A caveat on working with human “Catalysts”

catalyst 4267237788_2cee555179_o

cat·a·lyst

/ˈkatl-ist/
noun
a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change.

Nearly 200,000 people include the word catalyst in their LinkedIn profile. A catalyst is something that causes a change without being changed itself. For example, a gas or diesel car’s exhaust system uses a catalytic converter to reduce air pollution. The core catalytic components of the converter do not get altered or used up as they do their job.

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.

Photo attribution: Flickr user rustychainsaw