Why the design of meetings matter 1

There are some meetings that exist to coordinate efforts and information. Other meetings live to make decisions. A third meeting might be of an explorative nature. Then there’s the sad little meeting, who is so confused and lonely. The meeting that is all, or none, of the above. There’s a lot to be said about running good meetings, and much of this has been said already, so I’ll try another angle. Here goes:

From the trenches: A meeting that we have and why we have it that way

So we have a cross functional meeting at my shop, where non-coders and non-designers are invited to a 15 minute morning meeting. This meeting is run standup-stylish and everyone gets their turn speaking about what’s going on. This is a meeting with the clear purpose of coordinating efforts and sharing information. But let’s have a look at what else lies underneath the surface, in the very design of the meeting.

The meeting is not mandatory and it has a “come if you have the time and leave whenever you must”-policy. Whatever for? Well, information wise, this creates a “pull” not a “push”. A push in this context would be a mandatory meeting that may or may not concern you (eye of the beholder, of course), where you get information thrown (pushed) at you, information that you will not process anyway because your mind is elsewhere. So, it’s the opposite of that. See?

Another piece of excellent information that is generated by not making the meeting mandatory is that we learn a lot from keeping an eye on who attends the meeting, and perhaps more interesting, who does not attend the meeting? Why aren’t they? Does it not meet their needs? I say this again. A mandatory meeting would hide all this information from us.

The meeting has no agenda. The casual check-in round offers people the opportunity to talk about whatever they have top of mind, often in relation to what tasks they are about to engage in. Are we in each other’s way? Is there any way we can help each other out? This reveals patterns regarding where people’s paths cross, which is valuable information about how the work works. And of course, some information has a way of pushing through the business talk, if you have the eyes to see and the ears to listen. Are there any frustrations? Do these frustrations form a pattern? Does anyone seem tired? Overworked? Is there something going on in their personal lives that the group or the organisation can help with? Do they have needs not being met?

The meeting is time boxed, but the time box is not strict. Depending on the mood in the room (and the mood in the room is in itself valuable information) we have the option to keep it extremely to the point, yet if the mood is right, we can also exercise the option to just let it flow. If conversations during the meeting lift off, there’s little reason to intervene and subdue valuable discussions in order to safeguard the time box. The “leave if this is not meaningful for you or if you feel you cannot contribute”-policy is what keeps this running. Some of you will recognize this as the law of mobility, from Open Space Technology.

So, the meeting is designed to reveal to us the system as it is, and further this design lets us see with some clarity the “multiplicity of relatively simple interactions” that via emergence form our system.

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