Five weeeeeeeeird tips for great meetings

Meetings

Meetings aren’t exactly the most popular workplace activity, as illustrated by this passage from the book jPod by Douglas Coupland:

Here’s my theory about meetings and life; the three things you can’t fake are erections, competence and creativity. That’s why meetings become toxic—they put uncreative people in a situation in which they have to be something they can never be. And the more effort they put into concealing their inabilities, the more toxic the meeting becomes.

One of the most common creativity-faking tactics is when someone puts their hands in prayer position and conceals their mouth while they nod at you and say, “Mmmmmmm. Interesting.? If pressed, they’ll add, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.? Then they don’t say anything else.

Web company 37signals consider meetings harmful because:

  • They break your working day into small, incoherent pieces on a schedule incompatible with the natural breaks in your flow
  • They are normally all about words and abstract concepts, not real things (like a piece of code or a screen of design)
  • They usually contain an abysmal low amount of information conveyed per minute
  • They often contain at least one moron that inevitably get his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense
  • They drift off subject easier than a rear-wheel driven Chicago cab in heavy snow
  • They frequently have agendas so vague nobody is really sure what its about
  • They require thorough preparation that people rarely do anyway

I kinda agree. That is certainly how meetings are in many companies. The weekly department meeting, the project status meeting and the monthly division meeting are all seen as boring, a waste of time, painful and something that simply keeps people from getting real work done.

Last year, The Guardian mentioned a study that showed that meetings make people very unhappy at work, and that the more meetings one has to attend and the more time one spends in meetings, the greater the negative effects. This becomes especially depressing in the face of the fact that overall time spent in meetings is rising in most countries, and that some people, especially managers, spend most of their work day in meetings.

Now, while having fewer meetings is definitely the way to go in many workplaces, eliminating all meetings is not an option in today’s team-based work environment. This means that having good meetings become essential.

So what is a good meeting? They are:

  • Efficient – So stuff gets done!
  • Positive and fun – So people enjoy themselves and look forward to the next meeting.
  • Participative – So everyone participates equally, instead of just zoning out or faking agreement.
  • Open – So people say what they really think.
  • Creative – So the thinking goes beyond the usual and into new territory.

The usual tips you’ll hear for managing meetings are kinda OK. You know, stuff like “have an agenda and distribute it in time”, “make sure to have the right people present”, “make sure to start and end on time” and “only have a meeting when necessary”. All good advice, but it does not address the goals above. This means that though most companies and teams follow this typical advice, many meetings still suck.

If we really want open, fun, creative, participative meetings we need to go beyond the standard advice and venture into slightly-weird-land. Here are five easy ways to do it.

1: Open the meeting with a positive round

Psychological experiments have shown that the way a meeting starts, sets the tone for the whole meeting. Start the meeting with complaints, problems and mutual blame, and that’s what you’ll get.

But if you start out with something positive, the rest of the meeting is more likely to be more fun. The best way to start a meeting positively, is to ask each participant to briefly (= less than 30 seconds) share something positive. Here are some ideas:

  • Name one thing you’ve accomplished since the last meeting that you’ve been proud of?
  • Name a person who has helped you since the last meeting.
  • Mention one thing you’re looking forward to in the coming week/month?
  • What’s the funniest thing someone has told you in the last week?
  • Mention something interesting you’ve learned since the last meeting.

This sets a much better tone for the rest of the meeting – and it’s also a lot more fun than opening with an endless litany of complaints and problems.

2: Interrupt the meeting regularly

I know you want to make the most of your meeting time – and that makes it tempting to think that “MAN, we have a long agenda today – let’s skip the breaks and get more done.” Only thing is, it doesn’t work that way.

You need to interrupt the flow of the meeting regularly. This keeps people’s minds focused and it makes the whole thing more fun and relaxed. Here’s how.

First of all: A five-minute break every hour is not an option, it’s mandatory! You can’t have a productive meeting if half the people present are seriously in need of a restroom visit.

Secondly: Every half hour, do a quick two-minute creative break of some kind. You can: Get people to stand up and stretch, have a quick rock-paper-scissor tournament, ask everyone to tell their neighbor a riddle or a joke, whatever. Make it something fun and light-hearted that activates people in some way.

So if you have a two-hour meeting starting at 1PM, include these breaks:
1 PM: Meeting starts
1:30 PM: Two-minute creative break
2 PM: Five minute break
2:30 PM: Two-minute creative break
3 PM: Meeting ends

Bring a kitchen timer and set it to 30 minutes, to make sure you remember the creative breaks.

3: Lose the table

What purpose do tables really serve at a meeting, except to give you a place to put down your coffee cup and to keep your head from hitting the floor when you fall asleep?

Traditional meeting room
Traditional meeting room. Note the huuuuge distance from one end to the other and the place of honor at the head of the table.

There are many advantages to table-less meetings:

  • People are more free to move around, instead of being locked into one sitting position.
  • Communication flows better, because you can see the entire person, not just from the chest up.
  • You increase participation, because people can’t simply slump down and hide throughout the meeting.
  • You can get people closer together. If you seat 20 people around a table, the distance from one end to the other is going to be huge.
  • Seating people in a circle signals that everyone is equal. It’s democratic, unlike the normal meeting table, where the boss sits at the head of the table.

So instead of meeting around a table, simply put the required number of chairs in a circle with nothing in the middle. If you’re going to be looking at a lot of plans or papers, hang them on the wall and arrange the chairs in a semi-circle in front of them.

4: Get the body in there

Your body is not good at sitting still for extended periods of time. The longer you sit still, the more stiff and tired the body gets. And when the body is tired and stiff, so is the mind.

A very simple thing to do is to get people to stand up and stretch. It only takes a minute to:

  1. Get everyone to stand up.
  2. Bounce on your feet for 10 seconds, just to get the blood flowing.
  3. Stretch your arms up towards the ceiling – as high as you can.
  4. Keep your arms up and lean to the right. Hold for 10 seconds.
  5. Lean to the left, hold.
  6. Lean back, hold.
  7. Lean forward, touch your toes.
  8. Sit back down.

You can do it at the beginning of the meeting, after every break or whenever you sense that people are zoning out and losing focus.

Try this one day in a meeting, and you will discover that once you’ve stretched your body, your mind will feel fresher, more flexible and more creative.

5: Use strategically placed silence

This is probably the one thing you find in no meetings. I mean – the purpose of meetings is to talk, right. Silence kinda defeats that purpose, doesn’t it?

No. The purpose of meetings is not to talk – the purpose of meetings is to arrive at ideas, solutions, plans and decisions in such a way that:

  1. The ideas are so good that they can be carried out.
  2. The process that leads to the ideas is so good that people want to carry the ideas out.

And in this respect, silence can be a great tool. Because while some people can think while they’re talking – most can’t.

A well-placed two-minute silent break is a great chance for people to stop and think. To figure out what the deeper issues are. To see the solution that is not immediately obvious. To find out how they feel about the issues being discussed.

Here are some ways to use it:

  • When discussing an issue, focus first on presenting the facts without discussing solutions. Have two minutes of silence, then discuss solutions.
  • If discussions become heated, and it seems like no progress is made, two minutes of silence can be a great way to cool the whole thing down.
  • When a decision has been made, give people two minutes of silence to think about how they feel about this decision.

The way you do it is that at the appropriate time, you announce a two-minute silence, and you keep track of time and let people know when the two minutes have passed.

And let me warn you right away: It feels very strange the first few times. It’s funny that silence should be so threatening, but because most meetings are all about the talking, and we’ve come to think that silence is awkward. That if no one’s talking, something is wrong. After you’ve done it a few times, it becomes a lot easier, and it can even be very pleasant to take a break from all the talking!

The upshot

Time spent in meetings is constantly increasing. Bad meetings suck the life force out of people, leaving them tired and unhappy at work. Bad meetings also lead to bad decisions, reduced motivation and conflicts.

If we really want fun, positive meetings, where all participants can speak their mind, where new ideas are generated and developed and where the time is used as efficiently as possible, we need to go beyond the usual advice and try something slightly weird. This blogpost presents some ways you can do that.

Yes, adding these things to a meeting will take a little time out of the schedule, but I think we all know that the problem with bad meetings is not how much time we spend in them – it’s the quality of that time. It’s whether we spend that time being energized, creative and having fun – or whether we spend it wishing we could be back at our desks doing some real work.

What about you? What unusual methods do you use to make meetings fun, creative and efficient? How do good or bad meetings affect your energy and motivation? Have you tried any of the tips mentioned here? Write a comment, I’d really like to know your take.

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39 thoughts on “Five weeeeeeeeird tips for great meetings”

  1. I like the bit about silence.

    The Quaker way of holding business meetings is:

    – Start with a few minutes’ silence
    – If discussion gets too heated, stop and have a silent period
    – End with silence

    That might be silence overkill for anyone who’s not used to it.

    However, I’ve found that stopping and taking some time out when a topic gets particularly heated, both in face-to-face meetings and online discussions, is very useful, because it helps people calm down and move towards a solution that’s acceptable to everyone.

    M

  2. I love this article!

    Three comments:
    1) Silence – this is a great way to make sure the “thinker” personality types get a chance to digest information and come up with responses. So often, these personalities have great ideas that aren’t heard in meetings, because they don’t get a chance to absorb the information and respond to it.
    2) Ending meetings and making sure there is follow-through
    I think it is important to end meetings with a summary of the decisions that were made, a list of tasks to follow up on including who is in charge of what, and an agreement on what to do next – meet again when tasks are complete, break up into more specific groups, how questions will be followed up, etc…
    So often, I’m in meetings where great progress is made then everyone walks away and forgets what the decisions were, or no one is assigned to follow-up on questions, so we just rehash the same information again next time.
    3) Food. In a recent meeting, plopping a bag of peanut M&M’s in the middle of the table got people interacting more. I don’t know why, exactly, but it worked.

  3. Coupland is right about erection only – a lot of people fake competence and creativity… well, until a certain point (the Peter Principle)…

  4. Very well thought out post Alex! I remember meetings being soooo boring and useless when i was in the corporate world.

    So with my startup we try to limit meetings only to times when it’s absolutely crucial to sit down with everyone in the same room (i.e. when you can’t say something to someone by just having a quick chat)

    P.S. You’re right on about the table-less boardroom, i prefer bean bags myself :)

  5. I’ve also been in a workplace where people suffered from meeting overload. Partly as a result of this, I now find myself working for another company and trying to invent solutions for these problems.

    My angle is a bit different though. The starting point is “How to be more ecological by using IT”, but this quickly leads to using your time more efficiently, travelling less, implementing distance working, and with regard to meetings: implementing video and voice conferencing as well as improving your asynchronous communication methods.

    I’m personally very enthusiastic about figuring out methods to do meetings where everyone doesn’t share the same physical OR the same time space.

    Instead of chopping up the 8 hour day into seven meetings and a short lunch break, all the meetings could be simultaneously active and have individual deadlines. Before the deadline you could have short video conferences where you (also can be funny and) commit to the decisions made throughout the day.

    This would allow you as a participant to focus and offer your input to those meetings that you think are the most relevant, while still being able to “sit in on” and optionally fast forward through the others

    And a P.S. I love this blog :)

  6. Good Morning :-)))))))
    This post is the first thing i read this morning.. and it’s really fun to read.
    I would like to share the importance, i personally notice, of the way you explain (present) the ideas in the posts.

    The freshness and happiness you transmit and the language construction you use helps me a lot to imagine how i could translate the ideas into facts…

    Have a nice day!

  7. Ask M: Interesting that the quakers use silence as a tool too. In fact, many religious practices contain periods of silent contemplation. Probably because it works!

    Kim: Thanks for the three additional tips. I agree with all three! I’ll be blogging again soon about #2 – ensuring a common view of what was actually decided.

    And food is essential to meetings. Something nice happens in a group when you eat together.

    shel and jaizki: Thanks!

    Shelton: So we have erections and the Peter principle… seems like there might be a connection :o)

    Theo: Exactly. And somehow all startups do this. Then when they grow bigger they feel they need more control, they start having more meetings, and…

    And bean bag chairs rock :o)

    Mikael: That sounds great! I’d never really thought of this from a tech point, but I can definitely see some ways that IT could help create better meetings.

    BTW: Have you ever looked at open space online (http://www.openspace-online.com/)? It’s not the same thing you’re talking about, but there might be some inspiration there for ya!

    And I’m really happy you like the blog – thanks!!

    David: Thanks, that means a lot to me. That is exactly what I try to achieve on the blog!

  8. My only objection is to the no-table tip. I’m sure this helps some people, and I can’t deny the benefit of being able to see people from head to toe. But some of us think better and absorb better when writing. At a meeting I jot down what people say — this helps me keep track of the flow of the meeting, remember ideas that aren’t worth discussing in the meeting but that I want to follow-up with, write down things I want to say without having to interrupt the speaker to say them, and make sure that important ideas don’t get lost on the shuffle (“Hey, what if we combined that concept with the idea Shelly proposed 2 hours ago, to create this….?”)

    In the proposed chairs-in-a-circle idea, I would have to sit stiff and straight with my body at alternating right angles just to create a poorly-designed writing surface on my lap. This would severely cramp my ability to contribute to a meeting – my body and mind are stiff and sore, and I can’t take notes effectively.

    Maybe provide lap desks or small tables scattered around the room for those who need them?

  9. I don’t know. These things may work, but to me they scream of “super excited boy scout leader/camp counselor/kool-aid drinking HR person” or something. “Come on everyone, let’s play rock-paper-scissors! Isn’t it FUN?”

    I get the idea of course, but at my company we find that this strategy works well:

    1) Don’t have meetings.
    2) If you think you really must have a meeting, question why (two people scribbling code on a whiteboard is not a meeting). Ask “can we accomplish the same thing with a series of emails?”
    3) If you really must have a meeting, making sure the unnecessary people are NOT there is just as important as making sure the necessary people ARE there.
    4) One on one “meetings” are good. By definition, both people have to be involved.
    5) Strive to complete all meetings in a half hour. Anything over an hour is completely unacceptable. If you think a meeting should take more than an hour, you’re wrong, and it can be scheduled as smaller chunks and/or possibly replaced in part by offline communication.

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  11. This blog stream is a great idea. I am currently on a team tasked with the loafty goal of creating a better, healthy, happy work environment in a very large organization. Just the name of our team suggests that we should be looking for solutions to boring soul sucking things like meetings, yet our meetings are becoming boring. We have the added bonus of holding video conference meetings, which further alienates the smaller groups, and makes it hard to interact with warm and fuzzy break related activities. One fun activity we did was to hold a break out session where we split brought in stacks of interesting and fun magazines, flip charts, markers, scissors and glue. We asked the team to break off into groups of 5, and they had 10 minutes to create a collage of images or words that captured what they felt the goal of the project was, then each team had to select a spokesperson to present their collage and explain their vision of the project. It sounds juvenile, but you should have seen how it energized the previously bored group, and was a real team building exercise. Team members still refer to that exercise as our most productive half hour thus far, and the team is 7 months old.

    Anyone else have a really good team building exercise they know of?

  12. Baloney: here’s how to get the most out of meetings the quickest way:

    Turn thermostat down all the way in the conference room one hour before.
    Remove all of the chairs and the table if possible.

  13. Coming back to this after a while (due to a post about meetings today).
    I found that losing the table does not result into people sitting in a circle, but more in people sitting more randomly throughout the room. This means that the meeting will primarily take place with the people in the middle, the the ‘outlying regions’ playing the onlooker.

    My solution is to use a room with table, but to make sure the room isn’t bigger then needed. If possible, it’s better to book a room that is slightly too small, so that the people are evenly distributed along the table naturally. The close quarters also prevent slouching, as people feel more ‘closely involved’.

  14. I made a simple tool to keep track of wasteful meeting time. You switch between productive time, partially wasteful time, and complete waste of time. When the meeting is over, you get an estimate of how much time and money was wasted.

    Try it… http://trakti.me/ =)

  15. I made up a game for my weekly department meetings to refresh and train the staff in a fun and competitive way.(I was managing a despatch department in a manufacturing company)

    The Game
    I made a list of questions relating to the department, it’s procedures and the stock etc.
    I purchased a bag of lollies and treats (a couple of dollars taken from petty cash)
    I gave each person at the meeting a bell and the first one to ring the bell and get the question right got a lollie or treat.
    The overall winner was the person who scored the most lollies/treats.

    This game created excitement because the staff had to beat each other to the buzzer and that got them thinking at the same time. It made them all feel like a winner in the end because everyone ended up with some prizes.
    However the best benefit from this game was that if they did not know the answer or couldn’t remember the answer (sometimes a person may have their facts wrong and you have been trying to enforce the correct answer – usually someone who has been there a while and think they no longer need training) that person walked away from the meeting having learnt something they will probably remember because it was taught in a fun environment.A fun way of refreshing and training.
    The staff grew to love the weekly quizzes and became quite competitive about it.

    Try it at your next meeting
    Cheers
    Cindy

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