So I am back from what might be my 11th or 12th Great Ideas conference (I’ve been to them all, back to the GWSAE days, but I’ve lost count), and as usual I had a great time. I enjoyed delivering both the deep dive on Humanize (with Maddie Grant) on the first day of the conference, and then being on a panel about Bringing Innovation to Life (with Kerry Stackpole, Michelle Mason, and Jessica Daniels) on the last day. I generally enjoyed the sessions I was in, and of course learned some new things in all the unofficial interactions that emerged via hallways, meals, or adult beverages.
That being said, I am afraid my “what I learned at Great Ideas” post is going to be a bit of a downer. It’s not a negative comment on the conference, per se (it was a fine event; well done staff!). It’s more of an underlying concern I have about organizations in general, and maybe the association community in particular:
I am concerned that we love great ideas, but we don’t know how to actually do them. We don’t know how to BE great.
We have our routine down. We go to conferences, listen to the lectures, take notes, and discuss the issues in the “interactive” sessions. We care about this stuff. It matters. I saw it in the faces and the comments of the people at the conference. We’re serious about learning. And I’m sure some will try to implement new things when they get back to the office.
But seriously, after years and years of Great Ideas conferences, you’d think that we would have moved the needle on some of the big issues, but I don’t think we have.
We’re still lamenting that we do things the way they’ve always been done. Seriously?! That’s been on the agenda for at least six years. But not much has changed. And innovation has certainly taken center stage at ASAE. Kudos to everyone for that. But in the end it seems like the greatest accomplishment we’ve made in that arena is that we are now very good at TALKING about innovation. But in the “bringing innovation to life” session there were serious concerns about how to engage people within organizations to actually DO innovation. We can’t convince the higher ups. We don’t understand why we’re stuck.
I think I know why we’re stuck. We are stuck because we assume that we can separate thought from action and still manage to make change. This comes from our deeply rooted mechanical approach to organizations. Machines are designed by experts. All the thinking happens before the machine performs even one task. Maybe there is prototyping so the designer can understand better how the machine will work in the real world, but for the most part, the thinking is done at one time and in one place, and then the action of the machine happens later, somewhere else. This works for machines. It doesn’t work in the organic real world.
In the real world, thinking and action are intertwined. They must be, because the context of the action is shifting so rapidly. The thought you had yesterday about how best to complete the project may not be relevant in today’s context. Thought, action, thought, action, shifting context…it’s an ongoing process.
But we don’t seem to recognize that. We go to Great Ideas conferences in order to get the great ideas (ideas that were generated by the speakers, who don’t live in your context), and then maybe some of us go back and implement and adapt the ideas, but it seems to be moving too slowly. We do our heavy thinking at the conference, and then back at the ranch we focus on the action. Thought and action are separate.
That’s the pattern that needs to change. Yes, it’s okay to take time off at a conference and do some big thinking. It’s good for our brains (and our souls, probably). But we can’t ONLY do that. We need to figure out ways to integrate the thinking and the action. How do we make Great Ideas conferences portable so they can be real-time and context-specific? Learning has to happen in the office, not just at the Great Ideas conference. I am afraid if we don’t, we’ll end up convincing ourselves we’re making progress by going to our conferences over and over, yet the attendees will be saying the same things over and over again (which seems to be happening).
I don’t have patience for that any more. We need to change our patterns so we can make change more rapidly.