Meetings have been the topic around many water cooler conversations at the workplace. Personally, I’m guilty of part-taking in countless conversations to complain about how wasteful, boring, and unproductive most meetings are. Going remote has amplified any issues there were. Before being fully remote, people complained about long, boring meetings without any real action to be considered engaging and productive; with remote work, it became so well-known it got a label of its own. ”Zoom fatigue”.

The technology, however, is not the problem. It merely allows us to see the situation more clearly. And when you are willing to admit to a problem, the solution is usually relatively easy.

This post highlights five keys to making meetings more engaging and more productive as a result. Let’s jump right in to find out how to transform tedious and lengthy into engaging and productive.

1. Start With Shared Vision And Values

One of the foundations of a solid and productive team is a shared vision and clearly defined values. Engagement is the natural by-product when your meetings have a clear goal. When everyone shares the same vision and values, they are more invested in the outcome.

Conflict – one of the primary reasons people dislike meetings – is easy to resolve when there is a shared vision. Decisions are based on what’s best to help us move closer to a shared goal rather than a competition with the most dominant opinion winning.

The vision focuses on what you want to achieve. The values determine the how.

What are you willing to compromise and not to reach your mutual goal?

2. Design Outcome-Focused Meetings

One of the most impactful and earliest lessons I learned in my career was the short form sentence “garbage in, garbage out”. This phrase summarizes the biggest issue with most software systems, namely that the data in the system is incomprehensible and meaningless.

Data only becomes meaningful information when it helps you make better decisions. When you don’t carefully think about what you want to do with the data you collect, it tends to become garbage. Anything more than what you need is clutter that confuses and slows down decision making. Anything less inhibits you from making good decisions and not having critical information. Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the desired outcome of a meeting.   This results in ineffective meetings without clear outcomes or actions.

Start all your meetings by spending at least 5 minutes thinking about the specific outcome you want to achieve with this meeting. What do you want to walk away with at the end of the hour? Are all the key decision-makers in the room? Can I make this as engaging and productive as possible?

I love to use this downloadable 5P planning template to prepare a plan for each meeting. Each section on the canvas allows you to think about the most critical aspects of the meeting, starting with the purpose and the people. A high-level process helps guide the agenda with the product space to think about the intended outcome. The possible next steps section closes out the meeting to ensure continuity and action.

3. Communicate Visually In Metaphors

Words don’t teach. We all come from different backgrounds and cultures and have different interpretations of the same word. Using only words as a tool for communication often results in misunderstandings and confusion. Using any acronyms amplifies this problem.

An excellent solution to communicate ideas is to use metaphors and visuals. Rather than only talking, attempt to draw an apt metaphor as meeting outline and agenda. The use of visuals amplifies understanding as it adds a visual and spatial dimension to the words. This makes it easier to understand and align teams on any given topic.

You don’t have to be an artist to facilitate visual meetings, and there are many ready-made templates available in either digital or downloadable format. Or you can create your own. The key is to use a metaphor as a tool to communicate and get input on a complex issue.

For example, one of the most used metaphors is Speedboat. The image of the boat symbolizes the team or organization sailing the rough seas to reach their island destination. Using this metaphor allows you to understand people’s perception of what empowers them, metaphorically represented by the wind in their sails and what inhibits them—metaphorically represented by anchors holding them down – from reaching their goal.

Metaphors tap into the unconscious mind allowing you to communicate truths that might otherwise not be safe to share. Talking about a speedboat as a metaphor for the team is not a criticism of anyone but an objective perception. It turns a judgmental “I didn’t achieve my goal because …” to a more accurate “We can’t reach the island because an anchor is holding us down.”

If psychological safety is an issue in your team, consider using a metaphor in your next meeting to keep them engaging and productive.

4. Give Everyone A Job

Engagement is easier than you might think. All you need is to give everyone something to do. The goal is to limit time being a passive observer and maximize being an active participant.

This can be done in many ways, with some of the most used techniques including asking everyone to silently add sticky notes with their ideas, vote on items, and allocate specific roles to specific people. Although seemingly small, all of these can make your meetings engaging and productive.

For example, rather than one person being the head of the meeting and doing most of the talking, occasionally asking for input from one of the participants at a time, maximize active participation by asking everyone to simultaneously write down their ideas onto sticky notes on a digital whiteboard. Participants will feel a sense of ownership if they are responsible for putting thoughts onto paper for everyone else to see. It will also mean they might be less critical of others’ ideas.

Another alternative is to allocate a specific role and rotate these roles periodically (either in the same session as in mobbing or from meeting to meeting). For example, one person might be the decision-maker, while another is the scribe. For a set predetermined time, these roles are in force. When time is up, the roles rotate to the next person in line until all topics in the meeting have been discussed. This way, everyone gets an equal opportunity to make decisions and give input without one person dominating a conversation.

5. End With Action

The most challenging part of any meeting is the start and the end. Facilitating strong endings in a forum is a topic I’ve been personally struggling with for years. How do you prevent people from walking away, forgetting what was discussed within 5 minutes? How do you get meaningful action resulting from a meeting to drive a project forward?

Having spent tens and possibly hundreds of meetings looking for experiences with a strong ending, I’ve come to the conclusion that you need at least two things.

First, a concise summary of what happened during the session, including a reminder of the initial goal. Second, an inclusive retrospective focused on something small and tangible that you can commit to positively affecting future meetings.

Practically, here are three tools that can help you enable more action due to your meetings.

Agile Retrospectives

Agile retrospectives can be a controversial topic, but if it is used right, it is an invaluable tool. The agile retrospective is a dedicated time slot to allow a team to think about what empowered them to succeed in a project. Second, what inhibited them and caused frustration or slowdowns during the iteration.

Many retrospectives become a safe space to complain rather than the intended opportunity for improvement. Be careful to get the positive (what worked) ratio to negative (what didn’t work so well) right with at least a 3:1 ratio to avoid stepping into the complaint-space trap.

Looking back at the meeting and allowing people to honestly give feedback on how the conference can be more efficient will enable people to own the session and the facilitator to make reality-based decisions rather than guessing why people aren’t engaged. Most people will gladly tell you what they would prefer if only they were given a space to voice their frustrations. The agile retrospective is intended to be in this space.

How Might We…?

A design thinking alternative to the agile retrospective and one of my favourite tools is the “How might we…?” framed question. What makes this question so powerful is the curiosity, the possibility and the open-ended question, which invites input and action. More specifically, here’s a list of the reasons it works so well in the creative design process:

  • It’s not a statement but a question. Questions inevitably lead people to walk away thinking about whether they consciously choose to or not. It starts a thinking process that could lead to action and change. A statement is an end—a conclusion. No action is needed.
  • How implies possibility, turning significant obstacles into hidden treasures waiting to be discovered.
  • It might invite options and makes failure an option. It is not a commitment that you will be judged on, but an experiment that could work or not.
  • We mean, it’s not about what one person wants, but a more impactful collaboration.
  • Finally, the body of the question is the thought-provoking catalyst for change. It could be framed as a problem to be solved or a time to think about what you can do to integrate the meeting into your daily life.

For example, “How might we improve our service?” is an open invitation to solve a problem. At the same time, “How might we use the information we looked at to improve our service?” is more specifically aimed at taking the content of the meeting and inviting action linked to it.

“I Commit To” Statements

Finally, something I use in most meetings is the “I commit to <action> by <deadline>” format statement. At the end of each session, I pick one thing (and one thing only) that I am willing to do with an open heart. I publicly commit to this in front of the whole team, and if there is written minutes, I make sure it is included.

By saying my commitment out loud, a few things happen. I hold myself more accountable to take action than thinking it without saying it. I create an opportunity to demonstrate the value of integrity. Each time I say what I do and then do what I say, I deposit trust and respect in my account.

I also create a positive snowball of momentum, knowing that each action moves towards the goal, however small it might seem. It matters more that there is movement than waiting to take a right or perfect step.

Finally, I invite the other participants to commit to something they feel they can contribute without external pressure. By demonstrating the power of small actions from commitments, I create momentum and sustainable change.

You can use one or more of the options in this list, and for maximum effect, combine all three while you sit back and enjoy the waves of positive change and the effect your engaging and productive meetings have.



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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.