Jennifer Baker, CAE
Jennifer L. Baker, MSW, CAE, is senior director of ASAE Business Services, Inc., in Washington, DC.
Every summit is different in purpose and goals, but these events have some common elements. Here are the key considerations to think about when planning a summit to engage your leaders and members in important dialogue about your organization’s future.
Declare purpose and bold aspirations. Convene 100 or more influential leaders and stakeholders. Invite provocative ideas. Facilitate dialogue. Encourage breakthrough thinking. Celebrate shared vision for new opportunities. Watch change happen.
If only a real-life summit could be this easy—if you could just open a box and out would pop the operating instructions for a remarkable event that gets the results you need.
Even in today's virtually networked world, face-to-face summits are holding their own as a way to engage association members and stakeholders. Such events are a proven way to focus and synthesize the best thinking about your world and future. But it's no simple task to build an event that provides attendees all the tools they need to create a vision for change.
We started fantasizing about creating a "summit in a box" while collaborating on the PT and Society Summit of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), designed to envision how physical therapists could address current, evolving, and future societal healthcare needs. In the absence of such a resource, we agreed it would be useful to organize what we and others are learning about the art and logistics of summits.
No doubt you already have some of the knowledge and experience you need to plan and execute a summit, just as we did. While there are too many nuances to create a true summit-in-a-box resource, we can promise this description of the common elements, key questions, and lessons learned will lower your stress and boost your chances for success when undertaking these high-stakes events. We hope others will add to this learning until we are all good at making summits work for us.
A summit is a strategic conversation that brings different perspectives within a system together to talk about the big picture and big questions. You are traveling with a group of mission-critical people to the summit for a mountaintop experience that in time will change your profession, industry, or cause in significant ways.
The best time to convene a summit is when you need to discuss high-stakes and complex issues or perceive major changes ahead. To help you "learn forward" as fast as you can, you want to convene the leaders of your profession, industry, or cause as well as internal and external stakeholders who offer provocative and multidisciplinary perspectives.
While summits create a shared sense of the opportunities for leadership and change, they are more likely to open up issues than resolve them. A good summit generates new thinking and many next steps. A successful one can produce a range of outcomes:
You are more likely to get these results if participants commit to learning and open dialogue and suspend the need to end with tidy answers and a set of to-dos. Summits disrupt old ways of thinking. Once people come down from the mountain, it takes time to work through all the implications of what transpired and turn this newfound wisdom into smart strategy and executable next steps.
Summits are signature initiatives, and the level of effort they require can be commensurate with the effort required to plan and execute your major meetings and programs. Any time you assemble your profession's, industry's, or cause's thought leaders and other key influencers, you have to commit time and money to create a quality experience and demonstrate your ability to lead change. If you do not have the capacity to pursue the new directions or ideas a summit generates, think twice about staking your credibility on one.
Staff and volunteer leaders should expect to commit at least three to six months of planning and post-summit work. At least one project leader will be consumed with the details. The more people involved and the more complex the issue you are tackling, the higher the cost can be in time and money. An ambitious summit with about 100 people can require a direct expense budget of more than $100,000, especially if you decide to underwrite participant travel expenses or engage contractors to help direct the action and capture summit highlights.
If you can't afford to spend serious time and money, you have to consider the tradeoffs:
Two other factors to weigh before you press ahead are your association's readiness for change and the environment:
Once you’ve decided a summit is right for your organization, here are some final key points to keep in mind:
Good facilitation is essential to success. This important role can be filled by professionals or volunteers or a combination of both. If you choose to use volunteer facilitators, be sure you have a clear job description and screening process to ensure the volunteers selected have the qualities needed to fulfill the role. In addition, you will need to provide a thoughtfully designed facilitator training in advance of the event.
You need to enable strong participation. Think creatively about how to prepare the participants and prime the pump before the gathering. Don’t limit yourself to PowerPoints and PDFs; use a multimedia approach to boost participants’ engagement and enthusiasm.
Next steps are critical. It will all be for naught if you don’t consider at the outset your plan for implementation and follow-through after the summit. Why? Because after the event is over it’s hard to channel volunteer enthusiasm, maintain momentum, and achieve the envisioned change. So be sure your planning team tackles the question “Where do the ideas go next?” as a part of their activity prior to the start of the summit.
Summits take careful planning and execution. Done well, they are exciting, groundbreaking events that engage your members and energize them to generate systemic change or chart new paths. But be forewarned. People like energizing conversations. They will want more, and they will expect results. You need a strategy and ambassadors who will keep the learning alive and present in the association's decision-making processes going forward.