April Newsletter Article: A Meeting of Minds

A Meeting of Minds
by Shana Merlin

Recently my brother asked me for some advice. His company was planning a meeting on its marketing strategy, and they were looking to create a very interactive and dynamic environment for the meeting. I started emailing him a response and noticed how fired up I was and how many ideas I had about how to make a meeting more fun, productive, engaging and lively. Halfway through the email I realized I was also halfway through this newsletter article.

A lot of people spend a lot of their time at work in meetings. And a lot of these meetings are structured the same way. Some people sit around a table. (Hopefully) there’s an agenda of some sort that consists of announcements, updates, and items for discussion. Then announcements are made, updates are presented, items for discussion are discussed and (again hopefully) decisions are made. Meanwhile, much doodling, playing with cell phones, and spacing out gets done. Often times, this is perfectly adequate for an everyday meeting.

But not all meetings share the same purpose. My brother and his company were wise enough to realize that the regular kind of meeting would not work on this occasion. Their meeting had a creative purpose and they were hoping to come out of it with some new ideas. Meetings with different purposes should have different structures. So here is some of the advice I sent my brother, and maybe I can help you, too.

1) Do some sort of icebreaker where people are on their feet and/or interacting in a different way than usual. My go to is a Group Order game, where the group has to silently get themselves in order based on specific criteria, such as birth date (not year) or birth location. The game serves as a nice warm up activity and you also have people sitting in a new seat at the meeting which can shake things up and make for new connections and interactions. For a more detailed description of this exercise check out The Improv Encyclopedia

2) When brainstorming or discussing, have people first work on paper, in small groups or in pairs to come up with some ideas, then share with the larger group. Often it allows for a safer creative environment. And people who are normally quiet in meetings, either because they are shy or just enjoy more time to think, suddenly have lots of ideas to contribute to the meeting. Whatever you do, don’t have every activity or discussion with the entire group. Break things up when you can.

3) Use my handy dandy brainstorming rules and share them with the group.

– Everyone can input ideas
– Have someone recording the ideas, preferably where everyone can see them
– Do not discuss ideas
– Do not criticize, praise, or judge
– Be spontaneous, no hand-raising, just call out
– Repetitions are okay
– Quantity counts
– Build on each other’s ideas, “hitchhiking” or “piggybacking” is encouraged
– Enjoy the silences, often the best ideas come out of them
– It is okay to be outrageous, impractical, even silly

I feel the most important idea in this list is the separation of creativity from judgment or decision making. Get all the ideas out first, then evaluate.

4) Use time limits and structure on creative tasks. For example, “You have 1 minute to write down 10 words that you want people to think when they think of your organization.”

5) For corporate identity activities, it’s useful and fun to look at metaphors. For example, if your company were an animal, what kind of animal would it be? What car, clothes store, color, cookie, country, city, Muppet, drink at Starbucks, music, etc. would it be?

6) Use movement and have people vote with their feet. A great exercise for that is a Values Clarification exercise. You give a statement, either prepared before the meeting or something that has arisen from discussion. For example at my brother’s meeting they might use the statement, “The public has an accurate perception of our company.” People in the meeting then have to decide whether they agree or disagree with that statement. Those who agree move to one side of the room and those who disagree move to the other side of the room. Then the groups on either side of the room huddle up with other people who feel the same way. They get a chance to talk about why they chose to stand where they are. After a few minutes of discussion, they appoint someone to be a spokesperson and share their conclusions with the other group. Then everyone gets a chance to change their mind and switch places in the room if they are swayed by a spokesperson. You can repeat this several times with more and less controversial statements.

Okay, that’s a lot of ideas. And I know it’s hard to implement an exercise after just reading it without experiencing it yourself first. But by just trying a few things–making an effort to break things up, even if it’s just having a quick stretching break or having everyone find a new seat in the room when things get bogged down–you might see a big difference in attitudes. If these ideas sound great, but you’re not sure how to implement them yourself, you can get Merlin-Works to come to your next meeting and facilitate these exercises.

If we spend all our time at work in meetings, why not put some effort towards making those meetings as good as possible?

About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.

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