In my facilitation courses I introduce students to all sorts of tools to make their meetings more stimulating, and more engaging. I have managed to get up to nine headings including items such as checking expectations, changing pace, framing the culture, shifting the levels of interaction (individual, pair, small group, plenary), structured stimulus activities. Specific ideas underneath these headings include stand-up spectograms, storytelling, SWOT analysis.
People enjoy the ideas, but a very common response after happily reviewing the ideas is “I can’t do this in my workplace. People will think its weird.” The throwaway summary line is often “It’s just a meeting”. With a group of banking executives, we had spent the whole day merrily learning active and creative meeting approaches, until around 4pm, close to the end of the workshop, one participant said “Well, that was a lot of fun, but we just don’t do that stuff around here.”
I get it. It is risky to introduce activities that are well outside people’s cultural habits or historical context. Even getting people out of their chairs seems provocative in some conservative contexts. Context does matter. The habits or styles of interaction that are common in an organisation is part of that context. There must be a reason to invite people out of that comfort zone. If people feel unsafe they will resist.
My general advice is to work gently towards the edge of that context. Invite people to step a bit further, give them good reasons to step further, and give them the power to choose whether they do or not. Go slow. If you notice that people are showing signs of wariness, then pull back a notch or two.
Just push the envelope a little bit. Invite people to do a post-it note activity up on the wall. Use provocative, high stimulus questions to introduce a discussion. Invite people into smaller groups to work through a problem. Don’t try group body sculptures, or socio-drama at the first meeting. Then nudge things along in following meetings. Invite a group to consider the pattern and style of its own interactions, how its members work together, and ask whether there are ideas to make meetings more productive and satisfying. See more suggestions at xxxx.
However, there is a larger perspective that is relevant here. In our organisations, we all know that change and learning is necessary to growth and adaptation. There is a better future that we aspire to, an ambitious goal that might yield enormous benefits if brought to fruition. Then there is our current reality. Parker Palmer calls this the ‘tragic gap’ – the gulf between the present and our imagined futures .
Yet in the liveliest context we have – gathering together in groups – we are most likely to default to lowest common denominator practices, for fear of social exclusion or personal humiliation. Groups have high stakes.
Tom Peters notes that senior people ‘do meetings’. It is often the core of their daily work. “Every meeting that does not stir the imagination and curiosity of attendees and increase bonding and co-operation and engagement and sense of worth and motivate rapid action and enhance enthusiasm is a permanently lost opportunity.”
So there is a choice here for each of us, as facilitators, and as leaders. One choice is to exercise our influence, through our collaborative leadership skills, to help shift groups of people into a more engaging and productive frame. Or not. A choice to step into our bigger, wiser, better selves. It is a choice.
Specific Steps to consider
Invite the group to consider how well their meetings are going at present. Is their room for improvement? Invite regular participants to rate the average meeting on two dimensions – productivity and satisfaction? Consider doing a ‘Future Perfect’ exercise with the group to get them to design an ideal meeting (see the note on Solutions Focus Approaches below). Then take steps to get there. Where the group has little experience of highly engaging meetings, consider some stimulus activity to raise their own awareness.
Be provocative. Ask challenging questions: “Where is that elephant in the room?” “If we had to start from scratch on this project, would we throw out the whole current plan?” “If we keep going this way, are we really going to get the result, or just tick another box. How many boxes are there left in our working lives?” “Thinking about our vision for the future, is this project contributing anything?” “If Charlie Chaplin/Albert Einstein/Joan of Arc/Nelson Mandela (just pick one) were in the meeting today, would we be doing things differently?”.
Make a speech. “In this meeting, I invite you to take yourself seriously. Your time is the most precious thing you have. Don’t imagine that I have power over it. I’m just the Chair. It’s your time. And you have responsibility to all in this room for their time. Or you can refuse it. Be honest. Learn something, change something.”
If you sense that the group is not ready for such provocation, then design the meeting with a few gentle nudges that open a pathway for improvement. Culture is hard to shift but it most certainly can be.
Choose a handful of the process elements described above and see if you can shift the common culture of the meeting into something even more satisfying and productive. Do some simple things. For example
• With a small team, try sharing out some post-it notes and, on the wall or a display board, construct the answer to your task or problem. Then photograph the result and share it as the notes from the meeting.
• Use a stand up spectrogram to get the group’s views on an issue – rating their approval/agreement/knowledge on a scale from 1-10. Or post up a spectrum diagram and do the dotmocracy exercise. If you are scared to even ask people to stand up do it sitting down at the table.
• Invite someone to capture some key comments in graphic form.
• Consider a single, (and simple) structured activity that your group has not used before, to analyse the issue or topic: SWOT analysis, De Bono’s six thinking hats.
• Invite a participant to be the facilitator for the meeting
• Demonstrate and model your own brilliant listening skills and invite others to do so. Create some space, pause, to really absorb an important comment from a participant.
• Use the ‘Looks Like, Sounds Like, Feels Like’ visioning exercise to invite the group to consider how its own meetings could be improved in the future.
• Toward the end of the meeting, invite participants to give some feedback on the process and ask them if they would be interested in stretching their meeting behaviours and exploring new methods.