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Events are a ‘weak-link game’. Are you at risk?

I saw the super smart Malcolm Gladwell speak recently and he was at his best, probing us to think deeply about today’s world.

An argument Malcolm is making is that we are now living in a ‘weak-link world’, a form of the old ‘your only as strong as your weakest link’ theory. As always he provided compelling evidence and stories to back this up. From US homeland security where he compared the major intelligence breaches of the ‘60’s, in which the most senior FBI Heads were to blame (the ‘strong-links’), to recent times, where a low ranked army private (Manning) and a part-time contractor (Snowdon) were the leaks. Malcolm revealed US security is now a ‘weak-link game’ with over 1.5 million Americans having ‘Top Secret’ clearance[1]. That is a lot of links to keep tight!

Gladwell also put his argument into a sporting context (this always helps me), and cited ‘The Numbers Game’ study in which they found that investing in a football team’s weaker players had more benefit than buying the next superstar. Gladwell asserted that soccer is a ‘weak-link game’, basketball is a ‘strong-link game’, relying on a handful of stars in each squad.

One thing I admire is how Gladwell connects us to the knowledge that we can use in our own world.

Which led me to think about our ‘events game’. We event people often talk about the team effort, the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of stakeholders and moving parts. The many links in the chain of a successful event. And in a ‘VUCA world,’ as it has been called, the risks of a weak-link are numerous, financial risks, reputational risk, and safety at events are under increased scrutiny.

Studies have shown being ‘in Events’ is not easy, we have a lot to take on. Events are the 5th most stressful job in the world, following only those jobs which deal with life or death (1. military personnel, 2. firefighter, 3. airline pilot, 4. police officer, 5 = Us!). Increasing expectations, immovable deadlines, competition for jobs, and, good old ‘work-life balance’ are the challenges of event life.

“83% of Event Profs say stress is a major issue. ‘Bringing together ideas and turning them into a functioning, large-scale event takes an unflappable professional’”

But we should be thriving, not just surviving. I’ve always found Event people are passionate people, hard workers, full of initiative and purpose. And it is an environment where without support, weak-links will be exposed. We need to recognise we all have weak-links. Despite our best intentions, things will emerge to create drama. Playing the game with weak-links, or being unprepared to cover the gaps is a high-risk game. There are many examples of great event people, in what I am sure were well-led teams, with lots of strong links, which had ‘just one thing’ come up as their Achilles heel.

We’ve all had those moments, large and small. I recall a relatively insignificant tool, a pair of snips not being available caused the knock-on effect which led to a broken down forklift being parked on the start line, just before thousands of eager runners heading in that direction. Fortunately, we had it covered, by having strong people in all our support roles we were quickly able to resolve the issue. Events have hundreds of ‘moving parts’, in time-pressured environments, often spread across large busy spaces, and we don’t have the capability for just a couple of superstar ‘strong links’ to deal with every situation.

We event people call it the ripple effect, or the knock-on effect, we know good things and bad things happen, and amplify or escalate as they cause other things to occur. Just one person missing one part of the essential info can create a trickle-down effect (or waterfall!) pretty quickly.

The marathoner who is led the wrong way by the lead bike, a supplier that doesn’t show up because someone forgot to pay the bill can create chaos.

As event people, our work is always up for public view and critique. Every decision can have a significant effect. It’s a shame that these weak-links can overshadow an otherwise excellent event.

Anthem singers have caused a few red faces over the years, or at least their ‘creative decisions’. But as with most events, it is more often the right calls made. Kudos to those at the NRL who made the inspired decision to have Macklemore appear at the grand final.

And of course, unfortunately the stakes can be higher, decision-making errors can cause major financial blowouts. Some seemingly minor event design flaws have caused some of our largest tragedies. Some issues are planning weaknesses; some issues are unforeseen. In an example of the most unimaginable circumstance, the tragic Luzhniki Disaster where 66 lives were lost, was reportedly caused in the first instance by a simple, innocent act of women stopping to pick up her shoe.

We call these factors the ‘known unknowns’. I’m sure you’ve seen examples, and, we will see more. And we know that how we react to these situations is critical. And our capacity to react is based on the collective strength of the event team. We can’t remove or control all the variables in live events. They are living breathing experiences in complex ecosystems, which is what makes them so real and enticing. However, we can manage the risk, by working with your weakest links. We need to do all we can to strengthen the links in the chain.

‘Your only as strong as your weakest link’.

And there is a pivotal moment within each of us, in every ‘Event Profs’ career where we realise we can’t do it on our own. It is not about us anymore. In my experience, the natural psyche of event people is to take it all on, to get the job done. Which is a great asset you do not want to discourage. However, when we recognise we can actually achieve more by sharing the load, that’s when we elevate our value. It’s about acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses, and in the team around you. And events are seasonal, the associated challenges come in waves, and we can’t be expected to be ‘on’ 100% of the time. We can’t expect just your strengths will cover it all.

Training yourself, and supporting your team is the key to locking up a strong chain. And define your team broadly. Look for help. Collaboration with the wider world is valuable. We know that together we are stronger. The sum of your experience will make you the strongest in a weak-link game.

“In every chain of reasoning, the evidence of the last conclusion can be no greater than that of the weakest link of the chain, whatever may be the strength of the rest.”

Thomas Reid’s Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 1786

Let me know if you have some similar experiences in the ‘weak-link’ game. Or, am I wrong? Is it a strong-link game?

More thoughts at

[1] According to the Washington Post ‘After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there was concern that the country didn’t have enough manpower to connect the dots on intelligence. Now, the growing army of people with access to private information risks making the nation’s secrets less, well, secret’.

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