When the president of a technology services firm convened her executive team virtually to review the company’s strategic agenda, she started by allowing a few minutes for casual conversation and explained the purpose of the meeting. It seemed to work well—people were laughing, chatting, and asking questions. Then she moved to the main discussion with a (very) brief introduction: “OK, let’s get to work. You all have seen next year’s plan. I need everyone bought in and ready to make it happen. Any thoughts?”
Awkwardness ensued. As she scanned her team’s faces on the screen, they avoided looking at their cameras and stayed quiet for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, one woman unmuted and shared the same idea she had brought up at several previous meetings. The rest of the group sat politely and listened, but the energy level had crashed. Even while telling me the story, the leader couldn’t imagine what had gone wrong. Only a moment prior, everyone had seemed “on.” Somewhere between her successful warm-up and her ill-fated attempt at digging in, she’d failed to engage.
In my previous article, I discussed Dick Axelrod’s finding that the first five minutes of a meeting set the tone. But after their introduction, leaders too often move to the core of their agenda by simply announcing the topic and opening it up to the floor—and are met with silence, random thoughts, or a rehashing of prior conversations. These leaders understand the value of listening, dialogue, and active participation. But they may not realize that even the most cohesive teams and confident senior executives are more successful when they have a clear invitation for how to contribute, and when the goal they are working toward feels specific and tangible.
Imagine yourself doing improv, walking onstage to start a scene without any props. It seems daunting, right? You might find your mind going blank. Then imagine your partner saying she sees a hammer on the floor. Now you have somewhere to begin, and the ideas start flowing. Similarly, to help meeting participants engage productively, leaders should actively design the “middle” of their meetings. This design does not need to be elaborate in order to give people the spark they need. Here are four ways to lightly structure the conversation.
Choose a “prompt” to focus the discussion. The single biggest missed opportunity I’ve observed in meetings is the failure to craft a clear prompt. Usually framed as a question, a strong prompt is specific enough that people can respond without too much effort, and broad enough to invite diverse views and new thinking. For example, imagine if the technology services leader above had asked, “How ready does each of you feel to deliver on your part of our plan? And what do you need to be confident you can deliver?” Team members would have had a clearer understanding of what she was looking for but also would have felt free to raise questions and concerns.
Even the most cohesive teams and confident executives are more successful when they have a clear invitation for how to contribute, and when the goal they are working toward feels tangible.
If your goal is to generate ideas, try prompts that stretch people’s thinking, such as, “What would we design if we could start from a clean slate?” If your goal is to make a change, try prompts that require judgment, for example, “Which of these options would you rank highest, and why?” When you are engaging with senior executives, use your prompt to let them know specifically what input or decision you are looking for.
Your prompt can also be an activity, such as, “Let’s list the barriers to delivering on our goal.” Then, as you listen to the group’s thinking, you can offer new prompts that move the group forward. For example, a potential follow-up question might be, “Which of these barriers are within our control? How can we reduce or eliminate them?”
Determine how you’ll spark the group’s creativity. Even with a great prompt, a blank whiteboard can stop your group cold or send them racing off in the wrong direction. It’s a neuroscience phenomenon: people tend to lose sight of key contextual information—such as how customers think or feel, relevant data, or what promises have already been made—if it feels too abstract. Instead, borrow a technique from instructional design and focus on what tangible “stimulus” participants need to get focused. If being called to the stage to do an improv performance is your prompt, the hammer is your stimulus; it is an artifact (in this case, imaginary) that brings to mind a specific context and inspires you to move the performance forward.
The ideal stimulus meets three criteria: it gets people oriented or reoriented to the task and relevant context; it adds something new to their thinking; and, if possible, it sparks some emotion. The more vivid and concrete, the better. For example, you might provide a messy first draft or a sketch for them to react to, or tell the story of a recent incident that relates to the project goal. One of my colleagues likes to start work sessions with a live phone interview with a customer, employee, or stakeholder. I sometimes share print or digital copies of a relevant report and allow a few minutes for people to peruse and make notes before we dive into discussion. In my opening example, the leader could have posted a copy of next year’s plan and asked people to review and flag the parts they felt most confident about as well as where they saw the most risk.
Pick a format that will energize your participants. Think about what configuration of large group, small group, or individual work to use for each step in your meeting. Generally, large group discussions are important for alignment, synthesis, consensus, and commitments for action. Small group work unleashes higher energy, allows for more discussion in less time, and provides the psychological safety needed for divergent thinking. And working individually creates space for preparation, self-reflection, and action planning.
Because each format tends to be more comfortable for different personal styles, it is often helpful to incorporate all three into a meeting. I like to start with individual or small group work, then move to large group discussion, and end with individual or small group action-planning and reflection. You also need to be ready to pivot to a different format if needed. For example, if I sense a problem, I will often assign a small group activity while I pause to assess what is going on and how to adapt.
Establish the tangible output you want to take away from your meeting. Depending on your goal, the ideal output will involve a combination of individual takeaways, such as new action items, insights, skills, or relationships, and shared work products, including ideas, problem diagnoses, decisions, plans, priorities, or group commitments.
As you design the work of your meeting, think about those ideal outputs, then create or borrow templates to help the group capture them. If your goal involves brainstorming, try using a flip chart or whiteboard where participants can cluster ideas into an affinity map to identify patterns. For problem-solving, you might use a cause-and-effect diagram or list “the five whys” to encourage people to get to the root cause.
As simple as it seems, showing exactly what the team will create, in concrete form, will help everyone engage at the right level of detail. And, with a template already prepared, you may be able to share the output at the end of the meeting without any additional work. For example, the technology services leader above could have simply created a shared worksheet with each team member’s name and a column for what they needed to be able to deliver for their part of the annual plan, which could have then been distributed after the meeting.
As you experiment with ways to structure the “work” of your meetings, you will discover that there is an enormous array of resources and approaches to meeting design—both virtual and face-to-face. For longer sessions, you will want to craft prompts, inputs, outputs, and formats for each segment and ensure they each build toward the overall goal. There is no need to be heavy-handed. Instead, give people the tools and guidance they need to bring their best ideas to the table.