October 8, 2010

Meeting Design: What would make the intention more worthy of investment?

It's one thing to show up to a meeting.  It's another thing to SHOW UP, being prepared to fully engage cognitively and emotionally and to fully deploy your strengths in service of the group and the meeting's intention.  I believe four factors help support the latter, the greater level of investment that says "I'm all in, and I invite others to join me."

1.  A clear intention is infused through every element of the meeting design. 

Too often our intentions are fuzzy, ambiguous, or worse yet, undefined.  Without clear intentions for a meeting or a conference, we design by default, missing the opportunity to align actions with intentions and achieve superior results.  Once intentions have been clearly defined (generate 3 new ideas, facilitate hands-on peer-peer learning, reach a decision on XYZ topic) every element of the meeting should be examined to determine how it can be designed to support the intended outcome.  Once a final design is drafted it should again be compared against the stated intentions.  Any lack of alignment should be identified and corrected.

2.  All parties attending complete the appropriate advance work.

Yeah, I know.  How can we make sure this happens?  I wish I knew, but what I do know is that having a conference call or an in-person gathering consisting of some who did their homework and others didn't is rarely productive.  When I'm leading an event where it is clear people have shown up not fully prepared to contribute to the stated intentions, I often (1) ask them to sit and observe the conversations of those who did prepare until they feel sufficiently up to speed to contribute, (2) do a quick timeout for people to read and review when a significant majority have not done so in advance, (3) cancel the event if it can be easily rescheduled without too much cost/harm, or (4) simply state the realities of the situation and engage the group in determining how to proceed. All four choices always include some discussion about our collective responsibility to come prepared and identification of any future steps that could be taken to ensure this happens.  And obviously tone is important in considering any of these options: it's about establishing and reinforcing accountability without unnecessary marginalization of individuals, a fine line to be sure.

3.  All individuals feel responsible for both the process and the outcome, even if a designated individual is the facilitator or the speaker.

No one person in the front of the room or at the controls of a conference call can ever know exactly what needs to be done at every single moment to accelerate the conversation, the learning, the decision-making.  Yet too often, participants—be they in a workshop or a staff meeting—divorce themselves of responsibility for helping move a conversation along, resorting to complaining after the event about what they would have been done differently if they were in charge.  Guess what?  You are in charge … of your own learning, of our own frustrations, of your own satisfaction, and of your own commitment to following through on the options available to you as a co-owner of how well a gathering works.

4.  A wrap-up and review produces meaningful action and gathers appropriate feedback.

Too many meetings close on a whimper instead of a bang, often because of poor design and clock management.  We need to design in a manner that makes the gathering worthy of every minute and every second of an individual's investment, not just some lesser percentage of the overall time allotted.  Any gathering should include a set percentage of time (for me, it's usually 5-10%) to compare outcomes against intentions, to review assignments and timelines, and to assess what worked well and should be continued and what meeting elements could be refined for better results in the future.  Despite being fairly obvious, I'd say about half of the events in which I participate don't do these things.

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