Will the event change the system?
How often do we count on a training event or a company meeting to change the systems within which we work? We send people to as much as forty hours of training in an effort to put total quality management in place, but do we invest similar amounts of time redesigning jobs and changing systems? In terms of impact, which activities would make the greatest long term difference? If we would sincerely answer these three questions, we might find that we would begin relying on formal events less and less.
There are really only a couple of types of formal learning /sharing events that take place in an organization. Meetings represent one of these two types, and training represents the other. These group gatherings cost a lot of money, and they are intended to help make some type of change happen in most cases. If we ask the question "Did the event help change the system?" however at the end of each of these events, we will find that in most cases, we have wasted our money.
Why do events usually fail to achieve their goals?
Events rarely change the system to any significant degree unless they are emotionally charged, highly interactive, or centered around a crisis (which ignites emotion). Of course, having an event is better than not communicating at all, but is it designed to accomplish what it is intended to, and is it the only type of intervention that is needed? In a lot of organizations that use formal work teams or project teams, the use of teams is intended to show people that that the organization is committed to empowerment. Unfortunately, team meetings usually constitute no more than 2 hours out of a forty hour week. What takes place in the team meeting event cannot be expected to offset non-empowering behaviors and systems in the workplace, even if the meetings are highly effective.
By having someone participate in a two day training event, you are touching them for 16 out of the 2,000 hours they will work in a year. By redesigning their job or behaving differently around them, you will have many more hours of influence at your disposal. Unfortunately, any negative events that follow the formal event itself tend to offset some or all of its impact. Events fail to change systems because the time spent in them (hours or days) cannot equal the time that was spent putting the existing mindsets in place (years). Additionally, it is very difficult to create emotional intensity in an event that is sufficient to override the emotional intensity (usually negative) that has occurred in the workplace. This does not mean that we should give up on events. It only means that we should not primarily depend on them as the key systems change effort.
What can I do to make my learning and sharing events more effective?
One thing you can do is have a conversation with the group about how the event is intended to initiate change in the workplace. This conversation would include a discussion of the fact that by participating in it, people are committing to others that they will continue to try to change beliefs, behaviors, and tasks after walking out of the training or meeting room door. Asking (or telling) people to change is a very ineffective way of making lasting change happen, but at least you have had some dialogue about what the intent of the event is.
The level of interaction is another key factor that influences event effectiveness. In a lot of events where the group size exceeds ten people, 75% or more of the participants say little, if anything at all, during the hour or more that they are together. Think about it - I bet you have been to an event in the past year that lasted several hours - how many people will actively involved? What do you personally remember about the event? Emotion is required to kick true learning into gear - emotion cannot be created without each participant being actively engaged.
If you design learning events or even meeting agendas, think about how you can design the event to encourage a high level of interaction from a high percentage of the participants. Should you be involved in presenting such an event, realize that your delivery and sincerity will carry more weight than the words that you say. How you choose to support the intent of the event once it has concluded, and your willingness to personally change and share those changes with others however, will have the most impact.
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“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates