The tragedy of wasting valuable meeting time having experts presenting to “learners”

The tragedy of wasting valuable meeting time having experts presenting to "learners"

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.
“Well, water’s coming out of the sky.”

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!

Six reasons to change our conferences

In my keynote at Blend Abu Dhabi, the inaugural meeting industry conference at the new Yas Conference Centre, I shared six reasons why the meetings industry must change conference formats to stay relevant to today’s attendees.

Although I’ve written about these issues before, this is the first time they’ve been summarized 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 we’ve been told. 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. Expert content is available anywhere with an internet connection, 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.

All of these themes are explored in detail in my first two books. To get the full story, buy ’em!

The meeting industry’s biggest dirty secret

There are some things that the meeting industry doesn’t like to talk about in public. For example:

But our biggest dirty secret is so embarrassing, we don’t even talk about it in private.

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Meetings in Day Million


“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: 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.

Take three minutes to read the story here.

The story ends with one of the most perfect final paragraphs I’ve ever read:

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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?

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Fear of change at the fork in the road

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

fork in the road 624151138_f1ff60b2db_o

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.

Many notice these opportunities.

Few act on them.

Why? Here’s the indomitable Seth Godin (who is really good at making new choices):

The fork in the road offers only two difficulties…

Seeing it.


Taking it

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.

Alas, taking the fork is even more difficult than seeing it.
—Seth Godin, The fork in the road offers only two difficulties…

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!

Photo attribution: Flickr user raptortheangel

Creatures of habit: Why change is hard

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.”

He paused.

“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.

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.

Facilitating change: Four lessons from the devolution of the British roundabout

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

The devolution of the British roundabout
I grew up in England, where roundabouts are more common than traffic lights as a way of routing traffic. (Fun fact: the first roundabout in the world was built in Hertfordshire, England in the early 1900’s.) When I was a kid, roundabouts were walled constructions in the center of traffic circles that looked like this:

In the 1960’s, the Brits realized that such elaborate constructions were overkill, and roundabouts became more like this:

As time went on, roundabout design was simplified further to this minimalist design:

These so-called mini-roundabouts could be made smaller than previous versions because they allowed the rear wheels of large vehicles to drive over the edge of the central circle when making tight turns.

While in London last year I saw the most recent evolution of the British roundabout. The physical barrier of the central island has completely disappeared, and the roundabout has just become a simple painted circle, with directional arrows painted on the road surface.


Four lessons we can learn about facilitating change from this brief history of the British roundabout
When we are facilitating a desired change, we need to communicate clearly the change we want to make.
Think about what would have happened if the plain white circle roundabout was introduced as the initial replacement for the street intersections that human cultures have used for thousands of years. People would not have understood how it was supposed to function. Without a physical barrier forcing a circular route, drivers would have been tempted to drive straight across it. The first roundabout design had to impose a fundamentally different way of navigating intersections; otherwise it wouldn’t have worked.

It’s easier to facilitate change in small increments than in large leaps.
By the time the plain white circle roundabout was introduced, the concept of driving around, rather than through, circular objects placed at the center of intersections had been imprinted on the British drivers’ psyche. The final design is quite different from the elaborate early roundabouts, but it was reached through a series of incremental design refinements.

Change is attractive if the new situation has advantages.
Each change in the design of the British roundabout created advantages for the builders (less expensive), environment (less space wasted at intersections), and users (more space to negotiate the intersection). While the promise of an improved outcome does not guarantee that a change will occur, it certainly can’t hurt.

Different cultures can have very different approaches to change
If you’re not British, your experience of roundabouts will be different; you may not even know what a roundabout is! In the United States, roundabouts only started appearing in the 1990’s (rotaries and traffic circles employ different rules). Other European countries have their own roundabout designs and unique histories of introduction. Don’t assume that a change that has worked for one culture will be acceptable to another. (A corollary to this lesson is that exploring other cultures is a wonderful way to have your eyes opened to aspects of your culture that you take for granted.)

Are there other lessons we can learn from the British roundabout? What other design evolutions can you think of that teach lessons about facilitating change?

How do you facilitate change?

How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we’ll explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

The peer conferences I run are extremely effective at catalyzing change, both in the people who participate in them and the organizations that run them. Why is this?

Many people think that we can make change happen by presenting logical reasons why the change should be made.

Many people are wrong.

Here are John Kotter’s & Dan Cohen’s findings about implementing change, as described by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch.

In The Heart of Change, John Kotter & Dan Cohen report on a study they conducted with the help of a team at Deloitte Consulting. The project team interviewed over 400 people across more than 130 companies in the United States, Europe, Australia, and South Africa, in the hopes of understanding why change happens in large organizations…

What did they find?

…the core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people, and behavior change happens in highly successful situations mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.

…Kotter and Cohen observed that, in almost all successful change efforts, the sequence of change is not ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE but SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.

This is why peer conferences are so effective at catalyzing change. The peer conference change model embraces the important role of feelings in facilitating change. Explicit ground rules that make it safe to express feelings (The Four Freedoms and group agreement on confidentiality) are key. Also important is the closing personal introspective, which provides a framework for participants to determine the changes they wish to make and uses group sharing, often emotional, to reinforce participants’ conclusions.

In fact, peer conference design implements a change model that is even broader than Kotter & Cohen’s SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.

Rather than concentrating on seeing, just one of our five human senses, peer conference design facilitates and supports the sequence EXPERIENCE-FEEL-CHANGE, where EXPERIENCE includes multiple sensing modalities. Small group discussions, story telling, outdoor talk-while-walking sessions, mini-workshops, and simulations all stimulate multiple senses, providing fertile input for the emotional responses that are vital components for creating successful change.

We are driven much more by our emotions than most of us are willing to admit. Let’s recognize this, and use conference designs that, by capitalizing on this reality rather than denying it, are more effective.

How do you evoke emotions at your events? Have you found doing this to be an effective way of facilitating change?