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Design Your Way to a Better Meeting

Is there any question we are a design-oriented society? Web design, interior design, designer jeans, and virtually anything else that comes to mind is affected by design. And this is true by design.

Why not become a designer of your business meetings? Using the “design thinking” approach, you can be a meeting designer and create more efficient and effective meetings.

What is Design Thinking?

Tim Brown, founder of IDEO, the leading design thinking firm, and inventor of design thinking defines it as

“a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Put simply, design thinking is a process of understanding the problem from a human-experience perspective, and then considering the human experience at every step along the design journey in order to create a product or service that satisfies the customer and the business.

For a more tangible example, check out the article What are Users Doing with My Product by Simon Baker. While he doesn’t specifically refer to design thinking, the process of observation and deeply understanding the needs of the user are both design thinking principles.

Applying Design Thinking to Meetings

Meetings are an essential part of doing business. But that doesn’t mean that we should accept them as a necessary evil to accomplishing our work. Design thinking can help you to view meetings from a human-experience perspective, looking at the needs of meeting participants and the results the meeting is intended to achieve.

Brown further explains the three areas of design thinking, which function more as overlapping phases rather than strict sequential steps. He says,

“Inspiration is the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions. Ideation is the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas. Implementation is the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives.”

Here is how you can apply design thinking to design your meetings:

Space #1: Inspiration.

1. Collect data.

Gather information from your team members about your current meetings. What do they think is effective? What is ineffective? Examine all three phases of a meeting experience--before, during, and after--to reflect on what can be improved at each stage.  This can be done in a variety of ways: in a group setting, individually, or anonymously. Choose a method which is most conducive to open and honest feedback.

2. Encourage imagination.

Ask each team member to describe what an ideal work meeting would look like. Follow up by probing to uncover the underlying values and motivations of the suggestions. If you are having this conversation in a group setting, consider allowing a few minutes for quiet reflection during which people can create a list. Follow that with a round-robin sharing and votes of ‘agreement’ from others who have similar thoughts.

3. Actively listen.

After you've gathered feedback from your team, you might find yourself rationalizing some problems or becoming defensive. Acknowledge your first reactions, and put them aside.Take in the information, thank your team for their honesty, and let them know you have heard them.

Space #2: Ideation.

1. Analyze the data.

Share the data collected and invite the team to look for common concerns, patterns, or themes. Are there concerns that are raised consistently? Are there suggestions that are offered consistently?

2. Brainstorm.

Empower your team to become part of the solution as co-designers, allowing for a free flow of ideas. Use the ‘pain points’ and ‘vision’ previously identified as a jumping off point. Ask your team what practices, ideas or solutions they have heard about or experienced in other settings that this team could try.

3. Prototype.

Create a new framework for your meetings. Be intentional and specific about what changes you want to implement. Use the following resources if you need help developing a meeting prototype:

  • Using ground rules for different types of meetings to advance the conversation. We have recently published a curated list of meeting norms that can help set the foundation of your meeting conversation.

  • Agenda Template by Roger Schwarz. In a Harvard Business Review article, Schwarz lays out the basic structure for each agenda item, including its purpose, required preparation and a proposed process to achieve the result.

  • Meeting Canoe by Dick and Emily Axelrod, the authors of Let’s Stop Meeting Like This. Axelrod approaches meetings as a system from design to execution to follow-up. The Meeting Canoe consists of six parts that address the various phases of a successful meeting.

4. Test.

Try out various solutions in your meetings to get a feel for what works and what does not. Make sure the process of imagination is ongoing: continually collect data, listen for feedback, and encourage creativity. Also be mindful that you are evaluating the meeting’s design solution, not the team’s performance.

5. Ongoing improvement.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your meetings design solution. Changes may be awkward, solutions may fall flat, and not all ideas will work. That’s okay. If the data collection, feedback, and imagination are ongoing and free flowing, you will find the design solution(s) that best work for your team’s needs.

Space #3: Implementation.

1. Make if official.

Officially implement the design solution(s) your team comes up with. Get everyone on board with the newly designed meetings. This helps everyone commit to the new solution and reinforce the new desired behaviors.

2. Celebrate successes.

Acknowledge the changes and team’s role in the changes before, during, and after implementation. Celebrate the changes and the team’s effort in order to keep the team motivated to continually improve.

3. Resist temptation.

Sustaining change can often be harder than implementing it the first time. Defy the urge to resort to your former ways. Maintain the early successes of your newly designed meetings and continue to evaluate them over time. This is the key to keeping your meetings efficient and effective.

Three Meeting Design Principles to Keep in Mind

The aim, after all, is a “human-centered design ethos.” Therefore, remember these three human-centered mindsets in your approach:

Principle #1. Empathy.

Develop in yourself and your team the capacity to understand the experiences of others. The optimal design enables all the team members to participate effectively. As a leader, it is easy to focus on the desired results rather than the needs of the team. However, meetings designed to empower the team members to help achieve the desired results is beneficial to all involved.

Finding the right design solution for your meetings is an iterative process. It takes time and experimentation. No one solution works for every team, and no solution works forever. The process must be ongoing. Don’t fall in love with your meeting’s design. There are always ways to improve. As your team and practices evolve, your problems also evolve, so stay nimble to address new challenges.

Principle #3. Be optimistic.

According to John Bielenberg, “Optimism is the thing that drives you forward.” Efficient and effective meetings can truly be enjoyable experiences for everyone. Expect great meetings. If necessary, revisit the ideal meeting experiences from the design process and use those as a driver for future meetings. When team members know meetings are a safe space to share ideas and opinions, the meeting dynamic is forever changed. Great meetings happen when great meetings are expected.

Meetings are one of the most important aspects of any business. So why not bring the same thoughtful approaches to your meetings that you do to developing products and writing strategy.

We welcome you to share your thoughts and experiences on how you’ve used a design thinking mentality to improve your meetings.


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