A caveat on working with “human catalysts”

human catalyst 4267237788_2cee555179_o
What is a human catalyst?


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 changing 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 a common marketing term for consultants. “Idea Catalysts”, “Strategic Catalysts”, “Creativity Catalysts”, “Innovation Catalysts”, and “Marketing Catalysts” abound.

Can you be a genuine catalyst?

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 change in the process, that will be 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 changing yourself—or, at the very least, being open to the reality that you may change.

So if you’re planning to work with someone who calls themselves a human 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 change in the process. These are the people with whom you may want to spend your time.

Photo attribution: Flickr user rustychainsaw

2 thoughts on “A caveat on working with “human catalysts”

  1. I think you completely misunderstand what a catalyst is. Even chemically speaking, a catalyst is left unchanged by the thing ti acts upon. But no where does it say the catalyst itself can’t be changed in a different situation.

    You can work with someone on their project, cause change in them without being changed yourself. That doesn’t mean you won’t go home, speak with a friend and then in turn be changed because of what you learn.

    The idea of being a catalyst is about whether you change in that one interaction, not over all. Now yes, you can be changed by an experience and in that experience you are not acting as a catalyst. But I would suggest most people who reach a certain level of expertise and then work with others who don’t have that level, to help create change for them, are not themselves greatly changed by the event.

    An example. You go to university and study to be a teacher of 10 year olds. You get a job and begin teaching your class. As you bring new information and experience to each of those children’s lives, you are a catalyst for their learning. You don’t learn anything from it. You, I presume, learnt how to count, add up, subtract, how to construct a sentence, etc long before. But that doesn’t mean you don’t grow and change yourself in other ways, just not from that interaction with each child.

    1. Michelle, I disagree. In my experience, I am changed by every interaction I have. When I interact with another person, we can argue about who was changed the most, but I am never unaffected.

      I think that it’s important to be open to change, even if you don’t expect any “significant” change from an upcoming interaction. If you have an I’m-a-catalyst mindset you’re unlikely to be open to the potential change and learning any interaction may create.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *