Spark the Change Conference Notes

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On June 9-10, 2016, I keynoted at the Spark the Change conference held at the Ontario Science Centre. I have to say it’s one of the best conference experiences I’ve ever had. I knew it was going to be good when during the first keynote by Niels Pflaeging, a woman raised her hand to ask a question. I thought,’Wow, people are here to learn and discuss, not just be passive listeners!’ Two full days of knowledge, debate, discussion, laughter, ideas, challenges, participation and more laughter. I loved it.

I took some notes down in my handy new RocketBook Wave (yes, it’s microwaveable!) and thought I’d share them with you here. I love how attending and speaking at conferences helps me connect more dots.

Niels Pflaeging:
As mentioned, Niels Pflaeging, author of, Organize for Complexity, opened the conference Thursday morning. I loved how he pointed out that complexity is like the weather, neither good nor bad. What a great perspective to have in this ever-changing world! Yesterday we had weather different than today which will be different than tomorrow. Shorts? Jacket? Umbrella? Whatever we need, we grab it or wear it and go out into the world prepared.

Why then do we shut down when complexity arises? We are just as prepared for it as we are for different weather systems. Going out to buy a new jacket to keep warm is a simple, uncomplicated task. And as Niels stressed, complex systems are not complicated, but they do create surprise. Again much like the weather.

In Vancouver last weekend, I dealt with a full day of ‘Vancouver rain’. Did I cower inside? Was I unprepared? Nope. I had brought a rain jacket with me and so headed out to explore the city for the day. Easy peasy! I want to ensure I approach complexity in the same regard. That I handle it like getting dressed, putting on a jacket and then walking down the street. Let’s go forward into this complex world with shoes tied, umbrella up and coat buttoned. The world needs what we have to offer it.

A sobering thought that Niels shared was that organizations have the culture they deserve. I often hear that said about countries and their governments, but why not for companies? Bet that one makes you think, eh?

I loved this question Niels posed: “Why do we need bosses when it’s the market that is telling us what to do?” Talk about a quotable quote! Expand that statement and recognize what happens if you are not paying attention to your customers…

And finally, another line that stuck with me was that ‘people like change, but not being changed’. Theory X people don’t exist. That should give many in the training and development field something to ponder.

Dave Dame:
Another Thursday morning keynote made me and others in the audience cry. Dave Dame provided us with an excellent example of how storytelling can get a message across. Born with cerebral palsy, he recounted a story about struggling to reach the water on a Florida beach. I found myself touched by the obvious courage, optimism and strength at the front of the room as Dave spoke. I wrote down one key takeaway – stumbles are signs of growth and progress. Amen to that!

Shawn Murphy:
Before going to any conference, I reach out to other listed speakers via LinkedIn or Twitter. That way, I find that there is at least a small group of people there who are not strangers when I meet them. One other keynote speaker I had connected with ahead of the event was Shawn Murphy from Switch and Shift. He ended up in the hotel lobby the same time as me, so we rode together to Spark with a fantastic volunteer, Mike Edwards.

From that car ride until the end of conference, Shawn and I shared many great conversations and ideas. In his keynote, I liked how he used ‘violent work acts against the human spirit‘ to name the problems we face at work daily. I connected with ‘lack of clarity’ being one of these violent work acts. How many roles have you had where a lack of clarity left you feeling helpless and frustrated?

Shawn shared how work helps us to self-actualize. So, it should include enjoyment, challenge, motivation, creativity and collaboration. How many of us experience that every day?

Another great perspective Shawn shared: we need to focus on what’s possible and what’s right. Not what’s impossible and not right. After all, you get the culture you deserve. So, if you are shutting down the ideas that sound impossible, where will that leave you in future?

The last thing that I connected with in Shawn’s talk was the idea of contagious change. Once it gets started and makes a difference, others will be on board. So start small. Start with one team whose positive change and success attracts other teams. When they observe the difference it’s making, they’ll want the same thing.

Riina Hellström:
All the way from Finland, Riina Hellström brought with her an energy and sense of humour that I loved. I think I cheered when she said that “HR is broken and not built for Agile“! The more I’ve been digging into HR, the more I see the need for innovation and disruption.

Recently, I attempted to apply to a few jobs so that I could see what happens when you click on the ‘Apply’ button. I could not believe that I had to submit a cover letter! Who reads them anymore? Websites can help anyone create a cover letter worthy of the Smithsonian with no basis in reality. I also loved uploading and connecting my LinkedIn profile only to be asked for a resume upload. Really? Doesn’t the fact that your prospective candidate lacks an updated LinkedIn profile tell you all you need to know?

Riina has spent more time exploring neuroscience than I have, so I enjoyed her explanations of how our brains affect performance. Her expression, ‘neuro-bollocks‘, was a great reminder not to believe everything we read!

I also appreciated her spotlight on the SCARF model created by David Rock. Something I plan to explore more in the future as I found it insightful. If you’re a leader, manager, teacher, HR professional or trainer, definitely check out the SCARF model.

Jennifer Spear:
I put my pens down when it was Jennifer Spear‘s turn, because I wanted to watch a pro presenter in action. She’s so confident, engaging and smart. I love how she uses improv training and principles to help organizations and people innovate and create. She brings fun back into the workplace in a way that leads to stronger teams and meaningful successes. If you are not familiar with the ‘yes, and…‘ foundation of improv, I recommend you dig in and discover.

Vikas Narula:
Boy, did Vikas Narula ever have us laughing! And his company, Keyhubs, has some of the smartest technology I’ve seen in a long time. Brilliant graphs and charts illustrate important insights about influence. I think it’s incredible how organizations can know what to leverage and improve based on the findings.

I’m glad Vikas reminded me of VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. He posed this question: “How are you training people to survive in a VUCA-controlled world and economy?” I unfortunately don’t see many in L&D approaching this problem with any impact. I see the learning and development industry threatened by VUCA and unprepared for the consequences.

What also resonated with me? When I stand in front of people to share a message, idea or skill, I am ‘facilitating energy‘. This is a smart perspective to have next time I lead a workshop.

I wrote down a metaphor Vikas used in my RocketBook Wave, too: a horse race. We spend our days at work going as fast as possible like horses in a race. But we end up going in a circle only to arrive back at the beginning again. We race around with blinders on while others cheer us on. What a sad, but adequate explanation for so much of what happens in too many workplaces.

Thankfully, the engaged, motivated and smart attendees at Spark the Change want to make sure that reality comes to an end. We focused on people, collaboration and love. These common themes at a conference were so encouraging, because the way we are working is suffocating us. Time to breathe, innovate and create.

Interested in my keynote, Hiring Disruptors? Here’s a condensed version


“I unfortunately don’t see many in L&D approaching this problem with any impact. I see the learning and development industry threatened by VUCA and unprepared for the consequences.” There are examples and signals that counter the offered view quoted above and certainly examples of impact . Curious to understand how you define this industry or the boundaries you put on it.

Hi Mary thanks for reading my post and for taking the time to comment. Please note in the passage you’ve quote that I use the word, ‘many’. I believe that if there were many in the L&D field creating good solutions for the VUCA world we find ourselves in, then we wouldn’t keep hearing things like, “L&D needs a seat at the table”, “our L&D budget got cut again”, “we have to find better ways to engage our learners”, etc. I also base my argument around the personal experiences I’ve had with hundreds of L&D professionals who frankly don’t even know what VUCA is, don’t like technology, call themselves ‘Luddites’ and often reject any injection of digital or technology into their design learning experiences. When the largest percentage of conference sessions still focus on elearning, gamification etc year after year, then I assume this means we are not being prepared for the consequences of what is to come, and soon.

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