“There are worlds built on rainbows and worlds built on rain. There are worlds of pure mathematics, where every number chimes like crystal as it rolls into reality. Worlds of light and worlds of darkness, worlds of rhyme and worlds of reason, and worlds where the only thing that matters is the goodness in a hero’s heart. The Moors are none of those things. The Moors exist in eternal twilight, in the pause between the lightning strike and the resurrection. They are a place of endless scientific experimentation, of monstrous beauty, and of terrible consequences.“—Seanan McGuire, Down amongst the sticks and bones
Once in a while, a seemingly small event in our life leads to terrible consequences. The tires start to slip as you steer around an icy curve. An idle remark explodes into a screaming argument. The “minor procedure” triggers months of pain and immobility.
Such terrible consequences can happen at any time. What makes them especially difficult is that they are not preimagined — Heidegger’s dreadful that has already happened. They are a revelation, unexpected, painful in ways that are totally new.
Here’s Harold Jarche, explaining the importance of generalists:
Wicked problems need neo-generalists Neo-generalists defy common understanding. They cross boundaries, and some break them. They see patterns before others do. They go against hundreds of years of cultural programming. I doubt this is what most employers in large organizations are looking for. But neo-generalists are necessary today — “It is through the hybridization of and cross-pollination between such disciplines [science & humanities] that we will arrive at solutions for our wicked problems.” —Harold Jarche, change takes time and effort
People who can effectively work on wicked problems — problems that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize — are in high demand. That’s because such problems involve high stakes, and significant organizational or societal consequences. They don’t succumb to the standard problem solving methods we’ve used for millennia.
An example of the successful curious neo-generalist — me!
If you had told me forty years ago, a freshly minted high-energy particle physics postdoc, that I’d go on to have four additional careers (owner of a solar manufacturing business, computer science professor, independent IT consultant, and meeting designer/facilitator) I wouldn’t have believed you.
I became a physicist because I was intensely curious about how the world works. Physics seemed clearly the most “successful” tool for understanding the world from a science perspective.
Yet as I entered the world of research and academia I realized I was also curious about the social and organizational cultures I found there. I grew fascinated by the social dynamics of large research meetings and how national educational models and cultures influenced how people interacted and behaved.
The solar energy company
When I first visited Vermont I became aware of something that I’d unknowingly wanted for a long time. Immigrating to a rural region of the United States meant that I had to give up my multinational research. So at the age of 26 I joined and became an owner of a solar manufacturing company.
The company needed a general manager. I knew nothing about business, but I taught myself bookkeeping and accounting. I began to discover the subtleties of managing employees. Though I didn’t know it at the time, these skills would turn out to be invaluable on beginning my consulting career.
While at Solar Alternative, I convened some of the earliest conferences on solar power held in the United States. My curiosity about what else was going on in my professional field at the time, would eventually lead me to the meeting design and facilitation work I do today.
When I began teaching computer science I had never taught before. (And these were the early days of computer science as a curriculum, so there were no established models on how to teach it!) So I began to teach in the way I had been taught: lecturing with questions. Looking back, I see I was a mediocre teacher for a long time. One day I had to create an impromptu class. So I asked students some questions about privacy and ethical issues and we had a discussion. I was amazed at how much better the class was, and how much more the students got out of it. That’s when I finally started to become curious about better formats for learning than those I’d been taught.
I gave up teaching and dove into the world of IT consulting. Initially I saw myself as a nerdy provider of tech solutions, but I quickly discovered that people problems were actually at the root of the issues my clients asked me to resolve. Once more, my curiosity caused me to become fascinated by organizational culture and its influence on the effectiveness and healthiness of the organizations I encountered.
Over time I realized I was becoming more interested in people work than science. I was good at technical consulting, but felt drawn to working with people.
Meeting design and facilitation
Throughout my teaching and 20+ years of IT consulting I had continued to convene conferences in the professional and social areas that piqued my interest. How this played out can be read in my various book introductions and opening chapters. My unexpected discovery that peer conference formats could greatly increase the effectiveness of and participant satisfaction at meetings turned into a desire to get the word out to the world about these simple but unknown techniques.
When my first book was published, I was discovered by the meeting industry. Ten years later, I am happy consulting on meeting design and facilitating meetings all over the world. My curiosity and abilities as a neo-generalist have certainly paid off for me!
Hire curious people
Curiosity is a key driver of my voyage of discovery about myself. It has also led to me finding my mission, along with congruent work that I love. All this sprang from being curious.
Although I miss the resources and colleagues available when employed by organizations, I prefer to work alone with the support of a loose and widespread web of connections with resources. However, there are many neo-generalists (most of them I suspect) who prefer to work inside organizations.
Here’s a teaser: the introduction to my new book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need. Interested? Then buy the book!
I’ve always been curious. I’ve always wanted to understand the world I found myself living in.
As a child growing up in England, I was driven to study physics, the most fundamental science. Physics was a way of looking at the world that perhaps had the greatest chance of explaining the mysteries of the universe to me. By the age of twenty-five I had worked on a key neutrino experiment at CERN, the European particle accelerator, and received a Ph.D. for my efforts.
But a funny thing happened along the way. I became increasingly curious about people. The neutrino research was a collaboration of eighty scientists and hundreds of support personnel from five different countries. The social and cultural differences that shaped our frequent meetings fascinated me. Heated discussions about how we should proceed and whose names should go on our journal articles flared and sputtered. I marveled at the energy scientists poured into the politics of their work. Their passions frequently distracted and detracted from the science we were exploring.
Understanding people better became important to me. I immigrated to the United States after falling in love with Vermont, a rural state with no opportunity to continue the big-lab science path I’d been traveling. I embarked on a series of careers that increasingly integrated my technical background with working with people: owning and managing a solar energy business, teaching computer science at a liberal arts college, and consulting in information technology.
What can we learn from cognitive science about conference design?
The Mars Rover
I love that the Rover that landed on Mars this month is called Curiosity. It speaks to a fundamental aspect of being human, a drive that makes us build an incredible machine and send it 350 million miles to explore another world. And yet…
“From the perspective of evolution [curiosity] appears to be something of a mystery. We associate evolution with ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ traits that support the essentials of day-to-day survival and reproduction. So why did we evolve to waste so much time? Shouldn’t evolution have selected for a species which was – you know – a bit more focussed?” —Tom Stafford in a recent BBC Future column.
Why are we so curious?
“Why are we so curious?” asks Tom (who’s a professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield by the way, hence the British spelling.) He explains:
“The roots of our peculiar curiosity can be linked to a trait of the human species called neoteny. This is a term from evolutionary theory that means the ‘retention of juvenile characteristics’. It means that as a species we are more child-like than other mammals…Our lifelong curiosity and playfulness is a behavioural characteristic of neoteny…And of course the lifelong capacity to learn is the reason why neoteny has worked so well for our species. Our extended childhood means we can absorb so much more from our environment, including our shared culture. Even in adulthood we can pick up new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking, allowing us to adapt to new circumstances.”
You’re probably thinking: what has this got to do with conference design? Just one more quote from Tom:
“Obviously it would be best if we knew what we needed to know, and just concentrated on that. Fortunately, in a complex world it is impossible to know what might be useful in the future…Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines, and the ultimate learning machines need a healthy dash of curiosity to help us take full advantage of this learning capacity.”
A much better alternative is to create a conference that 1) addresses the issues that participants really want to learn about and 2) uncovers the interesting topics, knowledge, and experience that individual attendees possess that are of value to a significant number of their peers. That’s what well-designed participant-driven and participation-rich events do. Curiosity needed and evoked: lots!
What can we learn from cognitive science about conference design? If we are wired to be curious, let’s stop running conferences that attempt to control our learning. Instead, let’s create conferences that feed our curiosity. Our events will be all the better for it!
How can we help conference attendees satisfy their curiosity?
“Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.” —Linus Pauling
When I was a graduate student I used to dislike going to academic conferences. Despite having won a senior scholarship to Oxford University I was scared of walking into a room of people I didn’t know and trying to start up conversations. When I sat next to random folks at lunch and we talked, I always had the sneaking suspicion that there were probably other people present at the conference whose company I’d enjoy even more—but I had no way to figure out who they might be.
We are curious about other people, especially if we know that we share a common interest. And every culture has its own conventions for meeting and learning about strangers. Unfortunately, in a conference setting these conventions limit the number of people we can meet. For example, in my experience even an extreme extrovert will find it difficult to meet a majority of the people at a 100-attendee two-day conference.
So in the 80’s, when I began to have opportunities to design my own conference formats, I knew that I wanted to include the opportunity for participants to learn about each other, right at the beginning of the event.
Over the years, this desire shaped the first Conferences That Work session: the roundtable. The core of every roundtable is the time when each attendee in turn answers the following three questions to a large group (usually, everyone else who is attending the conference).
“How did I get here?” “What do I want to have happen?” “What experience do I have that others might find useful?”
How these questions are explained to attendees is described in detail in my book. There are no wrong answers to the three questions, and attendees can answer them by publicly sharing as little or as much as they wish. What I find wonderful about roundtable sharing is how the atmosphere invariably changes as people speak; from a subdued nervousness about talking in front of strangers to an intimacy that grows as people start to hear about topics that engage them, discover kindred spirits, and learn of unique experiences and expertise available from their peers. When sharing is over, both a sense of comfort and excitement prevail: comfort arising from the knowledge attendees have of their commonalities with others, and excitement at the thought that they now have the rest of the conference to explore the connections and possibilities that the roundtable has introduced.
Switching the responsibility for initial introductions from attendees to the conference model bypasses normal social conventions – replacing them with a safe place for people to share about themselves to others. This simple conference process gives attendees the openings they need to further satisfy their curiosity about their peers. It works amazingly well.