Who among us hasn’t dreaded meetings at some point or another? At Sparkbox, we are always looking for ways to make our processes more efficient and effective, and meetings are no exception to that commitment. So, for our latest Maker Series, we brought information architect and design strategist Kevin Hoffman to Dayton to teach about smart, effective meetings.
Meeting Design + Applied Exercises + Lots of Shushing
Kevin’s teaching style brought in a fun and interesting blend of humor, approachability, and collaborative exercises. Almost immediately after learning information such as the value of active listening or common meeting roles and rhythms, we were split into groups practicing and applying new techniques with a variety of exercises and projects. This smooth weaving in-and-out of lecturing and collaborating kept the pace interesting and fresh while allowing new skills to sink in.
My favorite part of the day was Kevin sharing his own examples of successful planning meetings for large-scale web projects. He definitely had no shortage of creative methods to guide large groups of people (sometimes with conflicting priorities) toward smart decisions on web planning—even some that might feel silly but make for a more pleasant meeting experience (like using collective shushing to quiet group discussions without resorting to shouting “everybody be quiet!”). I’ve always found business management books generally useful, but seeing those techniques adapted and applied specifically to large-scale web projects was definitely a learning experience I won’t soon forget.
Beyond the teaching and exercises, the day was filled with meaningful group discussions with people from multiple companies and skill sets. If I had to narrow down the day’s lessons to just a few points, I would choose the following key takeaways.
Three Takeaways To Become A Meeting Jedi
Takeaway 1: Design Your Meeting
Like any good project, proper planning can make all the difference to enable successful outcomes. Successful meeting design often involves selecting the appropriate attendees, knowing their roles, identifying key decisions, and planning an appropriate agenda. One important mandate of the day was to even cancel a meeting if you cannot identify a decision that needs to be made out of the meeting. As a project manager who has done both on-the-fly type meetings and intentionally planned meetings, I can verify that planned meetings almost always go exceedingly better.
“Do not have a meeting unless you can identify a decision that needs to be made.” —Kevin Hoffman
Takeaway 2: Use Visual Aids to Direct, Not Distract
Did you know that us humans have a lot of trouble reading slides while listening to someone talk at the same time? The same goes with reading agenda handouts while discussion is happening. Instead, Hoffman suggests a wonderful technique called public recording that directs all the participants to the core messages being discussed. This practice usually involves the meeting recorder picking a central spot and drawing or writing key concepts and decisions to reiterate and clarify what is being said. Not only does it help bring focus and clarity to the discussion, it also taps into both visual and auditory cognitive engagement.
Another related visual tool that Hoffman recommends is creating one master visual agenda for the meeting. Visual agendas can help set the tone for a productive and engaging meeting while instantly visually communicating a meeting’s agenda and purpose.
Takeaway 3: Set Appropriate Meeting Patterns & Rhythms
One common complaint we heard participants ask during the session was how to handle meetings that seem to always end up with long, winding discussions that lead to nowhere. I learned that this universal problem can often be controlled with proper planning and structure. Kevin gave a useful lesson and tools for this based on the ideas of convergent vs. divergent thinking.
Divergent thinking is the part of a meeting where ideas can flow freely without criticism (often used in brainstorming discussions), and this is a highly useful tool for idea generation. The problem can occur when that divergent discussion isn’t eventually reigned in by the meeting facilitator into a convergent thinking discussion. Convergent thinking is where ideas are productively scrutinized and eliminated with the primary goal being to reach a decision. Allocating meeting time specifically for convergent discussion can be one effective tool to help remedy the initial complaint above.