Better meetings

Nick Beddow

Tuesday, August 25, 2015



So often I hear groans from friends about a meeting they have to go to and how it will do their heads in. After a lifetime of meetings it’s tempting to spend weekends hiding behind the settee with a comic (The Beano, not Ken Dodd).

Why bother with meetings at all? Well, in previous blogs I’ve rattled on about the wisdom of crowds, about how collective thinking within a shared framework can out-perform the most all-seeing individual genius by bringing many perspectives to bear on an issue. We need each other, more than we might like to own.

How can we make meetings as close to a joy as possible, without infringing public decency standards?

Here’s a few ideas for making meetings sweeter:

Everyone has a say in how meetings should be conducted, not just the Chair. I have been playing a Card Game with groups at the start of meetings, so that the usual ‘rules’ are written on separate yellow cards. Everyone looks at each card and if they disagree with any of the suggestions, they turn over the card. All those cards still facing upwards are automatically agreed rules. Then we debate the turned-over cards to explore why anyone disagrees with the suggested rule and how it could be changed to make it acceptable to everyone. Then we ask if anyone has any other rules they’d like the group to discuss. Once we’ve got a set of agreed yellow cards, the group can playfully enforce their own rules by showing each other the appropriate yellow card. In reality, they don’t get used very often and when they are used it’s in a pantomime of refereeing so no one gets the huff. And we can revisit the cards whenever anyone starts to feel itchy about meetings.

Everyone knows in advance what the meeting’s about. Nuff said.

There’s a system in place for agreeing decisions – whether it’s a vote or a consensus game, we all need to know when a decision is being made. No-one wants to find out later on about a decision reached after the meeting failed to find time to clarify a decision.

It doesn’t go on and on. The rule-of-thumb is 60 minutes is the maximum to keep people’s attention. If they’re itching to be elsewhere doing something more pressing, it’s not just the current meeting that suffers: it can infect every future meeting as people begin to dread the session in advance.

Everyone’s personal mode is included. Some people like pictures, some like words, some like time to think etc. You don’t have to be an NLP specialist to know that people enjoy and dislike different things. We have to make sure that we give space for people to share their ideas about the magic ingredients which make meetings good for them. It’s not about being ‘touchy-feely’: it’s essential feedback which can make the difference between engaged participation and frustration. Though a small break to ask for “jazz hands” never goes amiss if you want to know how people are feeling about any meeting..

Everyone understands what’s being said. We issue red cards to all participants; if anyone uses jargon or says something which people don’t understand, the comedy red card ensures we can stop there and then to clarify. If you want people to stay focussed, they need to feel they know where we’re all heading.

The meeting has been well-planned in advance. You’re asking people to give time and commitment so they deserve to walk into a prepared experience. Pick any book or webpage on effective planning and you’ll see the usual suspects – they’re recommended because they make meetings effective: for example, good pre-meeting information, a chance to contribute to a shared agenda, a Chairperson who knows the difference between facilitating and forcing and can help everyone focus together by nut-shelling contributions and offering clear decision making.

A reminder about agreed actions. After the meeting, it’s vital to provide a quick follow- up reminder of the session’s discussions and decisions so all are on the same page.  Whether it’s visual minutes or a written record, memory needs a helping hand.

Learn new skills in running meetings. Variety is not just for the music halls. People appreciate new ways of approaching a meeting. The list is nearly endless: pairs, trios, small group break-outs, video interviews, using works of art to explore what each person feels about a topic. There’s a million ways - have a look at Quaker business meeting methods for example. Or search online for ‘Participatory Learning and Action’.  

Learn to relate well. Engagement isn’t just picking-up someone for a fling. It’s about relating long-term, communicating, listening, give-and- take.  And it’s about everyone who’s there with us – we need to nurture our ability to work well in groups. It’s about the communities having a positive experience, so they feel part of the team. Relationships mean being committed to everyone having a clear role, good information, seeing friendly faces and having an equal say. Without those magic ingredients, we can spend most of our energy on mediation and conflict-resolution. And end up wishing we didn’t have to deal with people.

Have open doors. It’s not just about decision-making with communities in the room. Whoever is inside the room has contacts outside the room, who may have the expertise you’re missing.  Our Citizens Inquiries include a commitment to gathering views from other residents who don’t come to meetings. Our Explorers methodology encourages residents to ask their peers for ideas about the issues being discussed in meetings and receive regular feedback. You don’t have to be in a room to be in the loop. And online networks help us all leap through walls.

Intend to include. There are some people who are hard to reach. They’re called astronauts. Everyone else is within reach if we pay attention to these questions: “What do we need to know to reach all communities?”; “What barriers exist for different communities?”; “What steps can we take towards people to remove barriers?”; “What makes people feel included?”

It isn’t rocket science (unless you really want to reach the astronauts).