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The Best Way to Make Your Meetings More Productive? Don’t Try to Make Them More Productive!

Instead, focus on purpose, people–and experiments.

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BY Tim Leberecht - 05 Jun 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Oh no, you might be thinking, another article about how to make meetings more productive. And then...back at work: another unproductive meeting. How can it be that despite our best intentions and a swath of literature offering helpful advice, our meeting culture hasn't changed--and most of our meetings still suck?

Well, maybe it's not just our work meetings that leave us wanting, it's actually most meetings in our lives. I'm not insinuating that we are inept social animals, but let's be honest, how often do we attend or host a birthday party, a wedding, a baby shower, a lunch, or a dinner party with friends and something's just not quite right? How can we expect to have good meetings at work if we haven't even mastered them at home? Perhaps, if we became better at gathering, business--and life--would be more meaningful.

This is the argument and mission of Priya Parker, the author of the new book, The Art of Gathering. A conflict facilitator by training, she has helped hundreds of individuals (disclosure: including me) and organizations to gather more meaningfully, from strategy retreats to purpose quests to workplace meetings. Through her work, she offers practical solutions while also emphasizing that becoming more adept at creating events that connect us might be a powerful way to heal our growing social and political divide. This bigger picture view is something any meeting host should adopt. Because the art of gathering requires two skills: to be able to discern what really matters, and to bring it to life so that others can see it, too.

But exactly how do you do that?

Take meetings seriously

You might think that in our networked, agile, and digital workplaces, in-person meetings might be less important. But the opposite is true: social encounters are the rocks amid a flood of information, the tenets of culture, the catalysts of trust. In fact, they've never been more important. Meetings are not just process and protocol, interstitials between our work; in a time where an increasing part of our tasks are relational, they are our actual work. It helps to think of them as dramatic, theatrical events that are always more about the people in them than about facts and figures, data and graphs. Pages and pages of planning can be erased by a false tone or a dishonest interaction in a meeting. We may spend hours and hours on the PowerPoint presentation, only to later realize our strategic roadmap was not embraced because we failed to welcome everybody with a handshake at the launch event.

Even--and especially--companies with an advanced telecommuting culture recognize the need for social gatherings. Automattic, the company behind the WordPress blogging platform, employs a distributed workforce of 450 remote workers. What it saves in office space, it invests in unique social experiences. In addition to its annual company-wide meeting, it invites its staff to go on their own team work-leisure trips to destinations of their choice, up to three times a year, with a per diem of $250 per person plus airfare.

Leaders as the gatherers-in-chief

Gatherings are one of the most underestimated leadership tools. As analytical tasks are increasingly performed by Artificial Intelligence (AI), business leaders must become the gatherers-in-chief, designing experiences that inspire their employees. If the future workplace resembles a conference, then it had better be one you would attend a second time.

This means respecting the emotional wellbeing of the people in the room. For starters, create an environment where everybody is seen and heard. Institute a no-devices rule, so no one can or must hide behind a screen. At the car maker Mercedes, some departments have even begun to start each meeting with a minute of collective silence: it gives attendees time to settle in, recharge and refocus, and recognize the others in the room and themselves. Mercedes employees told me how surprised they were about the significant impact this small little change of protocol had had, not just in terms of meeting results (more specific), but also with regards to how employees treated each other afterwards (more respectfully).

Amazon pursues similar goals with a different technique: prior to each meeting, participants are asked to write a short memo on the meeting's topic and come prepared to present it. That way, the meeting is freed to do what it does best: creating a forum for discussion and reflection, rather than serving as a one-way, often redundant vehicle for sharing information.

Know why you meet

Speaking of meeting goals, it is worth establishing a typology of meetings to better align objective and format, and also determine the right cadence for a meeting series. For instance, a brainstorm meeting might want to ensure that all the creativity in the room is tapped, even if that means deviating from a fixed structure; a check-in meeting must be more rigid and serves mostly the purpose of accountability (and it should occur regularly); a reflection meeting must take its time and provide participants with a safe space to share their opinions and feelings after a project or in-flight; and a decision-making meeting is only successful if the goal and the rules are clear to everyone from the beginning.

Parker distinguishes between meetings designed around a process (e.g. a meeting to discuss the quarter's results) and meetings designed for desired outcomes (e.g. win the trust of your team; empower a new hire in front of his or her colleagues; produce a break-through marketing idea). To define that desired outcome, she suggests we refrain from relying on templates and identify the purpose of the meeting instead. She writes: "When we don't examine the deeper assumptions behind why we gather, we end up skipping too quickly to replicating old, staid formats of gathering. And we forgo the possibility of creating something memorable, even transformative."

Knowing why you gather will also allow you to choose the best meeting format. At the architecture firm I once worked at, NBBJ, we instituted walking meetings and ncluded the walking route in the calendar invite. Most research indicates that walking meetings are good for certain types of meetings, but--and this is important--not necessarily all meetings. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford University found that walking spurs divergent thinking and that on average, people's ability to come up with ideas increases by 60 percent when they are walking rather than sitting at their desk. The neuroscientist John Medina even recommends an ideal walking pace for these types of creative meetings: 1.8 miles per hour. And the route matters, too, as this study by Chun-Yu Kuo and Yei-Yu Yeh contends: if ideas are your goal, not pursuing the direct route to your destination is more effective. Metaphorically and literally, meandering wins the day.

However, Oppezzo and Schwartz also conclude from their research that if you need to find consensus and make a decision--convergent thinking--walking is actually counterproductive.

Break the rules to create intimacy

Finally, shake it up! If you host, you entertain, so don't run meetings that are boring or none of your content will stick. Every meaningful meeting is a story. When nutrition company Danone convened a group of 200 global leaders for a strategy retreat, for instance, they first cooked together and then everyone was asked to wear a silly costume, wig, hat, or feather boa. No one, not even the CEO, Emmanuel Faber, was exempt. This unorthodox practice helped create intimacy and break down silos and other perceived barriers between participants. Paradoxically, it turned out that dressing up as someone they were not made everyone more authentic. It exposed the often stilted and phony culture of such meetings, as if to say, if we can all be clowns, we can certainly all be serious, too.

Similarly, Omidyar Network once experimented with the design of its annual leadership summit in Redwood City by asking local participants if they wanted to volunteer to host small groups of fellow attendees in their homes. Everyone agreed, and instead of the usual sit-down group dinner or networking reception, more than a dozen of small, private dinners took place all over the Bay Area in colleagues' homes, including family members and pets. The next morning, the summit began with a completely different vibe than previous gatherings: it's easier to bond in smaller circles, and, furthermore, visiting the homes of colleagues ensured that everyone shared a different, more personal version of themselves which they maintained throughout the week.

The bottom line is this: meetings are too important to be reduced to productivity. They are opportunities to give and receive. They are the smallest and yet most powerful units of meaning-making. They form and punctuate the narrative of our organizations.

If you treat them as unique and safe spaces and design them with intention and care, who knows, maybe even the most mundane meetings will no longer be a nuisance but rather the highlights of our day. Nothing makes our workplaces more human than to be with fellow humans--especially if we actually meet.

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