Published: Sep 25, 2013
“Remember: there are no BAD ideas. Now, who wants to share their idea first?”
That’s how the team member started the brainstorming session. And he was greeted by silence.
At that moment, everyone in the room realized how badly this would turn out. There would be no fresh new ideas to jump on. Only the replay of the power dynamic that has plagued their team get-togethers for more than a year.
We saw many meetings like this as we’ve researched what prevents teams from producing the best designs. The teams that struggled all wanted to have great collaboration, but when they came together as a group, they fell into their old, familiar patterns that prevented anything from moving forward. These team’s members told us they dreaded going to these meetings and came out feeling exhausted.
Yet other teams got past this. Their meetings were full of energy. They felt a positive vibe in the room, as new ideas emerged and everyone started to see how to make their designs even better. Everybody told us they loved when the team got together and they came out energized and excited.
Interestingly, teams that reported their meetings were energizing were also more likely to produce designs that delighted their users and customers. These meetings seemed important to the design process, but only if they were effective experiences.
As we were studying the different teams, we realized the outcomes in the more effective meetings didn’t happen by chance. They were quite intentional.
These teams had built up a toolbox of tricks and techniques that they regularly employed to get the most out of their meetings. The less effective teams tended to walk into the room and improvise how they were going to get their results. “How do we want to do this?” was a familiar starting refrain in many of these meetings.
We noticed the more effective teams spent more time preparing for the meeting than the less effective teams. In setting up the meeting, they’d discuss the approach they’d use and exactly what they wanted to get out.
It became obvious to us that the more effective teams saw their meetings as something that needed thoughtful design. Even quick problem-solving sessions had a rehearsed intentionality that was visible to everyone in the room. The process of collaboration was designed.
Out of our study, we found several habits these more effective teams displayed that were absent amongst the teams that struggled. Here’s some of what we saw:
Role power is a great way to wreck a meeting. People who are seen as more important hold more attention. With just a simple motion, they can quash the best of suggestions and suck all the positive energy out of the room.
In a meeting to discuss new features to make a team’s design easier to use, we watched a smart support person stay absolutely quiet, even though (we later learned) they had brilliant insights into what was making their product complicated. That support person told us that they were uncomfortable sharing with the product manager present, who was notorious for shooting down any perceived criticism of the existing design. (Even when the goal of the meeting is to work through criticisms of that design.)
Meetings like this quickly devolve into a list of directives from the HIPPO—the highest paid person’s opinions—ignoring the other perspectives that could bring solid contributions. The role power of the HIPPO dominates the meeting.
The more effective teams used structure and interaction techniques to obfuscate the role power people had. They filled their toolbox with simple exercises to naturally encourage everyone to contribute equally. They made it safe for ideas to emerge, but didn’t spend time discussing things that weren’t fully formed or useful.
What was notably missing from the more effective team’s repertoire was the traditional brainstorming technique. We’ve all participated in these sessions where someone stands in front of the room with a marker and writes down any idea that comes from the collected group, no matter how “good” it is. We saw a ton of these sessions amongst the less effective teams, but hardly ever witnessed one of the more effective teams use it.
A simple application of office supplies changes things. In several meetings, we heard the person running the meeting telling folks to write down their ideas independently. Then they went around the room, asking each person to share one idea they’d written down. By writing down ideas first, it had the effect of making each person’s idea feel equal, no matter what their role on the team was.
The most effective teams used more sophisticated methods, like the KJ technique or the many ideas in the brilliant book Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers. These techniques encourage people to work together independent of their role. They push exploration of the problem to the edges - where the interesting insights come from.
They may not know it, but when the person running the meeting announces there are no bad ideas, they are lying to the group. The truth is there are bad ideas and stupid ideas. Ideas that aren’t fully formed. Ideas that can’t be acted on for any number of obvious reasons. It’s important, though, to get these ideas out, because when people say them and think about them, often a good idea (and occasionally a great idea) follows.
We noticed that the more effective teams reacted to bad ideas quite differently than the teams which struggled. Much of that difference had to do with the meeting’s facilitation.
In the meetings with less effective teams, there would be discussion, editing, and judging of certain suggestions and ideas the team felt needed work. Someone would put an idea out and the person with the marker would try to rephrase it, often producing a lengthy debate. Or everyone would laugh at the idea, making it clear that it would never be valued.
Because the more effective teams often generated ideas simultaneously, such as writing them on sticky papers and putting them on the wall, those ideas that were not as important would get bundled with others. They could spawn a new thought (which would also be committed to a sticky and added to the wall), but they wouldn’t generate discussion.
All that discussion about things the team will never really consider takes time and creates a vibe of judgement that seems to make others feel uncomfortable. By eliminating those discussions, the team can focus its energy on the most exciting items.
Another big difference between the two types of teams was the clarity of both responsibility and authority. Amongst the less effective teams, it was harder to pinpoint who would make the final decision and take responsibility to executing the outcome.
In many cases, we saw these teams try to reach consensus, often without success. Once all avenues to consensus were exhausted, there seemed to be a sense of resignation in the room that nothing would happen.
Coming into meetings with the most effective teams, it was clear who was responsible for everything that would be discussed. (At Apple, for example, every item in a meeting’s agenda has a DRI—a Directly Responsible Individual—who will make the call on what will happen next for that item.) The people responsible would seek perspectives and opinions, but in the end, everyone knew whatever they decided was how things would proceed.
Knowing that there was a person who would reach a decision, even when that decision wasn’t what others might do in the same situation, seemed to keep things positive. Combined with an attitude of experimentation and learning, this kept morale really high.
To have more effective meetings, it seemed the teams had built up their own pattern library of techniques. They practiced them regularly, exploring what worked well and what still needed tweaking. They regularly held small retrospectives, asking questions like “What worked best about using this technique?” and “What could we improve next time?”
We saw the most effective teams as focused on learning how to be more effective as they were on the subject matter of the meeting. They relished the positive energy that came from a great meeting and wanted that to happen every time. They were all about constant improvement.
Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter @jmspool.
What methods do you use for successful and productive meetings? Share your thoughts with us on our blog.
Read related articles: