Meeting design (meatspace)

Element Descriptor

Meetings require thinking about. So often they are held because ‘well, we were due to have a meeting’ But WHY is the meeting happening? Is it to update folks? Is it to discuss a thorny issue? Is it to make a big decision or a set of smaller decisions? How will the important goals be met? If you don’t design well, the loudest voices will speak the most, and the (unmet) emotional needs will distort/destroy the official agenda….

Level descriptors

NovicePractitionerExpertNinja
You can design a basic but functional meeting around a topic/set of topics that will enable the right questions to be surfaced and allow the quieter/less confident to put forward key points. The meeting has a chance of ending on time, and leaving most folks (but not the usually-dominant) happy that they came.You can design a more detailed (but not unnecessarily so) meeting which will “work” for different sized groups of people who know each other not well/not al all, with mechanisms to prevent domination, derailing and disruption. The meetings are not always ‘enjoyable’, but this is a social movement we’re doing here, right, not a club?You can design, very quickly, a meeting or sequence of meetings that will help groups make difficult and consequential decisions, or discuss potentially homicide-inducing questions and come to clear and thought-through conclusions/decisions/positions, in the face of deliberate and unconscious resistance. And finish on time.The UN has you on speed dial, because your meetings – which use tools you have invented, honed, recombinated – are The Shit. They are almost disruption proof (but never misunderestimate a talented disruptor) and a joy to facilitate because they “work.” You regularly innovate, not for the sake of innovation, but in order to not be complacent , and to create new ways that people can meet to achieve things.

Element Overview Essay

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You can’t design a meeting until you know its purpose. So if someone asked you to design a meeting, and doesn’t tell you the purpose, explain to them that  you can’t do your job.  And if they are still wild and woolly, it’s probably best for your morale, your reputation and your time to gently decline. Because and I can’t emphasise this enough, you cannot get what you want to get until you know what you want. 

So, most meetings are run on a very vague proposition. “I will call a meeting about issue x. People who are interested in issue x will come will tell them some facts, (which they probably already knew or could have been told in much more efficient ways). And then we’ll have a general discussion and anyone who speaks who wants to speak can speak And then we’ll wrap up and after that meeting floods of people contact us and want to get involved in our group because they’ll have seen just how cool we are” I’m obviously caricaturing, but am I by that much? 

So, if the purpose of the meeting is primarily information giving, then don’t bloody meet, put the information in a blog post, a YouTube, a PowerPoint, hire a skywriter. A tattooist, whatever. But you don’t need a meeting to put information into people’s heads. This is not 1000 years ago, before telephones before anyone could write before paper, you know, this is the 21st century. God damn it. Okay. 

So the next reason people often say “Let’s have a meeting” is to reinvigorate a group campaign as if this will have some magic effect. And you saw this in Lord of the Flies where Ralph thought that a meeting would clear the air. Sorry, sidebar that this isn’t going to work on its own, or it might work. 

But it will be a meeting that is quite uncomfortable for the people who think that the problem is not them, but the recalcitrance and stupidity of followers who won’t follow. Because if you were going to design a meeting to reinvigorate a campaign, yes, you could have some big name come along and exhort you all and that would give a temporary hit. But the underlying issues, the other reasons for the campaign stuttering and so the group failing, haven’t even been acknowledged. And if these haven’t been acknowledged,they can’t be addressed. 

So let’s take it as an example.  Designing a meeting about reinvigorating a campaign. Well, you wouldn’t wait. And this is a good point, generally, you wouldn’t wait until the meeting to start getting ideas of people. When you call the meeting, you would explain what it was about. And you would create opportunities for people to send in their ideas, perspectives, anonymously if they wanted to. And then you would collect these and make them publicly available, so that everyone was on more or less the same page when you started, rather than starting from a standing start a blank slate, 

As you will settle in and start the physical meeting 10 or 15 minutes after it was supposed to, and hardly able to hear anyone because everyone is wearing a goddamn mask. You would then need to have ways that small groups could form to discuss these points. With the facilitator in each group perhaps or a note taker and or a note taker in each subgroup and a remit about what the group was supposed to report back to the bigger group, is it their top five diagnoses of the problem? Is it the top five solutions? What is it what is that small group supposed to do? 

Then are you going to try to resolve any of these issues in the meeting? What are you going to do about the emotional load of staring into the abyss? How are you going to end the meeting in a way that makes people feel if not uplifted, then at least willing and able to come back and keep going. There’s what’s called the peak end effect, which is that people remember the peak, the most emotionally resonant, exciting, depressing, whatever part of an event and the end of it, and the rest sort of gets jumbled in together. So you, you as a meeting designer, you have to be aware of that. 

You have to be aware that there’s quite possibly going to be some disruption and disruptive elements. So you’re gonna need to design your meeting the best you can to cope with those. And so having an opening agreement, where everyone agrees what the meeting is for and how it will be run, is really important. And then anyone who’s in the meeting, when that’s agreed, and tries to disrupt outside that agreement can be shut down. And anyone who turns up late has to just like it. 

You have to think how are the quiet people who often have really good ideas and perspectives, going to be able to speak when they’re probably terrified of addressing a whole group or even a group of more than two or three people. 

You’re gonna want to think about how you are going to report on this meeting at what level all of this comes under meeting design and a good meeting designer will not focus just on the meeting, but they’ll see it as part of an ongoing process. Where there’s a before, during and after, and the meeting and its purpose fit within an overarching you could call it a strategy or you could call it an arc. 

This is meeting design. It’s one of those skills that you never get perfect at. It’s not like you arrive as a, you know, a touch typist or Freedom of Information Act. submitter and you’re good at it. You’re as good as you’re ever gonna get plateau effect within three months. 

No, this is lifelong learning here guys. Good luck.

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