So we’ve just broken Princess Leia out of the holding cell but we’re trapped in the detention corridor under heavy fire. The Princess (gosh, she’s beautiful) gets it into her head to escape through a garbage chute, and we end up in a large room full of—what else?—garbage. The smell is terrible. There’s a sudden ghastly moan, and a huge tentacle grabs my leg and drags me under the muck! I’m just about to drown when a loud grinding sound scares the monster away. That’s the good news. The bad news is: There’s no way out, and the room just got a whole lot smaller!
Most people would be panicking at this point. Let me put it this way; I’m only spared embarrassing myself in front of The Princess because the room already stinks to high heaven. And that’s when Han demonstrates that you always have a choice in how you look at life’s problems.
The always thoughtful Sasha Dichter writes about “modern, techno-optimistic” solutions to important problems, as characterized by the quick-fix phrase “I’ve just heard about a great new ______ that will solve the ______ problem!”
In the competitive world of consulting, the word catalyst has become a synonym for change. Catalyst sounds sexy, mysterious, and—scientific! Not surprising then that it’s become a common marketing term for consultants. “Idea Catalysts”, “Strategic Catalysts”, “Creativity Catalysts”, “Innovation Catalysts”, and “Marketing Catalysts” abound.
But can you be a genuine catalyst—a person who facilitates change of some sort but stays unchanged in the process?
I don’t think so.
If you set yourself up as an unchangeable teacher or trainer who flies in, runs your box of process to change others in some way, and leaves unaltered, you are someone who is closed to learning while simultaneously advocating it to others. This is not congruent behavior.
I attempt to be open to learning as much as I can. I wrote my first book about participant-driven and participation-rich conference design after seventeen years refining the process first used in 1992. Four years later, I published an update that included many important improvements I’d learned from feedback and my own observations. Every conference I facilitate leads to more ideas; there will always be refinements to the Conferences That Work format for as long as I’m convening events.
In fact, if I ever run an event and feel that I haven’t learned something from it and been changed in the process, that will a sign that I’m losing my effectiveness and should consider doing something different.
I’m not sure that you can facilitate change effectively without being changed yourself—or, at the very least, being open to the reality that you may be changed.
So if you’re planning to work with someone who calls themselves a Catalyst, be cautious. They may be using the term as a synonym for change (like my friend Thom Singer who is certainly open to being changed himself), but alternatively, they may believe that they are true catalysts—they “have the answer”. The wisest and most interesting individuals I know are, despite their obvious expertise and experience, always open to learn from anyone and be changed in the process. These are the people with whom you may want to spend your time.
Conference programming consisting of one person lecturing at many has been our standard meeting model for hundreds of years. One day I think we will look back on this tradition and marvel about how we could believe for so long that it was the best thing to do at meetings.
In 1982, Australian physicians Barry Marshall and Robin Warren proposed that a bacterium Helicobacter pylori was the cause of most ulcers, challenging established medical doctrine that ulcers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid. Their claim was ridiculed, so Barry drank a Petri dish containing cultured Heliobacter and promptly developed gastritis. His self-experiment eventually helped change medical thinking. In 2005, both men were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
“Enough of this feel-good stuff! How do we know whether people have learned anything unless we measure it?” —A little voice, heard once in a while in learning designers’ heads
Ah, the lure of measurement! Yes, it’s important. From a scientific perspective, better understanding of the world we live in requires doing experiments that involve quantifying properties in a statistically meaningful and repeatable way. Science has no opinion about ghosts, life after death, and astrology, for example, because we can’t reliably measure associated attributes.
Once the power of scientific thinking became widely evident at the start of the twentieth century, it was inevitable that it would be applied to management. The result was the concept of scientific management, developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor. Even though Taylorism is no longer a dominant management paradigm, its Victorian influence on how we view working with others still persists to this day.
The essence of these classic problem-solving steps is the belief that the way to make a difference in the world is to define problems and needs and then recommend actions to solve those needs. We are all problem solvers, action oriented and results minded. It is illegal in this culture to leave a meeting without a to-do list. We want measurable outcomes and we want them now…
…In fact it is this very mindset, one based on clear definition, prediction, and measurement which prevents anything fundamental from changing. —Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging
One of my important learning experiences occurred unexpectedly in a workshop where a participant in a small group I was leading got furious after something I had said. He stood up and stepped towards me, shouting and balling his fists. At that moment, to my surprise, I knew that his intense anger was all about him and not about me. Instead of my habitual response—taking anger personally—I was able to effectively help him look at why he had become so enraged.
There was nothing measurable about this interchange, yet it was an amazing learning and empowering moment for me.
So, one of the dangers of requiring measurable outcomes is that it restricts us to concentrate on what can be measured, not what’s important. Educator Alfie Kohn supplies this example:
…it is much easier to quantify the number of times a semicolon has been used correctly in an essay than it is to quantify how well the student has explored ideas in that essay. —Alfie Kohn, Beware of the Standards, Not Just the Tests
Another reason why we are fixated on assigning a number to a “measured” outcome is that doing so can make people feel they can show they’ve accomplished something, masking the common painful reality that they have no idea how to honestly measure their effectiveness.
This leads to my final danger of requiring measurable outcomes: it turns out that measurements of learning outcomes aren’t reliable anyway!
For nearly 50 years measurement scholars have warned against pursuing the blind alley of value added assessment. Our research has demonstrated yet again that the reliability of gain scores and residual scores…is negligible. —Professor Trudy W. Banta, A Warning on Measuring Learning Outcomes, Inside Higher Ed
Given that requiring measurable outcomes often inhibits fundamental change and is of dubious reliability, I believe we should be considerably more reluctant to insist on including them in today’s learning and organizational environments.