I recently saw the authors of Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business (a new book available April 17. 2012) speak at the SXSW Interactive conference. They talked about how business rewards things that repeat, and there is too much focus on planning. The importance of plans, ROI, and pre-determined outcomes will eliminate the opportunities for serendipity, yet most people will tell you that the most pivotal points of their career were never planned. This creates a disconnect for success.
They defined serendipity as the intersection of chance, recognition and action.
Authors Thor Muller and Lane Becker were not there to talk about the meetings industry, but I kept thinking about how their concepts ring loud for those who curate events. As a professional speaker I attend conferences, trade shows, conventions and other meetings almost every week. Too many gatherings look just like they did the year before (or look too much like every other event). They change the keynote speakers and the breakout topics, but the rest of the agenda is often the same. Repeat attendees are not often "wowed" by their experience from year to year. Success guru Randy Gage has a great saying: "Variety Thrills, Sameness Kills", and this is true in the meetings industry!!!
To properly "thrill" we need serendipity.
Can meeting professionals plan for what is not plannable? The Un-Conference movement gained some attention a few years ago, but does not work for all meetings (an "un-conference" is a participant driven conference often without pre-set agenda or speakers). It especially does not fit for events that involve high dollar sponsorship, as those who invest in underwriting an event want to know what they will be getting on the other side. There is too much unknown in bringing large groups of business professionals together in a field without an agenda. But does this mean there is no room for serendipity?
Conferences are a great place for a spark of chance, as they bring together a variety of people and in theory encourage people to meet each other. But this opportunity for people to connect is often stomped out by the people not being sure how to have conversations. Chance without recognition and action is nothing. People claim that "networking opportunities" is why they attend events, but once they arrive they sit with co-workers and hide their face in their phones.
Planners often separate the learning from the social and have very structured outcomes for the keynotes and breakout sessions, but have no plans for how to get people to make connections beyond serving drinks at happy hour. But when I talk to attendees at events of all sizes they often site the "hallway conversations" and chance meetings in line at Starbucks as the most productive parts of their experience.
Can we plan for serendipity? Muller and Becker would say "yes". I have not read their book, but my own experiences lead me to believe we can plan for those chance meetings that lead to future success. One of my biggest client relationships came from a chance meeting at a conference. I did not realize his company planned multiple meetings, but I enjoyed our conversation and recognized that he understood my career as a speaker (not everyone instantly gets what I do for a living). I took action and followed up, which lead him to introducing me to decision makers in his business, and then to my speaking at several events.
With 400 people at that event I may have never met this one person, but I did. Was it luck? Maybe. The key to being lucky is putting yourself in the path of luck. Meetings need to work harder to make sure that their audiences embrace the opportunity of making those powerful connections while present. The new normal is for people to multi-task on their phones. This is another roadblock for serendipity to occur. Telling people to put their phones away does not work, as it creates animosity (and nobody does it).
Assuming people will take the necessary actions on their own will not lead to anything different than what has happened in the past. Creating an atmosphere for people to engage and connect with others is paramount to the success. Plan for the serendipity and it will show up. But make sure people can recognize it when it arrives!
Have A Great Day
Thom Singer is known as "The Conference Catalyst". He works with meeting planners and conference organizers to set the tone for a meeting. His presentations educate, inspire and motivate attendees to engage deeper in the event and make meaningful connections. http://www.conferencecatalyst.com