In my January blog post, I discussed core meeting planning questions
- What is your purpose?
- a)Would a meeting help you accomplish that purpose?
- What are your desired meeting outcomes?
- Who needs to be at the meeting?
- How long do you really need to effectively accomplish the desired outcomes?
In this post, I focus on intentional meeting design, assuming that the above questions have confirmed that your purpose and desired outcomes requires gathering people to work on a shared purpose.
Intentional meeting design responds to the need for creating the meeting culture you want. If left to chance, your meeting culture will emerge anyway, because group dynamics will unfold as long as people gather. Humans will fall into patterns and occasionally, with the right mix of personalities and happenstance, a default pattern will be positive and productive. More often than not however, if meeting culture is left to chance, dominant voices may take over, social hierarchy will emerge, people will fall into their overt and covert power roles which inevitably leads to meeting dysfunctions and the experience of ‘death by meeting’ made popular by Patrick Lencioni. In today’s world of work that hinges on human capacity to delve deeply into complexity, polarities and differing perspectives to find pathways forward to challenges we have never had before, meetings are inevitable and should be key to how we get work done. Intentionally designing your meetings to be both engaging and productive hinges on answering 3 basic questions:
- What preparation may be required?
- What process will achieve the stated purpose?
- What products need to be generated?
Preparation: It is essential to ask: what preparation or prework is required for the task ahead? What will spark participants’ creativity? What materials will ensure participants have some information to jumpstart their thinking? Establishing a productive meeting culture requires answering these questions AND setting the expectation that people do come prepared. This means sending the prework with adequate advance notice for people to complete it, as well as reminding your participants why the prework is essential to the work ahead.
Process: The crux of an engaging meeting lies in how well it is designed to respond to the shared purpose identified for the gathering. As per my previous post, gathering people for a working meeting must be for one of three overarching intents: discussing, doing or deciding. How you structure your meeting should follow directly from these. If your purpose is to have a robust discussion that opens up and explores a diversity of perspectives, you will be best served with exploratory dialogic methodologies that engages all you have gathered. My go-tos are seeking the best fit or mix of processes from dialogic organization development, liberating structures, collaborative change and/or human systems dynamics methodologies. If you are gathering people to create or do something together, looking at design thinking and related human-centred design methodologies may be your go-to (see resources at d.school and IDEO). One note here is that as methodologies that originated in product development such as LEAN and Agile are adapted to human service delivery and complex challenges with no fixed solution, it is important to assess applicability of these methodologies for the work at hand. I am a fan of mixing and matching methodologies based on what is fit for the purpose, as opposed to a rigid over-reliance on a single methodology. When you gather for decision-making, one of the most necessary but hardest group processes to work through, it is critical to determine BEFORE starting on the journey, what your decision-making process will be: A democratic majority vote? Multi-voting? Deep democracy that engages and explores marginalized perspectives? Full consensus? Prioritization? Weighted decision-making? Other? See examples here. No matter what approach you choose based on the situation, it is essential to start with confirming two things: (1) What values are essential to this decision? (2) What criteria must this decision meet? When things get sticky in the process, it is the values and criteria that decisions must fulfill that will be the difference.
Products: Finally, an engaging and productive meeting must end with clear product outputs that should be planned for ahead of time. This is often the difference-maker for follow-up and follow-through. What minutes are needed? How will actions and decisions be tracked? What reports are needed? What creative documentation such as visual/graphic facilitation may be needed? What are the next steps? Overall, two frameworks have helped me in my meeting design discipline. The first framework is the Axelrod Group Meeting Canoe. Check it out if you don’t know that work. The second is a simple framework I learned as an emerging practitioner from mentors in the field and at various facilitation trainings. There are a various versions of it out there labelled the anatomy of a conversation/meeting or the meeting diamond and I imagine other names. The simplified version I have adapted and adopted, influenced by the core values from the organization learning literature, is that for every meeting, I design for Opening, Exploring, Narrowing and Closing.