Meetings Aren’t Getting You Where You Want to Go? Try Something New

Are you getting the most out of the time you’re spending in meetings? Try Liberating Structures, a set of tools that cultivates a focused purpose and broad participation.

I thrive on early mornings but shun early-morning meetings. For me, morning is thinking time. Even summoning the power of speech before 9 am takes an effort. Nevertheless on Valentine’s Day, I led a group from the Women Communicators of Austin in dismantling their usual way of doing things to try a different approach.

Juggling bowls of oatmeal and cinnamon rolls, we took the bull by the horns and experimented with Liberating Structures, a set of collaborative tools that focuses shared participation on an articulated purpose. In this experiment, the purpose of the meeting was the answer to a question: “What is keeping you from doing what you want to do?”

Never start a meeting without a clear purpose. Here, Monique Correon, WCA Careers Over Coffee coordinator, focus on how we can get the results we want.

Harnessing the collective problem solver

Most people approach meetings the way they do weddings and funerals: This is how we do it, making the results predictable. According to the Harvard Business Review, 90% of the people at your last meeting are daydreaming. Seventy-three percent are doing other work. If you care about your time and productivity, it’s a problem.

But we are social creatures; shared ideas and approaches are our secret sauce, the can of spinach Popeye pops open to defeat his arch-nemesis, Brutus. When we harness the meeting format, those shared ideas are transformed into what the New York Times columnist David Brooks recently described as “gatherings” where:

“…traits (like): open-mindedness, flexibility, listening skills, team-building skills and basic human warmth. In this saga, leaders are measured by their ability to expand relationships, not wall them off.”

Too blue sky?  Maybe not.

Too much control or too little structure?

The answer to the meeting conundrum lies somewhere between fluidity and control, neither so tightly orchestrated the meeting’s structure sucks the spontaneity out of the discussion, nor so loose it degenerates into interminable chaos. Liberating Structures uses simple exercises based on 10 basic principles:

  • Never start without a clear purpose
  • Practice deep respect for people and local solutions
  • Include and unleash everyone (each person is given equal time)
  • Build trust as you go
  • Learn by failing forward
  • Practice self-discovery within a group
  • Amplify freedom and responsibility
  • Emphasize possibilities:  believe before you see
  • Invite creative destruction to make space for innovation
  • Engage in seriously playful curiosity

What we did: an early-morning example, with oatmeal:

The session began by establishing its purpose, why each of use was there. Because we were a diverse group with different roles and backgrounds, I made it a personal challenge, the answer to my question, “What is keeping you from doing what you want to do?

What followed was a series of linked exercises, each prompted by a question related to their challenge. Participants moved randomly around the room, sharing their challenge with others, deepening their understanding of its nature and sharing commonalities.

To rediscover forgotten resources and insights, each person worked alone, then sequentially with one and then three others, to share a personal success. Finally, we explored, individually and in small groups, what actions can be now to address the challenge. To respect everyone’s time, each exercise was timed.  

Liberating Structures builds trust and engagement by starting with small interactions and building to larger ones. Here, WCA President Jenny Magic (right) talks with Laura, a new member and new Austinite.

Failing forward

Monique Carreon, the meeting coordinator, a marketing manager at EOS, a tech startup that uses Agile methodology. Agile is terrific for software development, but it doesn’t solve the problem is giving each participant the opportunity to engage. Monique was completely engaged from our first conversation. We debriefed afterwards here’s what we’ll do differently next time:

  • Arrange the space for movement and flexibility:  This was my biggest oversight. Open space encourages engagement. Finding the room already set up with a single long table, I opted against dismantling it. More space would have made it easier to reconfigure the groups and maximize networking.  As a result, although the small groups were active, there was minimal overall group contribution.
  • Engage everyone equally:  I timed the small groups, but I did not time individual contributions. Had I done so, it would have equalized each person’s talk time and more fully encouraged listeners to talk.
  • Clarify and reinforce the meeting’s purpose: To be valuable, the discussion must tie back to the reason for the meeting. I didn’t brief latecomers and as a result, they were unable to participate fully.  

Nothing Ventured …

As WCA member, mentor and attention management expert Maura Nevel Thomas advises, “If you’re a leader, I encourage you to collaborate with other managers to take a fresh look at how you handle meetings.”

Liberating Structures is a living online collaborative. Over 30 structures are posted on the website, ready for application. If you have a virtual team, try using it with Zoom! for team meetings. Questions? There is a dedicated Slack channel. LS is used by the Gates Foundation, the World Bank, the U.S. Army, IBM, many nonprofits, and just maybe — you. Meetups and collaboratives are alive worldwide, so check it out:

Meetups in Austin, Texas; check for one in your area:

Room set up makes a big difference. Our interactions would have been more broadly distributed if the long table had been dismantled into smaller groupings. Even so, our approach got people thinking and talking about how to have better meetings.

Trying a New Approach to Collaboration, Large and Small

When I think of horrific meeting experiences, my mind rewinds to a hands-on seminar I led years ago for Apple. The objective was to introduce teachers to Apple’s desktop. It was a group presentation with auditorium-style seating and keyboards for participants to use in conjunction with the talk. About 10 minutes into my sch-peel, a tiny grandmotherly-looking woman stood up and said to the group: “We’re not idiots. Why do we have to listen to this person, let’s just do this!”  And away they went, clicking happily along in utter chaos. That was point my boss walked in. Needless to say it was an interesting debrief.

meeting
The 20th century approach to informing, educating and convincing a group of people. 

I thought about that woman this week during a Liberating Structures workshop led by Keith McCandless (who wrote the book) and Anna Jackson who spearheads an LS meetup group here in Austin. Is there a better way to inform, collaborate, teach and motivate a group of people?  I’m a newbie but I’d say the tools they introduced me to are the best I’ve seen so far. I can see how they could work in all kinds of organizations. The idea is to tweak the feng shui of group interactions – topic, space, pacing, participation – and deploy a set of tools that better focus and distribute the conversation among the people who matter.

liberated meeting
Are there more possibilities here? Bigger group, more leaders. See the 1-2-4-All tool.  

You can read more on the Liberating Structures website. It lists all the tools and gives you a menu of when/how to apply them.

Since I haven’t applied it yet, the results are theoretical. But hey, if it works for The World Bank and The Gates Foundation, I’m all in. I’m intrigued about seeing how the tools would work cross-culturally, in situations where some of the participants are remote (there’s a technology conversation) and when selling one’s ideas to executives.

More to come.  I only wish I, like Merlin, could live backwards: Just think how I could have helped and gained from that woman who was so frustrated and anxious to learn so long ago.  I hope she’s running a company somewhere.