Leadership / 11.08.23
There Be Dragons: Navigating Uncharted Waters and Embracing Excellence in Uncertain Times
Maureen Andersen, our beloved INTIX President and CEO, recently made some people feel very uncomfortable, and she makes no apologies for doing so.
One might feel compelled to overlook this out-of-character behavior at the 2023 Ticketing Australia Conference. After all, she must surely have been jet lagged after a long 7,500-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean to New South Wales where she had been scheduled to give a general session address.
Maureen took to the Cumberland Room stage to anticipatory applause, but as attendees eagerly awaited her words of wisdom, she just stood there, looking down at the podium and then again at her audience. She paused. They fidgeted. She drank water and coffee. She fiddled with her phone. She demonstrated uncertainty. They began to feel out of sorts. Then, finally, Maureen broke the spell and asked, “Did I make you nervous? There were a lot of thoughts going through your heads, right? Who is this idiot? Is she having a stroke? What were [conference organizers] Jo and Angela thinking having her here? Can I leave and no one will notice? Is it teatime? I took a day off for this? Should we ask her if she is alright? Were you getting uncomfortable?”
As Maureen continued, it was clear that making her audience uncomfortable was her intent all along. She wanted to emphasize that while comfort often seems like the ultimate goal in our professional lives, it is in discomfort that we often find the greatest opportunities for growth and innovation. In other words, feeling uncomfortable is a positive, not a negative, and a characteristic that should be encouraged as we face an uncertain future. It helps us, she says, become greater leaders, innovators, pioneers, creators and adventurers.
“Our natural inclination is to mitigate discomfort and its evil twin, fear. We want things to be contained and controlled. It is in our nature, especially in this business that is so wildly out of our control,” she said. “Truth be told, most of us just do not enjoy the feeling of being uncomfortable. The challenge for all of us is actually harnessing those feelings of wanting to be in our normal comfort zone. What’s the cost? Ultimately, it will be your performance as a leader. You won’t be capable of innovation, collaboration or even staying relevant. I challenge you to shift your mindset to see these times of discomfort, the challenges, and learn to see them as a ‘gift’ and to embrace them. By embracing them and getting out of the resistance to the feelings, you get to find the sweet spot to take risks and grow, and when you grow, anything is possible.”
With a nod to the recent pandemic, Maureen acknowledged the extremely uncomfortable toll it took on everyone in the ticketing industry.
“Together, we walked through hell and back,” she said. “We had two-plus years of prolonged, rocky, challenging time full of pain and trauma. We thought that shutting down was hard, but who knew that it would actually be far more difficult to reopen. Deep inside of ourselves, we found the energy, the commitment and the passion to rise up and to get ‘live’ back open. And getting ‘live’ again was a bit more like the Wild Wild West or a free-for-all on the rules, a big old dumpster fire. We, the ticketing and live entertainment pros, basically have come through it but with PTSD.”
But we also got a lot of great things out of it, she continued, talking about technological innovations that advanced in months instead of years. She spoke of how, as an industry, we learned we could sell and then unsell events, reseat, refund, resell again, roll forward, credit, communicate and create. I mean, who can forget the bubbles, pods and vaccination seating that we invented?
“We were standing at the edge of the map, stared down the dragons and sailed forth as adventurers, explorers, pioneers, inventors, creators, lion tamers and ringmasters,” Maureen exclaimed.
That having been said, she warned that there is no going back to ‘normal.’
“Feeling uncomfortable is our natural state now; get used to it. It is only going to get worse. Sorry, I hate to be the bearer of bad news; there is no free pass from this feeling. But wait, that is not fair. We lived through a pandemic; we brought our business back to this seemingly ‘normal’ state; we have earned some peace, some comfort. Sorry, not going to happen,” Maureen told conference attendees.
So, where are we now?
“We are in an uneven spot,” Maureen said. “We have an event glut on the market — 10 big acts are playing in the biggest buildings in the world, and seemingly breaking all the records — while on the other side of the spectrum, theaters are playing to a partial house, small venues and music clubs are closing, season ticket packages are down, donations are down, revenues are down, and the U.S. legislators are saber-rattling with new laws … In our effort to control this madness, we have the old rules and inflexibility creeping back in. We are returning to being territorial and putting ourselves in silos. All this and the secondary market, the sanctioned and non-sanctioned resale of tickets, is rampant. Pricing is erratic, inconsistent and unsustainable. We are doing things with fewer people and less money. And people are feisty and cranky.”
In other words, referencing medieval map makers, there be dragons on the horizon.
“So where do we go from here?” she asked. “We stand, again, at the edge of the map, confronting the dragons and confronting the vast unknowns and the forces that are shaping our industry. I don’t have a crystal ball, but there are indicators that we are on the edge of another great shift — technology, data, analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, opportunities and dangers in equal degrees.”
Of all the perceived challenges on the horizon, Maureen focused primarily on the continued evolution of technology. And, she noted, nothing is more frightening, if you will, than the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and the many ways it will change our business. However, as she said repeatedly, with fear comes opportunity.
“We are all familiar with AI chatbots — they operate on a single-term exchange and communicate with users with text-based or voiced-based interfaces,” Maureen said. “This is me asking Google a voice question or texting on a customer service site. Conversational agents go beyond text-based chatbots and engage users in conversation to understand the nature of the problem. [They] are trained to ask a set of questions that can pinpoint problems and potentially solve them.”
Maureen continued, “Personal or virtual assistants exhibit their own personality and are uniquely associated with an individual user, similar to a human personal assistant. They are and will be doing the tasks — reminders of meetings, checking and booking flights and hotel vacations, managing to-do lists and buying tickets. The assistants are quickly evolving, especially as speech recognition and natural language processing, or NLP, have evolved, and [they] are going to move into business workflows quickly.”
“There be dragons,” she said. “Imagine a personal AI assistant available to the masses, our customers, with all the capabilities of super bots. They will understand and know how to buy tickets, search for data, make real-time decisions, circumvent technology gateways.”
Maureen noted how data, analytics and marketing are already changing at a phenomenal rate. INTIX’s ticketing technology, secondary market and third-party partners are rapidly releasing new innovations, she said, before providing real-world examples from Satisfi Labs and AXS, FEVO and Ticketmaster Sports.
What Maureen loves about these innovations involving AI is that it frees us up to be creative, to concentrate on building relationships and to work with other humans. “If we can take the complicated and let technology do the heavy lifting, the time we are free to be involved in one-to-one interactions is the key meaning of live entertainment!”
She also believes that what we are learning is both exhilarating and terrifying. “What is coming will be as revolutionary to society and our industry in particular as the invention of the steam engine, the telegram, radio, television or the internet. We may not be ready, but we can certainly prepare,” she said.
Maureen recommends, “Learn as much as possible and be as inquisitive to learn as possible. Do the research and learn about the basics and principles of AI and machine learning. Find and take specialized courses or tutorials on generative AI. Get as much hands-on experience as possible by experimenting with simple projects using what’s available, like Open AI’s ChatGPT … Keep up to date on knowledge by reading and researching. Collaborate with colleagues and your teams to work on practical and real-life use cases.”
She continued, “Study it because these new technologies have great powers for good and great powers for bad. The key will be finding the balance [between] automation and human creativity and then being hypersensitive and aware of the legal and ethical implications. From our standpoint, it is in the data, analytics and marketing that the powers for good mostly lie. Generative AI will enable our teams, organizations and venues to hyper-personalize the experiences by analyzing vast data and then tailoring individual preferences and behaviors. That means highly personalized campaigns to target and improve the customer experience and achieve higher conversion rates.”
Still, there be dragons! Maureen emphasized that what really needs to change is ourselves and our attitudes toward all that is coming.
“We need to learn how to not only accept the feelings and the ground rolling under us. By its very nature, change dictates that we have to go beyond mere acceptance of change, but we need to embrace the uncertainty and learn to sit in the uncomfortableness. To keep company with our feelings when your head is screaming ‘nooooo.’ This requires us to get out of our comfort zones. Some of us are wired to enjoy the ‘thrill of the adventure,’ but many of us just are not wired that way.”
There are those of us, Maureen says, who do not jump out of airplanes but need mental tricks to help us out with our feelings. She elaborated, explaining that at the crux of uncomfortable feelings is the fear of the unknown and that we are not in control.
“We are comfortable when we understand the certainties of our life — our habits, rituals, constants, consistencies — and we inherently don’t like feeling uncomfortable. But my friends, in this state of anxiety, chaos, uncertainty and discomfort is the sweet spot of where we learn, where we grow, where we see possibilities, out of necessity, to change. Then, the cycle begins again. But there is a warning label here — the moment you feel comfort, the cycle of chaos will start again. You must adapt your mindset to focus on innovation and change.”
Maureen suggested that we look inward and ask ourselves a series of questions that are important to keep us moving forward as leaders:
- Is the change for the right reason and is it the right time and with the right people to make the change?
- Do you have a support system in place to help you go into the areas of dragons or the stretch zone? Are you doing this as a team, or are you out on your own?
- What can you delegate that clears your plate? How can you empower others and, in turn, help them learn new things, take on new challenges and grow?
- Can you change your language, not using words like “nervous” and “anxious”?
- Can you step away from catastrophizing the situation?
- Can you embrace the power of discomfort by seeing it as a gift of doing something new?
“You don’t have to jump out of an airplane or bungee jump or run into burning buildings to find that thrill-seeking enjoyment in the pit of your stomach,” Maureen said. “Rather, remind yourself that the discomfort is actually a sign that you are doing something right and that you are embracing change. It is actually a part of everyday life and our work.”
As part of this process, Maureen provided attendees with steps they could take to get started down the uncomfortable path ahead. First, she said, we should stop blaming others when things go wrong. “When things are in chaos or are going wrong, or you don’t know the answer, it is easy to just blame. Break the blame habit … Rather than finding someone to blame, look at the situation and then let your brain decide where to go and how to move forward. Go past the dragons.”
Next, she recommended giving and receiving critical feedback. And then, perhaps the most important lesson of all — use the power of “no.”
“The world will not fly off its axis if you say ‘no,’” she said. “‘No’ is a complete sentence, and [you must practice] the ability to say ‘no’ to avoid being in over your head, to set boundaries, to make space for the work to be done … And I mean the simple ‘no’ — with no justifications. We all tend to talk too much and want to justify or rationalize that saying ‘no’ is OK. It is very uncomfortable, especially in the beginning. We do not have to explain, nor do we have to take responsibility to explain why we are saying ‘no.’ Not, ‘No, but…’ and not, ‘No, and let me explain…’ We can simply say ‘no’ and let the silence prevail. It is up to the other person to determine how they are going to sit in this discomfort.”
Maureen also wanted to get a personal “bugaboo” off her chest.
She pointed to the widespread concept of “no exchanges, no refunds, all sales are final” as the status quo and how our industry holds onto often non-realistic ideas, processes and behaviors because it is, on the surface, easier than taking action to change old-fashioned ways of doing things.
“Isn’t it time to lay this one down?” she asked, rhetorically. “What purpose does it really serve in this post-pandemic world other than it is what we have always done? During our recent shutdown, we proved that this is easy to do and that we had all the technology to accommodate exchanges and refunds. In fact, it could be done quite easily and quickly. We sold, resold, refunded and moved events in every which direction. Now, we want to somehow tell our customers, fans and patrons that ‘we don’t do that, those were our pandemic rules.’ Is this really the hill of battle that we want to die on? Sail past the dragons by being one; swim up the waterfall and become a dragon!”
As Maureen prepared to leave the stage, her message resounded in those who, at first, were uncertain where all this was headed. It is clear that tremendous change is coming, and that change will bring further discomfort. But it is, ironically, comforting to know that embracing discomfort in our jobs can lead to significant personal and professional benefits. It fosters growth, cultivates new skills, builds resilience, enhances problem-solving abilities and ultimately results in greater job satisfaction. By stepping out of our comfort zones, we can unlock doors to a world of opportunities and pave the way for long-lasting success in our careers.
As Maureen put it, “Sit in discomfort and use it to be courageous and to sail past the dragons to create our bold new world of creativity, innovation, ingenuity, collaboration and, ultimately, the great service and experiences that only being alive and human together means! You get to create this. You are the solution. Be brilliant!”
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Tags: Leadership , Ticketing Conference