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Magic Moments: Why In-Person Events & Workshops Are Crucial For The Creative Breakthroughs Needed For Future Success

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2022-10-27

Why in-person, face-to-face events are more important than ever for leaders and teams to drive breakthroughs in innovation, adaptation, performance, and business transformation—and must not fall foul of efficiency drives and cost cutting exercises in the difficult times ahead.

 

Loss of Face-To-Face Connectivity & Creativity In The Workplace

One of the greatest challenges of the last 2+ years has been, for most white collar workers, the sense of isolation and alienation that comes from working alone, powering through Zoom meeting after Teams meeting to get stuff done and keep the organization functioning.

Whilst home working is here to stay—and brings with it many, many benefits, such as autonomy and flexibility—the loss of belonging and community is palpable in teams and organizations right now—and it is dangerous. As a recent study states: “research has indicated that individuals who work from home experience increased levels of stress, irritability, worry, and feelings of guilt when compared to other workers.”

Another study, posted in Forbes, has found:

  • Seven in 10 employees who work from home are feeling more isolated compared to being in the office
  • Many workers miss simple things such as in-person meetings (39%), office celebrations (35%) and after-work happy hours (34%)
  • With the absence of in-person events, 63% felt less engaged with their team
  • Three in five find something lacking in the quality of communication with their co-workers
  • 77% agree better communication leads to better work culture

The issues are not just about a sense of belonging and personal health. They have a massive impact on results. The study I quote above goes on to say: “Emotional deprivation is defined as a failure to emotionally connect with or attach to others, and can lead to a variety of undesirable workplace outcomes such as a drop in organizational citizenship behaviors and performance.”

 

The Yearning For In-Person Experiences

Since lockdown ended, I’ve been lucky enough to give a bunch of keynotes at in-person events; and lead a number of workshops for senior leaders. Most of these in-person experiences been the first time the participants have been together with others—in their team or in their industry—for 2, 3 or even 4 years.

The sense of communal relief, of collective joy, of “communitas“—the enlivening feeling of being together for a moment of transformation, see below for more—has been palpable. I have found myself rising to the occasion.

I have given the best performances of my life. I know this as I’ve never felt so whole, so alive with a creative spark, so in service to organizational thriving and humanity’s regeneration as I have recently. Plus I have had spontaneous applause multiple times for speaking truth with power and purpose. Such are the fruits of endless personal transformation, consistent healing of my last social anxieties (I was traumatized at school by relentless bullying by kids and teachers alike), and constant leadership development.

The resulting alchemy has been electrifying, and the results transformative. If you want to understand more about how keynote speaking can be transformational, see my recent articles on How to Be A Transformational Keynote Speaker and 7 Tips For Using A Transformational Speaker For Your Event.

In this article, I explain why in-person, face-to-face experiences are more important than ever and must not fall foul of efficiency drives and cost cutting exercises in the difficult times ahead.

 

We Workers Have Evolved Social Brains For A Reason

We humans are social animals. Our brains are finely tuned to adapt to the actions, emotions, bodily states, and responses of others—this is an evolutionary advantage that has allowed our species to thrive in every corner of our planet through effective collaboration and stunning co-creation to solve new problems (like an Ice Age, Saber-Tooth Tiger, or rampant Climate Change).

As Mathew Lieberman at UCLA has stated: “Evolution has made a bet that the best thing for our brain to do in any spare moment is to get ready for what comes next in social terms.” We are constantly scanning to pick up clues about how our colleagues, collaborators, clients, and customers are feeling and thinking in the moment—and the more accurate we are, the more effective and adaptive our responses can be.

Nowhere is the biochemical and neurological changes of our social lives more clear than in parenting. Mothers’s brains change during the early years to support caregiving and resilience. Recent research shows this happens to fathers too—their brains rewire to be more gentle and supportive.

Our “Social Engagement System” can unconsciously detect safe or stressful social environments and change our hormones, biochemistry, and brain states in far less than a second—and before we are consciously aware of anything happening.

As great leaders and speakers know, exuberance, caring eye contact, warm and optimistic voice inflection, inspiring body language, uplifting facial expressions… can all open us up to new ideas, to shared moments, to new ways of collaborating. They can help us over-ride our chronic stress response with to drive relaxation, curiosity, and openness to new thinking.

Group listening, empathy, shared experiences, storytelling and connection allow for heart-felt openness and “limbic resonance”—and so can unlock collaboration, co-creation, and creative breakthroughs.

 

Cohesion & Coherence In Creative Breakthroughs

To work together on projects and strategic ambitions, we need to collaborate effectively in service of an agreed vision; unfold together a collective purpose; and enact efficiently a coherent strategy. We cannot do this successfully if we don’t find common ground—both cognitively and emotionally—through sharing, reflecting, and making-sense of our experiences together.

Because of our social brains, group events and shared experiences open up unique possibilities for strategic consilience and even creative breakthroughs. As a group, we can be led away from outdated thoughts and stressful emotions into a liminal space of transformation, innovation, and adaptation.

If events and experiences are done right (through design, facilitation, leadership, and storytelling), people return from their workshop, event, or experience to Business As Usual with a new orientation: a sense of cohesion (emotional alignment), consilience (cognitive alignment), and coherence (strategic alignment with the fast-changing world).

See this summary from the theory and method of change we have been evolving over the last decade at Switch On, called Bio-Transformation®.

Cohesion, consilience, and coherence are crucial if we want to survive and thrive in the VUCA world. Cohesion, consilience, and coherence allow us to fit the future as it emerges, avoiding being disrupted or made irrelevant. They also give us a change to even forge the future, through shaping it with our leadership acts, business transformations, and innovative products, services, and business models.

Consilience is very hard to achieve without emotional cohesion and limbic resonance. Without such emotional bonding—and the alignment and collaboration it unlocks—it is very hard to go beyond Get Stuff Done mode to deliver ambitious ideas, innovations, and extraordinary results.

A recent HBR article states:

“Two types of creativity are endangered by hybrid work. Perhaps the most obvious one is collective creativity: people can brainstorm via Zoom, but programmed times and formats for generating ideas may well not prove as fruitful as the more fluid conversations, sidebars, and unexpected things that can happen when we kick ideas around with others or work intensively on solving a problem together. But individual creativity can be endangered, too.”

 

Creating The Conditions for Creative Breakthroughs

I’ve run over 100 innovation processes, facilitating perhaps 500 workshops within them. I’ve given around 1000 keynotes. I’ve run leadership programs with over 100,000 participants. Key to my/our success in doing this so successfully is because I pay minute attention to the feelings, sensory experiences (including keynotes and group work), and storytelling narratives in the space.

What I am trying to do is create the conditions for a unique experience that cultural anthropologist Victor Turner called ‘communitas’.

This Latin term is used to understand how groups transform through ‘liminal’ moments where the old rules and structures have been put aside for a few hours or days. It is this liminality that allows a group to get out of their everyday Business As Usual thoughts and habits to have breakthroughs.

We need to get out of the ordinary to co-create the extraordinary!

Communitas is a “sense of sharing and intimacy that develops among persons who experience liminality as a group.” In such magical and alchemical moments, collective breakthroughs and transformation can occur. Speakers, leaders, and event designers can create the conditions for communitas.

Achieving a moment of communitas is powerful. It acts like a magnet does to individual iron filings that are scattered over it. The people in the room become a cohesive emotional and trusting whole who have consilient ideas, thoughts, and strategies. They are then able to work together to achieve shared ambitions—within a feeling of deep trust and safety.

 

The Joys & Limits Of Virtual

Now, I have been blown-away by how powerful virtual keynotes, events, innovation workshops, and leadership development sessions can become. In fact, in all our leadership and innovation program designs, we have chosen to go hybrid even if everyone can still attend in-person workshops. There are unique facets and gains from virtual that make it essential for effective and efficient development programs. Virtual also saves costs, carbon, Covid transmission, and potentially exhausting travel time.

But the great weakness of virtual is that it struggles to cause a “magic moment” to occur. Studies suggest that we can sense the emotions of others—before they are even aware of them themselves—through changes in facial muscles, the focus of the eyes, and more. So if we cannot experience people in person—and have to read their social cues through a 1 square inch image of them on screen—it is very hard to sense what they are sensing, to feel what they are feeling, and to gauge accurately what they might be thinking. Creative flow states are therefore hard to come by.

Given that in the Forbes study above, 65% of people said that they now work directly with someone they wouldn’t be able to pick out of a lineup, we can see this is a challenge for co-creating breakthroughs!

We can also hide in Zoom or Teams calls. We can put up front. We can do other things in the background. The technology itself blocks our finely-tuned capacity to sense into other’s worlds. Without being able to share a safe and brave physical space— which allow our nervous systems to come into resonance and cohesion—finding coherence is hard.

In addition, Zoom Fatigue and at-home stresses often shift our brains into “Get Stuff Done” Mode. This makes generating the conditions for genuine communitas particularly hard work. It can be done—we have gotten quite good at it—but it is far from easy, rather exhausting, and there are many, many, many ways it can go wrong.

Virtual can keep the lights on—and the wheels of organization turning. But it really struggles at holding space for people to imagine and invent the future.

 

The Magic of In-Person Moments

An emotional sense of cohesion can align a business unit around a visionary 5-year plan; a leadership team around a more positive leadership model or style; attendees at conference around a positive view of the future of an industry; and a group of potential clients at a sales experience together around an innovative product or service.

In turn, such emotional cohesion allows a group to come up with breakthrough strategies and collaborative actions that are far more coherent with the bewildering and disorienting VUCA world. There are few things as important as coherence in our world of radical change, ruthless complexity, and relentless uncertainty.

Connecting with people in-person, face-to-face, allows for cohesion a powerful story that seeks coherence—told in an emotionally empathic and purposefully connective—way, and magic can occur. Nothing on Earth seems to be able to bring people into a sense of shared power and common purpose as reliably and as effectively as a compelling story, well told.

Whether at a workshop, conference, or event, I have found that being a transformational keynote speaker and leadership catalyst makes one a lightening rod for change that can open up creative breakthroughs. It can even cause ‘phase transitions’ in a team or organizations, where the collective shifts from competition to collaboration; from focusing on promotions to focusing on purpose; from thinking about a sale to thinking about a strategy.

A wise and powerful speaker can be the catalyst to this stunning chemical reaction that forges from atoms (individual leaders and event attendees) a cohesive and coherent molecule that can shape the future.

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