#295 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 9          September 1997

Creative and Productive Meetings
by Ava S. Butler

Ms. Butler is a senior consultant with Gemini Consulting (London, UK), specializing in organizational development and meeting strategy.  She is author of Team Think: 72 Ways to Make Good, Quick, Smart Decisions in Any Meeting (McGraw Hill, New York, 1996). Phone 44-171-351-4413; email rvp@izuma.demon.co.uk.

Do your meetings provide a climate and structure that is consistently conducive to maximum creativity, innovation and productivity?  Iíll outline a few of the many processes your groups can use to improve the quality of  their meetings.  Youíll want to employ some of these techniques in all your meetings, some might be used in conjunction with other techniques, and some will only be applied in special situations. 

By taking control of your meetings, youíll immediately improve results, as well as contribute significantly to the success and evolution of your organization. Your meetings are that important; or at least they should be. 

First weíll consider the general meeting framework, and then how to stimulate those  creative results.

Agenda Basics

Agendas give meetings structure, and should always be created and agreed upon before the meeting begins.  Everyone who participates in the meeting should know its purpose beforehand and give input into the agendaís creation.  This participation is vital, ensuring that everyone owns, and is committed to, both the process and the expected results.  Once the meeting begins, this level of structure and preparation allows participants to focus on the content of their discussions, not the processes that will guide them.

Productive meetings need strong facilitation.  Today, this leadership can come from anywhere within, or even outside, your organization.  Itís not the facilitatorís job to prescribe the content or outcomes of the meetings they lead.  Facilitators, instead, implement the structure, processes and techniques required so that the meeting participants can effectively accomplish the goals of their agendas.

Agendas are essential to all meetings.  They require clearly defined goals, and they need to be thorough and realistic.

CLEARING

CLEARING is a technique that will stimulate the members of your group to clear their minds and focus on the meeting.   It provides a transition from what they just left behind to the meeting itself.  CLEARING significantly decreases the time it takes participants to settle themselves at the beginning of the meeting, providing earlier focus and greater effectiveness.

This technique asks participants to share what was on their minds as they entered the meeting room.  Once a person has voiced whatís on his or her mind, itís easier for them to put those thoughts aside.  You may have noticed this in your own life.  For example, after sharing your frustration about a current project with a colleague, you find that the frustration diminishes and you are better able to focus on your work.  Left unacknowledged, your frustration mounts, further impeding your effectiveness.    

CLEARING also allows participants to let the other members know, in a constructive way, if anything is getting in the way of one hundred percent participation.  The goal of CLEARING is not to solve problems or address the concerns that arise, but rather to allow people to simply state their issues.

GROUNDRULES

GROUNDRULES is a technique for establishing and maintaining acceptable standards of meeting behavior.  Using this technique will virtually eliminate behavior problems before they begin.   

A few examples of groundrules include:  Listen to, and honor, all opinions; one conversation at a time; focus on the task at hand; work toward honest consensus; fun is allowed; help us stay on track and on schedule; avoid detail overload; offer solutions, not complaints; avoid personal agendas; no lectures; no phone or pager interruptions.  Negotiate a list of groundrules and keep them posted. 

Be certain to discuss, and agree upon, all ground rules before the meeting begins.  It is also important for the group to determine what measures it should take if the groundrules are not followed.  Once the meeting begins, anyone, at any time, can remind the group that the groundrules arenít being respected.    

Groundrules support meeting productivity, creativity and participation, and help keep the meeting on track.

OK, now that you have defined the agenda, agreed on the rules, and gotten yourselves in the proper frame of mind, itís time to do some work.  Iíll introduce three creativity-enhancing techniques that Iíve observed to be especially effective. 

ART

ART helps meeting participants think and express themselves differently.  When people articulate their thoughts in atypical ways they tend to produce a wider spectrum of information.  And sometimes the most unlikely methods of expression produce the most revealing information.  This is because people are encouraged to use a part of their brain which taps and stimulates their perception differently.

ART is a four-step process:  1) Define the goal of the exercise; 2) ask the participants, individually, or in small groups, to draw or visually depict their ideas on paper; 3) have each person, or small group, present and explain their work; 4) ask participants to summarize what they learned from the exercise, and then use the information as planned.

Consider using ART when people need to visualize the future, a change, a decision, or when you want to clarify a point that is difficult to articulate.  This type of artistic expression will increase the effectiveness of your meetings by providing new insights, increasing creativity, energy, and fun.

NEW GLASSES

NEW GLASSES is a technique to help meeting participants look at the meeting agenda's topics through "new eyes."  This helps them leave their biases and old perspectives behind.  

NEW GLASSES involves literally putting on a pair of silly glasses when old-style or habitual thinking patterns are expressed.  The apparent absurdity of this technique allows people to step outside themselves and look at the world anew.

Itís simple.  Buy each participant a pair of silly glasses.  Hand them out as gifts at the appropriate time during the meeting.  Tell your participants that the glasses are specially designed to help them look at the world with ďnew eyes.Ē  Explain that if, at any time during the meeting, the participants feel they are falling into old ways of looking at the world, they should put on their glasses.  Or, if they think that any other person is falling into old habits and perspectives, they may ask that person to wear their own glasses.

Don't be afraid to try this technique.  Everyone will have fun with it; best of all, it works.

WRITING

Every organization is expected to provide creative solutions.  In order to find the most effective idea, one must first introduce as many ideas as possible. And that means brainstorming.  The first ideas generated through brainstorming are typically the most obvious.  The best ideas usually come after a rhythm has been established.  When brainstormers are fearful of scrutiny and judgment, ideas stop flowing before the best ideas come forward. Thatís why deferring the judgment improves the volume of participant input and, consequently, the value of the exercise.

Whether done verbally or in writing, the guidelines for brainstorming techniques are generally the same:  All ideas and information are acceptable; no criticism or analysis of ideas or information is permitted; build on the ideas of others; all ideas are charted.  

WRITING is a technique for gathering ideas and information quickly and efficiently, while increasing individual participation.  Many people prefer to think before they speak.  Others need time to formulate their ideas.  Allowing a short time for quiet contemplation, combined with asking participants to write their ideas down on paper, increases individual input and the number and variety of ideas. 

WRITING requires four steps:  Introduce the subject to be brainstormed with a specific open-ended question; review the groundrules for brainstorming; ask the participants to write down their ideas on sticky notes or cards; collect all of these ideas and use them as the basis for your discussion.

There are several process variations of this final step:  Review each idea one by one, or as a team; ask participants to read them individually before group discussion; explore the ideas in small groups, after clustering similar ideas and creating a heading for each cluster.

In order to maximize your creative and innovative potential, your meetings need to provide the structure and tools that best support your efforts.  Clear agendas, coupled with a number of specific facilitation techniques will immediately move your meetings in the right direction. Getting the most from your meetings, and the creative ideas that result, may be the edge that separates your organization from its competition. 

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