Learning Lessons from a Crow’s “Caw”

Written by Garth Jordan on September 18, 2017


The crow’s ‘caaaaw’ sounded unnatural and abnormally human. Almost like he was reading a script written by another crow. He kind of was, in reality.

A while back, I was at The National Aviary in Pittsburgh. I was in a foyer with three cages individually occupied by two parrots and a crow. The crow was once injured, but had been saved by aviary staff and placed in-between the parrots’ cages.

If you are unaware, some members of the corvid (or crow) family can mimic human speech. In this particular case, the crow had been in captivity for a couple years, biding his healing time with his parrot buddies. His original “Caw!” was mimicked by the parrots…and in turn the crow started mimicking the parrots mimicking him.

The crow’s “Caw!” became a copy of a copy – a new crow dialect with an elongated, purposefully vocalized “CAAAAW!” – it was no longer his own.

This got me thinking about how we create professional conferences. Often, we send out calls for presentations and pick people with interesting stories. We promote our tremendous volume of education sessions, the bulk of which are about someone else’s ideas, processes, new services, and such. When attendees go to sessions, they are more often than not exposed to education that’s intended to satisfy the craving for an easy way out. “Just give me your handouts and the checklist of what to do and how to do it, I’ll take it from there.” Copy. Rinse. Repeat.

What’s wrong with this? Well, we’re teaching people to mimic, not to learn deeply, invent, or innovate. Leaving a conference with an armful of other people’s best practices and checklists creates false hope that attendees will somehow create massive improvements back home. In reality, we’re simply encouraging attendees to mimic more often than not. CAAAAW.

Developing deeper learning experiences that challenge ‘what is known’ or ‘best practices’ will empower our customers and members well beyond the ‘I just need one takeaway’ goal that supposedly makes a conference worth the price of admission. Maybe it’s time for a new goal. A deep, challenging learning experience that transforms how we think about and act within our professional worlds and how we work with the people around us, not one that asks us to mimic the “Caw” of our peers.

A substantially different conference might be a professionally-facilitated wicked-problem solving conference (versus hosting 150 concurrent sessions delivered by members and others who are not professional teachers). Whether 50, 500 or 5,000 people are involved, purposefully designing a facilitated conference meant to solve existing problems and turn passive attendees into active, problem-solving participants improves markedly upon the sage-on-stage experience that dominates today. Because, in such a place, people are encouraged to interact, transform their way of thinking, challenge each other, and apply their learning real-time… that’s when learning sticks and innovation blossoms. Caw, chirp, tweet.