PCMA Convening Leaders Preview: Morten T. Hansen

On how planners should 'fire bullets, then cannon balls' when innovating.

When PCMA 2013 Convening Leaders’ Opening General Session speaker Morten T.  Hansen takes the stage in Orlando this January, he will be drawing from several areas of experience. A former Harvard Business School professor who earned his Ph.D.  from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, Hansen’s perspective is global: He is a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and at INSEAD, France – and has also served as a management consultant with the Boston Consulting Group in London, Stockholm, and San Francisco.

Mainly, though, Hansen will be sharing what he has learned from researching and writing two critically acclaimed business books: Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results, published in 2009, and the New York Times bestseller Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, which he co-wrote with Jim Collins, and which has sold four million copies since it was published last year.

Great by Choice
is based on nine years of research, in which Hansen and Collins undertook a “rigorous, systematic study of leaders in industries that have historically been disruptive, who achieve great performance,” Hansen told Convene in a recent phone interview, compared “to those that didn’t.” Among the book’s surprising results: “It isn’t the most innovative companies that do the best,” nor the ones that changed the most, Hansen said.  “In a world full of change – because innovation is a response to change – there is a certain path of innovation that seems to be much more powerful than others.”

We asked Hansen to show how meeting professionals can take that path – and to apply his hard-earned insight from both books specifically to this industry.

You have written that one of the biggest surprises that came out of Great by Choice was that the best leaders were not necessarily the most bold, visionary, or creative, but were more disciplined, empirical, and paranoid than their competitors.  Meeting planners have those qualities in spades – they prepare in a disciplined way for conferences based on what has worked in the past, keeping worst-case-scenario plans in mind.  What would you say to them about their bigger challenge, which is being innovative about their meeting design?

That’s a good question.  I travel a lot on the speaking circuit and I do a number of conferences.  I am pretty amazed at their complexity and what is behind a very well-produced conference, so [I have great] respect for that work.  There are so many moving parts and there are many things that can go wrong.  So [it serves meeting professionals well to pay] an unbelievable amount of attention to detail and to be productively paranoid, and disciplined, that’s for sure.

How they innovate matters more than how innovative they are.  And what matters is what we call the “fire bullets, then cannonballs” approach to innovation.  In the world of conferences, meetings, and events, the way it would work is to try out ideas in [changing, say, the] format [of a meeting] in a pilot, in controlled experiments that may not be ready for prime time.

I can imagine as the planner, you say, “For the next big conference, I must try out this [idea].” That to me is an uncalibrated cannonball – you try something new on the big stage, in prime time, and it might not work out.  Our approach would be that you might want to try that out in a less important conference.  Then once you have enough proof that this thing is going to work, fine-tune it, and launch it on the big stage.  In other words, you’re very disciplined in the way you innovate.

That’s what you mean when you talk in the book about scaling innovation, yes?

Exactly.  The other way you could do it potentially is to be much better at learning from others.  There might be other organizations that have done a number of different [things at their events], so you see what works and what doesn’t work and try to learn from that.  Learning from other people’s failure is a good way to accelerate your own learning.

But it is really important to have that discipline around innovation, not to rush things through.  The companies [that we studied for the book] didn’t stand still.  They weren’t paralyzed – quite the opposite.  [They said,] we will try things that won’t work out, but we will move forward by constantly trying out things.  And once we get it right, then we can scale it up.  [The difficulty with meetings is that] you’re like a Broadway production, but you don’t get to run the same show a hundred times.

It’s got to be a great conference the one time you put it on.  But if you allow yourself to [do] pilots – it could be a smaller audience, lower-level managers, there are all kinds of ways you can make it small and experimental – then you have more confidence that once you do make the changes on the big stage, it’s going to work out.

One of the things you talk about in Great by Choice is the “20 Mile March” – pacing yourself and having concrete, clear, intelligent, and rigorously pursued performance mechanisms.  Planners struggle with how to measure the benefits that participants get out of their meetings.  How can you apply the 20 Mile March concept to that challenge?

I think there are two things to think about.  The 20 Mile March is the idea that the path to greatness lies in finding progress markers and being extremely committed to hitting them every quarter or every year, year in and year out – that it’s a long march to greatness.
In your industry, what would that be like? Clearly to me, it cannot be that you’re just seeing each event as an isolated event.  What if your challenge is to keep on improving just a little bit every time? You have to then set markers that are pretty hard on yourself.  So first, the attitude towards success is long term, it’s across all the conferences and it’s focused on a few markers that we know make a difference.  The second important question is, what markers? What do you pick if you are a meeting planner? There’s a parallel to my own world here, because I teach a lot of executive education and of course we wonder – if we have a participant executive program for a few days – how do we know we’re successful?

Right, how can you measure what kind of impact you’ve made on the participants?

The only way to measure it today is the evaluation participants are filling out at the end of the program – [i.e.,] on a scale of one to five, rate the speakers, rate the sessions, overall how satisfied are you? How much did you learn? I happen to be very skeptical of the idea that what somebody got out of the program is going to translate into making them better leaders or performers.  We do not know.  So you are in a territory here where it’s difficult.

The fundamental weakness of [evaluations] is that you don’t know whether even high marks – say someone says [he or she] is really satisfied, that it was a great event, [s/he] had a good time – you have no idea whether that is going to translate into any change in behavior or performance.

One option is to survey people after the conference, three months out.  You might say, “We can’t do that – we’ll get even less of a response rate.” And that’s going to be difficult – people might have trouble pinpointing exactly what they took away from it themselves.

The third option – which would be the gold standard – would be that you have somewhat of an ability to track the performance of those who went to your conference against another sample of people who didn’t.  That is where Silicon Valley and the Internet are going.  You’re tracking people and their behavior performance against others.  You can do it because you have the data.

Say I put on a sales conference, and at that sales conference, we teach people how to use social media to improve their number of customer leads.  I’ve invited 200 salespeople from different organizations – and then I also know another 200 salespeople.  Three months after the conference, I do a survey of the people that went to the conference and then I can also get the data of those that didn’t show up.  I now have a contrast between two groups of people.  One got the treatment, so to speak, of learning social media to gather more leads, and the other did not – at least not from us.  There are certain conferences where you can actually go down that path, where you actually have almost like a control group.

Let’s switch gears to talk about your first book, Collaboration.  How can meetings become more collaborative?

That’s a great question to apply to the world of conferences.  What I am seeing in companies the last few years since I published the book is that there are many more senior executives that see the need for collaboration.  But I’ve seen more cases of bad collaboration than of good.  They go to their conference [organizers] and say, “The key objective of this conference is to bring our people together.” But how do you actually make this a venue to enhance collaboration?

Most event planners just say networking.  Do people really network at these conferences? Do they really collaborate? The question I ask in this book is not can you collaborate more; it’s can you provide disciplined collaboration that is targeted at performance improvements?

It isn’t the people that know the most people who do better than the rest.  What I would do to enhance collaboration in a conference is that I would start with the question: What is the economic value that people can get out of collaborating at our conference? And for some, there’s an obvious answer: sales.  They can develop customer relationships.  Okay, that’s fine.  Undisciplined collaboration, however, is saying let’s network more.

I went to a conference once [for a large company] where somebody announced, “Okay, your challenge in this conference is to find 20 people you didn’t know before [you came here] and network.” Why is that helpful? It isn’t.  Because that’s not directed at economic value; that’s just directed at spending more time talking to people.

It would have been far more effective at the conference to say, “What are the economic opportunities across the company?” At the conference, it could be at breakfast, it could be over lunch; it doesn’t have to be formalized – but how can we have, say, cross-selling, across two [different] divisions [that do not normally interact with each other] and use the conference as a vehicle to have informal discussions around that? Get to know each other, talk about the issues in a setting that isn’t hostile.  That is targeted collaboration in a conference.  If you’re the conference organizer – I mean, this is perfect, this is low-effort – what you do before the conference is you ask the participants what they think are the collaboration opportunities.  Once we have that data, we will – for each participant – customize what could be some of the discussions.  In other words, what we do is we facilitate those discussions.

Imagine you did that as a conference organizer and then …  conference over.  You have to follow up on it.  Then next year, two of these initiatives are now ongoing, they’re very successful – and it all started, or got kick-started, or got focused at the conference.  Now you’re adding value.

Let me give you one example.  One of the largest banks in Asia invited me to speak on collaboration at a meeting.  They had participants in different groups first generate opportunities in these kind of cross-divisional groups, and then once they identified the opportunity – it could be cross-selling, or cost-cutting, or any other kinds of opportunities across this company – the group had to develop a proposal for how to execute it, like a business plan.  And overnight, the executive committee reviewed all these proposals and determined the best ones.  At the end of the meeting, they walked away with five to 10 good business plans for concrete opportunities.  With that sort of thinking about your conference format, you can walk away with all kinds of opportunities.

More Resources
Learn more about Morten Hansen at mortenhansen.com.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.