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Have no small meetings

ElephantMost people agree that the majority of meetings are a waste of valuable time and resources... and there's plenty of advice and opinion on how to eradicate or shorten them.  But isn't there a way to have great meetings?... to make meetings a positive rather than a negative experience?

I am not talking about those meeting that are highly productive or where everyone agrees on what's to be done.  I'm talking about those illusive meetings that actually change things - the one's where something entirely new is created, the ones where we come away feeling different.... as if the world has somehow shifted on its axis and is now a better place.

This piece isn't about the mechanics of holding meetings - you can read plenty of good advice on creating an effective agenda, structure, focus, follow-up etc. elsewhere.  It is about what you can do at a more fundamental, creative level to produce meaningful experiences and positive outcomes.

Before we look at the specifics of how to do this it's as well to try to get a handle on intrinsic motivation[1] - what really motivates us as human beings.

Abraham Maslow  illustrated in his  hierarchy of needs  how there is a progression in the things that motivate us. One of Maslow's principles was that it is only as we satisfy our lower order needs - material things, sex, family (assuming we are already fed, clothed and sheltered) that we become motivated by higher order needs - self esteem, self actualisation, love.   I don't want to cover old ground here but simply point out something interesting[2]  - the fact that as we move towards higher order needs, these needs (or motivators) become fewer and more universally applicable to all of us.

Here's the thing; - whilst the things that float our boat at a surface level are many and varied, we all  have the same deep need (although sometimes unrecognised) to connect with each other, to find meaning in our lives and to express our true Self.   I think it's our grasping this notion that is key to enabling us to create teams, communities and organisations that are profoundly successful and satisfying. Anyway, getting back the subject of this post, let's try to put this understanding to practical use.

So how do we host great meetings?   Three steps -  show up, create a container, make meaning.

  • Show up.
    No not in the literal sense, but show up  in full.  We don't show up in full when we have any agenda other than to be fully present and experience whatever takes place. Conventional 'wisdom' would have us prepare thoroughly and focus on the outcome we want to achieve from a meeting.  What I am suggesting here is the direct opposite of this.  It is leaving ourselves open to change, and trusting that there is a part of us - our intuition, that knows exactly how to respond in the most helpful and creative manner to anything that may arise. Relying on our intuition takes trust. And it also takes courage at first, until trust in our own inner-knowing has grown.

    By not hiding behind any preconceived plan or set of expectations we are able to give ourselves fully and be truly effective.  It allows us to not just listen to the words spoken but to feel and understanding the underlying meaning that the words convey.  At some level this is always recognised and appreciated.
  • Create a container
    For good to happen other people need to be able to show up too.  Sadly, we live in a world where it's the norm to judged by our behaviour rather than by our potential.  And so all of us, to some extent, hide our true Selves behind a mask of acceptability.  It's a scary thing to let our masks down and just 'be ourselves' in the moment.  My God, who knows what we might do or what we might slip out of our mouths if we truly relaxed!

    For people to show up we need to make it safe to do so.  We need to create a 'container of acceptance and appreciation' around our meetings so that everyone knows that what is thought and expressed is done so in a safe place without judgement or fear of exposure.   As a pretty young woman once whispered in my ear on a foreign business trip, 'what goes on tour stays on tour'.  But that's another story and I digress!
  • Make meaning
    • welcome dissent
      Expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo is our rocket fuel - no progress is ever made until someone wants something better. So welcome dissent.... it's the ones who are afraid to speak their truth that we need to concern ourselves with. It is so easy to redirect dissent - "So what do you think we should do to solve this?",  "So what's the best way forward for us now." But before we attempt to do this we must remember that what people express on the surface is usually only the tip of the iceberg.  So, we first need to dig deep because it's only in addressing root causes that profound change happens.
    • go after root causes
      What prevents us from seeing root causes are the assumptions we make.   But assumptions are not simply lazy thinking.  Assumptions are usually a subtle form of self denial - a subconscious technique we use to avoid seeing the underlying truth when the that truth might be a challenging or scary thing.

      One of my favourite bloggers  Kathy Sierra  wrote recently on the importance of  challenging assumptions. But we have to be very careful here.  We have a very human tendency to wrap up our self-identity with our beliefs; and so when our assumptions are challenged directly we tend to withdraw, get angry or just loose focus as our mind 'wanders' onto pleasanter things.

      Bringing to light assumptions requires stealth, seduction and VERY gentle questioning.  "I never thought of it like that, what's the train of thought that leads you to see it that way?",  "Can you help me to understand why that is?"  This is where the strength and safety of your 'container' will be tested.
    • discover what people really  want.
      Q.  "What is it that you want?"
      A.  "More money"
      Q.  "And if you had more money what would that give you?"
      A.  "Security and the opportunity to do other things"
      Q.  "if you felt secure and could do other things what would you want to do?"
      A.  "Blah blah ....." 

      You get the idea.  As Margaret Wheatley succinctly observed,  "There's nothing so powerful as a group of people coming together to discover what it is that's important to them".

So there you have it.  If you try these principles out please let me know how you get on.  Universal principals are universally applicable and so the context, scale or type of meeting is largely irrelevant. To give you an idea of what I mean I'll briefly tell you about an incident that happened to me quite a few years ago.

I had to finish someone who worked for me.  It was not that the person had done anything particularly wrong, it was just that try as we might, he just didn't seem capable of performing to a satisfactory level.  Even though at that time I was well versed in the 'J.R.Ewing' school of management principles, I still found it very unpleasant to have to let someone go when they had not really done anything wrong.  With a heavy heart I explained the situation, listened to what they had to do say, had a brief conversation and then carried out the dastardly deed.

But something strange happened in the conversation between us that Friday afternoon.  Maybe it was because both of us had giving up trying to work things out and were able to be more honest with each other.... maybe not. All I know is that I felt somehow different, somehow lighter.  As he stood up to leave I saw tears welling in his eyes and braced myself for an awkward goodbye.  That is, until I recognised a genuine smile appearing and recognised that the tears were actually tears of joy.  He then reached out to shake my hand and thanked me.  He told me that he had never talked with anyone like this before and he could now see where his true strengths lie.

I guess I had just tried to be helpful and constructive but it was obvious that our brief conversation had a profound effect on him too. The story went on to have a very happy ending.

I'll leave the final words to Maya Angelou, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.

[1] By intrinsic motivation I mean the motivation that comes from within as opposed to extrinsic motivation - enticements or threats that come from outside... the 'carrot and stick' approach.  In Truth only intrinsic motivation actually works.  When we act on external pressure it is always a response based on fear - a fear of something unwanted happening or something wanted not happening.  Fear begets fear and has only negative consequences.  This is not motivation but enslavement.
[2] Another thing I find really interesting, but perhaps not so relevant here, is that in our progress through life (and from lower to higher order needs) we seem to move through three distinct stages:   having --> doing --> being.  I'll probably post about this later but I just thought it appropriate to mention it here.  These three stages seem to be characterised by the questions we ask ourselves:
    stage 1:  Having.-  "How can I be successful?"
    stage 2:  Doing .-   "Where is my genius", "How can I find the work I was meant to do?"
    stage 3:  Being: -   "How can I express my innate creativity (in everything I do), - express who I really am?"

Bonus link:  Although he may not agree with the thoughts expressed here,  Johnnie Moore  has probably forgotten more than I will ever know about how to facilitate memorable meetings. Apart from his weblog you might enjoy, as I did,.this article of his on   Improv .

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  • ..this blog stems from a recognition that our true nature is far more creative, loving and unlimited than we could possibly imagine... and it transforms everything... a practical, generic solution to all our problems.

    These are just my lesson notes as I try to  be true to that recognition... and  learn to fly.  So it's quite possible that everything here may be wrong.

    Thank you for visiting.  Email (to Nick Smith) is always welcome.

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