Meetings are an organization’s cultural backbone. How you run your meetings says more than you might think about how your organization functions. The bottom line is that meetings are an effective barometer for gauging how well your organization is doing in terms of productivity, innovation, and teamwork. If you dream of an engaged organization where people show up with their full creativity and potential and really share responsibility, meetings are an easy, low-risk place to grow this dream.
Most people find meetings stressful or boring and drag themselves to them. Hence, there is ample evidence to suggest people are ready for something new. When organizations are able to correct bad habits that stymie creativity, meetings become an ideal leverage point for transforming entrenched habits and beliefs in your culture.
Here are three simple meeting steps that invite everyone at the meeting to show up differently and collaboratively. With them, we tap into our collective agency and creativity. It’s a practice, which means you won’t get there by talking about it; you need to do it, reflect on how it went, and do it again. That’s how we change habits. We cannot expect it to be perfect on the first attempt.
1. Identify purpose and time
Ensure that your group agrees on the purpose and time of the meeting, because people have different assumptions, and this can create confusion and frustration. For example, a 60-minute meeting that focuses on clarifying the next steps of a project will be different from a 90-minute meeting that aims to find ways to improve relationships with the project partners. If you find yourself in a meeting where purpose and time are unclear, you can let the organizers know what your assumption is.
2. Co-create the agenda wisely on the spot
No single person can really know all that should be addressed at a meeting, nor should one person have to hold that on their own. Redistributing the responsibility of setting agenda items can be done by emphasizing the importance of initiative. The principle goes: “If there is something you see that is important to address, then write it on the agenda yourself and facilitate your agenda point.”
Identify to the group how much of the collective time and attention you want for your agenda item. Using the four agenda categories below shapes what will happen at each point and can boost intentional consciousness among the group:
- Announcements (when you just want people to listen to you)
- Feedback (when you want to listen to others)
- Co-creation (when you want to work with your colleagues on something)
- Proposals + decisions (when you want a collective decision on something).
Here’s an example of what a co-created agenda might look like (Bonus tip: Using a web-based collaborative tool, such as Google Docs or Asana, can make editable, live agendas a breeze to co-create):
Purpose of the meeting: the next steps for our project (60 min total)
Results from interviews
Presenting our new service
|Co-create/work together||Hafid||Ideas for next consultation activity||20 min|
|Proposal/decision making||Maria||Hire students?||10 min|
Remember there is no rule that everyone needs to be in conversation all the time. You can be creative in how you run your agenda point. You can invite people to think silently for a minute before a go around or to position themselves in the room to express where they stand on a question. It’s up to you.
3. Run the meeting with roles
As an organization, make it a priority to designate meeting roles. Agree on who will be the meeting host, the time holder, and the note taker. It’s also critical to rotate these roles regularly if you want to develop participatory leadership. Setting an expectation around this flexibility can help streamline how roles are assigned. For example, there can be the expectation that everyone has a go at a role before anyone does it a second time or that roles rotate alphabetically by last name.
The meeting host uses the natural connections between points and the group energy to establish the order of the points. The time host supports the facilitator of each point to keep to the time they attributed to themselves, with kindness and care. The notetaker documents the essential items: points of clarity, proposals that take form, decisions made, etc.
Building a horizontal culture
These three strategies, used together, are geared toward a collaborative and conscious way of working. Running meetings consciously builds a horizontal workplace culture because team members feel empowered, heard, and valued for their specific contributions and reach larger, collective goals.
A group takes on shared responsibility for what is addressed, how it is addressed, and the time management. Meetings become enlivening, democratic, co-creative spaces. This is the opposite of conventional meeting culture, which revolves around one or two people.
It is not a free for all. It’s the opposite, in fact. Clear structuring elements allow self-organization to take place efficiently.
Building team trust
Really, though, this is all about learning to trust again. Trust your colleagues to care about things and put them on the agenda, trust people to be able to share the time, and trust that the right things for today are addressed. It’s truly liberating.
Once you get the hang of this in meetings, you’ll find it spilling over into other areas of work. You’ll be stepping forward for what you care about while trusting others to step forward with what they see and care about. You’ll be more apt to give space to your colleagues to self-organize. You’ll be able to tap into the diversity that surrounds you better. All of this brings life back into the workplace and puts flexibility and flow into the cultural backbone. In fact, reconnecting with our capacity to trust each other is part of our collective journey to reconnect with our humanity. Organizations desperately need this now, and so does the world.
Samantha Slade is the cofounder of Percolab, an international cocreation and innovation firm, and Ecto, a coworking co-op. With both clients and colleagues, she has focused on new operational ways, from collaborative general assemblies to self-managing compensation models. Slade has been exploring new collaborative frameworks for twenty-five years and has worked with departments within the European Union and organizations around the world. She is also the author of Going Horizontal: Creating a Non-Hierarchical Organization, One Practice at a Time.