Meeting of minds not mindless meetings

Jun 17 2008 by Max McKeown Print This Article

Many meetings are not dialogues. They do not invite contributions. Their style discourages openness. Their structure does little to capture collective and individual opinions. Many brainstorming sessions follow the form but not the function. You have the flip charts, coloured pens, post-it notes, tea, coffee, and buffet lunch, but where is the collective buzz? Where is the startling exchange of insights?

Here's my recipe for spicing up meetings and making them matter.

Don't let the chairperson run the discussion. You might want them to open and close the meeting. In between, they should be getting their hands dirty in the middle of whatever passionate, ridiculous, serious, playful problem solving is happening.

The most senior person in the room should shut up at the start and the end. Authority lends disproportionate weight to their opinions and encourages many to speak too much, and with too much certainty. Whoever is leading the discussion should be respected, relentless, and renegade. The bigger the meeting, or the more important, the greater benefit will come from using a virtuoso facilitator. Spend your money on people, not a fancy off-site location.

Beware of the dangers of monologues. Often only one person can talk at a time. This reduces the number of ideas that people can discuss and allow everyone else to coast, doing nothing, contributing nothing, not even thinking about the problem.

People who talk most can block others from sharing their ideas, people forget what they were going to say or just never get the time to say it. It's also tough to be the only speaker in a big group – many people hold back their ideas because they are afraid of sounding stupid. Just telling people to share crazy ideas is not enough.

Getting people to prepare ideas before a meeting can be worthwhile. Not so that they all take turns to present the ideas – this is deathly dull and ineffective – but so that the people attending have done some thinking.

It runs counter to many people's preconceptions but brainstorming is not the objective it's just a technique. It has very many failings in theory and practise. Don't assume that group brainstorming is automatically good or bad. It's not what you do but how you do it.

Engage people with problem solving. Pin up principles. Consider what works and what doesn't work. Figure out how to get over the typical problems. Most people get tired very quickly. They run out of ideas. They run out of steam. They start coping instead of contributing. If they get bored, they start to play political games or politely disengage. Email suddenly becomes fascinating.

So keep people alert, involved, knowing that the meeting has no fixed shape and that their involvement counts and will be noticed.

Make contributions significant. Take photos of the whiteboard jottings so that what is said matters. Use them as your documents so that time is not wasted writing reports that merely repeat, less colourfully, what has been said. You need a way of structuring and recording what the group contributes. So it doesn't get lost. So that people can see what they have said, it avoids repetition, and allows the group to build idea upon idea, climbing insight upon insight. It should make clear the logic and assumptions that surround their opinions.

Get the knowledge and power in the room. Keep an eye on what supporting information is helpful, what is missing and what is irrelevant. If subjects are put on hold because the right people, authority, facts, or figures are not in the room then make sure your cast and props are different for the next meeting. Phone a friendly expert during the meeting if it allows momentum to be maintained. Experience tells us that even a few figurative leaves on the line will derail progress. It's a game that is played.

Avoid projects wherever possible. Problem solving is better as a continuous stream of linked activities than a series of dislocated, disconnected events. A weakness of projects and project thinking is that they are only appropriate for work that has a clear start and end. The objective becomes reaching the final date with minimal blame rather than contributing improvements.

The general company population can barely remember what the grand projects are trying to achieve. The mighty programme manager controls only the progress reports. He becomes disconnected from the shifting sands and constantly changing waves inside and outside the company.

Create Boss Meetings that use formal power and informal kudos to get things done. Many senior managers start ducking meetings as soon as they are able, apart from the meetings with anyone who has more power than they do. It's natural but damaging.

Ideally, there should be clear meeting paths and purpose so that the boss is involved in enough detail to understand and often enough so that decisions are made that speed up efforts to innovate.

The head of the company that makes the Blackberry email device makes meetings matter. He holds weekly vision sessions to talk to the various teams from all over the company. He holds regular brainstorming meetings that cover the whole span of diverse subjects that concern the company. The product is centre stage, physically there in the meetings so that it is clear what the link is between sitting around a table and what is delivered to the customer.

Stop Believing In The One-Size-Fits All Meeting – Encourage people to just talk to each other. Have as few regulation length meetings as possible. Have sixty second meetings. Twenty minute meetings. Create communal spaces of different sizes with sofas and whiteboards so that colleagues can start a chat without waiting for the next meeting.

Some companies have used mobile phones to send out instant meeting invites. Others use multi-coloured gathering area or flashing lights to attract attention. Get people out of the office. Get yourself out of a rut. Hang out in an art gallery. Hold your meetings in pubs, clubs, parks, restaurants, ice rinks, and amusement arcades. Cover for your team so that they can be doing something less boring and more useful. Block out time during work hours for reading, napping, thinking, and just meditating.

The processes in and around the meeting diminish ideas, putting them to one side, ignoring conflict or causing it, leaving out what makes groups valuable. If you are going to spend time and money on getting colleagues and customers together then get it right. There's no such thing as a free meeting, so try to make the best use of the time.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.