business, career, education

Conferences – the good and the bad

I recently attended two conferences put on by Sports Business Journal in Los Angeles (Marina del Rey to be exact). I like the way SBJ does their conferences, so it got me thinking about what I like and don’t like at conferences.

I have probably attended over 100 conferences in my professional career (maybe close to 200), plus assorted training sessions which function similarly. I have been a speaker at least 25 conferences. I have had a hand in organizing over 20 conferences. These conferences have ranged from small gatherings to huge groups. They have covered industries/topics as varied as college sports, accounting issues, real estate, gaming, shared services, analytics, entertainment, media, and technology. Here are my top learnings. I think these learnings can help in a couple of ways – obviously for those organizing a conference to ensure “best foot forward;” but less obviously for those considering attending a conference you can look for these characteristics to see if the conference will provide value.

TIPS ON LOGISTICS

  • Conferences should be never be “one day” conferences. By extending to at least a second half day, you provide significantly more networking opportunities for the attendees.
  • Conferences should end by early afternoon on the last day, preferably by noon. This tends to keep folks attending the last day’s sessions but gives them time to catch flights home.
  • Plan the run of show to a detailed level and rehearse.
  • Get speaker slides, bios, and other info well in advance.
  • Ensure an active staff to interface with the hotel – to ensure proper room temperature, manage A/V issues, etc. These should be seamless to the attendees because you have put in the time and effort to ensure the event is planned well.

TIPS ON FORMAT

  • Provide ample time for networking, and the inevitable other work folks may need to take care of (calls, emails, etc.)
  • Provide forced but welcome networking opportunities. Get people up and moving in specific sessions that foster networking. Just because they have time for networking (see above) doesn’t mean they will use it for that purpose, so “make” them. One interesting way I’ve seen this done is to integrate personality and behavioral profiles, giving the attendees a takeaway and giving them topics for networking. I’ve also held sessions at conferences where the attendees break into groups that are logical (like by industry) but force them to meet new folks (by ensuring they don’t sit with others from their same company), and have them do some “work” – like identify the top three problems facing their industry and how they can be addressed.
  • For after conference cocktail parties, provide a hook. Unique entertainment, something to keep folks engaged and “loosen them up” and provide something for them to talk to each other about. This tip is especially useful for my fellow introverts. At the recent SBJ conference, a sponsor put on a ping pong tournament. .Great fun, engaging, and gave everyone something to do and talk about while enjoying finger foods and beverages.
  • There is a classic debate in conferences – individual speakers or panels? My view is that a mix is actually always the best. In fact this comment covers this bullet and the next bullet. The problems with a program of all individual speakers include added time needed to manage the preparation, reliance on high profile speakers showing up, and the fact that not all speakers are good at it. The problems with a program of all panels is that you need that many more speakers, they may not be inclined to prepare hoping the other panelists will carry the conversation, you need a good moderator to keep the panel pacing well and holding the audience’s interest. There are also pros to both styles, and I think a mix helps mitigate the cons.
  • The second classic debate is the style of presentation. So interview/free form discussion versus rehearsed presentation. Again a mix is usually best. Prepared presentations can bore an audience with poorly prepared PowerPoint slides they can’t even read, or get lost in a monotone voice. Free form discussion can wander and might never actually address the issues you wanted addressed in the first place.
  • Keep sessions as short as possible. This keeps the audience engaged, and awake, particularly if doing breakouts where they have to move between sessions. If the topics need more time to really be understood/discussed/debated, they are likely perfect candidates for a breakout session. So a rehearsed presentation at a high level gets the entire audience to understand the basics of the topic, and those that want to go deeper can during a breakout.
  • Give the audience a way to ask questions without shouting it out in front of everybody. Often, they will be too shy, especially if a large group. You can use text, email, etc. If you do take questions from the room at large, ensure staff with microphones are sprinkled throughout.

Coming back to what prompted this blog post, I’d like to compliment SBJ for achieving success in their conferences. I’ve been to four now, enough sample size to see the commonalities and know they didn’t “get lucky.” Here’s some of the things they do:

  • Flawless A/V and room and hotel logistics – temperature, meals, etc.
  • They often go with a complete program of interview style sessions, and rarely do breakouts. So they don’t fully follow my advice for variety, but their key to success is a combination of short sessions, mixing up the moderators, and changing between 1-on-1 interviews and panel discussions.
  • They provide time for networking and help facilitate it.
  • They have an iPad with the moderators where questions come in from the audience, and they interject them seamlessly into the discussion.

So if you are in the sports and entertainment industry, check out SBJ’s extensive list of conferences and consider attending. No, they didn’t pay me for the plug! If you are going to other conferences or are asked to help organize one, hopefully you can find success with some of the tips I provided.

 

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business, leadership

Book review – MOVE

“MOVE” is a book by Patty Azzarello. It is essentially a leadership book focused on how to execute. Ostensibly it is related to executing on either a large-scale strategic plan or an organizational transformation (or both). But I believe much of the book is applicable for any major project that has at least a 6-12 month timeline from inception to completion/monitoring stage. That is because the book focuses on the “middle” which is the time between the excitement of the launch and the completion of the strategy/transformation/project (if you are lucky enough to get there). Ultimately the book tries to overcome the natural reaction of most people to any change initiative: “Are we still doing this?”

I found the practical advice to be incredibly appropriate, relevant and easy to understand. I’m not sure yet about ease f implementation since I’ve just completed the book and begun to apply it’s advice. But I know there are whole sections (small and large) that are directly on point for things me and my leadership team struggle with. So much so that I’ve pulled specific passages and sections for some of my leaders – and for me – to refer to and start really working on.

MOVE is an acronym for Middle, Organization, Valor, and Everyone. When discussing the Middle, Patty focuses on a few very practical tips that I know my team has really missed: Control points (key metrics) that drive the right actions, ensuring the team takes action, and assessing the stakeholder landscape. The most poignant and pervasive of these to me is control points. The discussion reminds me in some ways to the points in “Turn the Ship Around” – when everyone understands the RIGHT measures and outcomes, you can micromanage less and it’s easier to hold each other accountable. One of Patty’s key points is to measure outcomes, not activity, because sometimes we can show a lot of activity by simply not fixing root causes of issues. If you can send the time agreeing on key control points, you also save your team from collecting a bunch of data for other metrics that don’t really lead to action.

Organization is about the right structure, and the right people, and then motivating those people to the right actions. The most meaningful elements of this section to me revolved around:1) driving conversation at all levels, to get ground up buy in to strategies; and 2) making “status” meetings more meaningful by getting the tactical and tangible information out of the meeting and into a status document which is a pre-read for a much more robust conversation as a group about where we are struggling, where resources are needed, what we are wasting our time on, etc.

Valor is about having courage and persistence through the long middle. There were several areas that I thought were very applicable to my team and our push to achieve our strategic plan in the face of expanding scope and a highly competitive environment:

  • “Burn the ships at the beach” which means that we aren’t going back, and we can’t let our people revert to the way things were.” And the example provided was eerily on point for us, a software development example where the developers were used to not using process but where process was the key to success. Patty was relentless in forcing the engineers and developers to apply process, regardless of how simple the change or how laborious the process. There was no going back to the old way. Part of the keys to success are to guard those who defend the new way, don’t lose your spine when folks try to go around those people to you, and constantly communicate that you believe in this and this is the way things will be.
  • The importance of prioritization to allow for scale and growth. Find the few things that if you fail at them will cause failure at the larger level, and stick with those. Don’t be reactive, be proactive every day working to prioritize for your team.
  • Don’t get caught up in detail. Move detail down in the organization, never up. Leaders must let go of detail, just ensure you have well-defined control measures that you know are the right ones to drive action and results.
  • Always strive for clarity, by communicating simply and often – don’t let others fill in the gaps of your communication. Ask layers of question to clarify and ensure that everyone actually agrees with the strategy and will take actions that support the strategy.

Everyone is about communication, which leads to empowerment. Patty covers similar change management concepts that you may be familiar with, about communicating multiple times in multiple ways. Again clarity is covered, such that the conversation becomes part of the dialogue at all levels of the organization. She also covers the power of making things visible and using “fables” to extend the message, such as celebrating those who stand up for the new way, creating rituals, and holding contests. She also explains better ways to do to-down communication, like weekly updates (CONSISTENT weekly updates) and tools like blogs, along with ideas for structured communication when multiple groups are involved in a project – structure that may take a bit of time to set up but that can remove all sorts of other communications and provide for greater speed of execution. And she gives great advice on listening, and how to solicit input directly from a variety of sources and give people tools to provide feedback.

I would recommend MOVE to any leader, as I believe in this day and age we all have large-scale initiatives that require massive amounts of change management and fortitude to be successful.

 

business, travel

Sometimes business travel doesn’t go as expected

I recently had a rough day and a half of traveling. Now, I don’t travel for business that much and I generally have pretty good luck. So I understand that you all have worse stories than this, and of course I didn’t run into any crazy over-booking situations. So I’m not trying to be dramatic, my intent is only to entertain.

My 36 hours started at 6 am eastern on 4/5 and ended at 6 pm Eastern on 4/6. Two delayed flights, one missed connection. None of these were red-eye flights.

  • 14 hours on planes – including 3 hours of delays
  • 9 hours in airport – 7 of those during delays
  • 4 hours of work
  • 3 hours in cars
  • 2 hours on calls
  • 2 hours meal breaks
  • 1 hour in meetings
  • 1 hour of real sleep (also obviously napped periodically on planes)

Boy was I glad to be home after that!

 

business

Too many SKUs (or brands)

I saw this article recently:

http://hotelnewsnow.com/Articles/128455/Marriott-gathers-select-service-GMs-to-lay-out-vision

I’m about to be pretty critical of the company and topic in this article, so I need to start with a caveat: I am a hug fan of Marriott International, its management team and its brands. I think they have executed really well for many years, led by Arne Sorenson as CEO. The merger with Starwood seems to e the right strategic move and if anyone can execute a successful integration it’s this team.

So what don’t I like about what I see in the article.

Too many SKUs

I have believed since the Marriott-Starwood merger was announced that the one area the company (or both companies) weren’t thinking correctly about was the “brand menu” – their portfolio of brands. Frankly, both companies were already going down a path of having too many brands. Combined, they have upwards of 30 brands. And despite the “clear” explanations of how to differentiate the brands in the attached article, I believe customers are going to be confused (if they aren’t already).

This is a common problem in business. Fast food companies are the poster child in my mind, with ever-expanding menus. Usually either an extension of existing core competencies, like different versions of a burger; or worse getting into new product lines. Then inevitably, management (sometimes new management) goes through a process to simplify the menu, leading to better results, leading to management getting comfortable and looking for “growth” and expanding the menu again…round and round we go. And of course other businesses like retail also can suffer from this problem.

Hotel companies have gotten comfortable since recovering from the recession, and looking for growth, and positive results feeding their belief that one of their core competencies is building new brands.

Next recession, my prediction is these brands start getting chopped. Focus will be restored.

Inward Thinking

Another symptom has to accompany this problem, and that is building the skill of explaining all of this SKU creep. Management starts to sound like consultants, describing how new brands will leverage existing competencies in new markets. Or how scale is needed to compete in the current market environment. Or how the new SKU will fill a needed market niche.

In the meantime, management spends so much time describing the brands, it can’t actually execute on making money with those brands And by the way, all the work Marriott is putting in with its own leaders to explain the brands, most of it is not sinking in. And to the end consumer, almost none of it is sinking in. They don’t actually see themselves like this:

“So let’s take Four Points and Courtyard, for instance. Those are two brands that you could argue are in the same space, same price point, all of that, and we’ve purposely put Four Points into my group so we can work to keep them apart,” she [Janice Milham, SVP and global brand leader of Marriott’s classic select brands] said. “And we really believe that Four Points is … targeting a customer that is sort of more relaxed: Kick back, have a beer, everything you need, nothing you don’t. It’s just more simple, easy. … (Meanwhile) Courtyard is a little more high energy, a little more … active, more of that customer who’s an up-and-comer; they’re a little bit more type A.”

So I’m type A, guess when I’m booking that business hotel in Chicago for two nights I will have to go with the Courtyard…but Four Points is $10 cheaper, and gee I actually do like beer…come on, this is why consumers hate going to those fast food restaurants I mentioned. When you are picking the #35 value meal something is wrong.

And check out poor Janice’s title – that alone tells you we’ve taken this too far.

All one really has to do is check the science, there have been great studies done on how SKU variations can actually paralyze consumers with too many choices. For example:

http://www.bain.com/Images/BAIN_BRIEF_Growth_through_simplicity_.pdf

http://www.marketingprofs.com/opinions/2008/22029/when-less-is-more-in-consumer-choice/

The moral of the story is to keep it simple when branding and when thinking of your product offerings. It’s what you want as a consumer, so give your own customers that same respect.

 

arena, business, travel

Musings on safety and security

I’ve been on a lot of planes lately, really for the last six months. Seeing the safety videos or hearing the safety announcements got me thinking…

Airlines are required to give the detailed instructions. They also have the information in the pamphlet in your seat back pocket. It happens on every flight, no matter what. I presume the intent is to ensure as few people get hurt or die in an emergency as possible. At least recently we have seen some creativity in the messaging, with Southwest flight attendants making jokes and others doing funny videos. I wonder how the safety information for a couple hundred people in an enclosed space compares to other examples.

If we check into a hotel, we don’t get a safety briefing. We get a laminated sheet of paper on the back of the door that tells us where to go if we evacuate, and some exit signs in the hallway. There are no oxygen masks or life vests needed, certainly. But a hotel may have hundreds or thousands of people in residence at any given time, and no briefing.

Cruise ships seem to be in a really tough spot – the most people yet, and an enclosed space, and on water. The only benefit is we don’t have to worry about air pressure at altitude. Given the risks, cruise ships take the most extreme measures. They make us practice an evacuation before the ship ever leaves port. Grab your life vest, meet in the lounge, listen to the captain’s orders, then –and only then – can you grab your first tropical drink in a souvenir glass. And during the cruise, the crew is regularly practicing safety drills.

OK that’s a good recap but so what. Well, I wonder if anyone has really challenged whether these industries have done a true risk/reward analysis on their safety information, and whether they should be more aligned. Maybe one of them is doing too much, for example, or some aren’t doing enough.

In the entertainment business we grapple with the same issues. We try to ensure our guests’ safety in a number of ways, and you have seen these measures increase over time. Security guards, then police presence, bag checks, then metal detectors, then limits on bag sizes, clear bags only, etc.

I only see this expanding from enclosed spaces like arenas and theaters to other spaces like nightclubs and even more open spaces like hotels and dense retail spaces. I would also expect much more collaboration and sharing of best practices among industries.

I do not expect, however, that arenas will add life vests under your seat or make you do an evacuation drill, but maybe a themed nightclub will drop oxygen masks from the ceiling someday. 🙂

 

business, leadership

Working Together

I was in a few sessions this week where I spent time with small groups from our teams. In some cases it was one department, with folks at different levels. In those cases, I thought it was great the insights that lower level folks had and how much value they added to the process, and I could see those at lower levels paying extra attention to the folks at higher levels and making those mental notes about how they were thinking about problems.

In other cases, it was folks from different departments working on a strategic initiative. They demonstrated great collaboration by working together to get the best answer for the issue they were working on. They then showed leadership courage to come discuss their approach with me (skipping a layer of management), and ensure they were on the right track or to hear any additional views that might add to their considerations. They also exercised one of the best process improvement and project management tools around – the “scrum” – where you get together frequently to discuss the issue or problem and the solutions, instead of the “staff” waiting until they are “done” and the work product is “perfect” before showing it to “leadership.” As you can tell from all my quote marks, none of these things is really accurate when addressing business issues. The better approach is regular short interactions with draft work product in stages and sections along the way. I learned this lesson from David Marquet in the book “Turning the Ship Around.”

In a final example, we had teams from across multiple areas discussing their strategies for maximizing revenue/sales for each of their teams. By generating open dialog, the groups learned that many of their initiatives could go across teams. In this way, they would make better use of their time (two team members didn’t have to go “sell” to a group in separate meetings) and there may be leads that could be cross-populated between the teams to generate more sales.

I encourage all of my teams to keep thinking as a team, and working as a team, like you see in the examples above. Hopefully you can apply these principles in your teams as well.

 

business, leadership

Vicious Circles and Virtuous Snowballs

In my last post, I referenced vicious circles and virtuous snowballs. These can occur in lots of areas of our lives, whether with habits, relationships, strategies or tasks. If we do the wrong thing, it can set in motion a string of bad things. A true vicious circle is one where there is a direct correlation between the two events. Let’s look at an example – a basketball player misses a few shots, starts to “press” and get stressed about missing a few shots, causing him/her to lose form and miss more shots, which cause him/her to press more…you see. Imagine the opposite scenario, where the player makes a few shots, becomes more relaxed so his/her mind is clear and can translate all the practice into good form, making more shots, becoming more relaxed, etc.

In leadership and work situations, I feel the most common vicious circles (or at least the ones I’ve witnessed and experienced) occur when time becomes short, when projects get backlogged, when we don’t prioritize. So it looks like this: We can’t get around to completing a process improvement project, meaning we have re-work and other inefficiencies, which causes us to work longer just to get the basic process completed, meaning even less time to finish the process improvement project that would fix the issue.

Notice how “easy” it is in concept to turn a vicious circle into a virtuous snowball   If we could finish the process improvement project, we would complete the base process faster, leaving more time for further process improvement projects, saving even more time, etc.

So how do you turn a vicious circle into a virtuous snowball? It may depend on the situation, but I think taking a few cues from sports is relevant here again. When a golfer gets into a “slump” he or she may take a few weeks off from the tour to work with their coach, going back to some fundamentals. We can’t take off a few weeks of processes in most of our work lives, but we can re-prioritize time. We can get some distractions off our plate (maybe asking for support from others on certain tasks, or getting a deferred deadline for some tasks). We can put in a few extra hours on the issue at hand – whether it’s some quality time with our team to re-establish our trust and align on our goals, or to huddle as a group to resolve the underlying issue causing us to fall behind.

Usually these problems are resolved through a combination of solutions. Temporary assistance on the root cause of the issue, like bringing in a consultant to help fix the process issues. Sometimes its permanent staffing increases, to both resolve the current overload as well as work on improvement projects more long-term. But I find that these and other solutions only last if you do two other things: 1) prioritize, and agree to remove or defer material amounts of “stuff” that has creeped into your world, and 2) investing in the training/coaching time with the team to both do #1 and teach them how to think more process and project oriented. Nothing better than a little Lean Process Management to clear out the system. Most of us just have too much junk in our systems, but if we don’t know the proven processes and techniques to de-clutter our work, we will not turn the vicious circles into virtuous snowballs, we may just achieve some temporary relief.

So get drastic – we use the term RUTHLESSLY PRIORITIZE in my team. Free up time, then hold everyone accountable for using that time to invest in developing your collective abilities to make sustained change, to build virtuous snowballs.