other persons daily behavior, acceptance and a need to help each other emerges. The team members feel validated, valued and a part of the entire growth story. This makes it a unique experience for the entire team!!

The “A-Ha” which happens literally fuses or creates new neural pathways & insight gets generated.

Real insights changes the “seeing” & “being” of the participants. With this mindset, we have introduced “Experiential learning” into the AI Summit.

Through carefully designed & intelligentlyfaci litated “learning interventions” before & during the AI Summit, we “prime” the participants & empower them with empowering beliefs & ways of being. This enhances the level of participation & possibility of success of the conference & also the follow through. Such a mix of the powerful and experiential AI framework & insightful learning intervention results in engagement, fun, camaraderie creative work, provides memories and long lasting learnings.

A blue-print of the compelling future, based on bed-rock of past success & embodying the fondest desires of the entire group is created. This serves as a template for the organization for years to come as they work towards making this future a reality. An important point to also note is that we live in a dynamic world and it is imperative for teams to be flexible in finding out their paths for implementing actions for intended co-created outcomes.

We hope that we have been able to showcase that organization’s can turn business conferences from an outing to remember to a magical event. Our role is to empower business leaders with the possibility that there are methodologies which can help unleash the true creative energies of their functions/ businesses. All we need to do is to pay as much attention to the design of the conference as we do to booking the tickets and hotels!! All organizational members deserve it!! Let’s become a catalyst to create conferences which are memorable & captivating!!

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