Channeling Disruptive Thinking for Your Next Event

Innovative? Creative? Progressive? That’s for amateurs. If you want to effect real change, according to Luke Williams, you have to get disruptive.

“I’m not talking about little tweaks here and there,” Williams writes in Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business. “I’m talking about a way of thinking that surprises the market again and again with exciting, unexpected solutions. A way of thinking that produces an unconventional strategy that leaves competitors scrambling to catch up. A way of thinking that turns consumer expectations upside-down and takes an industry into its next generation. It’s what I call disruptive thinking.”

Executive director of the Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Williams will deliver the Closing General Session — brought to you by Meet Puerto Rico — at the PCMA Education Conference in Toronto this month. Recently he talked to Convene about busting the myth of small-scale innovation, embracing disruptive hypotheses, and rooting out the clichés of meeting planning.

Does disruptive thinking have to happen at a particular scale?

It can happen at any scale. I think one of the common misconceptions is that disruptive thinking is something that is best done by startups, small-scale enterprises. And my message is that we have to bust that myth. This is a style of thinking that can be applied just as effectively by large-scale organizations. Startups or small-scale enterprises have a little bit of an advantage because they can be a bit more nimble, but if large-scale organizations embrace the process and set it in motion, they can have tremendous results.

The other part of that question is, disruptive innovations never start large-scale in terms of market. If you’ve got a disruptive idea, you never go to your internal stakeholders or investors saying, “You know, this is going to be huge. We’re going to tap the mainstream market, the middle of the bell curve.” They always start at the edge of that bell curve, which in academic terms is the “diffusion of innovations”; it’s defined as the early adopters. In non-academic terms, these are the people that love change, they love wanting to experiment with new things. They’re the bit you’ve got to target initially, and you’ve got to get them excited. They’ll help you improve the solution, and they’ll help you spread the solution to the mass market.

How do you balance between disruptive thinking that is appropriate and necessary versus disruptive thinking that is just disruptive for its own sake?

Well, this is a critical point, and this is why the device of coming up with a “disruptive hypothesis” is so important. When you hear the word hypothesis, most people think of the scientific method, because that’s where the definition comes from — you make a reasonable prediction that you can then test to validate. So, if I had a blank screen on my cell phone, I would make a reasonable prediction that the battery is flat. I would then plug it in. If the screen comes on and starts working, hypothesis correct; if it doesn’t, I need a new hypothesis. That’s the scientific method.

With disruptive hypotheses for innovation, you don’t make a reasonable prediction, you make an unreasonable provocation. We would start by thinking, why on Earth does the cell phone even need a battery at all that is charged from electricity? I’m carrying it around with me all day, why shouldn’t the kinetic energy generated by my movement be enough?

The difference is profound, and the reason this relates back to your question is, normally somebody comes up with an absurd idea — something that doesn’t seem to immediately suggest that it would deliver value in any way — and people who are trained in business, particularly if they’ve got an MBA, instantly dismiss it. If you’re a leader and you’re expected to make a bet on an idea, you’re going to choose the ideas that you think are the right ones, and the ideas you think are right are the ones that track best with your experience of what has been successful in the past.

This is how organizations start embracing incremental change without even knowing it, and this gets them into a very dangerous position, because they get themselves on a path that becomes narrower and narrower. It’s inevitable that at some point, the organization is going to reach the end of that path, where they can’t make any further incremental changes to their existing product, service, or business model. And by the time they do reach the end of the path, their customers, particularly their most profitable ones, have forsaken them for a new offering that nobody saw coming.

How might meeting professionals apply disruptive thinking to the events they plan?

I speak at one or two events a week. I’ve got a lot of respect for the industry — these are hardworking, creative, amazing people. But the No. 1 thing I hear from conference attendees is, why are these things all the same? It’s literally the same format for every conference. If you go back 50 years, you could probably even go back 100 years, to see how conventions or conferences were run, the model of people coming in, registering, seeing speakers — the decisions that underlie the orthodoxies were made in a different age and a different context. But the industry is still being driven by those decisions.

The first part of this process is to encourage meeting planners to surface what we call the clichés. The clichés are the widespread beliefs that seem to govern the way everybody is thinking about doing business in a particular space. I would start by auditing, what does a person go through when they’re coming to an event? I would look at it from the customer perspective, and I would surface all the clichés: how somebody signs up for the event, how they become aware of it in the first place, how they first arrive at the event, the need to wear a name badge. I would surface the clichés in terms of timings for presentations, that they’re 45 minutes to an hour for keynotes, that you then have parallel sessions.

It’s important to surface those, because in the meeting-planning industry, with no exception, people don’t realize how much of a hold these clichés have on their imagination. We have to free ourselves from seeing the way things are right now to have any chance of seeing what they might become.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.