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Developing a method for meeting madness

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Renea Morris

Renea Morris

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Over the past year, as we worked remotely and navigated the “new normal” of our connections with one another, I felt a sense of loss and isolation for what was. The possibilities of a brainstorming session, the informal connections in the hallway, and the many meetings that served as a point of constant connection. Given the isolation of working remotely, our leadership team desired more opportunities for rich collaboration.

I spent some time analyzing our team meetings and exploring the purpose and frequency of our time together. According to Margret Wheatley, “In organizations, real power and energy is generated through relationships. The patterns of relationships and the capacities to form them are more important than the tasks, functions, roles, and positions.”

Realizing that there weren’t many opportunities for casual conversation and relationship-building, I developed a weekly “MarComm Morning” and monthly “MarComm Midday” to provide a regular cadence of informal gathering opportunities. These scheduled times are incredibly informal and are about everything and nothing – there is no agenda and no true meeting leader. It’s a great time for us to laugh, not feel subconscious about four-legged friends making cameo appearances on screen, and get to know one another on a more personal level. Recently we’ve started welcoming new staff at our weekly MarComm Morning time, which has encouraged more staff to participate. It’s important to me that in a busy work environment we are intentional about making space to establish connections, celebrate accomplishments, and show appreciation.

As we prepare to transition back to in-person collaboration, I recognize that now is a good time to re-evaluate all meetings and our intentionality behind them. A 2017 Harvard Business Review article, “Stop the Meeting Madness: How to free up time for meaningful work,” reinforces this concept. The three authors outline the cost of “dysfunctional meeting behaviors,” which they say can lead to lower levels of market share, innovation, and employment stability. Among their 5-step plan for the systemic change for realizing improvement is the recommendation to “regularly debrief as a group.” While exploring innovative debriefing methods is high on our priority list, we recognize that you have to go slow to move fast. Change is hard and we are all experiencing a plethora of it lately. Therefore, we will begin with a few of the new ideas already identified and grow from there.

At the core of each of our new ideas is the concept of having a renewed focus and energy around meeting design and facilitation. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Human Resources has published a guide outlining the basics. They define meeting design as “the deliberate act of planning and preparing for meetings ahead of time” and meeting facilitation as “the conscious act of guiding the meeting process so it stays on course, to make sure everyone participates, and to reach the agreed-upon meeting goals.”

Therefore, we are planning to incorporate more collaborative group practices across MarComm in our intentional meeting designs, beginning with the use of circles. Circles allow individuals to connect with one another more consciously, removing the literal and physical barriers to noticing body language, facial expressions, and other significant communication cues. Individuals in many cultures have gathered for respectful conversation in circles for thousands of years. According to The Circle Way—A Leader in Every Chair,What transforms a meeting into a circle is the willingness of people to shift from informal socializing or opinionated discussion into a receptive attitude of thoughtful speaking and deep listening.”

I just read a blog post from John Bailie, President of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, entitled, “Flip your meeting,” that identified several deliberate actions that make for a great meeting. Among them are to 1) encourage deeper thinking and sharing by asking great questions, 2) facilitate structured go-rounds, and 3) host many mini meetings rather than less frequent marathon sessions. Lastly he said, “meetings should have a beginning, middle, and ending.”

Our connections have the biggest impact on our ability to excel in our work. As we come back together and reunite in physical office spaces, it is vital that we think carefully and intentionally about how we meet. Together, we must pre-engineer the experience so that, in the moment, we are free to truly experience it. This will allow us to evolve together in our team culture and as a collective unit, supporting the work of our students and the university as a whole.