Plan a Better Meeting with Design Thinking

5 March, 2018 / Articles
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“Sometimes, when I sit in meetings, especially ones in which people don’t seem engaged, I calculate the cost in staff time. I’ve estimated that one standard weekly meeting in my bureau — 50 people sitting in a cookie-cutter conference room, looking both bored and anxious — costs around $177,000 annually, and surely this scenario occurs throughout the [organization] hundreds of times a day. It drains us, and it breeds cynicism. So many meetings are lost opportunities.”

Do these sentiments — expressed by an applicant to the course on meeting facilitation we teach at Georgetown University — sound familiar to you? They should, according to these statistics on meetings:

  • Organizations hold more than 3 billion meetings each year.
  • Executives spend 40-50% of their working hours — or 23 hours per week — in meetings.
  • 90% of meeting attendees admit to daydreaming in them.
  • 73% acknowledge they do other work during meetings.
  • 25% of meetings are spent discussing irrelevant issues.
  • At the same time, the right kind of meetings can be key to advancing a team or organization’s agenda. So how do you ensure that the gatherings you host are productive, not destructive?

By applying design thinking, a concept popularized by IDEO founder David Kelly and Stanford’s d.school, which was first applied to the design of physical objects, then other products, such as technological tools, and now to more complex challenges across a wide variety of industries. The idea is to put the “user” at the center of the experience — an approach that works with meeting design, too.

Start by putting your own expertise and agenda aside and thinking about the people who will be affected by your meeting. Develop empathy for them by asking three sets of questions:

Who is going to be in the room and what are their needs?

Who won’t be in the room but will nevertheless be affected by the meeting and what are their needs?

In what broader culture and environment are you operating and what are some of the overarching challenges and opportunities?

Actively seek out individuals who will attend the meeting, or who will be affected by it, and speak with them — ideally in person. Even if you run regular meetings with the same group of people, these individual brief check-ins can help build trust, surfaces hidden issues and ensures that participants feel more invested.

Next, set a frame for the meeting. Once you’ve attentively listened and observed, you’ll want to suggest an overarching purpose for the meeting and articulate clear outcomes that will connect to achieving it. We recommend that you ask yourself: If this meeting is wildly successful, what will people feel, know, and do as a result? Include these desired outcomes in your agenda, so that participants know why they’re attending and can gauge with you whether or not the time has been productive. In our experience, people rarely spend enough doing these things. Meetings are often put on the calendar without a particular goal in mind — simply to hold the time — and, as a result, the cart often drives the horse; people meet simply because they feel they must. Even — perhaps especially — short meetings deserve a clear purpose and clearly articulated desired outcomes. This keeps people on task, and ensures that people feel that their time is well spent.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

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