Community, Collaboration and Cowboy Boots – Highlights from the ACMP 2016 Global Conference

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP)’s global conference in Dallas. It was my first ACMP conference, and it was a very enriching experience, both personally and professionally.

The event had impressive star power, opening with positive psychology guru Shawn Achor, and ending with the world’s leading expert on vulnerability, Brené Brown. In between, participants were served up a Texas-sized buffet of workshops and learning opportunities on a remarkable array of topics. Along with over 1,000 other delegates, I had the chance to snack on topics like storytelling, neuropsychology, sponsorship and attachment theory, and also dig into some meaty case studies on leading change in higher education, defining changes that matter and exploring the ripple effect of social contagion across organizations.

Here are the key themes that stood out for me at the ACMP global conference:

1. Community

My main take-away is that sustainable change happens through community.

Shawn Achor led us through a superb exploration of the power of community in his talk about the “Happiness Advantage”. He made a compelling case for the power of social contagion, cautioning that “stress, negativity and anxiety are picked up on in a room like second hand smoke.” Achor elegantly connected the concept of individual happiness to the power of community in organizations when he said:

“We’re not wired together but we’re designed to be wirelessly connected together. Happiness is not an individual choice, it’s an interconnected one.”

The power of community was brought to life in the most innovative workshop of the event (to be honest, probably the most innovative workshop I’ve ever attended), artfully delivered by Belgian change leader, Luc Galoppin.

Breaking all the rules of the traditional conference format and structure, Luc opened his session on social architecture by inviting 100+ participants to stand in a wide circle to experience what a community really feels like at a visceral level. He continued playing with the physicality of community by asking us to team up in groups of six, working through a set of tools and worksheets while seated in very tight circles. This exercise made it immediately clear that traditional breakout tables actually form a barrier to deep human connection –something we felt at a gut, rather than at an intellectual level. By exploring various ideas and co-creating, each group shared insights on hexagon-shaped sheets, which eventually created a collaborative “hive” of contributions from the community.


Echoing Seth Godin’s work in Tribes, Luc suggested that change practitioners forgo the traditional pattern of trying to create communities, and instead tap into the multiple pre-existing ones that form in organizations, creating safe platforms for the communities to connect, contribute and co-create in support of change. Rather than imposing with a fist from the top down, he encouraged participants to consider working from an open palm, as a symbol of an invitation.

It was a joy to see a change leader contribute such passion and tremendous hard work and preparation in service to his community. Having the courage to try such an innovative approach was gutsy. It was experimental, experiential … and it totally paid off. I got so much out of the session, and judging by the buzz and energy in the room, so did many fellow participants.

2. Story

A recurring theme in many of the sessions I attended was the importance of the story of change. Given our work in change communications, this critical factor was not new – however its significance was demonstrated at the conference in several dimensions.

Karen Ball of Prosci offered a practical workshop on change story development, focused on animating the “why” behind transformation. She challenged the group to go beyond the traditional left-brain, rational description of why, and add emotional, visual and narrative elements using a simple but effective message development tool, called “Why? Inspire People to Take Action”.

Luc Galoppin made an impassioned case for change practitioners to move beyond the standard story of change that’s built on answering the question, “What’s in it for me?” He urged change managers to reject that question, which by nature perpetuates a sense of passivity and victimhood on the part of the questioner. Instead, Luc challenged us to think about developing stories around the questions of how employees can contribute to change, and how they can move from being consumers to producers of change.

Having participated in dozens of meetings about the “what’s in it for me question”, this insight was a breakthrough for me. Up until that moment, I had never challenged the very basic assumption of the question – a question so often used as a short hand for change stories that it has its own acronym – the nebulous “WIFM”.

In a session entitled “They Lived. And So Did We! Lessons in Change Management with IT and Faculty” we were led through a case study on change storytelling based on the University of Michigan’s deployment of a large-scale centralization of IT. Laurel Barnes and Emily Fuentes offered useful insights into how their change story benefited from two key elements – an extensive validation process with faculty (to drive out the “IT-speak”) and the development of a set of principles which contributed to sense-making in the various faculties and services.

Brené Brown drove home the story theme in stating that “story is king”. She connected its importance to neuroscience, explaining that the brain is chemically rewarded for processing stories (like the feeling when you finally understand something complicated and have an “aha” moment). She cautioned however, that the brain provides this chemical reward for a story regardless of whether it’s true or not – reinforcing the importance of a strong, visible and timely communications approach to support change.

She wisely counseled “In the absence of data, we will always make up a story… when faced with something hard, emotion gets the first crack at understanding and making sense of a change.

3. Measurement

I was truly impressed with the caliber of conference content related to measurement.

Xavier Garcia-Weibel presented an informative case study on Swisscom’s Customer-Centricity Score designed as an inside-out companion tool to the more traditional outside-in Net Promoter Score. Xavier generously shared his scoring tool, and introduced participants to Swisscom’s open source product – a free resource the company has made available for prototyping ideas. The workshop was the first time I’ve been exposed to a learning session that begins with a guided meditation, and ends with metrics!

In a thought-provoking session entitled “Is There Ever Change in Washington”, Victoria Grady introduced a fascinating instrument for measuring “attachment objects” which can be used as stabilizers in a time of change. These objects include senior leadership, manager, vision, information and skills. Along with her panelists, Dr. Grady walked us through various examples of scores from government departments, comparing employee survey data with responses on an “attachment” score – illustrating the method of designing specific change initiatives based on what matters to employees, as opposed to relying on what change leaders may think staff perceive as significant.

4. Craft

What I found most refreshing in the conference program design was that it went beyond the basic mechanics and tools of change management, and offered opportunities to meaningfully discuss the craft of facilitating change.

We were fortunate to have Daryl Conner, the world-class eminence grise of the craft of change present two superb sessions. Daryl encouraged participants to think beyond change that works (that is, change that delivers the expected results) to change that matters (based on the sense of meaning in change felt by the individual change facilitator). He reminded us of his classic wisdom that “change is expensive, and you will get an invoice”. For a change practitioner, that invoice may be the disconnect we feel when the change we’re working on doesn’t align with our core sense of purpose, or the sheer exhaustion that comes from truly investing our whole selves – head, heart and spirit into change that matters.

“We are at our professional best when we’re engaged in projects that involve both our heads and our hearts. Where we connect our expertise and our passion.” As a long-standing student of Daryl’s, these words rang profoundly true to me, as they clearly did for his riveted audience.

Brené Brown artfully connected her research on vulnerability and psychology to the work of change practitioners. Relating change to the classic narrative story arc of a three act play, she explained that change leaders intervene at act 2 – the point where the struggle and problems always present themselves.

“Change happens in the messy middle. And it goes on and on and on until the team has exhausted every option that isn’t uncomfortable”, she shared.

Unlike many other events on the market, ACMP 2016 lived up to its billing as a truly global conference – with participation from over 27 countries, and high quality speakers from many corners of the world. As a participant, it was huge value for the investment given the richness of perspective and experience that was offered. I look forward to continuing the conversation and exploration with new friends I met in Dallas – hope to see you in New Orleans for ACMP 2017!