A Magical Meeting Story from the Founder of Bracket, Alison Coward
Welcome to Magical Meetings Stories, a series where I chat with professional facilitators, meeting practitioners, leaders, and CEOs across industries about their meeting culture. We dive deep into a specific magical meeting they’ve run, including their approach to facilitation design, and their tips and tricks for running meetings people thrive in.
Today’s story is with Alison Coward, founder of Bracket–a company that works with a diverse range of clients to help them discover the perfect balance between team creativity, collaboration and productivity. Bracket’s services include team workshops, a team culture program, workshop design and facilitation, and an effective workshop masterclass. Prior to Bracket, Alison spent the first part of her career working in, leading, and facilitating teams in creative organizations. She is the author of “A Pocket Guide to Effective Workshops” and a keynote speaker, speaking at a range of conferences including Mind The Product, Business of Software and Google Sprint Conf. She has also delivered guest lectures at various academic institutions including the University of the Arts London, Cambridge University and the University for the Creative Arts.
I spoke with Alison about a meeting template she designed called “Big Picture Thinking Workshop,” the purpose of the meeting, what it helped accomplish, and why it was so powerful.
“What I want for this kind of workshop is that it becomes a natural way of thinking for teams.” -Alison Coward
Taking a Step Back
The Big Picture Thinking Workshop is a meeting template Alison originally created to encourage strategic thinking within the clients and teams she works with – to take a step back from the busyness of their day-to-day and look at the bigger picture. The meeting serves as an opportunity to reconnect on a higher level, to look at where the team is going and what they’ve learned. Because she works with so many different types of companies (from startups to Fortune 500 brands), each Big Picture Thinking Workshop is different. However, her template influences each workshop, and she then encourages teams to do the exercise regularly.
Alison explained that the workshop was designed to ensure teams were thinking and working together with a holistic view–remembering to take a step back, and then bring that holistic view back into granular detail. In one client example, Alison noted that the workshop was extremely helpful for the company because it reframed what they do from the perspective of looking inward. It was held as part of what she calls an “away day” or company offsite, which she recommends.
“So that’s why I think this is just such a key session that teams would benefit from doing regularly as an exercise, just as almost like a breath of fresh air, but then connecting that back into the work. So I call it a big picture thinking session…the whole point was really about getting them to think bigger and to think forward rather than the granularity of what they were doing.”
Let’s take a closer look at Alison’s process to learn what made this meeting magical.
Prior to the workshop, Alison outlines a couple of steps for the team to take. These should be done by the meeting organizer or facilitator:
- Location: Choose somewhere you can stick paper to walls and with space to form small working groups
- Send invites to your team and set a date
- Get materials and tools for the group. This will vary based on the team and needs but some ideas include:
- Sticky notes
- Pen or sharpies
- Flip chart markers, pad and stand
- Sticky tack
- Paper and flashcards
- Plan out the workshop:
- Decide how long each session and topic should be
- Add in time for breaks
- For breakout group exercises, plan who will work together to ensure everyone mixes
- Adapt the outline for your team/project as necessary
- Schedule time to write a follow-up of the session afterward
Alison explained these meetings have typically been held in person (pre-pandemic) due to the collaborative nature of the workshop. She hasn’t personally run one virtually but notes it could still be effective online. There’s no set number of people (or specific titles) necessary, as it will vary based on organization or team, but Alison has hosted meetings with teams as small as 6 and as large as 25-30 participants. The meeting can last anywhere from two hours to half a day (or more), depending on the size of the team and how you want to structure it.
Alison’s workshops typically cover the below discussion topics. These can be done in smaller breakout groups, and then takeaways and learnings at each point can be shared with the broader team for feedback and further discussion. It’s important to note, she says, that the structure should be adapted to fit the needs of each unique team. Not all sections will be relevant to everyone and it may not be necessary to follow this exactly, but rather should be used as a directional guide. The timing for each portion can and should be adjusted based on needs as well. The most important aspect is to ensure the expectation is that something will come out of this and to not just leave ideas in the meeting with no action following.
- Largest challenges and successes of the past year (or decided upon time period)
- Biggest lessons and insights learned about the business
- Industry trends: other brands or people that are interesting and worth following
- Wishlist: if there were to be unlimited time, money and resources
- Actions and next steps: prioritize group takeaways and insights for actionable next steps
You can find more information on Alison’s website here.
After the workshop, the meeting facilitator or organizer should gather and document all content from the session and send a follow-up email the day after the workshop including actions agreed upon from the final exercise along with a note for participants to respond with any further thoughts or questions.
Outcomes and Deliverables
Alison explains the main outputs and deliverables of this meeting are the micro-action items and next steps from the last step of the exercise – asking the participants to discuss the biggest insight from the session, what they should focus on as a team, and what action items individuals can take as a result of the session. The micro-actions could be tasks, having another session, or connecting with someone on another team about a topic (for example). “There always has to be something tangible that comes out of it..and then using that as the springboard for the next step,” she says.
As mentioned above, the meeting facilitator (Alison in this case, but whoever is leading or facilitating the meeting) would be responsible for documenting, organizing, and outlining the action items and next steps and following up with them, and keeping the team accountable for their individual action items.
Benefits and Risks
I asked Alison what makes this meeting unique. She said the first thing that came to mind is that it’s a meeting that every team could benefit from. It’s also an entry point for teams that have a need for it but don’t know quite where to start. That’s where the true value lies.
We also discussed potential pitfalls and risks of this meeting. She noted there’s a risk in no follow-up or resulting action happening after; that no change comes out of it:
“That it just becomes a nice discussion and it’s a nice jolly for everybody. And I think there is value in getting people to think differently, but if you do too many of these kinds of sessions and it doesn’t lead to action, then people are just like, ‘It’s a waste of time,’” she said.
We ended our conversation by discussing what she would do with this meeting if she were to be really bold and/or had unlimited resources. Alison explained she would want to turn it into something bigger than a workshop:
“This is going to sound so ironic. I wouldn’t run this as a workshop, it would be a program. Really what I’d want to do with this is, how do you support a team to become more strategic in their outlook? The thing is the entry point is often the workshop because of budgets, time, people want a taste of it. Especially as I say, especially if teams haven’t done this kind of thinking before, they may not buy into the idea of why it might be relevant to stretch it out over a period of time rather than doing it in a condensed session. And it might be a series of smaller workshops, but with work in between and conversation and discussion and a bit more interaction with the team in between. But you’re still using facilitation skills, heavily still using facilitation skills but not confining it to that. What I want for this kind of workshop is that it becomes a natural way of thinking for teams.”
To learn more about Alison’s approach to facilitation, meeting design, coaching and workshops, see some of her blog posts below: