Fixing workshop design

This is a continuation of my previous post here. I’m talking in this piece about how to improve workshop and meeting design to get the best out of people.

Start with recognizing the humans in the meeting: It’s surprising how many meetings start without enough time spent in introductions and pleasantries. Many people (of the teutonic bent, perhaps) consider introductions a waste of productive time. Let’s get on with it! That’s a big mistake. How can people speak their minds freely if they don’t know who’s listening to them? How do people get over their natural respect for authority and participate in meetings, if their presence are not even acknowledged?

I’m not suggesting that people spend 2 hours doing ice-breakers and introductions. What I have seen working is to deliberately spend the first few minutes of the meeting in light banter, making sure to address the junior-most person in the meeting directly. Put out name tags in front of everybody. When someone speaks up for the first time, ask them to introduce themselves. Simple stuff.

Amit reminded me of the fantastic anecdote from Dr. Atul Gawande (surgeon and fantastic author) about how he saw a notable improvement in operation theater dynamics by simply insisting that the doctors and nurses introduce themselves to each other before the operation began. What this did was to lower the nurses’ fear of speaking up. When they saw the doctors make a mistake, of miss an important observation, they felt they had the permission to speak up. The team made much lesser mistakes as a result.

Imagine the END first: Once again, so many meetings begin with a PowerPoint agenda slide that fails to excite people about the real destination of the meeting. Are we going to walk out of this meeting with an agreement on the key points of difference? Are we going to walk out of this meeting with a fully built prototype? Are we going to end this meeting as friends?

Everyone who comes to the meeting has some expectations of what they’re about to go through. It’s best to start by making sure that everyone has the same picture in mind, so that everyone can work together to get there.

Tell a STORY that sparks imagination: In the same vein as the previous point. It’s not enough to present dry facts and data throughout the meeting. People get bored by these. Instead, be ready to tell stories to spark everyone’s imagination. If we do it right, we could be the BIGGEST account in the company! or This new product will make us all very rich! or We’ll be able to achieve things that people haven’t been able to achieve in the last 30 years. We’ll be superstars! Not everything has to be rah rah, of course. Here’s another story Our company is in deep trouble. If we don’t pull this through, we will soon have to file for bankrupcy. We’re all going to have to look for new jobs then!

Stay Rooted in Reality: Another problem with mindless statistics, stupidly written presentations, and poorly crafted agenda slides is that the conversation can get very abstract. It is very important to have a Laloo-style earthy person in the room to bring everyone back to ground reality. Always keep checking if the data and decisions that are being discussed are connected with reality. If not, someone is blowing smoke in your face.

Pace: Carry, don’t Tarry. The more people you have in the room, the higher the probability that someone is drifting away into daydreamland. The pace of the discussions needs to be slow enough to carry everyone along, but not so slow that the police book you on loitering charges. Carry, but don’t tarry.

Pause and Refresh: Amazing how many people think that the death-march is the best way to get full value out of the meeting. On the contrary, inserting in time gaps into the meeting allows everyone to absorb everything that has happened so far, and be mentally prepared to enter the next conversation. Otherwise, you’re likely to get “stack overflow”.

What does it mean?: In case you haven’t been wasting time on the internet this summer, please put the phrase “double rainbow what does it mean” into Google. You will soon be taken to one of the most infectious internet memes of the year. A hippie dude flips out when he sees a double rainbow outside his house, and then spends the next 3 minutes running around, gasping for breath, invoking the almighty, and wondering “what does it mean”! Humans are a meaning driven species, and it is very important that all meetings end with a “what does it mean” recap. People will derive meaning anyway. It’s best if they share the same meaning as you.

Workshops don’t need to be boring!

I was in a series of day-long workshops earlier last week. These were intense affairs, with about 10-15 people attending in person, and a few folks dialed into the call. The meetings ran non-stop for 7-9 hours with minimal breaks for breakfast, lunch and coffee. In one case, the meeting started at 7am (and in a time-zone three hours BEFORE mine…which means it’s 4am in my body-clock). As the day dragged on, I could see that people were wearing thin, drifting away into daydreamland, losing track of what is going on. Some checked out of the meeting mentally, while others would display a remarkable awakening in the middle of someone else’s piece, speak their piece, and then go back into zombie-land. Workshop design needs a rethink. That’s where my doodle comes in.

The days-long-workshop is one of the evils of the modern workplace. These tend to be somber affairs, and mostly bore the heck out of the attendees. Given how useless these meetings tend to be, it’s a surprise that people continue to organize them in the first place. Maybe they make the drudgery of daily work seem lees boring!

It doesn’t have to be that way. These meetings can be made to come alive through a series of small changes. Spend sometime scanning the note below. I’ll be back with more details in my follow on post.

(c) Rustey 2010