As our society becomes more networked, all types of collaboration become increasingly important. But in our fervor for adopting new technologies, we’ve overlooked one of the most important human collaboration tools – meetings.

People have been meeting for millennia, of course. The English word “meeting,” in fact, came into common parlance in the fourteenth century. Yet many meetings, even virtual ones, still seem to be conducted with a medieval mentality. Despite the array of new tools at our disposal, leaders usually resort to broadcasting -- instead of interacting -- in meetings; that is, they are more concerned with how they “tell and sell” than how they “ask and engage.” They bring people together face-to-face at great expense for presentations about things that could have been communicated in an email. They fire PowerPoint slides like heavy artillery at their captive audience and permit the free exchange of ideas only during short breaks and cocktail hours. In virtual meetings, they make attendees sit mutely during endless conference calls while one speaker dominates the “conversation.” Online threaded discussions, meanwhile, ramble on with no endpoint or purpose in sight.

As a result, meetings, whether face-to-face or virtual, are no longer sense-making but rather sense-deadening. But given the ever-expanding global community, leaders can no longer afford to squander collaboration this way. Indeed, a leader’s most important skill today is the ability to mobilize large networks of people to make things happen. It’s time, therefore, to radically reassess how, when, why, and with whom people gather. Instead of simply holding meetings, leaders need to design them.

I define “meeting design” as the purposeful shaping of the form and content of a meeting. While the logistics of a meeting are certainly important, it is critical that we move beyond simply selecting a venue and putting together an agenda. We have to begin to really design how we will interact with each other and with the content we’re consuming at an event.

I have personally been involved in designing meetings that accomplished the following aims:

  • Transforming the culture of an information technology department from an order-taking operation to a strategic partnership mentality: Click here to view video highlights from this event
  • Collectively developing over 4000 ideas (in a 3 hour time frame) for how to cross-sell products in a major financial institution
  • Developing substantial support for a controversial strategic plan amongst 300 global leaders in a Fortune 500 company’s leadership summit

I also researched and wrote a case study about an event that literally transformed not only an organization’s brand, but also its internal corporate culture. You can see more about it here.

As the world becomes increasingly complex, greater access to the brilliance that resides in the minds of our fellow human beings becomes critical. But even more important is the imperative to improve the quality of the meetings of those minds—to create experiences that tap collective intelligence, unleash human potential, and accomplish far more than any one of us could ever do alone.

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