Why do some businesses succeed wildly, while others falter, become irrelevant, or crash and burn? From the outside it may look like sheer luck and circumstance, but according to Great by Choice authors Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen,the successes of the most prosperous businesses - those that have beaten the industry index by at least 10 times during a 15+-year period - can be tracked and analyzed using available data and what we know about the personalities and processes of their leaders.

In Great by Choice, Collins and Hansen lay out several behaviors that are consistent to ultra-successful businesses and their leaders: those principles that have a track record of success.We chatted with Stephanie Marshall, CMP, CAEDirector of Meeting Services at the American Council on Education to get her take on how some of the concepts and principles in Great by Choice can apply to members of the meeting planning industry:

The 20-Mile March

 In Great by Choice, Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen found that the most successful enterprises display steady, consistent growth, day after day. Rather than lurching haphazardly forward during boom times and slowing to a near-stop during uncertain times, the most successful leaders create a point of focus and help their organizations "march" steadily down that path, no matter the market conditions.

"It's what you do no matter what, and it all starts with a project plan," said Stephanie Marshall. "As part of my weekly "march" I keep a running to-do list, but daily, I also review my running to-do and then make a list of the 3-7 items that need to get done that day."

Productive Paranoia

Collins and Hansen found that successful leaders are proactively paranoid, thinking through every possible snag, disaster and setback that could happen so that the organization will be ready to switch gears if needed.

"As planners we rely so much on other people doing what they are supposed to do," explained Marshall. "The motor coach should arrive 15-20 minutes early. The mics should work and the mics should be there. But anything can happen, and you have to have a plan B and maybe even a plan C. And a lot of times none of the attendees need to know that the change wasn't part of the original plan."

Empirical Creativity

 This might seem counter-intuitive, but Collins and Hansen found that super-successful leaders are not more creative than their competitors. Instead, they rely on observations, data, and information to help them make creative decisions, rather than acting on a whim or conventional wisdom.

Gathering historical data and organizing it in a way that you can call upon it is a key to good planning.
- Stephanie Marshall Director of Meeting Services at the American Council on Education

"Gathering historical data and organizing it in a way that you can call upon it is a key to good planning," said Marshall. "For example, if I know that typically only 66% attendees come to the luncheon, then I'll plan for that plus a little more. Planning to feed everyone at the conference would equal money down the drain."

Another example? "This past March, my meeting room block called for fewer rooms than registered attendees, because I know that they come in waves. Had I gone by my registration numbers, I'd never be able to make my obligation in the contract." Data can also help planners putting together first-time meetings, Marshall said. "Ask a lot of questions, and compare your event to other similar events to try to get accurate numbers."

Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs

When trying a new strategy, Collins and Hansen found that the most successful businesses first try low-cost, low-investment strategies before making large investments.

This strategy can be especially relevant when implementing new technology at meetings, said Marshall, who explained that while her organization is experimenting with live-streaming events, they started on a limited basis, only live-streaming one general session and one breakout. "We think it was a success because it made some money and didn't deter people from coming to the meeting," Marshall said. "And we've archived it, so that we can continue to sell it or use it as a marketing tool."

The "fire bullets, then cannonballs" approach is also a good way to try new things without losing that sense of productive paranoia. "Sometimes planners don't want to take risks because of money, or the concern that the audience may not like the change," Marshall said. "But I think its important that along with that paranoia to take some risks and innovate."

Fanatical Discipline

 Of all the ideas espoused in Great by Choice, the idea of fanatical discipline most spoke to Marshall. "As planners we have to have the discipline and consistency to make sure that things don't fall through the cracks or get out of control," she said. "Fanatic discipline means staying organized, having a plan, and following up."

For more information: Morton T. Hansen spoke at January's PCMA meeting in Orlando. This interview with Hansen explains more about Great by Choice and the research behind it.

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