Pick the right sustainability battles at conferences

sustainability in meetings Simon Sinek 4657383798_a7761bfe79_oSome people have a funny idea of sustainability in meetings.

In 2011 Simon Sinek keynoted MPI’s World Education Congress. As I and thousands of attendees watched, he began to share his message by drawing a diagram on a flip chart pad. Almost as soon as Simon picked up his marker, people started tweeting that he was wasting paper.

At recent conferences I’ve been asked if I really need to have attendees work with sticky notes and flip charts. People ask, “Can’t they just talk to each other?” I’ve also encountered resistance to requests to print a few attendee tour photos for use in artifact-building exercises.

Let’s put these and similar requests in perspective.

I am a supporter of sustainable events. From 1978 – 1983 I managed a solar energy business, and didn’t do it for the money. I am glad that apps are rapidly making it unnecessary to print the vast quantities of schedules and vendor catalogs that we schlepped around in the past. I applaud the installation (and flexibility) of electronic signage. And I love the efforts to minimize the appalling food wastage we took for granted when running an event.

The case for using recyclable materials

Yes I know that people rarely keep the flip chart sheets, note cards, and sticky notes produced during interactive exercises. But they are needed for the experience of creation. Writing something down, sketching, or drawing a diagram provide powerful alternative modalities for learning and sharing that we traditionally restrict to hearing and looking (which often, by the way, don’t translate into listening and seeing). The act of building these creations into an appropriate concrete event metaphor—like the cardboard box bridge participants constructed at the Green Meetings Industry Council’s 2014 Sustainable Meetings Conference—also increases the effectiveness of participants’ experience.

sustainability in meetings 17-17_41_32-01-IMG_0328

Let’s take a quick look at the sustainability impact of using these materials at an event, using the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) approach. I’ve rounded off the figures, which I obtained from carbon footprint calculators available on the internet; smaller amounts are better.

  • Making and printing a single sheet of office paper: 10 grams CO2e
  • An average meal: 3,000 grams CO2e
  • Driving a Toyota Prius 300 miles to a conference: 70,000 grams CO2e
  • Flying from Boston to San Francisco: 750,000 grams CO2e

Sustainability in meetings

As you can see from these figures, the modest use of sheets of flip chart paper and sticky notes at an event contributes insignificant CO2e compared to the carbon footprint of the meals and travel of a typical attendee. While we should work to use as little of these (recyclable) products as possible, spend time concentrating on reducing the much larger contributions to greenhouse gases caused by the food consumption and travel to and from our events.

Photo attribution: Flickr user centralasian and Bay Area Event Photography

Why, sometimes, how is better than why

how better than why

“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!

P.S. Bonus: here’s a two minute video I made of the start of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” talk at Meeting Professionals International’s 2011 World Education Conference.

Image attribution: startwithwhy.com