Sunday, 14 February 2016

Ever considered how removing physical barriers can help hold effective meetings? #HappyValentinesDay #kmers

Management literature indicates that on average we spend 35-50% of our time in meetings.

A 2014 Harvard Business Review research shows how a company spends 300,000 hours a year in meetings. And this is not an uncommon "feature" for most organizations.

The same articles states that "research shows that 15% of an organization’s collective time is spent in meetings—a percentage that has increased every year since 2008. No amount of money can buy back that time. It must be treated more preciously."

Others such as Atlassian estimate that "the salary cost of unnecessary meetings for U.S. business is $37 billion." Wall Street Journal estimates that "CEOs spend 18 hours of 55 hour week in meetings."

Management literature and reality shows that running unproductive and inefficient meetings seems to be a staple of modern working life. And perhaps this is why you can find 130 million web articles providing guidance on meeting best practices and 35 million articles on effective meeting best practices.

This plethora of "wisdom" seem to impart fundamental and common sense advice  for running effective meetings - things such as:
  • have an agenda and share agenda ahead of the meeting
  • invite the right people
  • keep time
  • distinguish between information sharing, decision making and brainstorming meetings
  • wrap up with action points and track decisions
  • make sure everyone knows what to do when they leave the meeting 
  • establish ground rules
  • make sure everyone participates
And the list goes on and on and on.
Amazingly enough hardly any of these articles talk about the physical setting of the meeting venue, nor how configuration of conventional board and meeting rooms could constitute an obstacle to and hinder a multi-directional and productive conversation. At the same time, none of them weigh the pros and cons of formal versus semi-informal meetings. 

Close your eyes and think of your meeting room.

Count the number of barriers in the room.

I can think of the long meeting table, the chairs and how when people walk into the meeting room there is a seating hierarchy. I can think of the meeting room without windows or meetings rooms without natural light. 

Now, imagine holding meetings in an environment where you can minimize the physical barriers. To start with:
  • no seating hierarchy
  • no "head table"
  • natural light
  • green scenery
  • physically outside of the office setting
Yes, I know it may be unconventional to hold a board meeting in a park, but I would challenge a brave and bold CEO and board members to take on this challenge and to do so.

I came to the understanding that meetings held outside of an office environment are most productive as I embarked on my new adventure. My first day in the office, I went for a working coffee with a colleague.... And guess what the working coffee was physically outside of the office environment. It was in a beautiful setting. There was fresh air, green scenery, natural light, a pleasant breeze and more.

As we sat at the table, I realized that there were no barriers, no hierarchy.... It was  truly as if we had gone out to a cafe on a Sunday morning.

The physical act of leaving the formal office space and walking out to this neutral land created a different dynamic and helped to set a different tone. The simple act of "walking away from formality" meant there was no one in power, there was no authority. It meant everyone was on the same footing, everyone was a peer.  It meant that we actually talked with each other and not to each other. We had a two-way conversation, rather than a one-way monologue. No one imparted orders, rather we discussed, shared ideas and learnt from each other.

As a knowledge management practitioner we raise awareness about the benefits of removing barriers to create a safe environment for multi-directional conversation. We advocate for alternative meeting methods and techniques so that we can  have better  and fruitful conversations.

While I had practiced and facilitated a number of these KM methods, I must admit that only a month ago did I see in action the benefits of removing physical barriers to have fruitful, effective, efficient and productive meetings and came to the realization that perhaps this is the most common blindspot.

How about next time you organize a meeting or walk into a meeting you consider the following:
  • Hold your meeting in a "neutral territory"
  • Remove physical barriers
  • Engage in a  conversation as opposed to dictates
  • Set the tone and create a safe environment
  • Share information and guidance in a conversational tone
If everyone feels like peers, then everyone is in control of and everyone has power over their actions for the bigger common good.

This is not utopia nor an impossible feat. Having seen the benefits - albeit inadvertently and unintentionally - I would definitely suggest you give a go. Next time you organize a meeting, consider the above and if you can "walk away from your office environment".

If you do give it a try, please share your experience so that together we can collect a solid body of evidence to show that removing physical barriers and holding meetings in "neutral territory" can lead to removing barriers in our head, which can lead to bringing about change.

"If you have an idea, you have to believe in yourself or no one else will."

Sarah Michelle Geller

Happy Valentine's Day!


Luis Suarez said...

Hi Roxy, thanks a lot for the stupendous write-up you have put together over here and for the shout-out on Twitter. I am surprised you haven't mentioned one of my favourite capabilities from hosting a meeting and that I think we need to start challenging it more and more by the minute: don't host the meeting! After all, the best meetings are canceled meetings.

I don't think we are challenging enough how we eventually host, participate and engage in meetings, never mind figuring out their purpose in the first place, and I suspect it's something we should start up doing, and quite a bit and soon, too!, because otherwise meetings would become one of the most pernicious productivity pain points, if not already (I suspect email is pretty high on the list, too!). And I am not over-exaggerating much, I would think.

What's interesting about meetings is that they are a necessary evil, indeed, but it's something we can always refined and figure out what works best. For instance, both Nilofer Merchant and Beth Kanter, to name a couple of examples, have been huge advocates around hosting walking meetings for pretty much the very same reasons you have stated above as well, Roxy, and they work great! I, too, can recommend them highly!

But what I would do myself in terms of getting the most out of meetings, is essentially start challenging the nature of the meeting itself, i.e. whether we *really* need to host it, or not, because if it is something that can be done through offline collaboration and open knowledge sharing tools I don't see a reason why it couldn't be done through plenty of the digital tools we have got to our disposal at the moment. There is here an opportunity to work smarter, not necessarily smarter and I think it's time to start shifting gears in terms of how we view meetings, because right now they are becoming time sinks, but then again we go through huge ordeals to request a 200€ hard driver for work and yet no-one gets to challenge a single meeting with senior leadership for an hour.

Time is the new currency and unless we start managing it much more effectively in terms of the time we spend in meetings, I think we are about to have many more problems than we would want to, in order to be effective in our jobs. Now, with all of that said, those links I have just shared in this comment will give us all plenty of fodder to figure out how we can get the most of hosting meetings without failing in the attempt. At the same time as having some fun watching Tripp & Tyler's video clips on our corporate life to understand where our challenges begin and what we can do about them :-D

Looking forward to the follow-up conversations,Roxy! And thanks much for this wonderful blog post! Well done!

Bonnie Koenig said...

Roxy, as the post describes, I agree that the ‘basics’ (wisdom) of organizing good meeting are pretty available at this point in time to anyone who wants to look for them. There are obviously lots of variables that speak to whether those ‘basics’ of good (effective) meeting practices are used (including leadership style, organizational culture, etc..) For those who are interested though, it does seem like it is time to take the available resources for creating an effective meeting environment to the next level. I like how you have begun to do that by focusing on the physical space of the proposed meeting.

Perhaps we can encourage meeting organizers who are interested in going beyond the ‘basic good practices’ to look at the broader questions in planning a meeting. As Luis mentions in his comments, a first question might be “What are we trying to accomplish and do we need this in-person meeting to accomplish that?” If the answer is yes, ask the question: With a focus on the particular group, what will make the meeting an effective use of in-person time?” I note the focus on the particular group as although we often think we may be keeping a focus on the specific group when planning a meeting, an explicit focus can help us to determine things that may not at first be obvious – maybe there are differently- abled people involved where walking is not a good option; or an outside space that does not provide enough quiet to focus or shade that may be necessary for the groups needs, etc… With the focus on the specific group we can then be creative with the agenda, room set-up, sitting vs. walking, outside vs. inside, etc… to help generate the outcomes we are looking for from the meeting.

It might be interesting to do a group google.doc on “Meeting basics 2.0” similar to the document Nancy White coordinated on online meetings.

Thanks for stimulating our thinking!