Organizing a Summit, Step by Step

Organizing a Summit December 21, 2015 By: Jennifer Baker, CAE and Marsha L. Rhea, CAE

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.

Not Just Any Meeting

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:

  • creating a shared vision and recommendations about a future direction
  • discovering the imperatives for change
  • establishing principles to guide future actions
  • fostering new or improved relationships with key stakeholders that can facilitate change and future action
  • identifying course corrections

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.

Are You Prepared?

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:

  • Will you have the right people in the room for a rich dialogue if you cannot offer to pay all or a portion of their expenses? The American Society for Mechanical Engineering (ASME) supported the international guests attending its Global Summit on the Future of Mechanical Engineering. APTA paid for about half the participants at its summit.
  • How productive and reflective can you expect participants to be if you cannot host the summit in the right environment? APTA chose a retreat setting to support the sense of community and reflection. ASME chose the National Academy of Engineering as the prestigious and best venue for a global summit, and NAE donated the facilities. The American Institute of Architects used universities for summits bridging academia and practice.
  • Video may seem like a luxury, but in this era of digital communication and repurposing content, can you afford to pass up the opportunity to use video to take the summit's learning to your full membership or the larger community? APTA and ASME feature videos from their summits on their websites. ASAE made an even bigger commitment to member engagement and used an online event platform to offer a way for people to participate virtually before, during, and after its Global Summit on Social Responsibility.

Two other factors to weigh before you press ahead are your association's readiness for change and the environment:

  • Is your elected leadership on board and willing to make this summit a priority? Will your members see this as a priority worthy of a significant investment by the association? Can you secure the commitment of your key constituent groups? Even when summits are not political in nature, they require a great deal of political goodwill to succeed.
  • Are you in a financial, political, or public crisis spurred by internal or external factors? If so, this might be exactly the right time to rally your members around a new direction. A summit could launch new opportunities that give your members hope and lift your association's fortunes. But be prepared, because the crisis will make the stakes higher, add to your stress, and may compromise your capacity to be proactive and reflective.

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.

The Wrap-Up

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.

Jennifer Baker, CAE

Jennifer L. Baker, MSW, CAE, is senior director of ASAE Business Services, Inc., in Washington, DC.

Marsha L. Rhea, CAE

Marsha Rhea, MPA, CAE, is president of Signature i, LLC, a consulting firm that uses inspiring and pragmatic practices to help organizations lead changes that matter most to their future.