A Magical Meeting Story from Author, Figure 8 Thinking President and Former Professor/Lecturer, Natalie Nixon, PhD
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 Natalie Nixon, Creativity Strategist and President of Figure 8 Thinking, LLC, where she serves as a strategic advisor to help privately held and publicly traded companies as well as non-profits achieve customer-facing business goals and innovate for the future of work. She applies her expertise in strategic foresight, qualitative research, and design thinking. She is also a global speaker, the author of the award-winning book “The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation and Intuition at Work” and a regular contributor to INC online magazine. Previously, Natalie was a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and professor at Thomas Jefferson University, where she created and led an executive MBA program called the Strategic Design MBA.
I spoke with Natalie about a meeting she created called “Design and Dine” while leading the Strategic Design MBA program at Thomas Jefferson University. We explored the purpose of the meeting, what prompted it, and what made it unique.
“They’re not just learning from people in finance or management, but they’re learning from people who are really integrating human-centered innovation to their work. That’s what made it unique.” -Natalie Nixon
Convene, Learn and Get Nourishment
The Design and Dine meeting was originally prompted for practical reasons while Natalie was working at Thomas Jefferson University. Natalie explained that extra hours were needed with students for the Strategic Design MBA program, due to how curricula get structured and passed. Extra face and work time was also required for accreditation. Being an executive MBA program, the students were spending alternating weekends there while also working full time. Therefore, one of the reasons for having Design and Dine was to continue to enrich the learning that was occurring. She also used the meeting as an opportunity to invite outside thought leaders from a variety of sectors to dine with the students and share the way that design gets integrated into their work. They also weren’t all traditional designers, Natalie noted. Some of them led healthcare divisions, some were in government, and others were in consumer product goods companies.
“The whole focus of this MBA program was integrating design thinking into the way people were learning strategy and leadership and branding and operations. So it was an opportunity for the graduate students to hear from different perspectives, practitioners while we were dining,” Natalie explained. “The purpose of Design and Dine was to convene, and to learn, and to get nourishment.”
Let’s take a closer look at Natalie’s process to learn what made this meeting magical.
The Design and Dine meeting was held on alternating Friday evenings throughout each semester. Students from each cohort attended until they graduated from their 20-month program. The first group was made up of 15 students, but the group size increased as new students joined the graduate program to upwards of 30-35 students in attendance. Natalie sourced her guests, or speakers, from her professional network. In each session, the guests are always new and different and they never overlapped.
Asks and Brags: Each meeting would always start with what Natalie referred to as “Asks and Brags.” The ‘asks’ were any needs or questions students had to help them in a job search or project they were working on. The ‘brags’ were to share good news and accomplishments that had happened to them. This was always a touchpoint in the meeting, Natalie explained, and an opportunity for students of different cohorts to interact.
Ground Rules: When I asked Natalie about any rules to the meeting, she said there weren’t explicit ground rules but rather implicit ones: “The implicit ground rules were that you show up, that you are respectful to the guests, that you give them their full attention, that the guests are made to feel really comfortable. The implicit rule from the guest was that they understood that this was a gift of their time because they weren’t compensated for it, that we gave them a book. I believe I used to give them a copy of a book called “The Decision Book,” which is a really cool book full of frameworks. So there were a lot of implicit rules.”
The Exercise: The students typically came directly from class, Natalie explained, therefore they spent time connecting with one another at the beginning. “It was an opportunity to let off a little steam, relax, so it was a lot of chatter, a lot of conversation. The food would typically be already out by the university food services department, and it was just kind of a relaxed, conversational type of tone. And then I usually welcomed everybody and asked for ‘Asks and Brags,’ made announcements, and then introduced the speaker.”
The guest speaker then typically spoke for about 30 minutes. Depending on the speaker’s style, sometimes there were questions throughout or sometimes there were questions at the end, Natalie said. The format was relaxed and casual. The speaker wasn’t required to prepare a presentation, but rather simply share what they thought was important in their field of work.
At the end of each meeting, Natalie always presented the guest speaker with their gift (typically “The Decision Book” and/or another book Natalie edited and published called “Strategic Design Thinking”) and then dismissed everyone, as she was mindful of many students having an 8:00 AM class the following morning.
Roles and Responsibilities: The meeting was made up of 30-35 attendees (the Strategic Design MBA students), a guest (the speaker, who was different each meeting and came from various sectors and industries), plus Natalie (the facilitator). “I wanted the students, their role to be very active listeners and active participants. [I] never wanted a guest to be left with just silence at the end of their presentation. So I wanted them to be really actively engaged,” she said.
Outputs, Results, and Tools
Natalie said that the main output or result that came from Design and Dine was teaching students that learning doesn’t always need to happen in a traditional, structured way. Design and Dine resulted in students having the chance to learn through casual conversations, such as ‘Ask and Brag’,while waiting for food in the buffet line, or by listening to the various speakers and guests.
Since this meeting is different from most meetings covered on our blog, it makes sense the tools utilized were pretty different too. Instead of Zoom, Google Docs, or MURAL (which are often mentioned in our other Magical Meeting conversations), Natalie mentioned sometimes there were games or an ideation tool. But the real tools were the interactions, the conversations, and hearing from the speakers.
What Made Design and Dine Unique
When I asked Natalie what made Design and Dine so unique, she said it was the timing and ability to hear from speakers outside traditional sectors. She also said that the minimal ground rules and the fact that it was almost solely about the speakers and students were equally notable:
“I think to have the context, an MBA program, where graduate MBA students who are working full time, who are learning from not traditional roles in business, they’re not just learning from people in finance or management, but they’re learning from people who are really integrating human-centered innovation to their work. That’s what made it unique. The opportunity for it to have minimal rules was also unique. The opportunity for it to be about the attendees. I literally spoke for a few minutes in the beginning, and maybe a minute at the end of it. The focus was really on the students and the guest.”
I asked Natalie about any potential pitfalls or risks of her Design and Dine meeting. She said the risks she was usually concerned about were people not participating or not being engaged. She also mentioned a concern about not finding enough guest speakers to fill the allotted time slots, but proactively solved this by getting ahead of the calendar and having speakers scheduled relatively far into the future whenever possible.
Opportunities and Reflection
Although this meeting happened in the past, I also asked Natalie where she saw the opportunity for improvement. She had two ideas: having student volunteers lead the meeting, and holding it off-campus if travel were to be an option.
We ended our conversation discussing what made her most proud about Design and Dine. “I just think it was a really unique feature of the program. It was an attempt for the students in a really tightly managed time constraint, the time was just so condensed for their learning, it was a way to make things a bit lighter, a bit looser, but still continuing the learning. And so I like that we had a social element to the program that was a constant.”
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