Can face-to-face meetings drive innovation?

What do 19th century medical practices – the type that make time travel seem far less appealing – have to do with the benefits of 21st century face to face meetings? More than you’d think, and it has to do with advancing innovation.


There may be inherent differences between ideas that take a long time to spread vs. those that spread more slowly – as Atul Gawande writes in this article, anaesthesia spread quickly, even though it required the creation of a new medical specialty (anaesthesiology). But on the other hand, the practices to keep operating rooms clean and sterile based on the germ theory of disease took a full generation to catch on.

In this case, doctors had financial reasons to adopt both. So, if not economics, why was one adopted more quickly than the other? Gawande comes up with two factors:

  1. Visibility and immediacy of the problems they solve (a hollering patient is a lot more immediate to a doctor than microscopic germs).
  2. Hassle factor of implementation (tedium of handwashing; discomfort of doing it so many times a day).

For slow innovations, where the rewards are harder to see – but the costs of adoption are evident – Gawande suggests that change requires face to face interaction, over a long period of time, combined with empathetic understanding of the obstacles to change.


There aren’t many strong rationales for face-to-face meetings out there. All too often the meetings industry uses hotel and food service job creation as a justification for its existence, but not necessarily the effectiveness of face-to-face meetings themselves. Ideally there would be broadly available, robust evidence for the value of conferences, events, gatherings, jamborees, and so on. People often enjoy these types of events, but it can be very hard to attribute business benefit to them directly, and therefore they are vulnerable to budget pressures.

But what if they were recognized as a distinctive way to accelerate needed changes – those which will need intervention to be adopted, because they are perceived as high pain for unclear gain?

And then, if meetings were positioned as a way to propel innovation forward, what would that look like?


What innovations need to move faster – to take advantage of opportunities and protect your industry or organization from risk?

Which changes are the type that Gawande identifies as harder to spread quickly, involving long-term benefits which are hard to see, and uncomfortable changes to routine?

Are you talking about those at your face to face events?


How do you think about the themes for your meetings and events? Do you reinvent the program each meeting, or each year? Or are there multi-year themes? Do you have objectives for the event? (You should.) Do any of them involve leading the company or the industry in a new direction?

Perhaps the content creation methods need to take a longer-term, higher-level view. What discussions need to happen among the people who attend the event, if the changes desired are going to take place?


Unfortunately, events are often underutilized as ways to really advance innovation in the industry. If all the attendees do is sit in the audience while someone talks at them from a stage, the pace of idea adoption will remain low.

Jeff Hurt frequently writes about the imperative for people to talk with each other, to actually achieve some learning. This is all the more important if you want the event to drive change.

What does this imply for your session design? Probably more interactivity, more engagement with the issues, more case studies and peer-to-peer discussions.


And maybe it’s time to think entirely beyond your existing events. What else could you offer to foster slower-spreading innovations in your industry? Mentoring, job shadowing, hands-on product/service/process demonstrations, cross-training, take-your-distant-colleague-to-work-day, secondments… what else?


People already recognize the benefits of face-to-face meetings for developing relationships, brainstorming, coaching, and managing problems. If you can connect your events to an even larger purpose for your organization or your industry, that’s a rationale that can support them.

If you’d like to discuss your conference strategy, or any other strategy questions, please get in touch – we can set up a face-to-face meeting (or a phone call).

Contact us at or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


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