The Growing Complexity GapSeptember 1, 2015

Are You Prepared to Face the Challenges? By
September 1, 2015

The Growing Complexity Gap

Are You Prepared to Face the Challenges?

CIT-2015-09Sep-Column2-860x418Hurt,Jeff-VelvetChainsaw110x140Jeff Hurt is executive vice president, education and engagement, Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, and is based in Dallas, Texas. Velvet Chainsaw Consulting exclusively services companies and associations with their annual meetings, conferences, education and events. They also help technology, service and membership organizations establish and execute plans and processes that result in improved business results. Hurt has worked in the events/nonprofit arena for more than 20 years including Keep America Beautiful as a consultant/trainer/writer; Keep Texas Beautiful as education coordinator; professional development manager for Meeting Professionals International; professional development manager for Promotional Products Association International; and director of education and events for the National Association of Dental Plans. Originally published by Jeff Hurt in “Velvet Chainsaw Midcourse Corrections.” Contact Hurt at 214-886-3174 or

As your conference grows, it faces increased complexity. According to a recent IBM study of 1,600+ CEOs, the biggest challenge their companies face is the complexity gap. Eight out of 10 of those CEOs expect their business environment to grow in complexity but less than half are prepared to face that change.

The growth of your meetings, events and conferences face similar complexity gaps. Forward-thinking meeting and conference professionals see gathering business intelligence about their target market as imperative. These professionals know that the big data they are collecting is far from complete and is often misleading.

Big Insights — Not Big Data

Many conference professionals are turning to big data to understand their conference and its customers better. They are getting better at collecting and comparing inputs and outputs. Yet no amount of quantitative data can tell you why a customer attended your event. Or why they skipped the general session. Or why they attended specific education sessions. Or why they are meeting with others in the hallways.

“Too many conference planning teams have reduced attendees to a number and have lost the human element.”

Without that insight, no conference professional can fully understand or close the complexity gap.

Too many conference planning teams have reduced attendees to a number and have lost the human element. Attendees are human. And they sometimes make irrational decisions that are even opaque to themselves.

Most marketers [including conference professionals] cling to assumptions about their customers’ behavior that have been shaped by their organizational culture, the biases of the firm’s managers, and, increasingly, the vast but imperfect data stream flowing in, say authors Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen in “An Anthropologist Walks into a Bar,” an article published in the March 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review. Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen are the coauthors of The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014), from which their article was developed.

Phenomenology: A Better Way To Collect Insights

Some meeting professionals are starting to look at the roots of their attendees’ behaviors along with their purchasing decisions. These professionals are using the tools of the human sciences — anthropology, sociology, political science and philosophy — along with traditional linear data collection.

Looking at the conscious and subconscious motivations of your target market can give you insights on how to design and deliver better meeting experiences. These human science tools can be extremely powerful when addressing different contexts, new target markets or new generations of attendees.

At the core of these human science tools lies the practice of phenomenology: the study of how people experience life, say Madsbjerg and Rasmussen.

For example, traditional measurement of inputs and outputs can tell Starbucks how many cups of coffee its customers will drink in a day. Phenomenology reveals how those customers perceive the coffee experience.

Here are two examples from Madsberg and Rasumussen:

Starbucks has famously leveraged its understanding of the phenomenology of coffee, profiting from customers’ willingness to pay a premium for the often subtle and complex Starbucks experience — the hip baristas, the community of telecommuters, the crafted playlists — as distinct from the coffee itself.

Consider how the Lego Group used phenomenology to understand its customers’ deepest motivations. Eight years ago Lego had lost touch with its core customers and was bleeding cash; today it’s one of the largest and most respected toy makers in the world, the result of a remarkable turnaround driven in part by its commitment to sensemaking.

Reframing Conference Challenges as Phenomena

Reframing your conference challenges as phenomena requires shifting the thinking from inside out (how the conference organizer perceives the problem) to outside in (how the attendee perceives the problem.)

Consider these examples:

Conference Problem: How do we stop our exhibitor churn?

Phenomenon: How do our attendees experience our exhibitors? Why are our attendees not walking the show floor? Why don’t they want to meet with our exhibitors?

Conference Problem: How can we create a premium conference with value-adds?

Phenomenon: What is a premium conference experience? And what are value-adds to that conference experience?

Reframing the conference challenge as a phenomenon is the first step in looking at your conference problems through the human sciences. Stay tuned (in a future column or at for the next steps to continue using the human science tools when analyzing your conference challenges.

What are some other ways to reframe common conference challenges as phenomena? How would you describe a premium conference experience? Send your comments to Jeff Hurt at jhurt@velvetchainsaw.comThis article first appeared on Velvet Chainsaw’s Midcourse Corrections. C&IT

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