In the UK last year a survey of office workers found that 40% of meetings were a waste of time. Factors such as the wrong attendees, a lack of preparation and disengaged participants can result in poorly run meetings that feel tiring, lacking in purpose and long (even if they aren’t!).
Kick-off meetings, stakeholder check ins and design critiques are all integral to the design process. Fortunately designers have the tools, ways of thinking and expertise to run engaging meetings with solid outcomes.
Good facilitation makes a big difference.
The job of a designer isn’t just about hex codes and pixels. Designers’ skillsets include working with stakeholders, generating ideas, working within constraints and visualising solutions. These skills can be used to transform disengaged employees into engaged participants focused on an outcome. Meetings provide a fantastic opportunity for designers to develop professionally by applying skills they already have.
Facilitation is all about helping a group to discuss issues, maintain focus and arrive at outcomes. It is an important skill to have as a designer and one that should be practised often. So how can facilitation skills be used to improve meetings?
Think about who should attend before the meeting. The number of participants isn’t critical to success. Instead meeting facilitators should select attendees to create a mix of knowledge, opinion and decision making. Inviting opinionated attendees will require strong facilitation but can spark interesting conversations. Having those with decision making power present is important so decisions can be made in the room.
Once attendees are determined, prepare a meeting agenda that includes:
- Date and time for the meeting
- The goal of the meeting
- The items that need discussion or action and a timebox for each
- Any preparation that should be completed ahead of the meeting
The agenda should be distributed, along with any preparation material, at least a few days ahead of the meeting so attendees have a chance to prepare.
As well as running design meetings, designers may also identify opportunities to facilitate for colleagues. Identify these in advance of a meeting taking place and speak with the organiser beforehand to see if they want assistance. Explain the benefits facilitation can bring, such as:
- Freeing up the organiser up to fully concentrate on the meeting topic itself
- Using techniques to encourage participation from all participants
- Bringing a focus on outcomes
- Using games and exercises to lift energy levels
Group dynamics are an important consideration in meetings. People interact and participate in different ways. Some are outgoing and comfortable raising their opinions, others more reticent. Some people think visually, others prefer to write. To offer value, meetings should be inclusive and encourage input from all.
As a designer working with many stakeholders, encouraging participation is an important skill to hone. By using a mixture of activities and feedback mechanisms during the meeting everyone will have an opportunity to contribute. Here are some methods of encouraging participation:
Brainwriting is a form of idea generation. Each participant spends one or two minutes writing down an idea. Each idea is then passed to the left, read and added to. This is repeated to allow ideas to grow. After a set time each idea is posted on the wall for group discussion.
Participants are given five minutes to write down their thoughts around the topic of discussion. Each thought is recorded on a post-it note. Participants then put their post-it’s on the wall. As a group and in silence, the post-its are grouped into themes. Each participant then places a dot on their three highest priority themes. This approach allows everyone a chance to make a contribution. Discussion can then take place.
Instead of participants arguing or disagreeing with each other, encourage the use of “Yes, and…” responses. “Yes, and…” is an improv technique used to encourage listening and remove ego from conversations. Instead of saying “No” or “But that won’t work because…” participants are encouraged to start their response with “Yes, and…”. The positive framing helps foster an environment in which participants can feel safe sharing ideas without the fear of being ridiculed or told they are wrong.
Stay Focused on Outcomes
In a business environment individuals will often have their own agenda. Gathering a group of people with different focuses will cause tangents in discussion and conversation can move off topic quickly.
There are a few tactics I’ve used when running meetings and workshops to maintain focus:
- Set a clear meeting goal. At the start of the meeting ask the organiser to repeat the meeting’s purpose and expected outcome in a sentence.
- Use timeboxes. Parkinsons Law suggests that a meeting will expand to fill its allotted time. To keep minds focused and discussions brief set time limits for sections of the meeting. I like to use a Time Timer as a visual cue for this and there are other popular methods such as Pomodoro.
- Create a parking lot. Create a space for discussion points that are outside the scope of the meeting and capture them for later discussion. Make sure to recap these at the end of the meeting.
Keeping the meeting focused is the first step. Too many meetings end without a plan of action. Great conversation happens and then never extends beyond the room. Leave a little time at the end of the session to carry out tasks to end the meeting.
- Cover any points that were parked. For each item that ended up in the parking lot ask if it is still relevant. If yes, ask who is going to take ownership of it.
- Summarise meeting outcomes. Summarise in brief the key discussion points, decisions that have been made and the next steps.
- Be clear on actions. Make sure everyone leaves knowing clearly what tasks they have, ideally with completion dates.
- Ask for a rating. Show a willingness to learn how you can improve by asking for a meeting rating and short feedback.
Exercise Your Visual Skills
Using flip charts, brown paper, whiteboards and post-its to record the flow and key discussions happening in a meeting can help participants keep track and reflect as the meeting progresses.
As a facilitator you can listen carefully to the discussion and pick out key points, questions that arise and other interesting snippets of information. These can be recorded visibly for reflection and reference.
A “canvas” can often prove a useful way of framing and capturing the discussion. There are many of these designed for different purposes, for example:
- Business model canvas – to explore thinking around business models
- Empathy map – to explore thinking and empathy about customers
- Team canvas – to explore team goals and alignment
- SWOT – to explore strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
- And there are many more…
As well as written notes, visual stimuli can also be created. Often a simple sketch of a flow diagram, wireframe or persona can help model a conversation visually and bring a group to a shared understanding. Additionally any diagrams that are created can be photographed as artefacts of the meetings. These can then be shared with a wider group of stakeholders to help explain decisions or developed further in higher fidelity.
A situation I’ll always recall from a meeting is using the whiteboard to help a group of participants think a business issue through. At the end of the meeting one participant said to me:
“We’ve been sat in this room every month for the past nine months. That is the first time we’ve actually left with some tangible outcomes.”
Finally, bring some energy to meetings. Nobody enjoys being lectured, and talking can use up a lot of cognitive energy. Inject some fun into meetings by playing games. Interactive exercises will lead to improved thinking and better outcomes. Games can be used as icebreakers, to explore ideas, gather consensus and encourage free form thinking.
Earlier I introduced Brainwriting and Silent Ideation. Here are a few more of my favourite games to play in meetings.
Paper Aeroplanes (~5 mins)
A great icebreaker. Pair participants up and give them a sheet of plain paper. Everybody uses only their weaker hands to build a paper aeroplane in pairs. After three minutes each pair throws their aeroplane (still with their weaker hand!) and whichever flies furthest wins. It’s a great way to loosen people up, get them thinking creatively and have a bit of fun!
Design the Box (~30 mins)
Great for encouraging a group to think about the future. Divide the participants into groups and give each group a blank cereal box and some markers. Ask them to imagine success is packaged in this box. What is the title of the box, what is the tagline, what are the ingredients and warnings. Give each group 10 – 15 minutes to design their box and then 5 minutes to present back on their thinking.
Sailboat (~30 mins)
The sailboat is a great way of evaluating your current situation. Draw a sailboat on a whiteboard or flipchart and give participants different coloured post-it notes. Ask them to individually generate “anchors” on one colour post-it and “gusts of wind” on another. Anchors are known things which are holding you back, gusts of wind are things that are in your favour. Once everyone has generated a few get them stuck up on your drawing and discuss them as a group. You can take this even further by introducing other aspects. For example “icebergs” could be introduced as hidden dangers to reaching your destination.
Gamestorming.com and Innovation Games have some great additional suggestions.
Grow As a Designer
As well as improving meetings with these techniques, designers will develop professionally and aid their career growth. The more a skill is practiced the more effective it becomes. Finding opportunities to facilitate meetings will help designers practice listening, visual thinking, timekeeping and leadership.
Designers can also improve their stature through effective facilitation. An excellent reputation can be developed by showing the initiative to lead and create positive outcomes. These are valuable skill to an organisation and will be recognised by bosses and peers.
The next time there is an opportunity to improve a meeting think of these tips, step up to the challenge and offer assistance as a facilitator.