In the first few lines of the introduction to Rules of Thumb: How to Stay Productive and Inspired Even in the Most Turbulent Times, Alan Webber lays the foundation for the book: “These are extraordinary times. In our work, our lives, and everything in between we are witnessing change that is so fast and unpredictable that our first challenge is simply to make sense of it. Globalization, technology, and the knowledge economy have propelled countries, industries, companies, and individual careers into new and uncharted territory.”
That uncharted territory was the stomping ground for Fast Company (FC) magazine, which Webber co-founded in 1995 and then sold five years later — the second-largest sale in magazine history.
I recall visiting Webber at FC’s Boston office after the first issue was published to talk about his vision for this new venture. The office’s contemporary, open-space design was bold and colorful
— the perfect venue for the magazine’s exciting, cutting-edge, risk-taking focus.
Since the sale of FC, Webber has written several business books in addition to Rules of Thumb, including his first ebook, 2010’s The Global Detective, and spoken at conferences around the world. It’s an environment in which he’s a native rather than a visitor. After all, Webber helped establish FC as both a magazine and an events company. I was delighted to catch up with him in Santa Fe, where he now lives, to learn about the events side of the FC enterprise.
Let’s dig right in. The world of meeting design and delivery in some ways remains stuck. Why do you think that is?
Most organizations do not keep up with change. At FC, we always referred to meetings as “gatherings,” as we were into creating a new language and into simple-speak. Words always matter.
Before FC existed, [FC co-founder] Bill Taylor -my partner in crime — and I decided that we would test a set of ideas behind FC by having a gathering. We found an underwriter to support an event that we called an “Advance.” Because a retreat, a commonly used term, means going backward, we preferred “Advance,” which looks forward.
We held the Advance in Santa Fe and invited 50 cool people from business, consultants, academics — thinkers, doers, and smart people. The organizing question for the Advance was “How do you overthrow a successful company?” The metaphor was that we [would] put your organization on the operating table and diagnose what was wrong. These were all successful companies, but what about their future?
The atmosphere was informal, interesting, curious, equalitarian, and freewheeling, leading to significant outcomes. The Advance confirmed our theory that it is useful to have another conversation about business that was not offered by established publications, helped grow our FC vocabulary, created a group of early adoptors, generated seed money, and began FC’s evolution as an idea incubator. The real story is that before there was a magazine, there was an event.
Was there one event or several?
The Advance was our first event, and then we added several more. We were both a magazine and an events business. We hired amazing, committed, talented people to run the events, who were passionate about the magazine and the events. We were team-oriented and collaborative.
We continued the Advances by invitation. They were carefully designed and held in cool places. We sought people who demonstrated a particular quality of mind, curiosity, entrepreneurial thinking; people who were trying new things and were influential in their sectors.
The Advances were test kitchens, and after FC was launched, we did at least one Advance a year, recording them and turning the content into Fast Company articles. Events became a feedback loop.
We also created Real Time, attracting 1,000-plus people. Attendees experienced FC in real time. Instead of reading it, people were also doing it! Many of the speakers appeared in Fast Company’s pages. It was a brilliant strategy, because it was an opportunity to listen to readers and they paid to tell us what they wanted to read.
Why did you make some events by invitation rather than open them to anyone who was interested?
The Advances were a very select group of people who provided ideas, served as influencers, and carried forward FC ideas. Interesting folks met and formed their own club or tribe. Many lifelong friendships and new businesses were started.
We learned that planners work as hard to deliver a small event as a large one. We always charged for every event to at least cover costs and often to make a profit.
From the first issue onward, we articulated Fast Company as the place for new business conversations. We insisted on having the first word and not the last. We were very explicit that we wanted to sponsor conversations that would fundamentally change how business was done.
Over time, readers would send us emails and say, “I am in Columbus, Ohio, and I love your magazine. Are there other subscribers in Columbus with whom I can connect in person?” So, The Company of Friends was created, which was our version of the Elks Club or Chamber of Commerce, but for people who were different in generation and thinking. They wanted to gather on their own terms, to develop a different vocabulary, feel, and design sensibility. We supported the organization of hundreds of Company of Friends chapters all over the world. The first one that I attended was in Paris.
So they would say, “Friday night at this restaurant, there is a Company of Friends gathering. One of the authors of a Fast Company article is in town; we will have a short speech and then a conversation about it.”
This format became so popular that we gathered the conveners and had a summit about how to make The Company of Friends an even stronger and more powerful tool.
How did you monetize The Company of Friends?
We didn’t. It wasn’t our goal. It did increase subscriptions, advertising sales, and contributed to FC’s overall growth and health.
We wanted our advertisers to realize that we have the most involved and engaged readers of any magazine in America. We had loyalty from people globally who clamored to affiliate with us. We figured the money would take care of itself, and it did.
One of the things we learned at FC is that authenticity is very often the coin of the realm. You can promise all kinds of things, but you must match words to actions. Organizations have a short window to demonstrate authenticity of purpose, values, and a sense of why they are in business and what’s in it for the customer.
Your organizing question at the first Advance was how to overthrow a successful organization. Why?
If you don’t overthrow your own successful organization, then someone else will do it to you. We saw a world where young entrepreneurial startups were overthrowing large successful organizations because they had a very different and better business model. FC was based on disrupting the typical business model to ensure a better future.
We can disrupt businesses and events with a different design, look and feel, vocabulary, and a different connection to the customer. If we are disruptors, we will end up creating a more positive future. That is what we believed, and exactly what happened. You can go down the list of successful companies and note that the ones on the top are the disruptors. Twenty years ago, we were saying [that] everything you take for granted, all the assumptions you are making about how your business model works, how your employees and customers feel about it, how you make money, how you create value, where you compete — will all change. The same is true today about meetings and events. Planners agree but are not necessarily acting on it.
The real thing that associations want is to influence people by connecting in conversations at live events, places where people are viscerally present.
Let’s talk about the staff that FC hired to design and produce events. What characteristics did you seek?
We looked for people who were not hard-wired in a particular field. When we hired writers early on, we found that most people applying for these jobs were coming from other publications and arrived with bad habits. We would rather hire a person with no track record but with passion than someone who has to unlearn.
Our events staff was high-energy — innovators, collaborators, risk takers. They wanted to be part of something bigger than just an event. They cared about language and thinking differently. Find bite, wind, and energy — this was our mantra. Energy is created by juxtaposition and not by bland language. Our events team knew that design mattered; the look and feel of everything mattered.
You say, “If you really have the capacity to change, design is the basis for that change — it’s what makes it possible.” How can we create meetings using design thinking?
Everything I have said so far can be translated into meetings design. The critical thing about design is that it is a both a noun and a verb.
The first question in any design exercise is “What is the point of the exercise? Why are we doing this? Why are we having the event and what do we hope to get out of it?” The best way to design is back to front. You don’t start by asking who we want as speakers. You begin by saying, “When people go home, what do we want them to take with them? What is our definition of victory at the end of the event?” If you don’t know what you are trying to achieve, how can you design it?
Most planners say that their objectives are primarily networking and sharing best practices.
Then they are not challenging themselves enough — instead, the thought is “this is how we have always done it.” But we want innovation and creativity, so we have to continuously ask how, why, and what does that look like?
[We need to] place ourselves in the shoes of the audience and imagine when they go home, what value-added are they taking with them? Is it new emotions, new business cards, new friends, new inspiration? People in the meeting-design business have to push themselves harder and think more deeply.
We agreed that our gatherings began before the first day of the event and didn’t end when the event concluded. What has to happen before attendees arrive on site so that they arrive in the right frame of mind? What has to go on after the meeting so that the event’s benefit doesn’t end when attendees depart? How do you create a continuous feedback loop so that your audience is receiving benefits on an ongoing basis?
Good questions. And the answer is…?
FC did that in a number of ways. If you were attending one of the Advances, a month before you came on site, you received thorough information on who would be at the meeting, bios and photos, a series of mailings like party favors to get you in the right frame of mind, fun gifts to set the stage for the event.
We paid attention to the quality of the materials so every meeting had a different design sensibility. Sometimes the printed material would be on vellum so it looked old-fashioned, sometimes printed on a high-end, metallic-looking futuristic [material]. The typeface would change to indicate what the theme was. Attention to the big picture and to small details was our way.
Today, everything is green and paperless, so these ideas would need to be translated to the electronic world.
Do both. Remember that electronic communication has an environmental impact also. Many people still like paper. It’s about options, balance, and choice. We don’t live in an either/or world. We live in an “and” world.
At the first Advance, we wanted to spark new conversations, so we designed the event specifically not to include people from all one industry. We believed in cross-fertilization as a design principle and that there is the most to learn from people who are least like you. When we all look at the same problem through different lenses, we learn things that we couldn’t learn from people who are like-minded.
Do you think this is a big problem for associations because people who attend their meetings are from the same field?
There is benefit in assembling your tribe. I also see a different opportunity. To be a game changer, what if three groups of members from unlike associations were invited to attend the same meeting and address common problems from different vantage points? They could discuss issues such as how to produce positive social change from the perspective of an HR professional, an engineer, or a scientist. How do you change the conversation in organizations to end navel gazing? Do it by design and whom you invite to gather and speak.
How do you encourage meeting professionals to think more like leaders?
Leaders have peripheral vision and listen hard. There are fascinating conversations going on in every organization, but most leaders are isolated, running too fast, and don’t hear them.
Leaders need unfiltered listening skills. To design an event, you need to be one of the most curious people in the world and have your radar up about who is doing cool stuff. Who do you admire? Where can you get inspiration? Meeting professionals need to trust their gut and not always be rational. They must be playful. Designing a meeting is a creative act and not just an act of execution.
What if meeting planners actually think of themselves as the “editor in chief” of the meeting? What does an editor in chief do? What are the dynamics of the event? What is the spirit we want to create? How do we change the look and feel of the space?
There is a movement toward shorter sessions such as Ignite and TEDTalks. What are your thoughts about communicating meaningful ideas in short time clips?
Meetings have fads. You can’t just look at people in your own industry if you want change, because they are all doing mostly the same thing. Look outside of your own industry. Smart associations have semi-penetrating membranes rather than walls. It is okay to interact with your own group, but don’t just be with your group. In our world where the Internet connects us seamlessly 24/7/365, boundaries are being erased. Silos are the enemies of creativity, so don’t keep perpetuating silos.
Let’s go back to time. Eighteen-minute sessions are good for TED because TED is basically a candy box, a Whitman’s Sampler of cool people doing cool things. If you attend TED and spend a huge amount of money to be with the cool kids, you can expect to hear speakers for 18 minutes each and have no conversation, no Q&A or dialogue. But, you get this box of chocolates that is hand-dipped.
This is TED’s dinner party to be hosted the way TED wishes. If you want to be like TED, it’s like saying, “I want to be like Brad Pitt, so I’ll dye my hair blond.” Copycatism makes little sense if you’re trying to create your own event for your own purpose. Energize attendees; provide new ideas for doing business. Become the most innovative organization that has the best grip on change. So, our members say TED is great, Davos is great. Why can’t we do something like that? They don’t work because they are 18-minute talks or full of world leaders. They work because they are uniquely themselves. Create something that is uniquely yours.
You mentioned the concept of a dashboard of change. What would be on that dashboard?
All organizations need to design their own dashboard to measure what is important and to develop lenses to organize your thinking. Four things were happening when FC started, which became our dashboard: technology, globalization, generation shift, and diversity. Today, I would change the dashboard to include: design thinking, ecology systems thinking (how everything connects), technology, and mindset of our world community.
If meeting professionals see themselves as “editors of meetings,” they need to identify lenses that are the key drivers for events and ask what is the broader agenda. To change the future, change what people talk about, how they talk about it, what they think is possible. They must wander outside of their own realm of experience and comfort zone.
How is technology changing how people learn?
Technology transforms everything it touches. Regarding learning, it rewards curiosity. There is nothing you can’t discover. People still yearn to gather face-to-face. The act of conversation and connection is an act of creativity — we are social animals. Sometimes it is not possible; distance learning works then.
Anything that rewards curiosity is positive. In general, people are visual learners. Offering multiple ways of learning is essential and powerful. In general, we are much less doctrinaire and are in an age of experimentation. Technology opens new opportunities for people to try new things.
You speak at conferences globally. What do you observe that is critical?
The most successful events rapidly build community among attendees and push them to let go of their comfort zone. There is a cookie-cutter approach to most events that must change. Change the venues and the experiences; work extra hard to help people connect quickly and on a personal level. Technology allows you to establish sub-groups.
Ask what are the three things attendees are coming to find out. Set up clusters of people according to issues. Serve as switchboards and connectors. A lot in the meetings industry has to do with control issues. Planners think it is their job to be in control, which is exactly the opposite. Meeting professionals need to relinquish control to the attendees so they can create their own learning.
Organizations need to let go and to lead the change by loosening up, trusting the audiences, and changing the conversation. Bring together interesting people who have curious minds and let them go. You will be delighted with the outcome, and so will they.
Susan Sarfati, CAE, is CEO of High Performance Strategies LLC, which focuses on organizational assessments, innovative thinking in organizational strategy, leadership and management, moving from ideas to execution, and building a human-focused learning culture. She served as CEO of The Greater Washington Society of Association Executives. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.