“Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once. A king tells us a story about who we are and why we’re great, and that story is enough to make us go kill people who tell a different story. Or maybe the people kill the king because they don’t like his story and have begun to tell themselves a different one.” —Isabel, in Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
I love science fiction, which Pamela Sargent calls “the literature of ideas”. In a world where it sometimes seems change is impossible, science fiction explores how our future will be different. Science fiction is also especially rich with possibility for introducing cognitive dissonance: the mental discomfort we feel when aware of two contradictory ideas at the same time.
Above all, good science fiction excels at telling stories. Powerful stories. Stories that routinely predict the future: earth orbit satellites, the surveillance state, cell phones, electric submarines, climate change, electronic media, the Cold War were all foreshadowed by science fiction stories long before they came to pass. Science fiction introduces possible futures, some of which come to pass, by using the power of stories.
Events operate by stories
Like science fiction, events also create futures, and events operate by stories. Just as good stories have a story arc, coherent events have a conference arc. In addition, every event participant creates their own story at an event, just as each reader or viewer individually absorbs and experiences a book or movie story.
It’s incumbent on all of us who create and design events to think carefully and creatively about the stories our events tell. When we do so successfully, the power of stories shapes and maximizes participants’ individual and collective outcomes — and changes lives.
Ask attendees why they go to meetings and their top two responses are to learn and connect. Remember kids that ask a question, and when you answer it they say “why?”
“Why can’t we go outside?” “Because it’s raining.” “Why?” “Well, water’s coming out of the sky.” “Why?”
So be that annoying kid for a moment and ask: “Why do you want to learn and connect?”
If you play enough rounds of the why game, and ignore the unprofessional but possibly truthful answers — for example: “I’m hoping to get to know an attractive colleague better”; “My boss said I had to and I need a pay raise”; “It’s been too long since I ate fresh Maine lobster” — you will find that the core motivation to go to meetings is to change in some useful way. Change how you see things, and, most important, change how you do things: i.e. behavior change.
So now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s review what Harold Jarche, a veteran educator in the Canadian Armed Forces and now a leading consultant on workplace learning, has to say about the value of public speaking [emphasis added]:
“I do a fair bit of public speaking. But I doubt that much of it has changed anyone’s behaviour. I may have presented some new ideas and sparked some thinking. With a one-hour lecture, you cannot expect more. Yet a lot of our training programs consist of an expert presenting to ‘learners’. Do we really expect behaviour change from this? That would be rather wishful thinking. Learning is a process, not an event.”
“To learn a skill or get better at one you have to practice. Deliberate practice with constructive feedback is the key for long-term success.“
“I conduct face-to-face workshops as well as online ones. For my on-site sessions, usually 1/2 or a full day, I try to cover the basics and the key concepts. We do a few exercises to get people thinking differently. But I don’t expect significant changes in performance as a result of one day together.” —Harold Jarche, no time, no learning
Like Harold, after years of running meetings and workshops I’ve learned that the likelihood creating permanent valuable behavior change increases as a power of the time spent together. By “together” I don’t mean listening passively to an expert talk. I mean working together as a group to learn new skills and approaches and ways of thinking and practicing with constructive group and expert feedback.
We’ve all heard we should be doing these things to maximize the value of our valuable time together — but very, very few of today’s meetings involve even a smattering of facilitated deliberate practice with constructive feedback.
When you think of all the expensive time we continue to waste doing things we’ve been doing for hundreds of years which we now know don’t work — well, I think tragedy is an accurate description of what routinely passes as a “meeting”.
Change is hard. We now know that social production is the way to maximize learning that leads to significant, valuable, long-term change. At meetings, the instantiations of social production are facilitated workshops run by and/or with content experts. That’s what we should be doing.
Not lectures from experts. Stop wasting valuable time at meetings doing that!
In my keynote at Blend Abu Dhabi, the inaugural meeting industry conference at the new Yas Conference Centre, I shared six reasons to change our conferences for them to remain relevant to today’s attendees.
Although I’ve written about these issues before, this is the first time I’ve summarized them in one place. Together they make a strong business case for the participant-driven and participation-rich meetings I’ve been advocating since 1992.
Sessions provide no connection around content
Today, the most important reason why people go to conferences is to usefully connect with others around relevant content. But our conference programs still focus on lectures, where a few experts broadcast their knowledge to passive listeners: the audience. During lectures there’s no connection between audience members; no connection around lecture content.
At traditional conferences, connection is relegated to the breaks, meals, and socials! That’s why you so often hear “the best part of that conference was the conversations in the hallways”. It doesn’t have to be that way! Peer conferences provide conference sessions where participants connect around relevant, timely content.
Lectures are a terrible way to learn
We’ve known for over a hundred years that lectures are a terrible way to learn something. Lectures are a seductive meeting format because they are very efficient ways of sharing information. Unfortunately, lectures are perhaps the least effective way of learning anything.
Why? Over time, we rapidly forget most everything someone tells us. But when we engage with content, we remember more of it, remember it more accurately, and remember it longer. Every measure of learning increases drastically when attendees actively participate while learning in sessions.
The rise of online
Most broadcast content is now readily available online. An internet connection provides expert content anywhere, just in time when it’s needed. You don’t need to go to conferences for broadcast content (which you’ll probably have forgotten by the time you need it) any more!
Professionals learn predominantly socially, not in the classroom
Until about twenty years ago, professionals learned most of what they needed to know to do their jobs in the classroom. Today we know that only about 10% of what we need to know to do our jobs involves formal classroom teaching. The other 90% is informal, provided by a combination of self-directed learning and social, active, experiential learning with our peers on the job or (what an opportunity!) at conferences with our peers.
Though ~90% of the learning modalities adult workers need these days are informal social learning from our peers, we persist in making the bulk of “education” at meetings formal presentations by a few experts! Instead, we need to concentrate on and provide maximum opportunities for the just-in-time peer learning our attendees need and want.
Today, everyone has expertise and experience to share
Everyone who has worked in a profession for a while is a expert resource for some of her or his peers. Instead of limiting content to broadcast by a few “experts”, peer conferences provide process and support to uncover and tap the thousands of years of expertise and experience in the room. Remember how David Weinberger puts it: “the smartest person in the room is the room.” We need conference process that uncovers and taps everyone’s experience and expertise while people are together at the conference!
Most pre-scheduled sessions don’t address actual attendee wants and needs
Because we’ll forget learning that isn’t currently needed and reinforced, conferences need to provide just-in-time learning. And you can’t predict most of the just-in-time learning by asking a program committee, or attendees for that matter, in advance. My research has found that 50 – 90% of all pre-scheduled conference sessions are not what attendees actually want and need! In contrast, just about all peer conference sessions, chosen and run by participants during the event, are rated highly because they provide the just-in-time learning and connection that participants want from the event.
My first two books explore all these themes in detail. To get the full story, buy ’em!
“On this day I want to tell you about, which will be about a thousand years from now, there were a boy, a girl and a love story…”
From my earliest days as a reader I have loved science fiction. I think this is because good science fiction is the literature of ideas, as Pamela Sargent described it. It’s a fascinating place where the consequences of making different assumptions about the world can be explored and expanded on in a myriad ways creatively tied to our human experience.
One evening in 1966, Frederik Pohl wrote Day Million: a classic science fiction short story that starts with the sentence above, and paints—in two thousand words—an ordinary yet unbelievable day in the future.
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.
How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.
We are surrounded by opportunities that can change our lives in amazing ways. These opportunities come in the form of a choice between continuing with what we are already doing and doing something different. Think of them as forks in the road.
The fork in the road offers only two difficulties…
Most organizations that stumble fail to do either one. The good news is that there are far more people than ever pointing out the forks that are open to us. The “this” or “that” alternatives that each lead to success if we’re gutsy enough to take one or the other.
Why is taking the fork so hard? Taking the fork is hard because we fear change. We are scared of venturing into the unknown. Perhaps we are scared of what might happen if we fail, or of feeling embarrassed. We may even be scared of what might happen if we succeed!
Change potentially threatens the way we see the world and when we confront circumstances that are inconsistent with our worldview, we’re likely to feel stress. How many people do you know who enjoy extra stress in their life?
Change is also potentially associated with loss. Loss, for example, of all the time and effort we’ve expended learning how to do something a particular way. How many people do you know who enjoy loss?
The reality of this extra stress and loss is a hard obstacle to overcome—and it must be dealt with in order for you to take the fork.
So how can we do better at choosing a new path? Here are three steps.
First, notice how you’re feeling about taking the fork. If you’re oblivious to how you feel about a change, your emotions will likely determine your actions. When fear is the dominant emotion, you are unlikely to take the fork. If you do take the fork without awareness of the associated stress and loss, they will ambush you later, usually when their effects have built to dangerous levels.
Second, express how you’re feeling about taking the fork. I find that sharing my feelings with someone I trust is the best way to do this, though some people prefer to journal privately about the emotions that taking the fork brings up. Processing how you are feeling helps you work through your emotions and integrate the new path into a feasible personal future.
Third, take the fork! Like most things in life, practice makes taking the fork easier. When you feel those butterflies in your stomach it’s easier to make the scary choice when you’ve felt them a hundred times before and, most of those times, things turned out alright. There will always be more forks, and the more frequently you take them, the easier it’ll be to take the next one. Robert Frost “took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference.” Follow his footsteps!
How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.
I make a sales visit In one of my former lives (the one when I ran a solar manufacturing company) I sold devices called air-to-air heat exchangers. These nifty units provide fresh air ventilation to buildings while simultaneously using the outgoing stale air to heat or cool the incoming fresh air, thus saving heating energy in the winter and cooling energy in the summer.
One day I met with the owner of a large offset printing shop who was curious about these gizmos. Entering the print room, the smell of ink almost knocked me over. As Bill showed me around I began to get a splitting headache. Confident that his business could use what I was selling I asked him how he put up with the smell.
“The smell?” he said. “Oh, I don’t even notice it.”
“Does anyone complain?” I asked.
Bill thought for a moment.
“Well,” he said, “I guess most customers mention it when they visit the plant. New employees too.”
“But you get used to it.”
To me, desperate to flee the premises, it was incredible that anyone could adapt to the stink. And yet it was clear that everyone else in the building seemed to be happily going about their business.
Habituation Bill and his employees were providing me, for better or worse, with a good example of sensory habituation. Sensory habituation involves our amazing ability to adapt to sensory stimulation to the point when we no longer notice it. The tick of the wall clock in your home, the lumpy mattress you sleep on every night, the flicker of the florescent lighting over your desk. You notice them at first, but in time they disappear from your consciousness. Your amazing neuroplastic brain filters out constant stimuli over time so we can concentrate on the new and unfamiliar.
Most of the time, habituation is a big plus. Imagine always being unable to concentrate on a conversation because of a loud clock ticking, being unable to sleep on your uncomfortable mattress, or getting a headache from the flickering lights in your office. But when we’re trying to change behavior, habituation can get in the way.
Habituation’s downside As a child in school, most of the time teachers are teaching us things we don’t know. This is because we cram the fruits of thousands of years of human learning into ten to twenty years of school. There’s no way we can be an equal contributor to the teacher’s learning under these circumstances. As a result, is it any wonder that we believe that learning is something that only happens one way: from a teacher to a learner?
And while we’re being taught in school, we sit in straight rows of chairs so other kids won’t distract us while all this knowledge is shared with us. Is it any wonder that we’re habituated to believe that sitting in straight rows of chairs is how we should sit when we’re learning new things?
By the time we become adults, models such as learning and the “normal” room set while learning are habituations. Even though we know that working adults can quickly amass expertise and experience in their professional field that is of great value to their peers. Even though we know that straight row theatre seating is perhaps the worst arrangement for facilitating the peer-to-peer interactions that are most effective at creating appropriate, accurate, and lasting learning.
Get unstuck So how do we overcome our habituation to the familiar that may be preventing us from seeing something important?
When we are oblivious to our habituations, we don’t even notice things might be worth examining. The first step is noticing.
We return from a vacation and, entering our office that has been absent from our life for a week we see the flickering light above our desk. That’s the moment when we have a chance to realize that something may be worth changing in our work environment.
We notice that our neck and lower back are hurting after 15 minutes while sitting at the end of a row twisted towards a speaker who is going to be talking at us for another 45 minutes. That’s another moment when we might make a note to revise the seating plan at our next event.
Amy asks us about a session two days later, and we notice we couldn’t remember anything the speaker said. That’s an opportunity for us to evaluate the effectiveness of the education we’ve been serving up at our conferences.
Noticing is tough. It’s easy to dismiss that little flicker of awareness and let the powerful force of habituation sweep us back into the familiar. A few hours later, we’ve forgotten that we even noticed the flickering light, and we dismiss our evening headache as an unwelcome side effect of going back to work.
That’s why the second step in getting unstuck from the downside of habituation is capturing what you notice. I’ve written about David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which explains how to create safe places to capture ideas and tasks. You can expand his methodology to capture things you notice too. Once captured, we can review them regularly to reinforce what we’ve noticed and begin to work on the process of change.
You can’t win ’em all My visit gave Bill a chance to notice that his work environment was making newcomers uncomfortable. But the force of habituation won out. By the end of our time together, he remained unconvinced of the need for ventilation, based on his own and his employees’ habituation.
I didn’t make the sale.
The next time you notice that little attention flicker of something out of the ordinary, try capturing it immediately and reviewing it later. You may have noticed something formerly buried by your habituation, something worth changing.