Change first, explain later

Be The Change_4868893727_3bd6f4d34e_bSometimes an experience is worth a million words.

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.

So, how do we convince people?

Often when I’m working with a client on implementing experiential and participant-driven events, he wants to understand how what I’m proposing will work.

It’s perfectly reasonable that he wants to understand. The trouble is, unless he’s had the experience of participating in an experiential and participant-driven event, he simply may not be able to understand how the format works.

If you think about it, this seems silly. Every day we experience unexpected things, and some of them change our world for the better in ways we’d never rationally expect. Right? So why are we skeptical that this can happen at our events?

Because most meetings and conferences are so tightly scripted and controlled that we’ve never experienced the intense conversations, learning, and facilitated connection around topics and issues that we, not a conference program committee, chose. We’ve never had the opportunity to discover the empowerment and joy when we get to meet, face-to-face, peers who share and have insights on our specific challenges. We’ve never seen a solid, long-lasting community of fellow participants being built before our eyes. And we’ve never encountered an event that galvanized participants into appropriate and effective action.

So when someone like me proposes a “different” way to design events, clients want to “understand” how it works before they’ll give me a go-ahead. When they don’t, I’ll get responses like this [verbatim extract from an email I received this week]:

“We presented our program to [our board] last week and got some push back on having two full days of the format/program devoted to the unconference. The primary concern is being able to effectively market the program such that potential attendees can show the published programming/topics and get manager support for the expense to attend/travel to the event. Without a descriptive agenda with topics – the fear is that managers won’t be able to justify that it is a relevant agenda for professional development.”

In fact, everyone who experiences a well-designed participant-driven event knows that on-site development of an agenda that is truly relevant for the attendees’ professional development is not a problem. Yet without that experience, most people (including the managers who decide whether someone will attend) cannot understand how such a format can work.

If I’m given sufficient access to the decision-makers, I can usually provide enough “understanding” to convince them to let me go ahead. But experiencing the design itself is far more effective. Here’s a post-event communication excerpt from a decision-making former skeptic:

Thank you for your efforts in making our very first [foundation] meeting a huge success. The meeting far exceeded my expectations and I have been reporting the success of the event to the leadership here at [foundation].

And here’s a participant’s feedback from the same event:

Thank you Adrian! I was skeptical at first of the conference format. But now I’m really glad that it was organized that way!

Sometimes you need to experience to understand. Seth Godin puts it like this:

It turns out, humans don’t use explanations to make change happen. They change, and then try to explain it.
—Seth Godin, Clarity vs. impact

When I have the opportunity and authority to facilitate an experience that can lead to powerful, appropriate learning and change, I don’t spend much time explaining why it might do so. I just start. The hardest part is being given the authority to do it, because that requires trust in my ability to deliver what I’m offering.

I don’t blame the skeptics out there. The world is full of people who promise miracles and don’t deliver. That’s why, besides attempting to explain why what I do works, I also encourage clients to talk to some of the tens of thousands of people who have participated in one of my experiential sessions or conferences. If they take the time to check, this usually does the trick.

Yes, it’s hard to take a leap and trust something you haven’t experienced and don’t yet understand. If you asked me to be the first person to ever jump from a plane with something called a “parachute” on my back, I’d turn you down. But you’re not the first person to jump! Talk to people you trust who have already made it safely and wonderfully to the ground, and realize that if they did it, you can do it too.

Then, go for the change. You can work on understanding it later.


This post is part of the series How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

Photo attribution: Flickr user victius