Ever had that broken record feeling to life’s conversations? Colleagues (often the same ones) tell me, ‘I’ve just wasted half my day in meetings.’ ‘I’ve been in back-to-back meetings.’ ‘Well, that meeting was a complete waste of time.’ If you work in a ‘leadership’ role in education, especially of the further variety, then I’m certain this scenario will be far from unfamiliar to you. The worst meeting can feel like an insult:

  • The minutes and documents that need to be read are sent a few mere hours before the start of the meeting
  • The set agenda meets none of the attendees’ needs or current challenges
  • A regular meeting’s agenda items circulate like a broken record
  • Less and less time is given to what really matters (generally teaching, learning and students)
  • Attendees are talked at from the moment they arrive until the moment they leave
  • Attendees are bombarded by a series of things they could have easily read in an email
  • Any ideas shared between attendees are discarded because a decision had already been made before the meeting began
  • Questions, feedback and critical voices are less than encouraged
  • Everyone leaves the meeting with a longer to do list than they entered with
  • There is little to no time given for everyone to benefit from the collective wealth of ideas/ practice/ experience in the room

For practitioners and support staff, meetings like this making almighty dents in their already busy schedules can feel like an even greater insult.

BUT the best kinds of meetings can be the exact opposite of this: they can be fun, engaging, creative, collaborative and productive.They can result in innovative solutions to challenging problems and changes we may never have believed possible. 

In writing this post, I’m certainly not trying to say that I’m an ‘expert’ meeting facilitator; I’d just like to think there’s another way of looking at meetings. I have attended and facilitated some dreadful meetings where everyone’s time was wasted but there have also been meetings that have generated excitement and ignited creative thinking. What follows is an account (updated May 2016) of my learning thus far. I hope that in sharing it, we might all be able to leave behind scenarios where ‘meetings are an event at which the minutes are kept and the hours are lost‘ (unknown).

Disclaimer: I obviously wouldn’t recommend making use of all these ideas at once and, as with anything, it’ll be important to consider your context before selecting an approach that might work best for you, your aims and your meeting attendees!

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Creative Solutions

What might you try?

All too often, a meeting consists of a series of presentations and information sharing, followed by some questions and comments. Wouldn’t it be great if instead, meetings were a hive of creative collaboration; bringing about high impact solutions for the organisation? It sounds rather idyllic but I believe such a world exists (in fact, I have a blog on the way about how I think my team have begun to achieve this already). What follows are a series of ideas and approaches that might give you the inspiration to transform your meetings, whether you’re a leader seeking to do things differently with your own team, a facilitator looking for new ideas for meetings of an assembled group of staff, or a frustrated attendee seeking change to the meetings they are required to attend.

Silent Meeting
Creativity needs some independence and silence as well as conversation and togetherness. This approach works best if you’re able to provde your team with one key question to answer (and other questions to get them there). Write down your question(s) on large sheets of paper on the floor/taped to the tables in the room (changing the environment in this way influences creativity too). In addition, you may wish to provide good practice examples or research to ignite thinking.
An example: How might we engage students in attending college more frequently?
  • What are the factors affecting students’ attendance (good or bad?)
  • What has been the impact of approaches we’ve already tried?
  • What else could we try?
  • What does the research/ do the good practice examples teach us?

There are no rules in answering these questions: there is an unlimited budget, unlimited time, a perfect world… 

  1. Allow staff to begin writing their ideas down on their own sheets of paper first. Benefit: This approach prevents staff from getting distracted by others’ ideas which would have lead to a limiting of the number of ideas collated in total. Instead, it allows everyone to have a reflective pause to consider their own practice and students.
  2. Staff now place/stick their ideas onto the larger sheets around the room. All staff can now begin to move around the ideas commenting/adding to/asking questions about one another’s ideas until you feel it has reached the point where the ideas have begun to dry up. Benefit: Rather than brainstorming collaboratively, this approach means that all participants have a voice. It also means staff are given sufficient time to think ideas through and challenge them appropriately, rather than running away with them immediately to later find it’s not the best solution to have chosen after all.
  3. Now staff are allowed to talk, clarify any further details they need to and you can begin to ascertain which ideas seemed the most interesting to people. Then the discussion about how to action those changes/solutions in the real world can take place. Benefit: The discussion will now be more fruitful, hopefully quicker and far more directed as the staff have all been given sufficient time to reflect.

 

Coffee, cake and an external venue

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An escape from the workplace can provide a space for staff to open up and share ideas- without the usual distractions vying for their time and attention. Whether you can manage it once a month, once a term or even once a year, you might discover that a change really is as good as a rest. If you’re reading this from The Sheffield College then the following venues can work well for small teams and 1-1s:

  • St Mary’s Conference centre has a small cafe that serves delicious homemade food (small teams and 1-1s, although bookable spaces also available for larger teams if you have the budget available).
  • Showroom Workstation serves great sandwiches and lovely cakes (small teams and 1-1s)
  • The Millenium Gallery has a cafe that is generally fairly quiet on weekdays during term-time.
  • I have managed to secure a small meeting at the Institute of Education before (Sheffield Hallam University) and this might be a viable option (take a picnic!)
  • There are plenty of other cafe spaces within walking distance from the City campus.

Please get in touch with me if you have other venues to recommend!

Walking meetings

Just as a change in venue for your meeting can have impact on creativity and morale, a walking meeting can often have a positive impact on meeting interactions. Walking around the building can be a good way to reconnect with your environment and the core business of teaching & learning but it can sometimes lead to more distractions than you’d wish for. Weather permitting, an outdoor walk is what I’d recommend as a rare breath of fresh air in your day can work wonders! These kinds of meetings work best as 1-1s or as small meetings, although with a creative use of questions before embarking and a booked room afterwards, there’s no reason why they couldn’t work to inject a creative moment for larger meeting groups too.

If you’re reading this from The Sheffield College then a loop around the college (City campus) from the back gate to the front takes approximately 15 minutes and there’s an additional segment you could add to double that time if you wished. If anyone else has routes (for any campus) they could recommend then please get in touch!

What If?

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What If? questions can be used to engage meeting attendees in thinking about purpose and solutions to the bigger questions. They clearly work well at the start of a project but they can also function well at pivotal points throughout a project/ the academic year to sense-check actions that are being taken. Here are some examples:

  • What if our team/ this system/ process/ policy didn’t exist anymore? What impact would it have? What could it be replaced with?
  • What if this system/ process/ policy/ approach worked perfectly? What would happen? What kinds of negative situations would no longer occur as a result?
  • What if all of our customers/ students were satisfied?What kinds of things would they say?

The answers to these questions could be considered in advance and brought to the meeting, you could use a silent meeting approach to produce the answers or just ask small groups to discuss. You can then turn the answers into a discussion of ‘What’s Next?’ What’s vital is that everyone leaves, either with a new approach to try (collectively or individually), or with the satisfaction that what they’re already doing is working.

Design Thinking

Imagine how much happier colleagues would be if they attended meetings that solved their problems rather than gave them greater ones? Design thinking is a ‘powerful tool to tackle the unknown’- it can be used for those big questions that you know there must be a solution for… you’re just unsure what it might be. The best thing about this tool is that it gives a structure to creativity that makes sense and it’s a structure that has lead to some incredibly successful innovations around the globe. The video above gives a great overview of this people-centred approach to problem solving. Click here to discover more about design thinking for educators.

If you’re a member of staff at The Sheffield College and you’re interested in discovering more then let me know- I can provide training too!

Unconference

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I recently attended an ‘unconference’ (read all about it here), which meant there was no published schedule of sessions, talks and workshops prior to arrival. This left me in the rather unnerving position of being unable to plan but once there, it became apparent that this approach to ‘planning’ could transform meetings where it feels as though few attendees’ needs are met.

In order to facilitate an ‘unmeeting’, ask attendees (possibly a selected few each meeting) to note down (probably on a sticky note), one thing they’d like to discuss with the other meeting attendees. These are then collated in one place (probably one of the walls). Where connections exist between sticky notes then they are grouped together to avoid repetition. Each of the item holders then sets up camp in different parts of the room and meeting attendees join ‘conversations’. This way, the item holder gets all of their questions answered and engages in productive solutions-focused discussions with colleagues, rather than the usual ‘presentation’ of an agenda item. Depending on the number of staff in attendance at the meting, it may mean that attendees can also decide which ‘conversations’ to join; meaning their own needs are met too: gone are the meetings where ALL attendees are required to be present for EVERY item of the meeting.

Team up

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It’s rare that teams or meeting groups have a chance to get together but to arrange these opportunities occasionally can be a good idea. Teams and colleagues that rarely get together may find just the people who hold the ideas, practice, experience, knowledge and solutions they’ve been looking for. This could be facilitated in any of the following ways:

  • Set aside an hour, a morning or an afternoon to bring teams together once a term.
  • If teams are not on the same site then make use of Google Hangout or Skype to bring staff together via video.
  • Challenge your meeting attendees to seek the views of 1/2 other staff members (from another team) prior to attending.
  • Some representatives from one team attend the meeting of another. In their next meeting, they return to their original team and share their learning.
  • Meeting facilitators may choose to plan meetings together and share ideas afterwards so that the sharing of great practice still takes place.

 

Triad coaching

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This was an approach I first saw used by Nikki Gilbey at the #ReadTL15 conference and I apologise if I’ve changed the ideas from her original intention (I walked in on her doing it and left soon afterwards)- I have used it several times this way though and I can attest that it works! It’s great for structuring problem solving discussions so that they lead to inspiration and positivity.

  1. Meeting attendees group into threes and number themselves 1-3
  2. Staff member 1 takes a seat facing the front of the room
  3. Staff members 2 and 3 sit behind them
  4. 1 shares their challenge (2 mins) 2 and 3 listen only
  5. 2 and 3 discuss possible solutions (4 mins) 1 listens only
  6. 1 turns their chair around and all 3 members of staff discuss their ideas (3 mins)
  7. 1 has a chance to note down their favourite ideas (1 min)

Timings can obviously be altered depending on the time you have available but each of the staff should have a chance to ‘share their challenge’.

Campfire Meetings- What will you ignite?

Campfires are providers of light and warmth as well as heat for a productive purpose. Isn’t a meeting that provides the same things be one you’d want to be present at?

The history of campfires suggests that they were a chance for communities to establish themselves and develop as connections blossomed. They often became end of the day storytelling sessions. Read more about their history here.

This kind of an end of the day de-brief can mean that an unhealthy email culture does not become the norm- instead, staff bond over a mug of tea and their wellbeing is prioritised- nobody leaves with a problem unsolved or at least unshared! The focus could be teaching & learning or a single aspect in particular with the aim of asking staff members to each share a story from their day with colleagues.

These 7 types of story (Christopher Booker) could be used to provide staff with a framework for sharing the day’s reflections:

  1. Overcoming the Monster Where a problem they’d been grappling with for some time had been overcome- perhaps even due to ideas obtained at a previous campfire meeting. 
  2. Rebirth Where they or a student has turned a new page or been given a new start. 
  3. Quest Where they’re in the process of solving a problem / overcoming a challenge.
  4. Journey and Return Where they’d begun to solve a challenge, experienced success and failure before returning to where they started.
  5. Rags to Riches Where they’d started with nothing / a bad day and ended with success- through this story they can reflect on how it happened.
  6. Tragedy Where things had likely gone from bad to worse- through this story they can reflect on how it happened.
  7. Comedy This story could be genuinely funny or one of those laugh or else you’ll cry kind of tales. 

There are a whole host of ideas here from David Rogers about how you can create a campfire culture: Click here to explore

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More of what matters

What might you find time for?

For many further education colleagues, it can feel like a battle to give teaching and learning the time it deserves in meetings. Students’ learning and the teaching approaches that have an impact can soon be sidelined by numerous sets of data, qualification administration, new systems to learn and other operational matters. It takes a strong commitment to ensure that aspects of teaching & learning don’t become buried under all of our other responsibilities. No matter what else you have on your plate, the following tips may help to put the students’ learning back on the agenda.

Thanks to Darren Watts and Steve Gregory from The Sheffield College, for inspiring these ideas.

Regular

Meetings should, of course, be regular (I’d suggest no more than 2 weeks apart) so that discussions remain current and actions don’t lose pace. Ensuring that you set aside time and space for ‘what matters the most’ to your teams at each of these meetings- or at least every 2 to 3 weeks is advisable. This way, it’s far less likely to fall from the radar when other priorities compete for your attention.

Guests

There are bound to be ‘expert’ colleagues who wouldn’t mind giving up some of their time to share practice with staff. This also serves the purpose of your staff building positive working relationships with staff outside of their ‘usual circle’. Senior leaders can be great for boosting morale, whilst your organisation’s learning technologies team are always keen to share their latest finds. Why not invite staff that your teams should be engaging with on a regular basis so that they can use meeting time to move some projects forward or get their questions answered? Support teams may like to invite colleagues from estates, finance or HR for instance. Teaching teams may wish to invite LSAs, SENCOs, safeguarding officers and English and maths teachers. Keep up-to-date with who’s doing what in other departments and if there’s some great practice taking place, why not invite them to come and share it?

Involvement

Involving your team members is one way of ensuring that great practice around ‘what matters the most’ to your team is regularly shared. Here are some ideas of how it could be achieved:

  • One person shares something new they’ve tried in the last week at the start of the meeting and staff discuss it together- how could they use it?
  • One person shares a challenge they’re experiencing and the team discuss approaches that might work.
  • Everyone brings along a new idea they’ve found online or in a book and gifts it to another member of the team (for them to report back on it the following week)
  • Form a discussion group. Search for a video, podcast, blog, journal or news article that may be of interest to your team at the present time (related to a challenge being faced for instance). Share it with your team at the end of one meeting, ask them to read it before the next meeting and then discuss it at the start of the next one.

Support

You’re likely to have a Teaching & Learning team, a staff development team or a senior manager who can support you with planning meetings effectively. Failing that, seek support and advice from your fellow leaders as it’s likely that your solutions and ideas will be far more creative when generated together. They may be able to help you find resources, materials or simply help you to structure the meeting. They may not have time to help you facilitate but they may well have time to help you plan.

“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer

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Mindful Meetings

What could you change?

Mindfulness, in case you hadn’t noticed, is kind of ‘on-trend’ but incorporating time for it into meetings might prove worthwhile.Here are some ideas to try:

Check-in

This stage of a meeting allows a moment of stillness and/or reflection for staff and you can use the time in a variety of ways:

– Provide a few minutes for staff to do some short breathing or body scan meditation. Click here for some recordings you could use for each.

– Ask staff to rate their day on a scale from 1-10 to provide a moment of reflection. It can be particularly powerful if you’re able to turn the score into a conversation about what they can do to leave the day behind and be more present in the meeting.

Intentions

It’s helpful if you state your intentions for a meeting- for instance:

‘this is a brief catch-up so my intention is that we all stand/sit in a circle free of desks to share some updates on our projects.’ 

or

‘this is a creative meeting so my intention is that you feel free to move around and collaborate with whoever you need to.’

This demonstrates to your team that you’ve considered not just the content of a meeting but also the manner in which you’d like them to engage. You and they will then be more mindful of actions.

Structure

Sharing a clear structure for the meeting is important (even better if shared prior to the event). If staff are able to be mindful of timings and the order of activities then it’s likely they’ll be more productive as they’ll have a greater awareness of their part in the meeting, the parts of their colleagues and how it all fits together.

Wrap-up

Ensuring that a meeting ends with a chance for staff to reflect on what was achieved and to be mindful of their next steps seems obvious but is so often neglected from any meeting agenda. Having clarity about what actions need to be taken when and by whom (not neglecting ‘why’ it needs to be done and the bigger picture of the action) helps it to actually occur.
Click here to explore more ideas about how to use mindfulness to make your meetings more productive.

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Tech Tools

What might you use?

Being communicative

Developing ways of communicating effectively in between meetings is essential if projects are to complete to deadlines and to ensure that the enthusiasm you had in a meeting does not wane before the next one. The following tech tools (compatible with all devices) can each promote communication between teams:

  • Google+ Communities for gathering staff in one place to share ideas, links, videos and resources with one another
  • Trello can be used for managing the various aspects of both large and small projects
  • Google Keep is a tool for gathering various content in one place for multiple contributors
  • Wunderlist is a tool for keeping track of to do lists as well as prioritising and allocating tasks

Being engaging

Involving your meeting attendees can move your meeting from a one-sided delivery to a meaningful exchange. Collaboration can take place during meetings using any of the following tools:

  • Padlet is a seriously easy-to-use tool for sharing ideas, comments and links
  • Popplet is a collaborative mind-mapping tool
  • Google Docs/ Slides/ Sheets allows you to work on documents together in the cloud
  • Office 365 allows you to work on documents together in the cloud

You can make use of quizzes and polls to gain a sense of where your meeting members are at with their current thinking or understanding. Try any of the following tools as an alternative to a show of hands:

Being creative

If information does need to be shared in a meeting, perhaps because you’d like to ensure clarity of message, then the least you can do is ensure that your attendees aren’t killed by PowerPoint slides heavy with text in dreadful fonts nor are they made to feel seasick from swirling Prezi slides. Try some of these tools to make sure your message is clear and easily accessible after the meeting too:

  • Piktochart for multimedia infographics, posters and slides all in one
  • Smore for multimedia flyers
  • Adobe Spark formerly Slate for slick presentations
  • Haiku deck is a minimalistic presentations app
  • Carnival Slides templates for Google Slides as a cloud-based PPT alternative
  • Canva to create your own graphics to add to a presentation
  • Typorama App for adding quotes and words to images
  • Wordle to create images from important words

If you’d prefer to share information via a video (perhaps prior to the meeting) then some of these tools may be of interest:

Flipping the meeting

Make like you would as a teacher with students and ensure that time together in a meeting is used for learning, sharing and working relationships building by sharing necessary information prior to the event. Content and a short quiz or activity can be shared easily via:

If you work in an education organisation then it’s likely that your learning technologies team can help you with any of the above. Failing that, why not task one of your meeting attendees with supporting the technology aspects of the meeting?

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Some final thoughts

What might you achieve?

Time is too precious to be wasted sat round a table being unproductive. Listed below are some ‘top tips’ to follow to ensure that you and your team can make the most of your meetings.

1- Time is precious

Whatever you do, don’t be a slave to your calendar default settings. If you need 20 minutes rather than half an hour or you’d like 45 minutes rather than an entire hour then be brave and take that extra 30 seconds now to change the default setting in order to save valuable minutes later. Equally, if you arrive to a meeting and realise that just another 10 minutes could mean the difference between having to arrange a follow-up meeting to resolve things and, well, not… then take the 10 minutes if it’s at all possible.

2- What is your why?

Simon Sinek’s TED talk is inspiration for this but a meeting without aims seems like an exercise in sheer pointlessness. What is your why? Why is this selection of colleagues being brought together? What do you want to achieve together and why is this meeting the best way to achieve that? In what way does this work contribute to the wider aims of the organisation? Once you’ve decided your why then you can plan appropriately, whether that’s a super-speedy standing-up information sharing meeting, or a lengthier creative problem solving session. It’s just a hunch really but I’m convinced that the majority of painful meetings take place because the facilitator has given little thought to their ‘why’.

3- Attendee voice

Meetings are often about reaching a consensus or collecting feedback. It feels crushing to any meeting facilitator if this doesn’t happen (having experienced it more times than I care to remember). Flipping the meeting content so that attendees have sufficient thinking time is important (see the ideas above in the Tech Tools section). This could be accompanied by three carefully considered questions you’d like attendees to think about so that you receive the feedback that will help you to progress with your idea most successfully. It will then be equally important for you to ensure that everyone has a chance for their voice to be heard (and sufficient space is give to think) during the meeting too- perhaps try ‘think, pair square, share‘ to achieve this (especially if you don’t know your meeting attendees too well yet).

4- Phones on please (but not yet…)

Make sure you ask your attendees to bring their devices with them; it can open up all kinds of opportunities for collaboration, creativity and research. I’d personally confess that it’s rare for me to endure most long meetings without checking in with my emails and social media notifications (I realise I’ve just made that confession rather publicly). What could be the balance? A traffic lighted system for their use could help, so could clear instructions for when you expect them to be used. Alternatively, use some of the strategies in ‘creative solutions’ to ensure your meetings don’t lead to attendees’ minds being back with their daily business rather than the strategy you were hoping to address.
So that’s all there is to it! If you try any of these approaches or have other ways to ‘make the most of meetings’ that you’d like to share then please comment below.
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