Subverting the structure of meetings to help teams go further faster

 

These are the images and text of the Pecha Kucha talk that I gave at EPIC 2017 in Montreal. Given the format constraints (each slide is visible for only 20 seconds before moving on to the next) the text is sparse.

ATTENTION DEFICIT

Meeting culture and practices have changed over the last few years. Multi-tasking is the norm and the line between solo work and meeting has blurred. As researchers presenting to clients we feel the pressure to grab attention and to sustain engagement. Attention spans are short and with the laptop in play ‘real’ work is only a click away.

NEED FOR SPEED

Long meetings are increasingly seen as a signifier of bureaucratic corporate culture culture. Short, focused meetings are presented as the answer to the ‘meeting problem’. Carefully structured agendas and rigorous adherence to time plans are the hallmarks of the good meeting. Diversions and overruns are the enemy.

CAMPFIRE MEETING LAKE MORENO 2015

Some of the highlights of my career have come at meetings. We bring teams together around seeing worlds in different ways and identifying fresh opportunities. Many of the breakthrough moments that mark out great projects have happened in meetings. However these meetings have tended not to be short or highly structured. Often the best meetings have been the ones where we have been able to subvert best practice by extending timings and enabling teams to self organise. The one constant across all of our great meetings has been a very focused challenge.

OWEN HARRISON FOUNDER OF THE OPEN SPACE MOVEMENT

Much of our inspiration for playing with meeting form and structure has come from Owen Harrison. Harrison is the co-inventor of the Open Space. This breakthrough framework for planning and running meetings stemmed from Harrison’s frustration with having to attend lots of meetings where lots there was lots of talk with very little action to follow. His insight was that the key to successful meetings was for the attendees to want to be there.

TWO FEET

To this end Open Space theory only really has one law.. It is called the Law of Two Feet. This law says that every individual has two feet, and must be prepared to use them. Responsibility for a successful outcome in any Open Space meeting resides with exactly one person — each participant. Individuals can make a difference and must make a difference. If that is not true in a given situation, they, and they alone, must take responsibility to use their two feet, and move to a new place where they can make a difference.

FOCUS AND COMMUNICATE THE PURPOSE OF THE MEETING

Practising Open Space requires the organiser to be very clear about the purpose of the meeting. This focused purpose has to be communicated in advance to ensure that participants can be clear about their desire to be present or not.

AGENDA FREE SELF-ORGANISATION

With the purpose of meeting Open Space puts the onus on participants to break the challenge down on their own in the moment versus sticking to any pre-arranged time plan. This is challenging as it puts pressure on participants to communicate and take ownership of meeting activity in ways agenda led meetings do not. The lack of time plan does not mean people can coast.  There are clear start and end points and the lack of agenda means people have to engage if they want a meaningful outcome.

DOING GOOD FOR NOTHING

Inspired by Open Space and frustrated with everyday meeting culture Tom Farrand, Dan Burgess and I decided to start experimenting with meeting form and self-organisation. For our first experiment we picked three social and environmental start ups to work with. We worked with the start-ups to identify and articulate focused challenges that they required help with. We gave the event the name ‘Good for Nothing’ to reflect the unpaid nature of the session and its focus on using skills for good. We shared the challenges online, set a date and invited people in our networks with skills spanning design, strategy and coding to come and spend a weekend to help the ventures with their challenges. And then we waited…

UNLOCKING THE POWER OF HUMAN ENERGY

To our surprise seventy people gave up their weekends to work with us. They brought deep expertise and amazing amounts of energy. The leaders of the different start-ups shared their challenges on the Saturday morning and then we let people get on with it. The session was almost entirely self-organised. People formed their own teams around the challenges and created their own plans.

GOOD FOR NOTHING PRESENTATION TIME

A few observations struck us across the weekend. Talking meetings played a role when they were useful. They weren’t scheduled or structure they just formed. Secondly people learnt tons. They learnt about themselves, they learnt new skills and they learnt lots about the people they collaborated with. Friendships and working relationships formed that are still in place today several years after this first event.  And finally everyone felt fulfilled in ways traditional meeting formats frequently fail to deliver.

GOOD FOR NOTHING IS A GLOBAL MOVEMENT NOW

We developed a toolkit to help people run sessions of their own and made it available to people across cities. There are now Good for Nothing chapters in over 40 cities across the UK and around the world with over 5000 signed up Good for Nothingers.  It is not for everyone, but a lot of talented people enjoy the open format and the chance to bring their skills to bear in a more unfettered way than they might experience in their day jobs.

ETHNOGRAPHERS IN THE FIELD

There are often elements of busy meeting phenomena creeping into our work in the field as commercial ethnographers. Discussion guides can become crammed with too many questions. The essential tools of observation and thoughtful, unscripted enquiry can easily be side-lined when deadlines are pressing in and practical, short-term questions need addressing.

BUSY AGENDA LED ETHNOGRAPHY AND DIMINISHING RESEARCH RETURNS

In our work with clients in the field we try to move people out of ‘standard meeting mode’ as much as possible. Where we can we rent houses and live together with our clients, blurring the line between work time and non-work time. We deliberately subvert work rules and boundaries to help teams inhabit informants’

ENABLING RESPONDENTS TO SHOW US THEIR WORLDS

We work to keep the objectives and scope for our work with clients in the field as tight as possible. The objectives drive the session and the team forward. They are the backbone of any session. There needs to be ambition in the scope, but not so much that the task becomes unachievable.

BRINGING BOTH FEET AND HANDS TO RESEARCH

We try to ensure that everyone in the field with us actively wants to be there. We do this to ensure that as much as possible we are working with a coalition of willing participants. No one has left yet, but we would like to think the ‘two feet’ law applies in our work as much as in ‘pure’ Open Space events.

ALLOWING TIME TO SURFACE SLIPPERY INSIGHTS

We build in making and doing time as well as talking time. We encourage the teams we work with to self organise to explore and analyse parallel experiences that help them to better embody the worlds we are exploring. We balance structured time with unstructured time to enable teams to pursue hunches and explore as well as following the program.  We allow time and space for ‘slippery’ insights to surface.

TIME AND SPACE FOR SHARED REFLECTION

Our belief is that there is more scope to bring more Open Space thinking and approaches into our work as ethnographers exploring people’s worlds with our clients. The principle barrier to more experimental approaches is our participants’ comfort with the reduced levels of certainty associated with less highly structured, more self-organising approaches. Where client teams and organisations are more adventurous, we believe the potential rewards of self-organising approaches can be considerable in terms of levels of understanding of consumer worlds achieved and in terms of levels of delivery versus objectives.

GO TO WHERE THE ENERGY IS

Too often the spaces and places we conduct our interactions with participants are contained and constrained. Our mantra is to keep moving and go to where the energy is. Our purpose is to connect business to what is happening in the world and that requires us to push boundaries wherever and whenever possible.

YOU HAVE TWO FEET SO USE THEM

Whether you are in a meeting in the office or researching in the field, the question we should all be asking ourselves is ‘are we and the people we are with here now’? If our task is helping teams to identify and act upon insights then presence is key.

 

// Tom Rowley