We often think of change as additive. We become wiser by “learning something new”. What we often overlook is that changing our beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions involves unlearning as well as learning.
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read & write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn” —Alvin Toffler
Unlearning first requires noticing. We are skilled at habituating our circumstances, no matter how unusual. Habituation is valuable because it allows us to adapt to changes in our environment. But habituation also makes it harder to notice that we may need to change our current thinking or behavior.
Thus there’s a delicate balance, a dance, between noticing what is rather than what have become our default ways of thinking, understanding, and acting.
I have spent over fifty years unlearning what people and society told me I was and should be. I’m still on a complex journey of relearning who I am. I work to practice being me in each moment. Change work involves not only intellectual shifts and reinterpretations but also the unlearning of habitual responses to emotional experiences and their empathetic replacement.
At the age of 67, after returning from a meditation retreat, I started running daily for the first time in my life. And I soon learned that the first hill is the hardest.
It was summer, and I had no idea what I could do. So I began by exploring without expectations. I dressed in my regular sneakers, some shorts, and a tee shirt. I live in a rural town with 60 miles of dirt roads, so I ran out of my home and down the 600′ driveway. Wanting exercise, I turned left on the town road and started up the hill. Way before the top I was out of breath, so I slowed to a walk until I got to the top. I ran down some of the other side, decided that was enough for the first day, and turned around and retraced my path. I had to walk up most of my driveway.
The total run and walk was a mere mile.
I wondered if I’d ever be able to do better than that.
“Contains active cultures.” How often have you read this on the sides of yogurt containers? Well, healthy organizations contain active cultures too.
Active cultures — not just for yogurt any more
Just as there are hundreds of different strains of probiotic cultures, there are many ways to think about organizational culture. For example, you might focus on descriptive approaches: an organization’s core beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions about “what is” and “why is”, plus customary ways of interacting. Or, you could concentrate on a behavioral approach: how an organization consistently does things.
Unfortunately, in many organizational cultures the descriptive culture isn’t congruent with the behavioral reality. Ultimately, however you define organizational culture, what interests most people is changing it, hopefully for the better.
That’s where active (aka adaptive or adhocracy) organizational cultures shine.
However, meetings have tremendous potential to change lives. Attendees have something in common: a profession, a passion, a shared experience together. They are with people who, in some way, do what they do, speak the same language, and face the same challenges.
What an opportunity to connect with like-minded souls, learn from each other, and, consequently, change one’s life for the better!
Unfortunately, most conferences squander this opportunity. Learning is restricted to broadcast-style lectures, Q&A is often more about status than learning, and attendees have little if any input into the topics and issues discussed.
Peer conferences support change
The peer conferences I’ve been designing and facilitating for 28 years are different. Yes, you can’t make people change. But, as Seth Godin points out, you can create an environment where they choose to!
Peer conferences create an optimal environment for supporting attendees in the difficult work of making changes in their lives.
Peer conferences do this by providing a safe, supportive, and participation-rich environment that includes the freedom to choose what happens.
A safe environment supports attendees taking risks: the risks of thinking about challenges and issues in new ways.
The supportive environment of a peer conference provides process tools that allow attendees to freely explore new possibilities.
A participation-rich environment ensures that attendees are likely to connect with peers who can help them or whom they can help, thus building networks and new capabilities in the future.
The freedom to choose what happens at a peer conference allows attendees to collectively create the meeting that they want and need, rather than be tied to the limited vision of a program committee or the vested interests of conference stakeholders.
These are the core design elements of peer conferences that make them so successful in creating change. Their very design maximize the likelihood that participants will choose to make useful and productive change in their 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!
Getting your attendees to do something new at your event can be hard. For example, Seth Godin illustrates the problem:
“Want to go visit a nudist colony?”
“I don’t know, what’s it like?”
“You know, a lot of people not wearing clothes.”
“Show me some pictures, then I’ll know.”
Well, actually, you won’t. You won’t know what it’s like merely by looking at a picture of a bunch of naked people. The only way you’ll know what it’s like is if you get seen by a bunch of naked people. The only way to have the experience is to have the experience. Not by looking at the experience. By having it. —Seth Godin, Experiences and your fear of engagement
Now you’re probably not taking your attendees to a nudist colony for the first time — nudist associations, I did say probably. But introducing a new event format where an attendee has to do something different, like interact with other attendees or play a game, will usually evoke uncomfortable feelings for some or many attendees, ranging from mild unease to outright fear.
So how can we encourage attendees to take the risk to try something new?
By having them do something new together. A caveat — allow attendees to opt out
Whatever we are asking attendees to do, it’s important to always provide an option for individuals to opt out. How to do this depends on the circumstances. For example, running an activity as a concurrent breakout or an add-on to the main program implies that participation is optional. But if the activity is a plenary session, then you should always give an opt-out provision after introducing the activity and before participation starts.
(This doesn’t mean that attendees necessarily get to pick and choose how they will be involved with the activity. For example, when I run The Solution Room I make it clear that those present who choose to attend can do so only as participants and not as observers. If they choose not to participate, I ask them to skip the session.)
Strong scientific research performed over fifty years ago has shown that groups are more likely to accept taking risks than the members individually (e.g. see diffusion of responsibility and level of risk taking in groups for supporting research). Seasoned facilitators know this. Working with groups we can routinely get members to do things collectively that they might baulk at as individuals.
Simply asking a group to do something perceived as risky is not all that’s required, however. Supplying or obtaining agreements on how the group members will work together helps create a safe(r) working environment for risk-taking. In addition, if the group members are mostly strangers to each other, it can be helpful to provide appropriate and meaningful activities for them to get to know each other before moving into new kinds of work. Finally, begin with low-level risk activities and then moving to those perceived as more risky. This will help a group obtain experiences that they would have resisted had I asked them to participate right away.
The power of group process Change is hard. However, the potential of group process to successfully introduce people to beneficial experiences that might be judged beforehand as scary or risky allows us to create powerful new experiences for attendees at our events. Furthermore, new experiences that incorporate valuable learning and build new personal connections are one of the most powerful ways to make meetings relevant and memorable.
That’s why I love to design and facilitate group work at conferences. I’ll probably never get to facilitate the kind of exposure in Seth Godin’s example (and that’s fine by me). But group work has the power to engage and transform attendee learning and connection in ways that conventional broadcast sessions cannot match. It should be top-of-mind for every event professional who wants to hold engaging and successful meetings.
After over thirty years working with organizations, I think that it’s possible to change organizational culture. But it’s far from easy!
First, many organizations are in denial that there’s any kind of problem with their culture. Getting leadership to think otherwise is an uphill or hopeless battle.
Second, if an organization does get to the point where “we want to change our culture”, there’s rarely an explicit consensus of what we “need” or “might” change.
Third, culture is an emergent property of the interactions between people in the organization, not a linear consequence of deeply buried assumptions to challenge and “treat” in isolation. Prescriptive, formulaic approaches to culture change, are therefore rarely if ever successful.
Finally, organizational culture self-perpetuates through a complex web of rules and relationships whose very interconnectedness resist change. Even if you have a clear idea of what you want to do, there are no uncoupled places to start.
“Culture is an emergent set of patterns that are formed from the interactions between people.These patterns cannot be reverse engineered. Once they exist you need to change the interactions between people if you want to change the patterns.” —Chris Corrigan, The myth of managed culture change
This is why process tools like those included in The Power of Participation are so important. Imposed, top down culture change regimes attempt to force people to do things differently. Chris describes this process as “cruel and violent”. Participation process tools allow people to safely explore interacting in new ways. Organizations can then transform through the resulting emergent changes that such tools facilitate and support.
Image attribution: Animated gif excerpt from “Lawyers in Love” by Jackson Browne
First, ask yourself the following about every question you ask:
Are you asking questions capable of making change happen? After the survey is over, can you say to the bosses, “83% of our customer base agrees with answer A, which means we should change our policy on this issue.”
It feels like it’s cheap to add one more question, easy to make the question a bit banal, simple to cover one more issue. But, if the answers aren’t going to make a difference internally, what is the question for? —Seth Godin
In other words, if any question you ask doesn’t have the potential to lead you to change anything, leave it out!)
Second, think about Seth’s sobering experience on responding to “Any other comments?” style questions:
Here’s a simple test I do, something that has never once led to action: In the last question of a sloppy, census-style customer service survey, when they ask, “anything else?” I put my name and phone number and ask them to call me. They haven’t, never once, not in more than fifty brand experiences.
Gulp. Would your evaluation process fare any better? As Seth concludes:
If you’re not going to read the answers and take action, why are you asking?