Dance like no one’s watching: How to spark creativity in a virtual meeting

alice-dietrich-painted hands (1)In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic swept in, we have become accustomed to WFH (working from home). But can we break our deeply rooted face-to-face mindset, and BFH (brainstorm from home), as well? I’m here to tell you, yes!, if you do a little prep work.

At home, you are surrounded by multiple distractions, such as dashing to throw in a load of laundry or seizing the moment on a sunny afternoon to take the dog for a walk.

I get it. People’s time is precious. Some days, you can get away with logging into your Zoom meeting a second before it begins. But that lack of preparation doesn’t work if the goal of the gathering is to do some serious brainstorming and hash out fresh, creative solutions to a problem or new initiative.

When I’m leading a brainstorming session, my first goal is to shift everyone’s mindset from a very focused: ‘I’ve got six things I need to get done before Friday,’ to a more diffuse mode of thinking on the topic at hand.

Break out of the ordinary

When you convene an online meeting, recognize participants have been in another headspace. They might, for example, be still agitated by meeting they’ve just come from or the coffee they just spilled. My goal is to help them let go and create a space for ideas to come in.

I’m no magician, but I have a few tricks that help ‘get them in the mood’. For example, I’ll ask everyone to pick up something from their desk – a pencil, paperweight, or a day-old muffin. Then I ask them: ‘What are three things you can do with this item?’ I’m having fun with the new zoom filters too.  These are simple and fun way to get them to start thinking more creatively.

The goal is to give everyone time to leave their previous mindset and relax into the meeting. Once you’ve got everyone’s attention, you can get to work.

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Powerful online collaboration tools

Mural – Remote meetings big and small are not likely going away any time soon. Check out my last blog on hosting a large virtual meeting here.  In the past few months, I’ve been using Mural. It’s my new favourite go-to collaboration and co-creation tool.

To level the playing field, I let participants know what online tools I’ll be using (and often run and advance practice session), so they can get comfortable with it beforehand. I really like using Mural because it’s so intuitive and is a helpful visual way to tackle a problem. Even my semi-tech savvy Aunt would get it.

This user-friendly web application is like a digital whiteboard. Everything is stored in the Cloud, so it allows people to reference it whenever they need to. It’s great for following up and keeping everyone working towards next steps. Other tools that I’ve used include Google Jamboard and Miro.

In brainstorming, I use it to post questions and get the group into free-form association. They can respond with words, images and icons. This is one of the fun features of the online tools. You can post the questions or statements in advance of the meeting, too, and have them do some advance work, or simply have more time to think.

Lotus Blossom TechniqueIf your team is working through a problem, this structured, visual technique is invaluable for idea sessions. You will end up with 64 ideas! Here’s how it works: A central problem is posed on the middle box, surrounded by eight boxes where themes or pieces of the problem are written. From there, the individual themes are carried onto the other “blossoms” and so on. It helps everyone to amplify on a central idea or issue and really dig down on a problem.

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SCAMPER Method – In his book ThinkerToys, Michael Michalko says that when you look at the behaviours of creative geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, you will find that creators look at ‘what is’ and ‘what can be’.  They don’t spend time on ‘what is not’.

The SCAMPER method encourages ‘what is’ and ‘what can be’ thinking and has been around since the ’70s, but it still stands up as a brilliant method for problem solving and innovating. Ray Kroc of McDonalds fame used this method to help create one of the world’s largest food retailers.

SCAMPER is an acronym for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to Another Use, Eliminate and Reverse. A central challenge is posed, and the team examines the problem using these different perspectives.  The group can focus on some or all of the SCAMPER elements. It can be used for everything from how to cut costs to improving customer service to creating a new product.

Michalko developed a SCAMPER card deck called ThinkPak and I’ll often Then we reconvene and see what everyone’s come up with. In an online meeting, you can post images (take a picture) of the cards on a virtual wall in Mural.

Creativity decks are readily available.  I found 75 Tools for Creative Thinking on Amazon. Sneakerfish is another deck that I’ve used and like.

The point is to offer cues to the group to spur creativity.

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GestaltRemember your Psychology 101 classes? Even if you don’t you’ve likely heard of this idea – an organized whole that is seen as more than the sum of its parts – that’s been kicking around since the early 20th century.

Gestalting is a process whereby ideas are visually posted to a wall and then clustered into patterns based on association. These emergent clusters often point to new patterns, generate new insight, or suggest new ‘wholes’ that can be the source of innovation. It overcomes the limitations of a typically linear approach to thinking.

You’ve seen this technique on every Investigative TV show (Carrie Matheson on Homeland is an absolute pro!) where the lead investigator has a wall of pictures, documents, lines and connections through which the investigation is solved as new insight becomes evident. Once again, a tool like Mural is an enabler for the online meeting.

Pro tip:  When doing a gestalt, allow ideas to associate and avoid the reductionist approach of ‘sorting’ and ‘buckets’. Sorting minimizes the opportunity for innovation.

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Game playing – Have you ever noticed that some of your best ideas or problem-solving comes at moments when you’re most relaxed, say in the shower or when you’re daydreaming. In these moments, our overworked brains begin processing subconsciously and we can arrive at an ‘a-ha moment’.

Playing a game or taking a break in the middle of your Zoom meeting takes us out of linear mode. It gives our brains a chance to work out a problem. It’s a great technique. Fellow facilitator Tamara Eberle at Traction Strategy has built her entire practice around game playing and fully gameifies her events.

A guided visualization is another great way to help people transition to a more creativity space. Tell everyone to close their eyes and relax and walk them through the idea of, say, eating a piece of chocolate cake. Get them to be in the moment – smell the aroma, feel the texture and the intense flavours and to think about how they are feeling.

And if you thought that idea was out there, try this one some time – a Zoom dance party. Have your song list at the ready (Happy by Pharrell or Super Freak by Rick James come to mind). Tell everyone ‘Screens off’ and go for it. By song’s end, and screens on, everyone will have that post-dance floor glow.

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Practice creativity. Here’s an interesting idea, creativity is a practice.  It’s not an automatic skill. It is possible to build creative muscle through practice. Have routine brainstorm sessions. Try different techniques. Try different times of day. Apply techniques often and without any kind of judgement.  Actively practice.

Common creativity killers

There are so many things that can quash creativity in a meeting:

  • When people come into a meeting and say, ‘I’m not creative.’ (And people often feel that way). Being creative isn’t wild, it’s just bouncing around ideas to see what else comes up.
  • Very early judgment of an idea. You have to suspend that judgment so people feel comfortable putting forward ideas. Remember, you’re not doing a reality check at the moment, you’re just in a generative mode.
  • Inflexible hierarchies easily inhibit the creative process. That person from another department in the organization with the potentially brilliant comment or idea may feel too intimidated to speak up.
  • When a group isn’t sure they can talk freely. Before brainstorming really takes off, the group needs to know they are free to talk. Room safety needs to be addressed.  For example, I had a client who brought a diverse group together who did not have a relationship with each other. They were not ready to get creative together. Not having this information made my job a lot tougher.
  • The need to come up with a creative idea doesn’t happen in 30 minutes. This will take longer. Make sure you leave plenty of time for the brainstorming process to take hold. As Albert Einstein famously said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
  • And finally, one thing we should all know by now – everyone’s camera MUST be on. A lack of a visual in the virtual world of meetings is a non-starter.

So, go on, get virtually creative. Have that dance party with your remote office mates and dance like nobody’s watching. The screen is off, after all. You’ll be amazed – not at silly you might feel – but at how the creative juices will start flowing.

20 secrets to mastering a large virtual meeting

large virtual meetings - mainVirtual meetings have become a fact of our work lives in the Covid-19 era. As a facilitator, I’m learning so many things about this fairly new-to-me medium and feel I’m really starting to get a handle on it.

Until now, the largest virtual meeting I’ve facilitated has been for around 18 people. Next week, I’m making a big leap, and will be hosting two meeting for about 68 people using Zoom. They are a group of stakeholders in a fledgling industry who are preparing to launch an industry network to share research, learnings and technology. Many of them are strangers to each other.

The purpose of the consultation-style meeting is to get input from the attendees on a draft proposed vision of the network. The organizers have already done a lot of aspirational thinking and had conversations about its goals and purpose. We want to present their ‘first draft thinking’ to the participants and give them opportunity to weigh in during the planned three-hour meetings .

I’m feeling confident that the meeting will go well , because during the past few months I’ve learned what makes a successful virtual meeting, especially one of this size:

  • Getting everyone engaged quickly
  • Inspiring great conversations
  • Optimizing the flow of the meeting
  • Keeping the meeting within the planned time frame
  • Ensuring everyone’s tech is working.

It sounds like a tall order for a virtual meeting room, but I’ve discovered a lot of tips and tricks that I’d like to share with you for when you’re feeling brave enough to host a big group meeting.

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What’s in my toolbox?

  • Ask for help! I’ve decided to up the production quality of the event and so I’ve determined that I will need two co-facilitators, one who is purely technical operating the broadcast components and assist with technical issues, and hybrid helper who will operate the zoom platform,. This is essential!
  • We’ll set up a contingency communication channel that is external to the meeting as well. This is necessary in case a participant is bounced out of a meeting room or is struggling with meeting access. It’s also helpful when participants need something in a breakout rooms because the chat is not persistent between main rooms and breakout rooms. This will be published to participants in advance and again during the meeting.  For help, text xxx xxx xxxx
  • Zoom will be our platform, which has the superpower of breakout chat rooms. It can manage up to 50 chat rooms, more than enough for our 68-person meeting. Everyone will be assigned to a break out room, allowing for smaller group conversations which we will ladder up from 2 to 4 to 8 over the course of the three-hour meeting.
  • We’ll also be using another Zoom superpower, which is the ability to pre-set a countdown timer for how long each of the breakout chats can last. (Find this under the option menu when setting up breakout rooms. Then people will be automatically re-assigned to another breakout room for further discussion with new faces. This was an important experiential objective of our meeting, that stakeholders would have an opportunity to meet peers and make connections.
  • Google slides are your friend. This is an easy-to-use data collection tool because everyone knows how to type on a document. And because I can’t eavesdrop on rooms (dropping into a breakout room is quite disruptive), using Google slides allows me to see the progress of all the groups in real time. We’ll use a Google form for participants to fill out if they’re willing to continue to stay involved with this network.
  • We will also make our client sponsors co-hosts. This will allow them to move between breakout rooms so they can participate in small room conversations according to their preferences.
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Art of virtual engagement

Because we are not face to face, here are some essentials for the meeting to be a success:

  • Cameras must be ON – you need to see faces.
  • Be clear about the purpose of the meeting and realistic about the tangible outcomes.
  • Get people engaging quickly – this is where breakout rooms are so powerful. I encourage people to use chat box, either one to one or one to many. These alternate channels really help, even if I can’t see them all. For example, I’ll be using the online platform, Mentimeter, which has a Iive polling tool. You simply go to the link in a browser, get a six-digit code and can ask participants a question, such as an icebreaker: “What do you like to be called?” which generates a word cloud and is quite fun. (Thanks to Martin Gilbraith for that tip!) This is a simple way to get instant engagement.
  • I will also create in meeting polls to ‘take the temperature’ of the group on the ideas presented.
  • Get a little personal. Because people are working in their homes or apartments, ask them to bring something personal to share with everyone – the kid, the cat or the dog. I’ve done this before, and it really personalizes and livens up the experience. Or, ask them to grab something close by that relates to what we’re talking about.
  • You will not know the technological capabilities of the attendees and though there will be a range, it’s wise to assume lower capability. You’ll no doubt get a few, “I clicked on this link, but it didn’t work!!” (Pro Tip:  Make sure you have a public link for your google docs!)
  • Strip out complexity. I’ve learned that in virtual meetings you need to take it down to the basics. I will replace a lot of ‘large room’ conversations with small-group conversations. This helps with maximum sharing capability.
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Other dos and don’ts

DO – Send meeting reminders with meeting links 1 – 2 hours before a meeting starts.

DO – Open the meeting early so you can test audio and video. We will be opening an hour early to catch any potential problems. It’s also a good idea for the facilitators to do a dry run.

DO – Be fastidious about timing, ensuring the meeting starts and ends on time. Have a timed agenda and be sure to build in transition time between activities and chats. And, be sure to send the meeting link out ahead of time.

DO – Be crisp and clear. Use verbal instructions and screen-sharing written instructions when you are asking people to do something, such as a task or assignment. Copy the instructions into the chat box so they persist into the breakout rooms.

DO – Ensure that you pattern the meeting to build safety and capacity for people to talk with each other. For example, I will say, I’m going to give you something to think about and then pair off people to talk about the topic.

DO – Be thoughtful about the conversations you’ll have in the larger room.

DO –  Be clear with your co-facilitators about exactly who is doing what. Who will share the file link? Who will admit participants? Who will monitor the chat box? Who will share screens? Etc.  It makes for a MUCH smoother meeting experience.

DON’T – Bite off more than you can chew, putting too much process into the stages of the meeting and trying to cram in too much information and expectations.

DON’T – Use new technology you haven’t tried out ahead of time. Nobody needs to experience that.

DON’T – Be in intransigent mode, lecturing for hours. People will just shut down.

DON’T – Forget to give people breaks.

And finally – be sure that you have thought about how you will follow up with participants and that your participants are clear about how they might follow up with you. We plan to send them the documents they generate in the workshop immediately following the workshop. The contact information that we will collect in the Google form is immediately delivered to the client.  We will also collect a bit of meeting feedback too!

Bottom line, conduct your meeting like the professional that you are and you’ll be rewarded with the satisfaction of nailing this new world of workplace meetings.

Virtual meetings and Coronavirus: We need tech know-how but also compassion

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Who would have thought just four short weeks ago, a majority of us would be hunkered down working from home? But in this once-in-100-year pandemic, this is our new normal.

So just how do we navigate this new work world and remain productive? It’s not ‘rocket science.’ We do have the technology, and everyone is learning to roll with it, from organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other world leaders who are conducting virtual meetings, locally, nationally and internationally.

If your company or organization has little experience with virtual meetings, it will take some keen organizers, a few tech-savvy folks and discipline to keep your workplaces ticking as close to normal as possible.

Most importantly, cut yourself a little slack if you’re new to this.

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Our new reality

I’ve been working from home for five years, so I feel comfortable with it. But now that I have to meet with my clients digitally rather than face to face, I’m experiencing some of the challenges we all face in the coming weeks.

Whereas I once had space to myself, I suddenly have more company in my home office with the kids out of school. I find myself asking my 16-year-old son to vacate our shared space (“ Mooommm!!!”) when I’m about to go into a Zoom meeting or a video conference call.

From a client’s perspective, this will certainly change how I work with them for the foreseeable future. What does that look like? We’ll meet online in shorter, more frequent, chunks and there will be more takeaway work for participants.

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“The more you adapt, the more interesting you are.” – Martha Stewart

We will all have to learn how to adapt and we will evolve as we do so. I’m finding myself doing that every day. This will force us to elevate our remote working game, that’s for sure.

On March 12, I began the first of a four-part series of discussions with a client. On that day, everyone was in the room. It was business as usual.  By March 17, 40% of the group was remote. By the third meeting a few days later, 75% of participants were remote. The final two meetings were larger groups and 100% remote participation.

What were some takeaways?

  1. Virtual meetings require more planning: In addition to typical process planning (establishing objectives, building supporting process), we also need to think about how technology supports and disables.  What tools do we use for co-creation? How will we create breakout groups work when people are both inside and outside of the room? How will groups capture their content?
  2. It takes (at least) 2: It is really important to have someone running the technology – addressing microphone issues, feedback challenges, video cameras, screen shares, poll launches, and breakout rooms.  The other person is managing process, conversation, the chat box and capturing notes. It’s overwhelming for one person to try to everything.
  3. Arrive early: Let participants know the room is open 15 minutes early so you have time to troubleshoot technical issues.  The most common phrase we hear in a virtual meeting is …“can you hear me?”
  4. Use a common platform: In the third meeting, I had voice participation, video participation, and in-room participation. Managing sound and creating breakout rooms is much more complex. I tweeted a comment “hybrid meetings are almost more difficult” and had a flood of responses from facilitators who said, “almost?? no ALWAYS”.
  5. Level the playing field: To balance participation, ask everyone to use the same mode of participation. Everyone is on a conference call, or everyone is on a video call, or everyone is in the room. In my last set of meetings I had a few folks gather in a meeting room to participate as a group. I sent them to their individual work spaces (totally not what I would normally do) to join the call individually to ensure the same experience for all.
  6. Leverage breakout rooms: Breakout rooms create intimate discussion spaces where participants have more opportunities to share. Decide how you will capture their input. If you are in a hybrid scenario, match people in the room with people outside of the room to balance participation.  In my second meeting (conference call participation), I had my in-room people fire up a Skype meeting with the remote people so they could conduct their break out session.
  7. Consider co-creation tools carefully: To the extent possible, use platforms that your group is familiar with. For example – if they are accustomed to working in Powerpoint, asking them to shift to Google Slides will create some discomfort and cost you time.  If you are using a platform for creating content that is new, build in time for the group to learn it.  It often takes longer than you expect.

I admit that I am finding it a bit exhausting, never mind my tech helper who had a tiny meltdown after our third meeting where we had so much complexity. But I’m determined to make this work.

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For those of whom working from home is relatively new, we are all on a huge learning curve, so how do we need to be?

For one, we all need to have compassion for one another. We all have different home setups. Some people may be working from a cluttered kitchen table with an older computer, while others have an aspirational, eye candy office and impeccable tech. (Jealous!) Pro tip: If you’re working with the popular Zoom online tool, the virtual background feature (Click on the up arrow beside the camera icon in lower left hand corner, select virtual background, choose your background) allows you to have a bucolic background like the Golden Gate Bridge. Thought you might appreciate that!

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Meanwhile, here are some tips for making your routine virtual meetings go smoothly.

  • Be patient with each other, we’re all in the same boat.
  • WiFi connections are often unreliable. If you can plug your computer into a router, in many cases you’ll get a more reliable connection.
  • If you’re trying new tools, don’t be afraid to experiment. There are an infinite number of tools online. (See the list below)
  • Ask experts at your workplace for help.
  • Try to be in a place that is distraction-free and let the people in your home know, so your husband doesn’t walk into the room in his underwear. (My family has learned to wave at me from behind the laptop to avoid being in my video meetings).
  • For better lighting, have windows in front of you rather than behind.
  • Buy a webcam if you can.
  • A good headset goes a long way and blocks out background noises.
  • If you’re using Zoom, like so many people are, it has a “touch up my appearance” function in its help centre, which incorporates a soft focus that evens out your skin tone. Yes, for real.
  • Use the mute button as your default to minimize background noise and for those moments when your dog decides to bark, or your kids are getting a bit loud.
  • Shut down email and other notifications to keep distractions to a minimum.
  • Have a Plan B for when technology goes sideways. You can always go back to the dependable conference call.
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Break the ice and acknowledge everyone

Just because you’re not all together in one room, doesn’t mean you can’t set a positive tone, encourage meaningful conversations and establish a sense of cohesiveness.

Because online meetings are asynchronous deliberate attention to connecting conversations is really helpful. Here are a few things you can do to achieve this:

  • Ask each participant their name and a simple question, like how the weather is where they are. I was recently in a video conference with 60 people from around the world, and this technique worked quite well because everyone in the group felt acknowledged.
  • Use a poll tool, like Zoom’s or Mentimeter , and ask a variety of questions of participants on the subject matter. It’s super easy to use. In fact, Zoom has a whole suite of cool functions. (See below)
  • Use a shared document for taking meeting minutes (e.g. Google Docs, Word now allows co-creation). That way, everyone can work on the same document to get better results.
  • Record the meeting if people can’t make it: Zoom also has a record meeting function.
  • Even if you’re a bit camera-phobic or haven’t showered yet today, it’s always helpful to see faces, so please put your video function on, (you can always use the “touch up my appearance” function!)
  • Do something fun, like ‘virtual lunch’ or ‘virtual coffee break’. Schedule a time when everyone gathers just to each lunch, share a coffee and talk about their day. No shop talk.
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Look at the bright side – no commuting!

Working from home is not terrible. Think of all the advantages – no commuting, staying in your pajama bottoms (though you may want to have a decent top for video meetings), and the ability to throw in a load of laundry in the middle of the day and take your dog for a walk.

There’s a simplicity and fluidity that can be beneficial to working from home, even if virtual meetings are on the agenda. There’s a new intimacy to the way we have to work now, and we may just have to be more deliberate in creating cohesiveness, documenting our work and communicating with intention.

Helpful resources

There are infinite online resources for virtual meetings. Here are a few I’ve found helpful

Officeless: This site represents a movement that started in Brasilia. They posted a particularly good guideline for working remotely in our current circumstances.

This CNET article has a long list of Zoom tips, tricks and hidden features.

Co-creation tools

Google slides / Google docs – really great for co-creation. Google was the first to create co-edit docs and they are an easy to use, easily accessible tool.  It’s always fun to correct someone else’s typos as they make them.

Liniot is a free, sticky and canvas service that requires nothing but a Web browser. This is a simple tool for a brainstorm / cluster process. A bit ‘old school’ looking – it covers off a basic brainstorm session.

Miro.com is an online collaborative whiteboarding platform.  Use it for brainstorming, clustering, mapping and diagramming.  I have not used it, but have heard some good reviews from others.

Mural.co has come to my attention.  It is also an online collaborative whiteboarding platform. It seems to support a larger canvas and offers many templates.

Hardware tools:

Jamboard is an interactive style of whiteboard that supports cloud-based collaboration.  From Google, it’s got lots to offer and requires some investment dollars.

What I’m reading

Collaborating with the Enemy, How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, Adam Kahane

Adam Kahane works on complex problems and has discovered that the conventional collaborative scenario where all are aligned to a common vision, harmonious relations and that clarity about who does what is not always possible. Collaboration, in these scenarios must embrace discord, experimentation and genuine co-creation to emerge in conflicted situations.  This book is about his experiences and the model he has evolved.

Meeting rooms: The good, the bad and the just plain ugly

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I need to get something off my chest. As a facilitator, one of my biggest pet peeves is walking into an inappropriate meeting room. It can sabotage the group before I even get down to starting the job I’ve been hired to do.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked into a room and uttered, “Oh, ?&*%!, how am I going to make this work?!”

Meeting rooms are a fact of working life, but we can’t seem to find a happy balance between aesthetics and functionality. Picture your meeting room for a minute. Is it the classic setup? Long, rectangular table, with chairs placed around? Maybe some art on the wall, an AV screen at one end, a sad, dusty plant in the corner, and a credenza for coffee/food at the other end? There may even be the smell of stale pizza and coffee lingering in the air.

Meeting rooms, no matter what’s up for discussion, have a huge impact on the experience of everyone in the room. When I ask for the ‘what worked well’ and ‘what would have improved the experience’ at the end of a meeting, this is what I end up hearing: The pluses are, everyone shared, there was respect in the room, we accomplished a lot, and we disagreed and found a way to agreement. The ‘improve’ are, there was no food or drink, (or beer) and yes, it could have been so much better if we had more (better) space.

But the space itself is never the No. 1 priority.

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Pretty does not = functional

I’ve walked into rooms that had the aura of power and prestige – and even plush chairs. Often those rooms don’t work because they are filled with a too large table, isolating people away from each other and ultimately inhibiting conversation and creativity. Then there are those rooms that, in the name of technology, sport 82-inch screens on every wall. There’s no usable wall space and it creates a disconnected atmosphere.

I’ve seen it all. In my memory is a long list of sometimes beautiful but unworkable rooms (fantastic artwork, exposed brick walls), or just plain ugly spaces (basement room, beat up linoleum and mediocre lighting) where I’ve had to lead groups for a day or more. Here are some examples of meeting places that sound good – until you get there and find they’re not. Here are some examples.

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Sounds good in theory…

  • Golf course: Sounds delightful. But my experiences have been sub-par, for an unexpected reason: too many windows. Yes, that view of the 18th hole was lovely, but it didn’t help that we didn’t have any wall space and anything on the windows was so backlit it couldn’t be read. People were backlit and couldn’t see each other’s faces too. And all that sunshine made the room a sweatbox.
  • Wine cellar: Sounds great, right? Wrong. Think about it, what are on the walls of a wine cellar? Wine bottles, leaving no space to hang charts and other material.
  • A library: Should be good!  But wasn’t. See wine cellar.
  • A tent: Sounds interesting, but it totally does not work.
  • An old school: Fascinating historic artwork on one wall, closely spaced windows on the other 2 walls with deep windowsills and heavy blinds. Again, no place for a work product. The wainscoting on the lower half of the walls became my useable space – not exactly easy on the neck for attendees.
  • Hotels: Are often guilty of jamming too many people into a room, maximizing room capacity, minimizing comfort. Between doors, credenzas, windows, retractable walls and artwork – they often lack usable wall space.
  • Wrong shape: L-shaped rooms are unworkable because some of the attendees can’t see each other, making it much harder to absorb what others are saying.
  • A lounge: deep, comfy lounge chairs seem like a great idea until people need to write things down and talk as a group.
  • Too small: A recent meeting I led had should have had a 25-person maximum, but they squeezed in 45. The tension in the air was already thick, and this only made everyone even more hot under the collar. It also created mini-silos of people, unable to move, completely unravelling the important discussions.
  • Too techy: Giant screens everywhere creates an isolating feel in a room (and eliminates wall space).
  • Whiteboard walls blocked by furniture: Love the whiteboard wall; makes me crazy when they are obstructed by credenzas, benches and tables.

Does it have the air of possibility?

So now that I’ve blown off steam about what doesn’t work, let me tell you about the things that make a room an inviting space. Don’t forget people may be spending entire days, sometimes wrestling with difficult or important topics. You want to create a mood that brings people up, not down.

Overall, a room should evoke an air of excitement and the sense that something different is about to happen. The room should welcome you enough to make you say, ‘I could spend a couple of days here. This is nice. It’s different than my daily life.’

Going offsite for meetings is an excellent idea, but you have to choose the space wisely. Not only because it can help people break some bad habits (yes, I’m talking to you, the person who always sits in the same spot at every meeting, but that’s a whole other conversation), but also because it invites the possibility of change.

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7 things that make a meeting space special

  • A room should be big enough to be comfortable, but not so enormous that it overwhelms attendees or creates an environment where it’s hard to have conversations. As a rule of thumb – if a hotel says the room max is 15 people on round tables, double the amount of space and you’ll have about the right amount of space of a full day or 2-day meeting.
  • Good lighting. Natural lighting is nice but good lighting, such as LED fixtures and/or flexible lighting makes my job easier. Appropriate lighting is important, so people don’t feel like they’ve been shuttered in a cellar. It’s also much easier on the eyes, helping people stay alert.
  • Flexible furniture. Tables and chairs that can move, to accommodate break-out groups.
  • Wall space. It should be plentiful enough for lots of paperwork. Remember that a workshop is about producing results together and that means they must be visible. Glass walls are also a great feature, because it allows for nice lighting, and you can often write on them.
  • Adjustable windows coverings. Though windows are nice to have, they can make it hard to take photos, make it hard for people to see and reduce wall space. Being able to adjust windows coverings is helpful.
  • Please be sure you have markers that work and accompanying erasers. And for heaven’s sake, get rid of the obstructive benches and tables.
  • Refreshment counter: This is in the category of nice-to-have, but making food and drink accessible is important, especially for day-long meetings.

If your meeting space has some or all of these things, I’m a happy facilitator. I can dream, can’t I?

Some of my favourite meeting spaces in Calgary:

  • Repsol: I’ve done quite a bit of work in these offices and hats off to their office designers! The rooms are great, with flexible furniture and rooms that can be reconfigured, AV space and natural lighting.
  • Millennium Tower, +15 conference rooms: While they lack the natural light, the rooms are incredibly functional with flexible furniture, whiteboard walls, unobstructed wall space and recessed counters for food and drink.
  • Downtown Public Library: The basement meeting space is decently designed for larger groups, including some rooms with glass walls.
  • Mount Royal University: MRU classrooms make great meeting rooms. Designed with both natural light, flexible furniture, lots of whiteboard and wall space. I can do great work here.
  • U of C Downtown Campus: (with reservations), I’ve worked in one room that had nothing but windows, pillars in the middle of the room and AV walls. On the other hand, I’ve attended workshops in rooms with flexible furniture, whiteboard space, and lots of wall space.

Drop me a note and let me know some of you favourite spaces to work in.

Update:  Since I wrote this, the folks at CPHR in Calgary invited me to their offices to see their training room space. It ticks all the boxes, natural light, lots of whiteboard space, flexible furniture, well lit, refreshment counter.  They are located in the Kahanoff  Centre and their space is for rent! 

The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt explores politics through the lens of human behaviour.  He identifies intuition and reasoning as key drivers of decision making. His research suggests that we make intuitive decisions and reason catches up. Our intuitive decision making is grounded in a set of moral codes. If you like political science (like I do) and find human behaviour endlessly fascinating (like I do), you’ll enjoy this book.

Ahem, we need to talk: How to prep for difficult conversations

upintheairmagnum -clooney

In the movie, Up in ­­­­­­the Air, Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) makes a living as a corporate axe man, doing the deed that local managers don’t want to do. He thrives off of the lack of connection to anyone or any place, jets from city to city as a “career transition counsellor” and seemingly heartless when fired employees cry, get angry or even threaten to harm themselves.

As a manager, you don’t want to be in the role of Ryan Bingham – ever.

Many of us as managers and leaders have had to do the uncomfortable work of giving negative feedback, rejecting an idea – or, in the worse cases, dismissal.

Difficult conversations are a reality in the workplace and it’s a skill you can hone. You might even find the tactics you learn useful elsewhere in your life, as a parent guiding social media-entranced teenagers or dealing with a cranky neighbour.

My philosophy is that it doesn’t have to be painful for you or the person you’re talking to, if you follow some simple advice and use the tips I’ve learned from years of experience as a professional facilitator.

armour

Shed your protective armour

Getting mentally prepared is the first step. The last thing you want is to be tossing and turning all night in the days leading up to the conversation, ruminating on what you’re going to say. (Although, you may still anyway.) But take the time to get your head into a place and be clear about what is important to you and what you would like to accomplish. Put yourself in the position of the employee. Think about what may be going on with them, what are their perspectives, values and intentions?

This involves casting off your defensive emotional armour that helps us justify our actions. If you go in like an armadillo, it is not a constructive starting position.

Your job as a leader is to be compassionate and generous and walk into that meeting with an open mind and a real sense of curiosity. You may think you have all the answers, but you don’t. What does it mean to go in curious? It means you will have to challenge your assumptions and biases – something all of us have.  Your job is to be non-judgmental and impartial.

Like the author Stephen R. Covey said, “We judge ourselves by our intentions – and others by their actions.”

Put aside your assumptions and judgments

Writing down your observations but not characterizing them is a good first step for preparing yourself to be judgment-free. A statement like this, “I noticed you were on your phone a lot in the meeting yesterday and left the room twice,” is preferable to “You were disengaged at the meeting yesterday…” In the second scenario you are issuing a judgement (disengaged) of what you observed vs. sharing objective facts (you were on your phone, you left the room twice).

no-judging

If you can remove the blame-game language, it will go a long way towards diffusing emotions and ‘judge-iness.’ The goal is to give the person a sense of safety by laying out why you’re having the conversation and what you hope to achieve from it.

When I’m in facilitator mode with a room full of people, you might hear “ I am hearing more conversations, I notice that you are no longer writing.” I am sharing what I see and hear, but not my internal assessment of those behaviours and so the room remains judgment free.

Pay attention to the safety of the conversation.  As a facilitator, I am very aware of ‘room safety.’ By that, I don’t mean physical space, but rather the degree to which participants feel that what they say is received with compassion and consideration.  Your job is not to admonish and criticize and, if it is, don’t bother. Your goal is to allow the person to have influence over the conversation, by saying, “I really want to understand your perspective.”

Don’t fear emotions 

There are myriad of hard conversations you might find yourself in, including the performance review, or having to give negative or uncomfortable feedback. Yes, any of these tete-a-tetes can go sideways. But that’s usually because the situation has been allowed to go on for too long without being addressed. The employee probably already feels alienated, unheard, frustrated or apathetic.

In these cases, you really have to spend time unpacking emotional responses, which frankly terrifies most people in the workplace.

But learning how to ask the right questions, without judgment, is the place to start. How you ask the questions are key:  What about this frustrates you? or What makes you angry? And then let the response come to the surface.

emojis

Be prepared to sit in the goo

When they don’t feel heard they can become angry or disengaged. Oddly, the person who talks all the time often feels unheard. Acknowledge the emotion by repeating back to them what you’ve heard them say. They need to know that you are hearing what they are upset about. They need to know you understand their pain, frustration and anger, by giving them their words back to them. This is when people become their real selves, and allows them to release their emotions.

If issues have been left unattended for awhile – be prepared to sit in the goo for awhile. Avoid justifying a circumstance – just listen. Then you can shift to the question: What do you need, what would help this?

Phew, that wasn’t hard at all.

Then you can get unstuck and move on to the possibilities for resolution.

You don’t have to have all the answers

It’s at this point that leaders make the common mistake of having the ready solution. Stop yourself right there. Rather, you should be asking the person, what does success look like for you or what do you want to happen next? This gives them the opportunity to process and interpret their own needs – not having you hand them the answers in a giftbox with a bow on top.

But, keep in mind once you have the solutions, your job still isn’t over.

listening - deer

Listening = kindness and civility

Wrap up the conversation with an agreement on follow-up steps. Again, this is about you asking decisional questions : What steps can you take, what support do you need and when should we meet next? This makes the person part of the solution, restoring agency to them to design the right solution. Let them figure it out.

Don’t be a Ryan Bingham, armoured up. When we take a more open tack, we can be pleasantly surprised how things can turn out. Just listening to someone is a tremendous act of civility and kindness.

I really like that leading role.

Five strategies for having difficult conversations

  • Approach the conversation with curiosity.
  • Abandon your list of why you are right.
  • Ask open and curious questions. (If you can add, “you idiot at the end of your comment,” it’s neither open nor curious.
  • Assume you don’t know everything.
  • Pay attention to the safety of the conversation. Create the conditions for safety with your behaviours (e.g. active listening) and the physical environment. Thinking about where you have the meeting, sends a message of safety.
  • Ask the person involved for suggestions on how we resolve the circumstance and situation. This gives the person agency to help come to a solution.
  • Be prepared to check in following the conversation.

Have you got a difficult conversation with a group that you need to have? Contact me here.

Resources and reading

Here’s a link to a recent interview on this topic.

Mastering Civility – Susan Porath.

I am loving this book! Susan Porath outlines what incivility is costing leaders and organizations and what to do about it.  Along with being a super interesting read, it offers suggestions for a healthier, happier, more productive workplace, better relationships and results. It’s fun to take the ‘how civil are you’ self assessment!

Give and Take – Adam Grant

This is an interesting listen (I love audible)

It has been assumed that the individual drivers of success and passion, hard work, talent, and luck are unquestionable. In our modern context, success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others. It turns out that at work, most people operate as either takers, matchers, or givers. Takers strive to get as much as possible from others and matchers aim to trade evenly. Givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return. While this might sound debilitating – it is fascinating to discover how givers are so successful, and what it means to be a giver. If nothing else – you’ll think about pro-bono work, volunteer time and lending ‘your stuff’ differently.

Nonviolent Communication – Marshall Rosenberg

I recommend this book often and refer to it frequently. The nonviolent communication model, at its core, is the model I use as a facilitator.  It is simple and incredibly effective in tense and difficult situations. Absolutely worth the time.