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Meetings, whether you think they are a necessary evil or a useful tool to coordinate, the truth of the matter is that we have all participated in one and that there are more of them upcoming in our calendars. So, let’s discuss meetings for once and find out how we can improve them.
We have gone over the formalities of the meeting in another blog here. Now that we’ve got the formalities of meetings out of the way, let’s talk about the more interesting part: how do we improve our meetings? Well, let’s start off with the thing that either makes or breaks meetings: ‘engagement’.
Engagement can either make your meeting successful or downright horrible. This is because meetings have a bad reputation and can be seen as a nuisance. The only way to have a successful meeting is to make sure that everybody is engaged. There are some ways to improve/trigger engagement. The first tip is quite easy but also quite elegant:
Start every meeting with randomly asking somebody what he/she expects to get out of the meeting.
Sounds quite easy right? That’s because it is. Let its simplicity not fool you though, it is a quit effective tool. If you do this at random with re-occurring meetings, then the participants will understand after a while that it can be their turn to speak up. Speaking up can be scary, so what do people do? They prepare; they critically reflect on the importance of the meeting and what it should bring them. This sparks engagement right from the get-go, and who knows; you might be adding another topic to the agenda when you receive the answer.
The second way of driving engagement is thought exercises. Some meetings (read: meeting leaders) have the terrible habit of creating monologues instead of a true engaged meeting. One way to overcome this is to use thought exercises to engage the audience. Try and let the people in the meeting discuss or think of solutions to problems or puzzles (even if you already have the answer). This way you can address the best answer given or surprise the audience with the answer that you already have. This is good for letting people consider a problem and/or improvement process and/or solution, basically thinking through the entire topic, from start to finish.
The last tip for driving engagement is quite similar to the first one. When ending the meeting it is good to give a quick recap of what has been discussed and what the important points were. Here you have another opportunity for engagement:
Start every ending off with asking somebody what he/she thought the most important point of the meeting was.
Again, similar technique as the first one and quite important with re-occurring meetings. The next topic is creativity, which is often addressed through similar techniques as engagement as creativity requires engagement.
Creativity and engagement are very intertwined, so it is not surprising that a thought exercise drives both engagement and creativity. Letting people reflect themselves on processes, problems and possible solutions is a great way to spark creativity. It not only engages them, but it might even produce insights about the topic at hand which were not thought of before. Think about it this way, if you do not challenge the people in the room by letting them reflect about a problem, process or solution, then you are not utilizing their creativity and skills. Then you just invited them to sit, listen, and stare at the clock.The second tip to spark creativity is, surprisingly:
Don't do more, do less.
For some sort of reason a lot of meetings lack breaks and breaks are forced by people nodding off or outright falling asleep. Taking quick coffee breaks brings back the energy in the room and gives people the opportunity to reflect a bit with colleagues at the coffee machine on what has been discussed. Switching atmosphere, taking a walk, sharing some reflections, are all part of coming to creative solutions. Don’t believe me? Let’s take an historical journey back to ancient Greece, home of some of history’s greatest philosophers, one of them being Aristotle. Aristotle is widely considered to be one of the most creative minds in philosophy and he was famous for teaching his students while walking around, both because of the change in atmosphere but also because of the movement itself. To date, although maybe not for everybody, this remains a key way for people to stimulate their thoughts.
The last piece of advice for creativity comes from an unexpected institution, the (Dutch) judicial system:
Start off with your least experienced employees and work your way up according to experience.
In some cases, there are more judges present who will have to meet together in a separate meeting to speak their mind and say what they believe is the appropriate verdict. Traditionally, the least experienced judge speaks first and then the turn to speak moves up according to experience, finishing off at the most experienced judge. The idea is that the lesser experienced judges speak their mind openly without being influenced by more experienced judges. If more experienced judges voiced their mind about the verdict before the lesser experienced judges would, then they could influence those judges and stop them from speaking their minds openly to adhere to the more experienced judges, anchoring their thoughts and being biased towards conformity (read more about biases here). So letting your lesser experienced employees speak up first has the advantage that they speak their mind more freely, which improves overall creativity. Furthermore they might also come up with solutions which do not exist in the thought process of your more experienced employees, because they are too stuck in the paradigm of their experience (and ‘old’ ways) to think outside the box of their own experience. So remember, if you are doing any form of ‘round the table’ brainstorming or question session, start off with your least experienced employees and work your way up according to experience.
Vision, mission, culture & values
The last advice that I have for you is to elevate your meetings is to connect everything you do to a higher purpose:
Connect every meeting with a higher purpose.
Meetings themselves do not inspire, but your vision, mission, and culture & values do. Show the people involved that this meeting connects to a greater cause. For example, make sure that a meeting concerning efficiency is connected to the mission of your company and how efficiency contributes into achieving the mission. This seems a bit vague and difficult, because it is easy to say ‘well this is just something we have discuss and not connected to a higher cause whatsoever’. On the face of it, this might be true in first instance. However, if you consider that every company works towards their vision, by establishing a mission and upholding culture and values which translates in operations, then you should be able to connect everything to a higher cause, even the smallest meeting. If it eventually does not contribute (indirectly) to either the vision, mission, or culture & values, why are you having the meeting in the first place?
So, take your time to overthink how this small meeting contributes to a higher cause. Find an angle to connect it to your vision, mission or culture & values. This elevates the importance of the meaning and let the people involved reflect again on why they are working for the company and what they are trying to achieve. This is important to inspire your employees and create cohesive teams who believe in common goals and a common vision.
If you want to transform your meetings from a staring contest with the clock to an engaging tool of coordination, then you need to spark engagement and creativity while connecting everything you do to a higher cause. That way people stay awake and they have a sense of purpose, perfect ingredients for a productive meeting. So engage your employees, challenge them with thought exercises, give them breaks in between and match everything you do to a higher cause.