Monday, August 22, 2016

You Can't Please Everyone

My association hosted its largest conference of the year this past week. In all my years in association management--including my formative ones as the meeting planner putting events just like last week's conference together--there is still nothing quite like the high that comes at the close of a successful and well-executed conference. The speakers were top-notch. The members were energized. The association advanced its agenda.

But even the best conference comes with its fair share of well-intentioned comments and constructive criticisms. The rooms were too cold. The screens were too small. There weren't enough chairs in the breakout sessions. They generally run the gamut from small inconveniences like these to more expansive suggestions for improvement. You should shorten the conference so I can spend less time out of the office. You should build in more structured networking time. You should add a third session track.

As I fielded all of these comments (and more) at our recent conference, I struggled to assess which suggestions warranted some kind of action and which didn't. What about the one I heard nine times instead of one? Or the one that came from a Board member rather those suggested by members who weren't involved in our leadership? If the comment wasn't related to something obviously broken with the conference, if it was based purely on someone's opinion or preference, what kind of weight should I give them, and on what basis?

As I was mulling over these questions, an interesting thought suddenly occurred to me. Working with our Board, we had just developed a set of key performance indicators for this conference. The context for doing so included the wide recognition that the conference had reached consistently high levels of success, and that it was time to set metrics that would help us keep it there, but which would allow us to focus our attention in other key areas. To oversimplify the thinking, instead of constantly trying to turn a 90% success into an 100% success, let's instead work on maintaining that 90% success, and shift some of the energy we had been pouring into improving that program to something else that was performing in the 40-50% range.

This put a whole new spin on the question of which comments to act on and which not. Because now there was an even more compelling question to answer. How had we done on our key performance indicators? Specifically, did we attract the right number and diversity of members to the conference? And how highly had they rated the conference on their evaluation forms? Before even considering any ideas for improvement, we needed to accurately assess these two questions. Because if we are coming in above our benchmarks in those areas, then we've frankly already made the call to focus our improvement efforts elsewhere.

You can't please everyone. But if you've identified and are hitting the right performance metrics, you can rest assured that you're pleasing enough people to warrant maintaining the course that you're on.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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