Richard Axelrod, Emily M. Axelrod, Julie Beedon, and Robert W. Jacobs
Most people consider meetings time wasting, energy draining, and spirit sapping and seek to reduce the pain by avoiding them or eliminating them–thus dealing with the symptoms, not the problem. But meetings are miniature involvement processes, and as such have highly symbolic value beyond the purpose they are called for. Low-involvement meetings sap energy, while high-involvement meetings produce energy. It is in meetings that people decide whether to remain on board or walk away, whether to push hard for success or to let things drift, whether to give their all to the project or allow distractions and other commitments to dissipate their energies.
If we want meetings to be dynamic, energy producing, exciting experiences that get things done, we need to focus on how to make them productive.
Agendas and efficient structures are important. But they’re not enough, so we have created a canoe-shaped meeting blueprint for creating an involvement edge. When we begin a meeting, conversation is at its narrowest point. Gradually, it expands as we develop a clear picture of where we are and where we want to go. At this point, the most choices are on the table and there is a danger of rushing to a conclusion, thereby missing important opportunities. Still, you can’t explore options forever. The conversation narrows as we decide what to do and who does what. Finally, it closes down as we review our decisions and assignments and say goodbye.
Here’s more detail.
Foyers are designed to help people make the transition from the outside world to the inner world of our homes. Similarly, we need to help people make a transition from what they have been doing to the world of our meeting.
The room sets the stage and influences what happens. Try to meet in a room with natural light, plenty of wall space, and breathing room for everybody. Make sure everyone can see and hear what’s going on, because straining to listen drains energy away from the work that needs to be done.
Seating participants in a circle is usually optimal, since the circle represents the most ancient form of interaction and functions as a statement of egalitarian spirit. We recommend avoiding hierarchical arrangements, like lining people up in rows or seating them at long rectangular tables. Semicircles work well when the key challenge is to “face the issue.” Occasionally we conduct standup meetings, but they must be short, of course.
Your welcome can be simple as a handshake or as elaborate as having a string quartet playing to create a mood of harmony and peace. The lobby might feature a simple banner announcing a meeting, or a troupe of actors performing mime. Whatever kind of welcome you plan, it should make people feel special as soon as they arrive, just as you do when you invite guests to your home.
Connect to Each Other and the Task
Before people can work together, they must feel connected. Seeking connections is as natural as breathing. We do it whenever we meet someone new: “Where were you born? Where did you go to school? Do you know so-and-so?” Finding something we have in common relaxes us and begins the process of transforming strangers into colleagues, partners, and friends.
Some groups we know start their meetings by asking everyone, “What do you need to say in order to be fully present at this meeting?” A quick once-around-the-room with everyone responding allows people to clear their minds and bring themselves fully into the gathering.
Personal questions are powerful ways to deepen our connections. They make us uncomfortable, and they make us think. We use questions like, “Why did you come to this meeting? Why are you staying?” “What are you willing to do to contribute to its success? What are you not willing to do?” “What acts of courage will our work require of us?”
As important as it is to connect with others in the room, it is also important to connect to the purpose. Too often, 55 minutes of the one-hour meeting are devoted to a presentation about why the topic is important. Then, with five minutes to go, the presenter asks, “Are there any questions?” No one wants to be the person who prevents the group from getting out of the meeting on time, so no one dares raise a hand.
We suggest taking no more than 20 minutes to present information, then having people raise and discuss their questions together, and finally, using the remaining time for Q&A and discussion.
When making presentations, avoid death by PowerPoint. Sitting in the dark looking at images on a screen encourages passivity. Use PowerPoint sparingly and keep it interesting.
Discover the Way Things Are
People often worry that a meeting will degenerate into a shouting match because so many points of view are represented. The easiest way to avoid this is by asking all attendees to explain how they do their relevant work. The individual answers will teach everyone about the challenges they meet on a daily basis. Taken together, they’ll reveal how the whole system operates. When people understand how the whole system operates, they become more willing to develop solutions that support it.
Another approach involves helping people discover what they already know. During a meeting at a firm that needed to reshape its corporate culture, we asked people to describe their first day on the job. Through these stories, everyone there uncovered the history of the organization and how things came to be.
Elicit People’s Dreams
Have you ever noticed that when you decide you want to buy a new car you begin to see that car everywhere? Because you’ve established a clear picture of the future you want to create, you begin to see possibilities you didn’t see before.
We’ve found that the arts can be powerful tools for creating pictures of where people want to go and that most people are willing to participate in art-related exercises as long as they know that artistic talent is not required.
Consider inviting staff members to make simple drawings that capture an aspect of the future they dream of. Even crude sketches can carry powerful messages. Or you might ask people to create short skits that show them five years in the future or to imagine themselves then and spend just five minutes writing about what they see in a free-flowing, open-ended style.
Creating living sculptures is another approach. Once when we were working with people in the midst of creating a new organization, we asked them to become the organization chart. As the organizational arrangements came to life, the team members discovered what they liked and didn’t like about their plans.
To encourage creativity as you build your shared pictures of where you are and where you want to go, you can use a variety of methods, including Single Concept Thinking. In designing new organizations we often ask participants to focus on a single criterion, such as customer service, so that they can go deeply into that variable without worrying about other constraints. Later we ask them to integrate the best ideas from each category.
Decide Who Does What
Decisions entail three things to worry about: the how, the what, and the who.
The group at any meeting must know ahead of time whether the leader will decide or ask people to offer recommendations and then decide, or assign deciding to the group, with everyone having an equal voice.
Identifying what needs to be done can be handled by simple brainstorming, sometimes with leaders offering a list as a starting point. We’ve found it useful to have everyone jot ideas of what needs to be done on Post-Its, put them all on an easel or wall, group similar ideas, label each group, and then identify its main task and subtasks.
Alternatively, you might create a timeline on a giant sheet of paper, tape it to a wall, and then invite people to jot ideas about what needs to be done on Post-Its and paste them in the right chronological spot.
Various approaches also work for the who. The leader can appoint people to be responsible for each task or call for volunteers or assign someone to be leader for a task and then have people volunteer to work on that task.
Whatever methods you use, it is critical that you review the decisions reached, making sure that everyone understands what has been decided and who is going to do what.
Attend to the End
Pay as much attention to endings as you do beginnings. Does this sound obvious? Not necessarily. Recently one of us took some lessons in public speaking and told the instructor, “I usually end my talks with a question-and-answer session.” “Absolutely the wrong way to end a speech,” the instructor said. “As the questions and answers peter out, you fade to nothingness. The impact of your speech fades with it.”
If you don’t want your meetings to end on a whimper, you need to put as much thought and attention into saying goodbye as you did into saying hello. We like to end not only by taking time to review decisions and agreements but also by reflecting together on the work that has been accomplished. We ask people to identify what they appreciated about working with others. What helped the work go smoothly? What inspired creativity? Which moments were fun?
Everyone leaves a meeting with thoughts about how it could have gone better. Why not bring those ideas into your meeting so that you can improve the way you work together? If you end your meetings by asking those present, What did we do well today and what do we need to differently next time we meet? we guarantee that your meetings will improve.
Richard H. Axelrod, author of Terms of Engagement, is co-founder with Emily M. Axelrod of The Axelrod Group, Inc. Julie Beedon, co-author of Meetings by Design, is CEO of VISTA Consulting Team Ltd. Robert W. Jacobs, author of Real Time Strategic Change, is president of Robert W. Jacobs Consulting Inc. Together, they wrote the book from which this article is derived–You Don’t Have to Do It Alone: How to Involve Others to Get Things Done, published by Berrett-Koehler. To order the book or learn more, visit www.bkconnection.com.