You know the feeling.
It might start from your stomach – a nerve, impatience, a lump that just doesn’t sit well. Body always shows it before you can speak it. A tapping foot here, another one there. Impatience. Deep sighs and pairs of eyes disappearing into screens. Maybe you want to say something but can’t – maybe you strongly believe there’s nothing anyone should be saying anymore. Endless conversations, jumping here and there, with a seemingly never-ending trajectory to nowhere.
The pain of time ill spent – the pain of a bad meeting.
You know the kind – don’t we all? A bad meeting is one that resembles an ill-organized flock of birds. Arguments, opinions and other content is flying around the room in a seemingly mindless order. Roles are unclear (who is holding the conversation?) and egos are tested in sporadic debates (yes but in MY opinion…). Decisions often can’t be or simply aren’t taken. The cockiest birds end up doing all the screaming, while the silent majority limply flap their wings and give validation to the few pushiest ideas. A bad meeting finishes off without a clear goal and result – oh, other than scheduling the next meeting.
These kinds of hierarchy showcases are more successful in making people in the room feel frustrated and uncomfortable, rather than bringing the work any further. The emotional experience of being unengaged, disrespected, not listened to, brings about an ache that can be felt physically as well as mentally. Some of my worst meeting experiences include having to sit down in my seat for up to 2 hours (without breaks!) while having to quietly listen to a few people’s ideas circle around the table. Such meetings create a frame where so much of the talent and insight in the room goes completely untouched – heaps of brilliance and creativity lost in plain sight!
There are many ways to spice up meetings that have already become common practice at many workplaces – from breaks to beverages and buns, visual aids and swanky meeting spaces with green carpets and futuristic white chairs. But meetings are much more than what reaches the eye. This is why we need to address not only our physical, tangible meeting settings and spaces, but also the social practices we host meetings with.
Here are 4+1 practices we consider in our team meetings:
1) The (facilitation) frames
Every meeting ought to be designed as a simple process that will lead a group into their desired outcomes. For designing such a process, we start by asking: What’s the intention of us meeting? What are the desired outcomes of the meeting? What will happen, what roles are present and how long will this last? Making these points explicit and clear to every participant before the meeting or right at the start of it helps create clarity and direction for everyone in the room.
2) Settling in & wrapping up
How are you – and how is your team – beginning and ending the meeting? Why is the meeting’s theme relevant to the people around the table? How is our thinking around it shifting? A simple yet powerful way to establish a sense of connection and focus in the meeting is opening and closing the space of the meeting with a question. This gives everyone in the room a chance to be seen and heard, thus cultivating basic connections between teammates and the theme or task at hand.
3) Distributing the conversation
We have inherited the belief that human beings learn things (only) by listening and can create valuable things (only) alone. This is simply not true. The argument “we just don’t have enough time” is often used to dismiss collective sensemaking in meetings, but distributing the conversation doesn’t have to mean an exhausting mess, nor take a lot of time.
We suggest creating structures that allow for sense-making, thinking and conversation in different constellations – for example, giving people a minute to think something in silence individually, or having conversations in smaller groups before a plenum discussion. This helps bring out diverse genius and perspectives, while still staying on track with time and goal of the meeting.
4) Visual sensemaking & taking notes
They say a picture speaks a 1000 words. I say – how wonderful would it be to sometimes understand one another without saying a word? Taking things out of your head onto something physical, like a piece of paper or an object, helps save energy, create focus and enhance learning, especially in a group setting. Visualizing information and taking notes from conversations allows for enhanced understanding between people, as well as provides material for taking the matter forward.
Last but definitely not least – treat the meeting as a time and space that is intentionally hosted and held for all participants. This means welcoming everyone, making sure the meeting space is inviting (think clean, light & bright space with enough comfortable seating for all participants), that basic physical needs are met (have water, coffee, tea and snacks available – you can also suggest a bodily exercise like stretching if needed), and that you keep brakes when the energy in the room goes down south. Taking care of our basic needs allows everyone to bring their best, current self into the meeting and to be present in the work and decisions to be taken on together.
Creating a better meeting culture works like the creation of any other type of culture – by implementing something time and again, over a period of time.
What I love about the above practices is that they can be experimented with, applied and tested in a team – right away in the next upcoming meeting.
I’m curious to hear how these practices work for different people and teams – and what prove to be the biggest challenges in implementing them in practice. If you’re applying these ideas – or some other well-working ones – in your work, get in touch to continue the best practices exchange!
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