Learning in action: How ThoughtExchange is reimagining leadership development events

Learning is traditionally a difficult metric to pin down. When you run an event aimed at helping people learn, how do you know if you achieved your goal?

As David Wilkinson writes in the Oxford Review: “When you look at many learning events there is an implicit assumption that attendance = learning. Beyond the ubiquitous happy sheet type evaluation at the end of an event, there is usually no real effort to find out if ‘learning’ has actually taken place…”

When we set out to create ThoughtExchange Events, we had a singular and audacious mission in mind: to reimagine the live events space. We wanted to create an experience that would enable everyone at the event—attendees, sponsors, and speakers—to authentically learn from each other.

Our inaugural Leadership Empowerment Summit event in Austin, Texas would go light years beyond the traditional “sit-and-get” model that pretty much every live event follows. Instead, we would use a dynamic programming model where the presenter and audience own the information and engage with each other in real time. They would collaborate to come up with something that neither the presenter, audience or organizer could have anticipated prior to the event.

It was ultimately an experiment designed to learn how valuable a leadership event could possibly be.

A participant-driven experience

Fast forward to two weeks after our Austin Summit, and all signs are pointing to success. ThoughtExchange was the engine behind a software-driven and highly personalized leadership development experience for 50 innovative K-12 school district leaders.

We used our software to crowdsource questions and ideas during all presentations so speakers could respond in real time. When forming our townALL Discussions (round tables), we asked a simple question about what leaders would like to discuss for the next hour. Algorithms created discussion groups for people interested in a particular topic.

We even tasked ThoughtExchange with forming our dinner groups based on the preferences of sponsors and attendees. Rather than static matchmaking, ThoughtExchange created groups based on mutual interests, enabling another learning and sharing opportunity while dinner was served.

“This event has been one of the best learning opportunities for me as a leader. It was unique. It wasn’t your average professional development opportunity for a superintendent.” — Dr. J.A. Gonzalez. McAllen ISD, TX

Learning in action

We’ve heard from many attendees how valuable the event was from a learning perspective. Unlike conventional leadership development events, they left Austin energized with new ideas to take back to their district. They told us this on social media and in testimonials we recorded at the event.

As Dr. J.A. Gonzalez, Superintendent of McAllen ISD in Texas shared: “This event has been one of the best learning opportunities for me as a leader. It was unique. It wasn’t your average professional development opportunity for a superintendent. I learned a lot from superintendents across the country and really built some strong relationships that are going to last beyond this conference.”

Words like this are one thing. However, perhaps the purest expression of learning is putting new knowledge into practice. That’s why we were so excited to see what J.A. did in his district shortly after attending the Austin Summit:

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He brought together his district’s leaders and created a professional development event for them based on the ThoughtExchange model of sharing ideas and questions in real-time. He was so excited, he produced and shared a video about how ThoughtExchange is revolutionizing communication in his school district.

Having a leader attend and use the results of this event to immediately achieve results in his district is the most powerful outcome we could have expected.

A new vibrancy

Because our Austin Summit format was so experimental in the space, it was a bit of an unknown for both our attendees and sponsors. At the outset, we encountered skepticism from some sponsors about our 10-10-10 Impact Solution Session format. Would it deliver the value they needed from the summit?

The Impact Solution Sessions gave sponsors the usual 30-minute time slot they’ve come to expect at live events. However, they could only present for 10 minutes. That’s about half as long as a TED Talk—the standard for concise, high-value presentations.

“In the world of conferences, where they all feel the same, this one has a new vibrancy to it.” — Mark Rothschild, Founder & CEO, Right At School

After the presentation, the audience had 10 minutes to share their thoughts and questions in an exchange. The final 10 minutes was set aside for the sponsor to respond to audience input.

Q and A sessions like this can be the bane of a presenter’s existence because a single person with a complaint or strong opinion can take over and distract the audience. With ThoughtExchange, sponsors spent their time responding only to the most valuable questions and ideas that resonated with the whole audience.

We knew the format was landing better than we ever could have imagined when Mark Rothschild, Founder & CEO of Right At School, paused during the Q&A to say how excited he was to be standing there answering questions.

As Mark told us later during the event:

In the world of conferences, where they all feel the same, this one has a new vibrancy to it. At most conferences, you talk, people listen, and it’s over. You have no idea what they were thinking or what questions they had. This one is different. When you get to present for 10 minutes, you keep your story tighter and are more direct about what you’re doing. Then, after you go to ThoughtExchange to see which questions are top of mind, it’s exciting to be able to directly answer those questions.

Check out this video to hear from more sponsors and attendees of our Austin event:

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Thanks for taking the leap

We’re humbled and incredibly grateful to people like J.A., Mark and all those who took a chance and joined us enthusiastically at Austin. It was a leap for everyone involved.

Leaders have a lot of professional development opportunities and it can be hard to be away from their districts. To those who attended and presented, a huge thanks for showing up so wholeheartedly.

Our sponsors also went out on a limb by spending some of their precious marketing budgets on what was an untested event. We’re massively appreciative for their support and genuine participation.

By taking this leap forward with us, you have also helped us learn. We’ll be taking those lessons and putting them into action at our next Leadership Empowerment Summit, happening March 20-22, 2019 in San Diego.

We hope you’re inspired to join us in San Diego early next year to learn from your peers and discover a new kind of leadership development event. To learn if you qualify for an invitation, please see the FAQs and registration form here.

About the Author

Matt Kinnaman

Matt is Vice President of Events here at Thoughtexhange. He leads an energized contingent of colleagues dedicated to creating uniquely powerful in-person engagement opportunities that generate unprecedented value for stakeholder audiences.