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!

Why, sometimes, how is 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