Often when clients are trying to boost employee morale or jump-start improvement efforts their go-to tactic is to set up a one-day event of some sort. Or when they want to develop an up-and-coming leader they scour the interwebs for a good workshop to send someone to. They extend conferences to employees as a double-benefit: learning and getaway at the same time. Unfortunately, in some cases event sponsors assume that the ensuing enlightenment will spur improvement, and are disappointed when it doesn’t, or it doesn’t last. Impact events don’t change behavior, and here’s why.

Let’s think about impact events for a moment. Certain life events were high impact for you. They were such because they contained intense emotional connections that enabled them to embed in your memory. You remember where you were when the World Trade Center fell, don’t you? You can probably recall the location where you proposed marriage (or were proposed to). And it’s likely that you can recount the details from the births of your children, even if those events happened many years ago

Did they change you permanently? The proposal and the childbirths likely changed you because they were only the beginnings of a series of new events, a whole new path for you. They changed everything that followed, and as such were not stand-alone events. The bride, the groom, the new parents and the baby set up house together, and every day was different from there forward.  The emotionally charged impact event started the ball rolling, but other things changed too in order to support the new path.

As for the World Trade Center, you might now have new perspectives that arose from the sudden feeling of vulnerability, or perhaps anger you felt on that day. You might still have an enhanced respect for first responders from the vivid images you watched on TV. But are you behaving differently every day because of that event in 2001? Unless you live in New York City or worked in one of those buildings you probably returned to your prior habits and life is much the same as it ever was.

Impact events are consciousness raisers, but they are not reliable as sustainable behavior changers. It’s interesting how when companies or individuals try to enact change they often try to do so by delivering a strong message. Their words are the equivalent of “go forth and sin no more” or “we know you’ve turned left for 15 years, but starting tomorrow we’re going to expect you to turn right.” Already invested themselves in the Big Message, leaders are disappointed when the expected change doesn’t happen. Even when there are temporary changes or improvements after the big production, the impact event tends to wear off when someone bursts the bubble back in the “real world”.

Why impact learning has its limitations

To some degree impact learning is like a bucket of water that you pour over someone. At the time that you deliver the supposedly impactful message they could be a sponge or a stone, and if they’re a stone the water will roll right off. Even if they’re a sponge, they’ll dry up unless you keep pouring water from time to time.

Impact learning requires the conditions to be just so; no distraction from the room setup or temperature, no fatigue (or hangover) or preoccupation on the part of the viewers, and a presenter that truly connects with the audience. Otherwise the impact won’t be significant enough to be memorable. Remember the intense emotional reaction from those life events? You can’t necessarily engineer that emotional connection; if you stoop to tricky tools and techniques you risk losing authenticity. And the audience’s B.S. radar detectors will short-circuit the intended emotional impact.

Adults need to understand the relevance of information to them, and they want to know how to apply it. They are critical thinkers who are conditioned to think negatively about change at first, and they have to figure out how to assimilate it for themselves, where they sit. An event rarely provides the opportunity for assimilation, much less application.The presenter relies on the message carrying enough impact to last until it arrives back on site in the workplace – in one piece.

Too much information at one time blows your participants’ hair back. If they learn 50 new things on one particular day, Way back in 1885 Hermann Ebbinghaus found out just how fast knowledge fades.  For effective learning, spaced repetition is much more reliable for retention and application. And that’s why we use spaced repetition when we work on leadership and other development projects with worksite teams.

Here’s an illustration: If you want to become a better tennis player, you have a choice. You can take either a series of eight one-hour lessons from world champ Serena Williams (spaced about a week apart), or one 8-hour day with her. If you chose the series you would learn her tips and techniques in manageable bites, and you would have the opportunity to test them on your home tennis pals in between. In contrast, by lunchtime on your 8-hour day you would already be too exhausted to take in new information, even if you still had enough strength to swing your racquet after a whole morning with Serena.

This is not to say that one day workshops or retreats don’t have a valid place in your overall staff development strategy. What’s important is to understand their role as well as their limitations. They can raise awareness, inform, inspire, provide variety, create shared history among team members, or serve as booster shots – but what they will NOT reliably do is change behavior in a sustainable way.