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(From left) Commonwealth Financial Network's Kristen Johnson, vice president, conferences and events; Kol Chu Birke, managing principal, community and technology engagement; and Heather Nutter, CMM, manager of conferences and events

Brainstorming, Persuasion, and Implementation: A Change-Management Case Study

Meeting executives from Commonwealth Financial Network shared their deep-dive process with attendees at FICP’s Winter Symposium.

A meeting department can’t function without standard processes that make planning efficient and consistent. However, those processes can also become a “we’ve always done it that way” rut.

Sometimes it’s best to reconsider your business from scratch, and the meeting department at Commonwealth Financial Network is currently doing just that around several aspects of its high-end meetings for financial advisors. Three Commonwealth executives involved in this “deep-dive” process led an educational session at Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals’ Winter Symposium January 31 at the Hilton Boston Park Plaza to discuss the why and how of these efforts.

“Over the last year and a half, we've been reevaluating our conferences from a financial standpoint—as we know, costs are going up everywhere—and also from an experience standpoint, looking at different ways we can make them better while getting buy-in from key stakeholders,” said Kristen Johnson, vice president, conferences and events.

The deep dives, she said, have focused on three areas of the financial advisor events—food and beverage, business meetings, and activities—and have meant that they “pulled them apart and put them back together.”

“Another way to think of these,” explained Kol Chu Birke, managing principal, community and technology engagement at Commonwealth, “is as if you erase everything that you know about running our conferences and reevaluate how it’s done.”

The process has three phases: brainstorming, persuasion, and implementation. Johnson, Chu Birke, and moderator Heather Nutter, CMM, manager of conferences and events at Commonwealth, took the FICP audience though their journey.

A successful deep dive first requires getting all the right people in the room. In addition to those who understand the logistical and financial implications of a change, it might mean including a communications expert, a meeting technologist, an educational content specialist, or others who will play a role in the change. “You don’t want to get far down a path only to find out you actually can’t achieve the idea,” Johnson said.

From there, the Commonwealth team looked at the fundamental goals behind each meeting element on which they were focused. For example, going into a deep dive on food and beverage, the basic goals boiled down to feeding people and creating experiences and memories. For business meetings, the most basic goals were to convey information, persuade attendees, and entertain them. These goals provide the team with a point of reference when they begin their “blank-slate” discussions.

At least eight hours of brainstorming was allocated to each meeting element. Over a number of weeks, the group’s idea sessions took an anything-goes approach. “There’s an irony around terrible ideas,” said Chu Birke. “If you've done a brainstorm and you don't have some ideas that are unimplementable or really crazy, you haven't gone far enough, and you've stuck too much to what you already know.” 

After the brainstorming, the ideas were sorted into “buckets,” Johnson explained. The food-and-beverage discussions, for example, generated ideas in categories such as networking, costs, and culinary experiences. From there, the ideas were evaluated, with the best making it into “sub-buckets” of strong ideas that had the buy-in of the deep-dive participants.

“My guess is that for most of the folks in the room, the brainstorming and implementation are not the hardest parts” of the deep-dive process, said Chu Birke. Rather, “it's persuading everyone involved—those in your company who need to say yes or no [to the idea], those on your team who need to execute it, and those in your industry, like hotel partners, who need to agree to it, contractually or otherwise.”

His advice, especially for persuading the C-suite, is to deeply understand what drives your business: “What are the things that make your business succeed? And one layer below that, what are your business priorities—and are they one-year priorities or three- to five-year priorities?”

“As long as you understand those things,” Chu Birke continued, “it tends to be easier to get stakeholders on board because then you are speaking their language.” For example, if the growing revenue is a key business priority, then framing your ideas in those terms will resonate, and executives will understand that the meeting organization is supporting their goals.

Johnson also noted that understanding each stakeholder’s communication style is important in the persuasion phase of the process. Does he or she want as much information as possible, or just the bottom-line facts? Do they prefer to communicate via email, in-person, or on a video chat?

Over the past year, Commonwealth’s planning team has adopted the “RACI” project-management system. The acronym RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed, and the tool helps clarify roles and responsibilities on a project, especially those that are complex and include lots of stakeholders, tasks, and milestones.

For the FICP audience, Chu Birke clarified each category:
Responsible: the person who actually does the task; for example, plans a meeting
Accountable: the person “at the top of the blame ladder” who is ultimately responsible for the event
Consulted: People whose voices should be heard and who have a stake in the event outcome
Informed: People who need to be looped in but not consulted

There are two ways Commonwealth’s meetings team is using the RACI model. First, at the start of a project, they capture the big picture: who’s leading the project, who does that person report up to you, who needs to be consulted, and who needs to be informed. Second, the same system can be used on a more detailed level. An Excel spreadsheet lists all the activities in the planning process, with columns for R, A, C, and I. “I think it’s a very effective tool, and we’ve seen great success with it,” said Johnson.

“Before we started using the RACI model, everyone acted as consultant; everyone thought their voice needed to be heard,” Chu Birke noted. While the system is “not a silver bullet” and there have been mistakes in assigning people to “informed” versus “consulted,” the process has “actually allowed some folks to relax into the informed role. … It's been really helpful in reducing the number of people who are directly influencing decisions.”

Overall, the Commonwealth executives framed their deep-dive event analysis as a work in process, but one that has collaboratively led to large and small changes for financial advisor meetings: more grab-and-go breakfasts; curated attendee agendas, more use of Uber for transfers, less use of live bands for evening entertainment; more outdoor, no-PowerPoint sessions; and other innovations that dovetail with both business goals and attendee preferences.

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