Participation already starts at meetings

The barrier to do things in a fundamentally different way is very high for all of us. Depending on how much pain we endure in connection with the status quo or how big our dissatisfaction is, we manage to change something – or not. Psychologists recommend to start with the smallest low-impact changes, because this is the easiest way to overcome your inner resistance. No, I am not talking about healthier eating or the plan to exercise more – I am talking about the workplace...

Two weeks ago, I held a webinar with the title ‘Good meetings – Simple practices do great things’, together with my colleague Dr. Vanessa Giese. We introduced methods and practices for meetings of any kind, or we developed these together with the participants. One thing I figured out once again in the context of the webinar was that you can increase the degree of employee participation considerably through the deliberate use of specific moderation methods, and without having to set up a full-fledged change program. It’s enough to simply design meetings in a “not-so-usual” way. Well, this is certainly a bit of an understatement: you will have to hold meetings, or at least certain meetings, in a different way quite consistently and on a periodic basis to improve employee participation. I would like to give you two quick examples for such formats that enable each person to contribute his or her full expertise and ideas.

Let’s think about the weekly team meetings: they are long, the agenda remains unclear until the end of the meeting, it is always the same two or three people who do the talking, for most of those present it feels like it’s a waste of time. 
In these cases, Lean Coffees are the perfect format to rev up the momentum at your meetings. Lean Coffees are very easy to implement; all you need is a rigorous time keeper. The meeting begins without having an agenda. The topics to be discussed are noted on a flip chart at the beginning of the team meeting. Everyone is allowed to suggest topics for discussion, regardless of the role such person has in the team. Then, each participant gets three dot votes and spreads these votes across those topics which he or she is primarily interested in; this leads to a ranking of the topics based on the votes cast. And now, we have an agenda for the team meeting, an agenda that is transparent for all: the topics are prioritized in order of popularity, and the individual whose topic got the most votes starts. The person will be given a timebox of 8 minutes which he or she can use for his/her topic. He/she can hold a presentation, can raise a question for consideration, can introduce a topic for discussion, or can ask the participants to do a work assignment. After 8 minutes have expired, a vote is held on whether the person will be given an additional 2 minutes timebox. After one or two extensions, the person with the second-most popular topic is next and may present his/her topic under the same rules. Depending on the length of the meeting, the group chooses 2 to 8 topics for discussion. The topics that were not discussed due to time constraints must be brought up again by the relevant person in the next meeting, assuming, of course, that they are still relevant at that time.
This is a fully democratic process: only those topics are discussed that are interesting for the majority, and it ensures that a person does not drift into endless monologues. If a team holds such meetings on a periodic and reliable basis, the number of topics being collected for each new meeting will become less. This means that almost all topics will be dealt with eventually. This enables any team to turn meetings that have been a drag for most participants into time that is spent together and that caters for the needs of the group.

Another situation I am thinking of is the following: a division consisting of more than 10 employees is responsible for customer support, and the customers are currently not as satisfied as they were in the past. The division is badly in need of some improvements. There have been longish rounds of discussion, but the team has not been able to work out a strategy to find opportunities for improvement. 
In this context, I suggest to use the 1-2-4-all method, which is part of the Liberating Structures approach: the same question (e.g. how can we redesign our customer support to improve our customers’ satisfaction?) is asked first to each of the participants individually, then to pairs, then to groups of 4, and then to the whole group. This means that 

  • each participant is given 3 minutes to think about the topic on his/her own and to take notes, 
  • then, pairs come together to think about the topic for 5 minutes
  • then, two pairs establish a group of 4 which is allowed 7 minutes to exchange ideas, to find preferred solutions and to document the findings by means of graphical representation
  • finally, the whole group gathers together for 10 minutes to have a look at the preferred solutions of the groups of 4

This also requires a rigorous time management. The defined time slots may seem tight, and of course you can choose a bit longer slots from the outset, but the tight schedule has a very deliberate function: it's about letting everyone from the group have their say, focus and decide on some favored solutions – the tight time schedule helps exactly with that! In addition, this method mainly has the following effects:

  1. each of the employees participates and is being heard (especially in larger groups)
  2. you will automatically find solutions with majority backing, because usually, the many individual views will converge as the discussion progresses.

Apart from the effects mentioned above, this method also comes along with a lot of fun and momentum, and it’s definitely worth a try, especially if larger groups of 10 to 50 participants are involved. In the case of very large groups, feel free to add one or two additional discussion rounds before convening the entire group, i.e. you may establish groups of 8 and then groups of 16 people.

Of course, the presented formats are suitable for both on-site and online meetings. Alright then, there are no excuses for not trying out this method!

This text first appeared in my newsletter 'Innovation on Wednesday'. It is published every other Wednesday. For subscription click here

Further reading and watching:

Andrea SchmittInnovationstrainerinAm Mittelpfad 24aD 65520 Bad Camberg+49 64 34-905 997+49 175 5196446
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