Designing Meetings that Do More

Designing Meetings that Do More

Imagine leaving a meeting feeling naturally inspired, energized by new ideas, with enhanced goodwill toward your colleagues, and a shared sense of alignment and clarity for where to go next. In a highly-functioning group, ideas and experiences cross-pollinate, perspectives broaden, assumptions shift, and something new emerges that no one could have discovered alone. Sadly, many people spend a lot of time in meetings, which are boring, routine, frustrating, and do not access the ideas and perspectives of every one in the room.

Here are some of the needs I often hear expressed by people in organizations and those working on positive social change:  

  • Our work is to ‘siloed’ – people are not aware of what others are doing.
  • Insights or lessons learned are not well communicated so others make the same mistakes or reinvent the wheel
  • We spent all this time to come up with a plan and now that we are rolling it out, people are resisting and objecting to it – we need better messaging.
  • How do we convince people to act? To change? To adopt our goals?

In a world of pressing demands and complex challenges, where people want to have impact, take action, and get outcomes, what gets overlooked is the process of  how we get there. The how is all about how people are engaged, brought together in meetings, and how they participate, learn, and think and work together. As Atul Guwande, a surgeon and writer says, “Human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change.”

In over 25 years of work in organizations and collaborative initiatives focused on environmental and social change, I have come to realize that meetings hold more potential than we typically access. I have been blessed to discover some great teachers and had the opportunity to learn, experience and practice new ways of working and organizing meetings to achieve multiple benefits (see end of this blog for credits.) We can design meetings to do more.

Design starts with intent, which means becoming aware of the world view and assumptions that inform our choices. I’ve always been inspired by how one quote or question can shed light on and shift my assumptions and intentions. Here I’d like to share the quotes that inspire how I design meetings:

“Are you lighting a candle or filling a bucket?”

There is a tendency to highly script every minute and fill a meeting or workshop with speakers and presentations, squeezing in a bit of Q&A with the participants. If our aim is to spark people’s motivation, willingness to engage and take action, getting the balance right of presentations with conversation is key.

“It’s a far superior strategy to get all the minds working on what needs to change, rather than to convince each person to do what we think is best.” -Fran Peavey

Inviting a group to consider well-framed strategic questions is a great the way to get all minds working on what needs to change. This engagement, when well designed, is what leads to better thinking overall and an experience of participation and contribution. When people help shape a strategy or plan, there is less need for “messaging” and convincing.

“Nothing about us without us.”

This slogan from South African disability activists is a good reminder to have people in the conversation who are closest to the situations being discussed. Aryanna Pressley, who is the running for Congress from Massachusetts, said it well: “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” – Albert Einstein

An effective practice for meeting design is to have a design team work ahead of time to consider and distill the most important relevant questions to be considered by the group. As this blog shares, this strategic clarity and investment before the meeting “sets the table” for productive conversations.

Social learning networks enable better and faster knowledge feedback loops, essential for innovation and creativity…social learning is how we share implicit knowledge and get work done.” – Harold Jarche

Combining a good question with meeting methods that get people talking in small groups and then mixing and cross-pollinating those conversations enables us to access the ‘collective intelligence’ of a group. Methods such as World Café, 1-2-4-All, and Open Space allow many voices to be heard and inform the group’s understanding and development of consensus, as I have written about in other blogs.

On October 11th, I will be hosting a workshop called Designing Meetings that Do More, which will explore more of these ideas. Hope you will join us!  

Credits go to (among others):

Art of Hosting, Liberating Structures, World Café, Fran Peavey and strategic questions, Tom Atlee and the Co-Intelligence Institute, Harold Jarche, Time to Think,  National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation.

Originally published on October 3, 2018 at New Directions Collaborative