While musing about Facebook’s recent changes to “prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people” over content from media and brands, Jeff Jarvis coins a new definition of journalism:
“…convening communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation, reducing polarization and building trust through helping citizens find common ground in facts and understanding.” —Jeff Jarvis, Facebook’s changes
That sounds a lot like much of the mission of the participant-driven and participation-rich events I’ve been championing for so long. While journalism can’t provide the connective power of face-to-face meetings, its potential for helping individuals and communities build trust and find common ground is worthy and welcome.
In June I’m stepping down as President and Executive Director of edACCESS, an association I co-founded 25 years ago. This is the third time I’ve left an association leadership position, and I’m going to share some valuable lessons learned from each transition.
If you know your mission — you do have a mission, right? — then your long-term strategy becomes much clearer. You know where you want to go; now, all that remains is how to get there.
Of course, life is rarely that simple.
There’s always that must-do-now stuff that gets in the way. As Seth Godin puts it:
“This interim strategy, the notion that ideals and principles are for later, but right now, all the focus and resources have to be put into the emergency of getting successful—it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because it’s always the interim. It never seems like the right time to stop doing what worked and start doing what we said was important.” —Seth Godin, The interim strategy
How can we stay focused on our mission when there’s always something demanding our attention right now? There are four core steps:
Notice what’s going on. (“A week has gone by, and I’ve spent fifteen minutes, tops, working on my mission.”) Sometimes this is the hardest step. We can’t change when we are unaware or avoiding the changes we really need/want to make.
Make a plan. End/delegate/deprioritize the short term stuff that’s getting in the way. Set goals for your mission-related work.
Carry out your plan. Sometimes this is the hardest step.
Steps 1-3 aren’t a one-time process. Loop ’em. Keep noticing, making new plans, and acting on them. That’s how you’ll grow and, potentially, succeed in your mission.
As Seth concludes his aforementioned post: “The interim is forever, so perhaps it makes sense to make act in the interim as we expect to act in the long haul.”
And remember this.
If you remain continually immersed in interim work, executing your Mission becomes Impossible.
“You exist as a consequence of people seven generations ago who were willing to proceed as if a day would come when you and yours would be in the world and they’d be long gone, and you somehow picked up an ember of that and safeguarded it until it caught a spark. And maybe that turned into your life’s work, but you can’t claim to be the author of it. You’re on the receiving end, and your job is to have the humility of a broken-down jalopy. So you’re not going to make a lot of claims for yourself, but you can say you have a sneaking suspicion this has been around before, and you’re a part of some kind of tradition.”
“…when I was working in palliative care…I realized that if I was going to serve these dying people well, then I couldn’t wait for anyone to ask me to do it.”
Conference programming consisting of one person lecturing at many has been our standard meeting model for hundreds of years. One day I think we will look back on this tradition and marvel about how we could believe for so long that it was the best thing to do at meetings.
“People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.”—Simon Sinek
In his popular TED Talk, Start With Why, Simon Sinek explains why he believes that knowing why you do what you do is a fundamentally more important question to be able to answer than how you do it or what you do. He says that great leaders are successful because they are able to infuse their organizations with the why of their existence. Consequently, Simon argues that you need to figure out why your company or organization exists and why that should be meaningful to your customers.
I completely agree with Simon that Why do you do what you do? is the fundamental question. Another word for this is mission, and once you or your organization has one it guides everything you do.
(My mission, by the way, is: I love to facilitate connections between people.)
So why then, when I start a Conferences That Work event with The Three Questions, is the first question participants answer: “How did I get here?” not “Why am I here?” Why not get down to the nitty gritty Why? instead of spending time on the less important How?
My answer? Because “Why?” is one of the hardest questions to answer. It took me around 55 years to arrive at my current mission statement (yes, it could still change). Expecting people who have just arrived at a conference to come up in a few minutes with the why? that drives everything they do, including attending the event, is unrealistic and unfair.
Asking about how participants got here allows answers from the mundane (“I flew here from Chicago”) through the informative (“I first came in 2005 because Joe told me I had to come; he was right; I met so many wonderful people and learn so much every year I haven’t missed one since”) to answers that are, in fact, about mission (“I saw the program and couldn’t think of a better way to meet people who share my passion about creating tech startups that don’t crash and burn.”)
In other words, how? is a question that allows participants to safely share about themselves, revealing something about their past that brought them to the event. And, crucially, answering how? does not preclude the possibility of answering why?
Your big picture how? includes motivation, and ultimately mission. Sometimes, you get to your why? via your how? That’s why, sometimes, how? is better than why?
Feel free to share your mission, or your personal journey towards one, in the comments below!
An inconvenient truth Think back on all the conference presentations you’ve attended. How much of what happened there do you remember?
Be honest now. I’m not going to check.
Nearly all the people to whom I’ve asked this question reply, in effect, “not much”. This is depressing news for speakers in general, and me in particular as, since the publication of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, I have been receiving an increasing number of requests to speak at conferences.
When I ask about the most memorable presentations, people (after adjusting for the reality that memories fade as time passes) tend to mention sessions where there was a lot of interaction with the presenter and/or amidst the audience: in other words, sessions where they weren’t passive attendees but actively participated.
Take a moment to see whether that’s your experience too.
Social learning Conference sessions that are designed to facilitate engagement between rather than broadcast content provide wonderful opportunities for social learning: the learning that occurs through connection, engagement, and conversations with our peers.
Social learning is important, and here’s why, courtesy of Harold Jarche:
There are additional reasons why supporting social learning during conference sessions makes a lot of sense:
Active participants almost always learn and retain learning better than passive attendees.
Participants meet and learn about each other, rather than sitting next to strangers who remain strangers during a session.
Participants influence the content and structure of the session towards what it is they want to learn, which is often different from what a presenter expects.
Being active during a session increases engagement, creating better learning outcomes.
Actively participating during a session is generally a lot more fun!
A mission for conference presenters Conferences provide an ideal venue for social learning; they are potentially the purest form of social learning network because we are brought together face-to-face with our peers. And yet most conference sessions, invariably promoted as the heart of every conference, squander this opportunity by clinging to the old presenter-as-broadcaster-of-wisdom model.
Of course, there are conference sessions that routinely include significant participation. Amusingly, they have a special name so they won’t be confused with “regular” conference sessions: workshops!
In my opinion, every conference session longer than a few minutes should include significant participation that supports and encourages engagement. If you’re a conference presenter, make this part of your mission—to improve your effectiveness by incorporating participation techniques into your presentations. Your audiences will thank you!
I came across this excerpt from an eloquent speech by Paul Hawken today, and want to share it:
We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. Think about this: we are the only species on this planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time than to renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.
—Paul Hawken, environmentalist and head of the Natural Capital Institute, from his commencement address to the University of Portland, May 3, 2009.
Image courtesy: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center