The tragedy of wasting valuable meeting time having experts presenting to “learners”

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.
“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!

Meeting participants deserve real choices, not just window dressing

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Meeting participants deserve real choices.

My daughter Cara and her kids joined us last week at our home in Vermont. We ended up spending most of our time goofing around:

IMG_5030
July 4 fireworks
Bellows Falls station
Bellows Falls station

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How we decide is important because it greatly determines what we decide. Last week we made superficial decisions. That’s a recipe for relaxation and fun—and who doesn’t need some of that!

When it comes to making decisions about meetings, however, many meeting professionals stick with old familiar formats. Keynote, plenary, panel, breakout, social; rinse and repeat. That decided, they concentrate on the logistics: F&B, decor, etc.

Here’s Seth Godin’s take on this approach:

Sometimes, it seems like all we do is make decisions.

Most of those decisions, though, are merely window dressing. This color couch vs. that one? Ketchup or Mayo? This famous college vs. that one? This nice restaurant vs. that one? This logo vs. that one?

Genuine choice involves whole new categories, or “none of the above.” Genuine choice is difficult to embrace, because it puts so many options and so many assumptions on the table with it.

There’s nothing wrong with avoiding significant choices most of the time. Life (and an organization) is difficult to manage if everything is at stake, all the time.

The trap is believing that the superficial choices are the essential part of our work. They’re not. They’re mostly an easy way to avoid the much more frightening job of changing everything when it matters.
Seth Godin, The Illusion of Choice

We have known for a while now that traditional formats are not the best ways for attendees to engage, learn, and connect. The increasing popularity and success of social production (e.g. Wikipedia, Linux, Kickstarter, etc.) parallels the growing adoption of innovative participant-driven and participation-rich meeting formats. Meeting planners now need to take on the “frightening job” of changing conference models to those that give participants real choices about what, how, and with whom they engage, learn, and connect.

There’s a time and place for making superficial decisions. (Like last week!) But when we concentrate on the superficial at the expense of the important when planning our meetings we are doing a disservice to those who spend significant resources of time and money to attend.

We can do better. Meeting participants deserve real choices. Yes, it’s scary. But we owe it to our clients.

Shop window photo attribution: Flickr user orinrobertjohn

The third way to make something happen

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More value can be gotten out of voluntary participation than anyone previously imagined, thanks to improvements in our ability to connect with one another and improvements in our imagination of what is possible from such participation.
Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky

In his thought-provoking book, Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky reminds us that, until recently, most of the discussion about how to make things happen has focused on two seemingly competing mechanisms.

Private production

The first way to make things happen is private production, where something gets done when the cost of doing it is less than what the doers believe the result will be worth. This is how many consumer products and services are created.

Public production

The second way to make things happen is public production, where a society decides that something is worth doing for the common good. An example is the provision of universal health care by a government for its citizens.

There is a third way to make something happen.

Social production is the third way to make something happen

Social production, as Shirky describes it, is the creation of value by a group for its members, using neither price signals nor managerial oversight to coordinate participants’ efforts. Social production occurs because a group’s members derive benefit from the results of their shared work, and often through their enjoyment of community during the process.

Until recently, the scale of social production was limited. Shirky gives picnics and bowling leagues as examples. What has changed is that internet technologies now give us inexpensive and effective means for group coordination and cooperation. This allows us to aggregate the free time of many people in ad hoc groups that come together for mutual benefit to work on “tasks we find interesting, important, or urgent”. Examples of social production include Wikipedia, Linux, and countless community-run online forums.

How social production will impact meeting design

The rise of social production is important for events such as meetings and conferences, because the collective knowledge and experience of peer groups normally rivals or surpasses, the knowledge and experience of any one “expert”. When an audience collectively knows more than the presenter at the front of the room (and I’d argue that today this is true more often than not), the question naturally arises: are standard presentations the best way to use attendees’ time?

Traditional conference culture restricts the provider of session content to presenters. Social production culture, on the other hand, supports appropriate openness, sharing, and participation as a norm. When events adopt a social production culture, attendees become participants, involved not only in their own learning but also in the learning of their peers. Everyone benefits from the increased pool of resources, and the opportunity to shape what happens during the event. This adds real value to each attendee’s experience and also to the event’s civic value, i.e. the effect of the event on the world outside it.

As social production becomes an increasingly common way to create value, we need to recognize and acknowledge its ramifications for events. Attendees are going to be less willing to put up with conferences that are designed to make money for the organizers or put on as a public service. Instead, they will go to events where they can participate in and shape what happens.

What are you doing to facilitate social production at your events?

Photo attribution: Flickr user stuckincustoms