Fundamental Aspects to make Work Meetings work

I ran a session at Mobilecamp Dresden today, speaking about “improving meetings”.

Other than in my previous thoughts about good meetings, that were centered around open business meetings, possibly between partners who don’t yet collaborate or know eachother well, this session was centered around project group meetings. Some fundamental aspects that I find important to make a meeting work:

  • Physical space – what is the room like? What is the seating / standing arrangement? What chairs, desks and other tools are there? What visualisation and other tools are available? What is the lighting like? What are the room acoustics like? What is the air quality like?
  • Emotional state – what are people’s emotional states? Are they aware of them, are others aware? I find that a “checkin” helps: “My name is Martina and I feel…” using “Mad Sad Glad Afraid” can often help and provide great insight into what context the meeting is happening in.
    • Purpose – why are we meeting? I find it useful to separate Tactical Meetings – meetings to solve current problems – from Organisational / Governance Meetings (meetings that are about how to organise the work), from Retrospective Meetings (meetings to look back on work done and learn together.)
    • Formal process – it can help to to define a formal process in which to hold the meeting. This prevents unfocussed discussion (which can be frustrating for people who want to get things done) and holds participants to the purpose. It can be useful to have one person as a designated facilitator who holds participants to the process. Separate Project / Status Updates from Problem solving. When solving problems, have a clear problem owner. Solve one problem at the time, don’t mix two or more problems into the same discussion.
    • Role definitions – it is often useful to have clear role definitions in projects. This increases clarity and can prevent open-ended, opinionated group discussions. Defining and assigning roles can also help with clarifying status and rank differences in groups.

Participants in the group – some working in informal working groups, some in startups, some in large organisations – noted that often it may not be possible to speak completely openly in meetings for fear of losing face or suffering other personal consequences from the group or superiors.

I find this is a fundamental problem: If problems cannot be addressed openly and clearly, it is unlikely that wise solutions will come from a meeting. Where it is not possible to openly admit needing help in a meeting, the wisdom and experience of the group will not be used to its full potential and the risk of making bad decisions rises. 

To change this, it requires a conversation about the conversation.

What are you frustrations with work meetings? What would help you? What has worked for you?

– Martina Röll

3 thoughts on “Fundamental Aspects to make Work Meetings work

  1. To continue my “opposite counterpart” role in this topic on here, a couple of comments :)
    – physical space: please note that the primary goal should be to create / have an environment where the *participants* feel comfortable enough to open up and be open and productive
    – formal process: Keep it simple. Distinguish strategic from (project) organisational meetings, the goal of the meeting /discussion should be clear and achievable.
    – have simple “play rules” and live them. Don’t wait for late attendees for example, just start.
    – the process follows the need. Don’t design processes for the sake of processes

    – Role definitions: a) hierarchy is not bad in itself. roles are not the solution to everything either – both need to be filled with appropriate people in the right roles (for them). Everyone (person, team, project, phase, organisation…), is different (duh) and thus the same role in two different teams can be lived differently.
    – the goal should be to enable teams to have very open discussions, covering as many angles / view points as possible in a respectful environment.

    Having a conversation about the conversation is a bit too theoretic. Instead, have someone on the team with great empathetic / people skills to observe and guide the teams (help through self help) towards that goal. However, that can be a long process, as it’s not just that one thing that can be changed but usually lots of small things that partly need to change organically (with a little nudging here and there).

  2. Thanks Martina for running the “experiment” this morning, on the issue of improving meetings.

    Setting the “right tone” in a meeting certainly plays a large role. Bringing to the table the people that it needs is essential from my point of view. Anybody forced to a meeting not being really necessary to bring the conversation ahead, will be a thread.

    One of my lately learned take aways from meetings is what I have learned at several visits to a Finnish management school, Team Academy is the process after a meeting to do a reflection in short time. Answering just four short questions, what we call #PresencingStatus:

    1. What was good?
    2. What was tricky?
    3. What have I learned?
    4. What is next action that I do after the meeting?

    All a still good and enjoyable #mcdd14

    Ralf

  3. Another good set of questions:

    What went on (overall)
    What went well (Project/team)
    How can we improve (project/team – more productive than just “what are issues”)

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