by Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM | June 28, 2013

Renowned business author Jim Collins once wrote, "The most important lessons lay not in what I needed to learn, but in what I first needed to unlearn." He was referring to how sometimes our progress is stalled by what we think we are already good at doing. But in fact, the world may have changed around us while we were busy getting that knowledge. If so, the goal is not to learn more, but to actually replace what we thought was a best practice with a better one.

Unlearning is not the same as forgetting. Simply stated, the process of unlearning means to consciously discard certain knowledge or habits. The world is full of examples of one-time truths that eventually required reconsideration. For example, at first Pluto didn't exist, then it was a planet in our solar system, then it existed but wasn't considered a planet anymore. I wonder how much more effective our meetings might be if we unlearned some of the tried-and-true methods that so many assume are fundamentals of the industry?

What I'd love to see unlearned:

1. Classroom seating. The classroom-style room set is a dinosaur from an era of educational sessions in which the presenter kept full control of the room and the conversation, and the information flowed in one direction only: from the speaker to the listener, and then from the listener to their notes. It required all attendees to be facing the speaker, and for each one to have a small writing space in from of them. It was likely invented by venues that wanted to provide those things while also maximizing the number of people they could fit into the space they had available. Good educational design no longer fits that model. But we keep doing it, partly because it's what we know, and partly because meeting rooms are still designed with the old models in mind.

2. Asking experts to speak for exposure rather than honoraria. Exposure is only beneficial if it leads to other opportunities. And while that may happen in some cases, it's not the typical result from trade-based conference presentations. At best, the speaker may be able to build their personal brand, but the cost to do that is high when you factor in the time required for developing and delivering a presentation. It's great for the planner when they don't have to pay a speaker, but wouldn't it make more sense to establish specific expectations and then pay what is required to have them met?

3. The uneducated consumer. In this case I'm not taking about an inexperienced professional, but someone who truly doesn't know the details behind how and why a product is sold to them. Good salespeople spend time studying their customer, and under the old model, the customer simply offers up information about how the seller can sell them what they need. Why? Because the seller asked, and because buyers aren't required to look any further than that. If you ask a meetings industry supplier how a planner does his or her job, you could probably get a decent working base of knowledge about the tasks involved. Why then, don't buyers study their sellers in the same way? I encourage you to learn more about how the business from which you are purchasing services works. Ask questions of some of your trusted partners about matters that go beyond just your own account. By understanding their work and their priorities, you can better position your own business into a place where the relationship becomes as mutually beneficial as possible.

There are plenty of other examples in the meetings industry of outdated models that would benefit from some unlearning. What are your thoughts? I'd love to hear them. Please comment below or via email to