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ATD Blog

Open to Surprise

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Many talent leaders are intentional about what they want to learn when they sign up for a conference. They review the agenda, the speakers, the vendors, and social networking opportunities. They build a detailed agenda to ensure they get the most out of their time. For example, some report that they have large change initiatives and want to learn from others via specific sessions and networking with people who have been through similar transformations to learn from their successes and failures. Still others want to meet in person with vendors in an informal environment to discuss ideas for using their products. For others, it is an annual trek to stay current in the field and to renew acquaintances. They plan their time and activities and have a great experience.

While we know that having a plan and working the plan gets results, we also know the value of unplanned learning: being open to unscheduled and unanticipated opportunities and unexpected circumstances and surprises. Now, with the research in neuroscience, we are learning more about the effect of surprises, especially at it relates to memory and thus being able to recall the experience more easily.

Recently, I participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the grand opening of the Nido and Mariana Qubein Arena and Conference Center at High Point University (HPU). As an alumnus, I have been at other such events and from my experience know they are well-orchestrated and fun. The motto for students—and for all actions at HPU—is this: Choose to Be Extraordinary. As this exciting evening concluded and we exited the steps into the main lobby, we were surprised with HPU team members thanking us for attending and giving us a beautifully boxed memento. Unbeknownst to us, the celebration was timed to end at the same time the soccer game and other Parents’ Weekend events. As we walked outside into the glorious September night, we were greeted with fireworks.

What a feeling! What a thrill! What a memory! What a story to tell others!

So, what is the takeaway?

For L&D professionals, the obvious takeaway may be considering how to design surprise into learning experiences. However, we also may want to be more curious and look at opportunities for surprises to evolve. Recently, several Forum members who attended ATD21 in Salt Lake City, Utah, shared some of their unplanned or surprise learning benefits of being a part of this small community within the large L&D community that they appreciated most about the ATD Forum’s ATD21 experience.


Keynoters. While being in the large session was inspiring, meeting nationally renowned authors and speakers like Angela Duckworth and Patrick Lencioni in invite-only small group executive briefing sessions available to Forum members serving in leadership roles at the conference was awesome. Asking questions, having books signed, and even having the speakers join in selfies was a fantastic surprise and a memorable experience.

Talent thought leaders. Connecting with thought leaders like Britt Andreatta, Elaine Biech, Megan Torrance, and Sardek Love at the ATD Forum Senior Leaders Reception was a major surprise for most of the members. Some of these connections have already yielded a professional relationship beyond LinkedIn.

Contributing to the programming. Opportunities to engage with and contribute to ATD Forum programming made members feel more a part of the conference process rather than just guests on the sidelines. There are so many opportunities for ATD Forum members to engage from presenting sessions with other ATD Forum leaders and getting to know them and learn from their style to helping “fill in gaps” as needed with setting up the ATD Forum room. One member stated, “It is great to be a part of a community where we all pitch in together to make the learning process work for others.” Another commented that, “Serving as a leader in the ATD Forum sessions is an opportunity to give back to the community by presenting, supporting the group work as a table coach, and even sharing our collective practices. ATD21 was even more meaningful because some of us were able to share highlights from the Forum’s book, Leading the Learning Function, which more than 50 of us collaborated on.”


Renewing professional acquaintances. A member of the ATD Forum shared these words: "Attending the conference is important to me to renew connections with other Forum members as well as ATD staff. The conference also allows me to collaborate as well as share ideas and needs with other ATD members. The conference serves as my annual energy refresh in the profession and is my main professional development source."

Being in person. Being with those we know has elements of both comfort and excitement. Forum members were able to connect with their cohort groups and deepen those connections. It makes the Forum that much more meaningful to be together in person. One member stated, “I really just wanted to be able to network in person again! I missed this amazing tribe of people!”

Building new relationships. Many Forum members loved being able to form relationships at the Forum’s preconference minilab and other informal gatherings then continuing to meet them formally and informally throughout the conference. These meetings have intentional networking built into the gatherings. According to one member, so much learning continues after the conference with continued conversations and connections.

Planning for a conference is critical if you want to make it an effective and impactful learning experience. Without this planning, it is easy to just be a tourist visiting a new city and being a chair holder in meetings. With the structured agenda, however, you can be part of a small group that connects with each other in various ways, works together to create learning sessions for others, and has special occasions to meet thought leaders in the field. All these opportunities open the door for surprise events and multiple memorable experiences.

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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