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Leaders! Kill the conference, make a moment

If ever there was a month where business as usual seemed more doomed than ever, April 2019 was it. Extinction Rebellion campaigners turned London’s busiest street into a post-apocalyptic refuge and blockaded our financial centres. A mass-movement of truant British schoolchildren shamed political inaction with 16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg at the helm, who reminded Parliament that the UK’s oft-cited 37% carbon emissions reduction is actual a paltry 10% when aviation and shipping are accurately accounted for. Needless flying or travel of all kinds – in the days of sophisticated technology and tight budgets – is an increasingly indefensible business cost. Time is being called on the once-yearly, high-cost, low yield leadership conferences of yore as the pivot is made toward more agile, low key models of commune. 

There’s little to mourn in this outdated model. But leaders everywhere should hesitate before abandoning collective experiences entirely. Here is the debate as perfectly laid out by two passionate climate activists on the weekend news. 

The first, a lifelong Greenpeace member, has not flown for 20 years. He sees no choice in the matter: the only solution is for individuals to be the change they seek in the world without compromise. The other is a UN climate change advocate. Her work, she argues, necessitates flight; she relies on moments of face-to-face exchange and human connection to push through the policies that would otherwise remain as lifeless as a Skype screen.  

Change makers of any kind know the power of face to face moments and harness them to great effect. For business leadership teams recalibrating to the pace of change and the pressures of the VUCA environment, these moments are arguably more essential than ever – and the time is ripe to abandon the status quo and yield dramatic new levels of ROI. 

So what are the benefits of real-world face time and how can we ensure we’re maximising its advantages? 

The big benefits 

 1. Contextualised understanding

We’re all familiar with optical illusions. The letter B suddenly looks like a 13 when surrounded by a 12 and 14; the vase that becomes two faces in profile. Strategy, much like optical illusions, looks very different without the right context. Shared context is the key to shared understanding. Shared understanding is the key to aligned and accelerated execution. In these disruptive times, some messages just need space to be shared, explored and absorbed. Exploring as a collective also allows leaders to broaden their own horizons and reframe the paradigm in which they operate, reinforcing their own connection to the strategy and to each other. Miscommunication and disengagement are hazards that can drastically slow down execution.

2. New mindsets

It takes a lot to break patterns of thought and see the world differently. But being plunged into a new environment, new ideas and new experiences is a surefire way to fast track the shift. Hearing real stories and having real exchanges in thoughtfully curated ways, with thoughtfully curated people, is another. The value of this sustained immersion is something no amount of high speed broadband can beat, and high impact events harness environment, storyline and activity to amplify this impact. 

3. Collaborative momentum

The manager of a major logistics business once proudly told me about his innovation plan: ‘Our team is going to spend the first four years evaluating where we need to innovate’. World champion sports teams know that off-site events are the best way to rapidly deconstruct tribes and build new ones, emphasising a common identity and agenda to break down silos and forge powerful new bonds. All team work is about trust and relationships; businesses looking to tap into the power of teams and global collaboration rely on these alliances just as much. Events also catalyse collaboration by tapping into the wisdom of the crowd to unearth barriers, solutions and opportunities in real time – giving leaders an unparalleled view of what can be done, and how best to organise to collectively achieve it, yielding value long after the event is done. 

The why

In their book The power of moments: why certain experiences have extraordinary impact, Chip and Dan Heath illuminate why certain events have such a disproportionate impact on the way we think, feel, act and behave, and how we can all harness these qualities to become authors of defining moments that create powerful shifts. 

The most powerful experiences leverage four key components. 

  1. Elevation: experiences that rise above the routine; that make us feel joyful, engaged surprised and motivated; that ‘break the script’, heighten the senses or raise the stakes.  Elevated experiences create an emotional peak that goes the distance – something organisations dramatically underinvest in, according to research. 
  2. Pride: experiences that commemorate people’s achievements by recognising others and celebrating meaningful milestones; that help us ‘practice courage’ by ‘preloading’ our responses to moments that require us to step up and meet a challenge. 
  3. Insight: experiences that deliver realisations and transformations – for example, by building in learning opportunities that help people ‘trip over the truth’ and experience revelation; activities that challenge us to stretch to new goals and get comfortable with the risk of failure. 
  4. Connection: experiences that bond us together by uniting us in the struggle towards a meaningful goal; create a synchronised moment of endeavour; and forge new relationships by responsiveness to each others’ needs. 

At The Storytellers, we use narrative structure and story-led design to leverage these components, creating meaningful experiences that help leaders all over the world kick-start movements of change in their business.

Bex Felton

Bex Felton

Senior Strategist and Writer

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