The Magic of Meetings in Reinventing Organizations

By Katherine Woods and Kenda Gaynham

 How mindful are organisations of the potential of meetings? How many organisations pay explicit attention to leveraging the power of how people meet? How aware are leaders of organisations of the (usually inexplicit) operating systems they create through the way they run meetings? Before we explore this in more detail, let’s take a look at what we have found….

The hypothesis: what happens in meetings is a reflection of the unconscious operating system in an organisation and we can use meetings to evolve the operating system.

For many years we have held a belief that systemic issues in organisations show up in meetings and meetings have power to drive profound impact and change.

Katherine Woods, founder and CEO of Meeting Magic, has worked as a meeting facilitator for over 20 years, 16 of them as an external consultant. Through this work, Katherine and the team at Meeting Magic have had the privilege of working with groups around the world, in all kinds of organisations, at all levels.

We have learnt from our work that meetings can do great things. When the people-power within a meeting is harnessed, groups can do great work: solve the unsolvable, develop new insights, take meaningful action, and when people work together effectively, not only are the results fantastic but people leave the meeting feeling engaged and motivated by their work. When this is a consistent experience it leads to greater overall commitment and engagement in the organisation and improved business performance.

We also know that the reverse is true.

Problems in meetings are symptomatic of deeper systemic issues within the organisation. Whilst the symptoms can superficially look the same in different organisations, or parts of the organisation, the root causes can be very different. For example, two organisations might both clarim the have problems with their meetings wasting time. The cause in one organisation might be lack of clarity of purpose and strategy, whilst in the other organisation the root cause is leadership decision-making.

It is our experience that meeting culture mirrors organisational culture. This correlation between meeting culture and organisational culture can be leveraged two ways:

  1. The unconscious operating system in a meeting can provide powerful insights into how people work together across the organisation. These can serve as a catalyst for enhancing and building on things that are working, and addressing things that are not.
  2. By paying attention to meetings we can develop a change that in turn drives profound change in an organisation. This means that leveraging meetings is a practical and effective way to implement organisational change, which can otherwise seem like a big ocean to boil.

The evidence: gathered from the field, formally and informally

This year, our ongoing experience and observations of meetings at a systemic level have lead us to work with experts in organisational psychology and academic research, to establish a means of diving deeper into what happens in meetings. We look at both dimensions of an emotional connection and a sense of belonging at the organisational level — effective commitment — as well as looking at engagement at the meeting level — meeting engagement.

The results show that the key outcome variables and the drivers of these variables, the things we can achieve when meetings are run effectively, are:

Effective commitment to the organisation, with the drivers being:

  • positive atmosphere
  • willingness to confront conflict

Meeting engagement, with the driver being:

  • clarity of strategy, values and goals

Trust between participants, with the drivers being:

  • generative meeting process
  • respect and tolerance
  • clarity of strategy, values and goals

Action focus, with the drivers being:

  • open and egalitarian meeting environment
  • meeting discipline
  • clarity of strategy, values and goals

Implementation, with the drivers being:

  • generative meeting process
  • virtual capability
  • meeting planning, setting and relevant information

What we have seen

In a meeting for 300 sales staff in a large software company, the intended purpose of the meeting was to enable the sales staff to move towards engaging and consulting with their clients about business issues, in order to deliver robust solutions rather than selling ‘off the shelf’ boxes of software.

And yet, what actually played out in the meeting was that the business leadership ended up ‘selling’ boxes of software to the sales force, thereby modelling the existing behaviour and undermining the explicit messages in the meeting purpose. The fundamental culture of the sales organisation was so pervasive that, even when the leadership was trying to break free and do something different, the culture prevented this. This is a real example of the saying, ‘culture eats strategy’.

What the research shows

Consultancy Aricle Image - Time Spent - 18-6-15 - KG

Conclusions: insights that the evidence offers

It is well established that organisations with engaged staff and organisational commitment outperform those without. So, these research insights combine to make the link directly between a productive meeting culture, emotional connection to the business and business performance, in a unique way.

Many of these findings, in hindsight, may not be a surprise but that’s what makes the research results especially compelling–they make sense. They support what our experience of meetings has, up to now, suggested. Whether we experience meetings as a meeting leader, a participant or a facilitator, there is congruence in what is considered important for them to be effective.

These findings do highlight some particularly useful insights. And, they provide us with a way of identifying the things to tackle in changing the way we meet that will make a substantial difference:

  1. The importance of effectively managing group dynamics or conflict – not glossing over this or ignoring its potential to derail impact.
  2. The power of purpose – the need for clear and compelling purpose and alignment to that purpose in meetings.
  3. The need for (virtual) capability for people to collaborate outside face-to-face meetings.

We are suggesting that the power of meetings can be utilised far more consciously than they currently are, to harness the power of the meeting.

The potential: how to use your meetings to reinvent

To get more from your meetings, we offer a couple of routes in.

Improve how people work together…

Meeting Magic can get under the skin of what goes on in your organisation’s meetings. We can work with you to develop insights that help you discover where meetings are succeeding and failing to get the best from people.

Once meetings are properly understood, action can be taken to leverage them and to build on what’s working and drive changes in the effectiveness of group working.

For examples, aligning meeting outcomes with business strategy; managing participation in meetings in a way that’s aligned to business values; managing decision-making to get commitment and drive for action; and, bringing collaboration, co-creation and connection into meetings to create an environment that gets the best from everyone involved.

Where there is a dissonance between intended purpose of a meeting and the way in which the group process plays out, there is little or no business impact after the meeting.

Meetings as a vehicle to drive profound change…

Alternatively, if there is a shift that you are looking to make in your organisation, Meeting Magic can work with you to design this into a way of working in meetings that will drive the desired change.

We have worked with clients who have chosen pivotal meetings in their organisations to drive change. The great thing about this approach is that people see and experience first-hand the difference in meeting behaviours and resulting actions, which has much more power than talking about it.

For example, if you are looking to become teal we can work with you to embed these values in the way everyday meetings are run, which will mean people experience the values in their everyday work, leading to stronger alignment, commitment to the organisation and stronger emotional drive to agreed actions.

We’ve been doing this for years; we can help

If you would like to explore collaboration and conversation and how your organisation fits with them give us a call at +44 (0)1628 471 114 or complete the contact form telling us a little about your meetings or specific events you need help with. We will get back to you quickly to being the conversation that can impact your meetings and help with your power of meeting.

Learn more about Frederic Laloux’s book called Reinventing Organizations.