Posts Tagged ‘risky learning’

Three prerequisites for lifelong learning

Monday, November 28th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

pablo_casals_in_buenos_aires_1937When the renown cellist Pablo Casals was asked why, at 81, he continued to practice four or five hours a day he answered: “Because I think I am making progress.

Like Casals, I want to keep living lifelong learning by:

As an example, here’s what I recently learned while leading a workshop.

Trying new things and noticing what happens
During the workshop:

  • I used a projected countdown timer and a 90-second piece of music to get participants back in their seats on time at the end of a short mid-workshop break. Outcome? It worked really well!
  • While facilitating body voting (aka human spectrograms) I verbally stated each question we were exploring. Outcome? It seemed like a few participants didn’t hear or understand what I’d said until I repeated myself. Verbal communication didn’t work so well.
  • I wore a red hat when I was explaining/debriefing, and took it off when I was facilitating experiences. Outcome? This was the second time I’ve tried this approach, and I’m still not sure whether it’s effective/useful or not.

When you pursue risky learning, some things work while some don’t — and for some, the jury is still out. Whatever happens, you can learn something!

Soliciting and being open to observations and feedback
During the workshop:

  • Some of the questions I asked during body voting asked individuals to come up with a numeric answer, and then join a group line in numerical order. Someone had the bright idea of showing their answer with fingers raised above their head, so it was easy for others to see where to go in the line. Many participants copied the idea, which sped up forming the human spectrograms. I’d never seen this done before, and will adopt this simple and effective improvement.
  • I love to use a geographic two-dimensional human spectrogram to allow participants to quickly discover others who lives/work near them. The wide U.S. map I projected did not correspond to the skinny width of the room. A participant suggested that we rotate where we stood by 90º. I tried her suggestion and found that it was easy for people to move to their correct positions. Duly noted!
  • At the end of the workshop, I solicited public feedback at a group spective. One participant shared frustration with my verbal statements of the body voting questions, and suggested that the questions also be projected simultaneously. An excellent refinement that I will incorporate in future.

Notice how participants were able to point out deficiencies in processes I used, and simultaneously came up with some fine solutions. Peer learning in action!

Final thoughts
I’ve been designing and facilitating participant-driven and participation-rich meetings for 25 years, and many participants have been kind enough to share that I’m good at what I do (check out the sidebar testimonials).

But I don’t want to rest on my laurels. I’m no Casals, but, like him, I keep practicing, learning, and — hopefully — making progress.

Photo attribution: Gus Ruelas

Recipe for better meetings: less perfection, more risky learning

Monday, July 6th, 2015 by Adrian Segar
London Underground sign

London Underground sign

Right after the 2015 PCMA Education Conference Tuesday breakfast, I facilitated an experiment that allowed 675 meeting planners to choose sessions they would like to hold. In 45 minutes, hundreds of suggestions were offered on sticky notes A small team of volunteers then quickly clustered the topics on a wall, picked a dozen, found leaders, and scheduled them in various locations around the Broward County Convention Center during a 90 minute time slot after the lunch the same day. The experiment was a great success; all the sessions were well attended, and, from the feedback I heard, greatly enjoyed and appreciated. Many people came up to me afterwards and told me how surprised they were that such a simple process could speedily add 50% more excellent sessions to the 21 pre-scheduled sessions.

All of us who plan meetings have an understandable desire for everything to be perfect. We strive mightily to not run out of coffee, comprehensively rehearse the show flow, allow for rush hour traffic between the day and evening venues, devise in advance alternative plans B -> Z, and anticipate a thousand other logistical concerns. And every planner knows that, during every event, some things will not go according to plan, and we pride ourselves on dealing with the unexpected and coming up with creative solutions on the fly. That’s our job, and we (mostly) love doing it—otherwise we’d probably be doing something less stressful, e.g. open-heart surgery.

Aiming for perfection is totally appropriate for the logistical aspects of our meetings, but when applied to other aspects of our meeting designs—little things like, oh, satisfying meeting objectives—we end up with meetings that are invariably safe at the expense of effectiveness.

Here’s what the guy I quote more than anyone else in this blog has to say on the topic of perfection:

Perfect is the ideal defense mechanism, the work of Pressfield’s Resistance, the lizard brain giving you an out. Perfect lets you stall, ask more questions, do more reviews, dumb it down, safe it up and generally avoid doing anything that might fail (or anything important).
—Seth Godin, Abandoning perfection

We took a risk on a less-than-perfect outcome at our PCMA Education Conference crowdsourcing experiment. “What if hardly anyone suggests a topic?” “What if one or more of the participant-chosen sessions turns out be a dud, or nobody shows up?” “What if we underestimate the popularity of a session, and the scheduled space is too small to hold it?” (In fact, due to the limited locations available, we had to hold several sessions in one large room, and there was some auditory overlap that had to be minimized by a quick seating rearrangement. Lesson learned for next time!)

This is a superior kind of learning—risky learning. We try new things with the certainty that we will learn something different, perhaps something important that we would not have learned via a “safe” process, and we are prepared for the possibility to “fail” in ways that teach us something new and fresh about our process.

I’ve been running crowdsourcing of conference sessions for over twenty years, so I was confident that there would not be a shortage of session topic suggestions. But I had never before run crowdsourcing with 600+ participants. Could I get their input in 45 minutes? Would a small group be able to cluster all the suggestions in another 30 minutes, pick out juicy, popular topics, and then be able to find session leaders & facilitators and schedule all sessions before lunch? We took a risk trying new things, and I appreciate the conference committee’s support in letting me do so. The end result was a great learning experience for the participants, both in the individual sessions offered and the experience of the process used to create them. And we learned a few things about how to make the process better next time.

So how much risky learning should we incorporate into our events? There’s no one right answer to this question. Ultimately, you have to decide what level of risk you, your clients and your participants are willing to accept—and a healthy discussion with all stakeholders will help ensure that everyone’s on board with what you decide. But, whatever your situation, don’t aim for perfection,  or playing it safe. Build as much risky learning as you can into your events, and I think you’ll find the resulting outcomes will surprise and satisfy you.

Learning is messy

Monday, April 30th, 2012 by Adrian Segar

Johnnie Moore wrote about this sketch: “I think it captures very succinctly the perils of retrospective coherence – the myriad ways we tidy up history to make things seem more linear.” And: “I think learning needs to be messier; amid all those twists and turns are the discoveries and surprises that satisfy the participant and help new things stick.”

Great points, Johnnie, and I’d like to add one more. Models of success and learning like the one on the left lead to tidy, simplistic conference models (with those deadening learning objectives). When we embrace the reality of messy and/or risky learning, embodied by the sketch on the right, we become open to event designs that mirror this reality and provide the flexibility and openness to address it.

Sketch attribution: Babs Rangaiah of Unilever (“& learning” added by me)

A story about letting go of control at a conference

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010 by Adrian Segar

kayaking 1332642424_63f32ab9cb_o

The last session of Conferences That Work is called a group spective—a time for participants to look back at what has happened for the group and forward to possible futures together. During the spective, I use a variety of activities to encourage and support reflecting, sharing, brainstorming, and deciding on next steps. One process is a simple go-around, where each participant in turn answers a few open-ended questions about her conference experience and her ideas about what might happen next.

When using a go-around format, the first person to speak can have a significant influence on the subsequent sharing round the circle. Her brevity, tone, and emphasis tend to be picked up and echoed by others, in the same way that a boat’s subsequent track on a river can, in places, be greatly influenced by a minor current at one crucial spot.

I used to worry that this could pose a potential problem—what if the first person who spoke had little to say, or was very negative about the conference?—and I would pick someone to start who I thought would provide a “good” model of how to share at the go-around.

My eyes were opened at a conference where I thought we had, over the years, arrived at a close-to-perfect schedule. At the group spective, I casually chose the attendee sitting next to me to start the go-around sharing—and listened in dismay as he offered criticisms and made pointed suggestions for improvement. The overall tenor of his remarks was quite negative. Other attendees followed his lead, refining his critique and adding their own judgments. Despite my initial consternation, as I listened I realized that good ideas were being expressed, ideas that could well improve the conference format in ways we hadn’t considered. Slowly, my excitement about these new possibilities overcame my fear of the critical tone of the spective.

During the discussion that followed, it became clear that attendees were also pumped up about these potential format changes. Many felt these could make an already great conference even better. Rather than make spot decisions during the spective, we ended up using an online survey over the next couple of weeks to consider and compare the proposed scheduling alternatives.

At the following year’s conference, we incorporated several of the changes suggested at the spective. There was wide agreement that the new design was better than anything we had done before.

It’s scary to let go, to let the unexpected happen. It’s hard to find the courage to watch without interfering, as an unexpected event leads to a host of consequences. As we sit in our boat, formerly safely floating down the conference river, but now suddenly veering alarmingly towards an indistinct muddy bank, most of us have a natural tendency to want to grab a paddle and attempt to wrest the craft back into the middle of the flow. Yet, if we surrender to the current, using our facilitation paddle merely to moderate our speed and make fine course corrections, we may find that the bank, once we reach it, is full of unexpected delights and possibilities.

[Adapted from a story in Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love]

Did you ever let go of control at a conference? What lessons did you learn?

Image attribution: flickr user donaldjudge

Encouraging risky learning at conferences

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010 by Adrian Segar

risky learning_276440895_472debfb4fThink of the last time you were with a group of people and made a stretch to learn something. Perhaps you admitted you didn’t understand something someone said, wondering as you did whether it was obvious to the others present. Perhaps you challenged a viewpoint held by a majority of the people present. Perhaps you proposed a tentative solution to a problem, laying yourself open to potentially making a mistake in front of others. These are all examples of what I call risky learning.

Whatever happened, was the learning opportunity greater compared to safe learning—the passive absorption of presented information?

Traditional conferences discourage risky learning. Who but a supremely confident person (or that rare iconoclast) stands up at the end of a presentation to several hundred people and says they don’t understand or disagree with something that was said? Who will ask a bold question, share a problem, or state a controversial point of view, fearing it may affect their professional status, job prospects, or current employment with others in the audience? People who brave these concerns are more likely to be exhibiting risky behavior than practicing risky learning.

Yet it is possible to provide a safe and supportive environment for risky learning. Here’s how we do it at Conferences That Work.

First, and perhaps most important, is the commitment attendees make at the very beginning of the conference to keep confidential what is shared. This simple communal promise generates a level of group intimacy and revelation seldom experienced at a conventional conference. As a result, participants are comfortable speaking what’s on their minds, unencumbered by worries that their sharing may be made public outside the event.

Second, because Conferences That Work are small, there is an increased chance that attendees will be the sole representatives of their organizations and will feel comfortable fruitfully sharing sensitive personal information to their peers, knowing that what is revealed won’t filter back to coworkers. Even when others are present from the same institution, the intimacy our conferences helps to develop amity and increased understanding between them.

Third, our conference process makes no presuppositions about who will act in traditional teacher or student roles during the event, leading to fluid roles and learning driven by group and individual desires and abilities to satisfy real attendee needs and wishes. In an environment where it’s expected that anyone may be a teacher or learner from moment to moment, participants overcome inhibitions about asking naive questions or sharing controversial opinions.

Finally, Conferences That Work facilitators model peer conference behavior. When they don’t know the answer to a question they say “I don’t know.” When they need help they ask for it. When they make mistakes they are accountable rather than defensive. Consistently modeling appropriate conduct fosters a conference environment conducive to engaged, risky learning.

Ultimately, each attendee decides whether to stretch. But Conferences That Work, by supplying optimum conditions for risky learning, make it much easier for participants to take risks and learn effectively.

Image attribution: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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