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.”

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!

Practice what you teach

When I’m presenting and sharing my conviction that experiential learning is far superior to broadcast learning, it would be pretty hypocritical for me to lecture. It would also be pretty ineffective. As Stephen Jenkinson says:

“…when expressed properly, teachings don’t function as symbols or metaphors…they are an incarnation of what they are advocating.”
—Stephen Jenkinson, On How We Deny Our Mortality, The Sun Magazine

“Teachings are an incarnation of what they are advocating.” I’m glad to see that this point of view is being championed in the educational community , under the rubric of recursive practice, and I hope to see a wider awareness of its importance as the years pass.

In the meantime, if you come to one of my workshops or presentations you won’t find me talking to you uninterrupted for more than five to ten minutes max. That’s how I practice what I teach.

How to get better at doing anything

A lost tourist asks a native New Yorker “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” to which the local replies “Practice, practice, practice!”

Good advice. But if we want to get better at doing something, what should we practice?

The obvious answer is that we should practice improving what we are doing well, so we get even better at it.

My mentor Jerry Weinberg has a different suggestion.

“What are the basic skills required to be a good programmer?”

When this question came up on, lots of good and useful answers were given, but they all seemed to be external answers. For me, with more than 60 years of programming experience, the one thing that made me a better programmer than most was my ability and willingness to examine myself critically and do something about my shortcomings. And, after 60 years, I’m still doing that.”
—Jerry Weinberg, What are the basic skills required to be a good programmer?

Being continually willing and able to notice our shortcomings and concentrate on working on them may be the most effective strategy we can use to get better at anything we do.

Image by Jonathunder (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons