Now I get it; I'm here as an agent provocateur.

The setting of this insight was a company-wide conference at which I was the opening speaker. I had been very carefully briefed by the company's chairman who had read my books and was quite clear about what he wanted me to cover. That's great; a good brief is always welcome. But at the reception the night before the conference started, I realized that what he wanted me to discuss was counter to that company's culture and well outside the comfort zones of the attendees. That's why I was there.

Essentially the chairman believed that there were a number of issues within his company that weren't being addressed. In some cases, this was because the topics felt unthinkable; in other cases, it was because everyone was far too polite to raise them. He needed someone to shake up the troops. When I saw the full slate of speakers, I realized that that was what we were all there for: to change the agenda.

A lot of conferences are feel-good events, with motivational speakers, and lots of networking. There's nothing wrong with that and every conference should have a social purpose. But they can do more.

This chairman wanted his people to think differently. He appreciated that if the new ideas came from him, everyone would position themselves around him; agreement (or disagreement) would be political, not real. The way to shift an agenda was to import some difficult and dangerous thinking.

I wonder how many companies use their educational meetings this strategically. After the motivational ra-ra, the cheerleading and the networking, how meaningful are these events? Conferences are expensive--in time and money. So here's a different way to think about them:

1. Dig Deeper

Ask yourself: what are we not talking about that we should talk about? Where can I find the ideas and data we need to provoke debate?

2. Open New Networks

How do we get people who usually don't talk to each other to do so? Arrange breakouts and seating so that friends can't just hang together.

3. Think Laterally

Bring in historians, artists, musicians, people who do hard work of a kind that is different from yours--but also difficult, collaborative, and successful.

4. Brain Up

Feed the minds of your people and stretch their thinking. Avoid the stale cliches of athletes, and heartwarming stories of overcoming heartbreak. Discomfort is more creative than comfort.