Meetings Are Design Products

How many meetings are you in where the same few dominant personalities do most of the talking? Or that tout the importance of “inclusiveness” while still being punishingly brutal for introverts? Or where you’re not sure why you’re there, the agenda is only sporadically brought up, and the meeting unerringly runs over its scheduled time? And how does this make you FEEL? Such meetings tend make the people who run them look bad, the people who do all the talking sound silly, and often make everyone else feel like they have more important things to do.

Just because a meeting doesn’t seem valuable, however, does not mean it should be canceled. As J. Elise Keith notes in her book, Where the Action Is, when a meeting feels like a waste of time, people are then less likely to put in the work to make it valuable in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle she calls the “meeting doom loop”. Meetings as structures are the product of design decisions—and most are very poorly designed. Many meetings, furthermore, are essentially brainstorming sessions, and therefore suffer all their well-known pitfalls.

Take “production blocking”. When five people brainstorm, at any given time four are prevented from contributing while the fifth speaks. The result is fewer ideas. Instead of placing the focus here, however, those who dominate discussions tend to focus on what they perceive to be “social loafing”, complaining that others “aren’t contributing”. (And they typically don’t see the irony in this.) This dynamic ignores that to elicit good contribution the entire meeting needs to be designed around it. If you fail to do this, then most of the group’s collective wisdom will remain a hidden profile (more on this later).

Take the typical meeting, represented in the image below as the little diamond with the pink circles. If scheduled for an hour it will run the full time, even if there is only 15 minutes of content. As it drags on, few fresh ideas will be introduced and discussed. The focus will remain on the top of mind. After rehashing customary positions, the group will settle for the first obvious solution, based on the current, non-optimized frame. This is the checkmark below, often referred to as “premature convergence”. The group will then not explore other, likely more value-add alternatives, depicted as the question marks.

Moving beyond this requires better meeting design and facilitation. Just as a decision aid can account for and counteract prevalent biases, thereby improving decision quality, so too can structured activities remedy the typical downsides of group dynamics. Simply by changing up a meeting a bit, having some better facilitation, and using a superior process, the same group of people will often generate many times more alternatives, compare them more efficiently, and arrive at a superior decision. Small changes can have massive results.

One example is Nominal Group Technique, or NGT. As described in Tague’s The Quality Toolbox, a process like NGT is beneficial when: Some group members are more vocal than others; some might think better in silence (without production blocking); and/or discussion is heated. The technique begins with a prompt or problem statement. Then, for some agreed period (say five minutes) the participants write—individually and without discussion—as many ideas as they can think of in response to the prompt.

This is sometimes called “brainwriting” or “freelisting” or, as in Straker’s excellent Rapid Problem Solving with Post-it Notes, “Post-Up”. NGT follows this with round robins where participants take turns sharing ideas out loud. These can be from the freelisting itself or new ideas just thought of. The round robins continue either for a set amount of time or until all participants pass. The group then discusses each idea, often followed by a prioritization exercise (such as multivoting or list reduction).

Another alternative is the KJ Method. Like NGT, this also starts with a prompt or problem statement and is followed by freelisting. Here, whether done in the meeting or assigned as prework, all freelisted ideas need to be captured, one per sticky note (either physical or virtual). Freelisting is then followed by affinitizing the individual responses, clustering similar concepts together. This surfaces larger themes as the emerging clusters are discussed and labeled. The resulting groupings are then also often prioritized, same as in NGT.

The basic idea is visualized below, adapted from Kaner et al.’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (a variation of their “Diamond of Participatory Decision Making”). The idea is that the freelisting captures everything that would have been discussed in the typical meeting anyway, sets it aside, and requires the group to move beyond it. The insight here is that the group needs to park its “first best guesses” and keep going.

Whereas the norm might be to sit around and discuss several ideas, here, if five people individually contribute six responses each, that’s already a collective input of 30 new ideas. The affinitizing then helps the group explore the interrelationships between these ideas, synthesize them, and ideate on the larger concepts that might be at play. The prioritization activity facilitates convergence.

As J. Elise Keith discusses, one of the main functions of any meeting is to build shared understanding. Whether a formal decision-making meeting or not, the building of any perspective involves narratizing, which entails the selection and connection of various assumptions (as well as the exclusion of others). Whether done consciously or not, these are decisions. Such decisions can be greatly aided by the process described here.

The image above maps these activities to the process of collective decision making. They can also be mapped to meetings in general. The image below shows the “Meeting Canoe”, developed by the Axelrod Group and discussed in the book You Don’t Have to Do It Alone. The areas of “diverge, synthesize, converge” can here be mapped to “discover, elicit, decide”. Added are areas upfront for building rapport, focus, and engagement and an area at the end to review decisions made, highlight next steps, and to review the meeting.  

Unsurprisingly, groups make decisions based on shared information. There is often, however, unshared information, a “hidden profile”, that would improve the group’s decision if shared and treated with sufficient weight. (This concept is discussed in more depth here.) NGT or the KJ Method can here be used to capture, and in a way everyone can see, the group’s shared information and/or assumptions about the decision at hand. To help surface hidden profiles, another round can then be done to elicit what is missing from this picture that still might impact the decision.

Without the use of any such facilitated techniques, most discussions remain overly anchored to pre-discussion preferences. New information will tend to be discussed less and ultimately discounted, thereby robbing it of the impact it should have on pre-discussion opinion.

There are of course other popular techniques that can help here, such as in Dave Gray’s Gamestorming, activities from the Thiagi Group, Liberating Structures, or Snowden’s Ritual Dissent. Use what works. Some of these ideas are similar to older concepts from the literature you may have heard of (such as lateral thinking techniques, dialectical inquiry, counterfactual priming, or devil’s advocacy techniques). Instead of being dogmatic about it, it is better to experiment and pick and choose based on what works best in your context and team dynamic.

Activities like the ones discussed here can eliminate waste by generating better decisions in far less time. For instance, the three activities in the KJ Method (freelisting, affinitizing, and prioritizing) can together be completed in less than 15 minutes (depending on the timeboxes set for each phase). I originally learned of these activities from writers like Christina Wodtke, Kate Rutter, Jeff Gothelf, and Josh Seiden, so I’d like to give them a shoutout.

For more ideas on facilitating, including how to apply such techniques to strategy planning, see here.

To close, if you let the usual suspects on their usual soapboxes, the meeting will run its usual time and generate its usual amount of value. You should at least consider that if you run what’s for you the typical meeting, then you will elicit the usual contributions from the usual people who talk in it. After all, the meeting design—whatever it is—is best suited to elicit the type of contribution that it in fact tends to elicit. If you don’t like your meetings, then realize, they’re a product of your own design decisions. Change it up.

2 thoughts on “Meetings Are Design Products

  1. I was pulling this quote from your post to use for something I’m sharing, and I think it maybe has an error?

    “New information will tend to be discussed less and ultimately discounted, thereby robbing it of the impact it should have on pre-discussion opinion.”

    That should be “post-discussion opinion”, right?


  2. Thanks for the comment. No, it’s correct as is. The point is that new information will be discounted, and so pre-discussion opinions will remain unchanged (when they should have been debunked).


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