What's been your experience of meetings throughout your career?
Have they been havens of innovative, free-flowing and deep discussion? Or, packed with interruptions, forceful characters on soap boxes and frustrating pencil-snapping moments?
The reality is you've probably experienced both ends of the spectrum but if I was to hazard a guess, I'd imagine many evoke painful, fatiguing and mind-numbing memories.
Not only are bad meetings costing your bottom line and fatiguing employees, they're holding businesses, organisations and governments back from tackling the in-coming threat that is the collapse of our climate and ecological, life-supporting, systems.
It's with this in mind that I offer these suggestions to improve the quality and creativity of your meetings.
This scene from Netflix hit, Don't Look Up, reflects the challenges faced in many meetings when it comes to addressing the climate crisis.
We need innovative meetings
Innovative thinking will play a key role in the ability of businesses, organisations and governments to do their part in avoiding climate and ecological collapse, as well as contributing to the wider UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The development of sustainable, regenerative and equitable solutions cannot be achieved without challenging the status quo and thinking outside the box, and an environment that embraces change, candidness and diversity of thought is best for achieving such innovative thinking (Edmondson, 2018).
Innovation is believed to be the result of exchanges in knowledge, ideas, information and wisdom between members of a group, and one of the most common settings to create such exchanges is through the use of meetings, be them in person or online.
Fundamentally team meetings are a gathering of individuals to discuss ideas, solve problems, make decisions, craft strategies and develop solutions. They’ve become increasingly popular, with employees and managers having upwards of 3.2 meetings a week and CEO’s spending approximately 72% of their working time in meetings (Kauffeld and Lehmann- Willenbrock, 2011; Porter and Nohria, 2018).
Despite the quantity, the painful quality of meetings is often mocked in Dilbert comic strips and memes. The Harvard Business Review found that of 182 senior managers interviewed from a range of sectors, 71% said their meetings were unproductive and inefficient, and 64% said they come at the expense of deep-thinking. This is concerning given the role of deep, critical thought in the creative and innovation process.
The reality is meetings aren’t inherently evil or bad - neither are PowerPoints believe it or not. It is poor design and facilitation that's to blame. The good news is, there's another way.
Below I share the work of the Thinking Environment® which Sustainable Pathways has used extensively within organisations to transform culture and the engagement, quality of thinking and the psychological safety of meetings.
The Thinking Environment® is fundamentally a way of being with the purpose of creating a space for people to think well for themselves and in teams. Nancy Kline, the innovator behind the Thinking Environment®, sets out ten conditions or behaviours, known as the ‘Ten Components,’ which she asserts are required to create an environment for people to think well independently. The components are: attention; equality; ease; appreciation; encouragement; feelings; incisive questions; information; diversity; and place. These Ten Components form the foundation of meetings held in a Thinking Environment®.
The importance of non-interruption
While all components are key, attention is arguably the most important. When we listen to others with palpable and generative attention the quality of their thinking and responses significantly improves (Brown and Brown, 2012). In addition, bringing this component into a team meeting significantly enhances the overall thinking of the group.
Consider it for a moment, how do you feel when someone interrupts you? Do you get frustrated when you're sharing an idea and someone cuts across you or scrolls through their instagram feed?
Interruption can come in many forms, from checking your phone while someone is sharing an idea through to verbal interruption - all of which can hinder thinking.
Rule number #1, if you want to have highly creative, engaging and mood-enhancing meetings don't interrupt people.
Before the meeting
Firstly, ask yourself: “do we need to have this meeting?” If the answer is no, find another way to pass on the information or ideas you want to share.
If you answered yes, then ask: “whose thinking do I need at this meeting?” The reality is we often invite too many people to meetings - consider whose insights and input you genuinely need.
You’ve decided you need to have the meeting. It’s time to create the agenda. Sending out an agenda in advance of your meeting, in the form of questions, has been found to improve the productivity and effectiveness of meetings (Leach et al. 2009). Why in the form of questions? Because questions catalyse thinking far better than statements.
At the top of your agenda state the overarching purpose of your meeting, so people arrive knowing exactly the reason for coming together. Ask yourself: "What is the main purpose for having this meeting?"
For example, you may be looking to transform your business model from a linear and degenerative one, to a business that improves the well-being of people and the planet. Framed as a question this may look like, "What do we need to do to use our business as a force for good?"
Once you've decided the overarching purpose, move on to the specific agenda items you wish to discuss and frame those as questions as well, for example:
Agenda item #1: “Who can support us in developing a strategy for this business model shift?”
Agenda item #2: “How will we overcome resistance from our internal teams?”
Once you've pulled your agenda together share it with the attendees, ideally a few days in advance. Here's a very brief example below of what one might look like:
If you stick to the following meeting structure it will allow you to create an environment that is filled with rich, deep and innovative discussion while also being highly productive.
The structure is fairly straightforward, for each question on the agenda conduct a 'round' followed by an 'open discussion.'
To initiate a round the chair of the meeting states the question to be addressed (agenda item), the amount of time each participant has to respond (e.g., 1 minute) and the direction to follow (e.g., left or right). If you are having an online meeting, create a virtual 'clock-face' so people know where they're positioned within the meeting.
Once the chair has stated the agenda question, anyone can begin - don't pick on someone to start as they may not actually be ready to offer their response. Instead, endure the 5 or so seconds of silence and wait for someone to pick up the baton - someone always will.
As the first person offers their response to the agenda item, everyone should listen with full attention and without interruption, comment or challenge; when finished or the pre-allocated time is up, the person responding passes to the next person either to their left or right depending on the direction that was originally set by the chair.
When everyone has spoken (you've completed the round), it's now time for an open discussion. At this stage there is not set order, anyone can discuss, comment, challenge or question the points they've heard throughout the round.
The open discussion is slightly more complex to chair - so to avoid interrupting remind everyone to share speaking time and to conclude their remarks by saying "that's me finished."
As you conclude your open discussion, note down any key actions and move onto your next agenda item and follow the same format (a round followed by an open discussion).
Starting and ending your meetings
We often encourage teams to begin their meetings with an opening round on something that's gone well for them in the week (e.g., “What’s one thing that’s gone well for you this week?”). An accurate view of reality involves the good and the bad, starting your meetings this way lifts the mood and energy of the team and helps creativity flow.
Rather than just letting the meeting fizzle out at the end, conclude with an ‘appreciation round’ whereby members say one thing they valued about the meeting you’ve just had. While it may be a bit uncomfortable at first, if done authentically, it will leave the team feeling at ease - especially after a tense and difficult discussion.
We are at a critical point in time and it is our collective responsibility to guide humanity towards a safe operating space, one where people thrive equally in harmony with the Earth.
If we are to achieve this, individuals within businesses, organisations and governments must come together to innovative regenerative and equitable solutions. However, without addressing mundane meetings plagued with groupthink and low psychological safety - it's going to be a real struggle.
This short guide for facilitating team meetings presents an alternative approach capable of creating an environment that catalyses the ideas, discussions and solutions we need to address our local and global challenges.
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Edmondson, A. (2018) The Fearless Organization. 1st ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
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Kauffeld, S. and Lehmann-Willenbrock, N., 2011. Meetings Matter. Small Group Research, [online] 43(2), pp.130-158. Available at: <https://doi.org/10.1177/1046496411429599> [Accessed 29 Jan 2022].
Kline, N. (1999). Time to think. London: Ward Lock.
Kline, N., 2020. The promise that changes everything; I won't interrupt you. 1st ed. London: Penguin Life.
Leach, D., Rogelberg, S., Warr, P. and Burnfield, J., 2009. Perceived Meeting Effectiveness: The Role of Design Characteristics. Journal of Business and Psychology, [online] 24(1), pp.65-76. Available at: <https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10869-009-9092-6> [Accessed 5 Jan 2022].
Perlow, L., 2017. Stop the Meeting Madness. Harvard Business Review, [online] Available at: <https://hbr.org/2017/07/stop-the-meeting-madness> [Accessed 5 Jan 2022].
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