The following is part of Douglas Ferguson and John Fitch’s Magical Meetings Series, based on their upcoming book, The Non-Obvious Guide to Magical Meetings (No Matter Who is in the Room).

Imagine. You are going in for surgery. Before you get put under by the anesthesiologist, you ask if the surgeon and team are good to go. The anesthesiologist says, “I think so, but I am not really sure. They will likely just wing it.”

Would you want your surgeon to just put together the plan for your operation a few minutes before? Or maybe just walk in and freestyle? Hell no! Yet so many of our meetings are run this way.

A facilitator of magical meetings is analogous to a world-class surgeon. 

A surgeon first makes sure that surgery is necessary, and if it is, they ensure that: 1) Their surgery team understands the purpose of the surgery 2) The chosen procedure and tools needed for the operation 3) The protocols and safety measures to make sure nobody is distracted 4) Choose an efficient use of time with immense clarity in communication. 

A magician-like facilitator has the same preparation mindset with preparing their meetings.

Wait, We Actually Don’t Need a Meeting  

Just like surgery might not be necessary, you might not need a meeting. If there isn’t something to operate on, then there is no need for surgery. If you do not have a clear purpose for your meeting, then you don’t need to steal focus and momentum from all participants.

It is not obvious how quickly the cost of ineffective meetings compound. With a one hour meeting with eight executives or creatives, you aren’t just wasting one hour of the company. If you waste their time, you not only wasted the collective total of eight hours, but you took away potential for other strategies and creative work they could have been doing within that hour. And the terrible meeting interruption may ruin their deep workflow for the rest of the day; they might need an entire day to recover to get back to their flow state prior to the pointless meeting. A terribly planned meeting can also lead to unnecessary decision fatigue. So, it is important to be damn sure that you are going to have a meeting, just like a surgeon ensures that the surgery is necessary and well-thought-out.

We recommend creating your own meeting decision tree that is simple and shared across your organization. Here is a short example. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is there a clear purpose for gathering people to meet? 
  2. Is there an artifact/prototype to review? 
  3. Is there going to be an artifact /prototype that we create after workshopping in the meeting? 
  4. Is there going to be a series of decisions made that alter the direction of the project?
  5. Is this essentially a status update in disguise? 

If you answer yes on question #5, then your meeting is better off as an asynchronous email or a write-up in your company’s project management software. If you answer yes to any of (or combinations of) questions #1-4, then your meeting is likely worthy and it’s time to move forward with planning.

One easy way to take the magic immediately out of a meeting is to have a meeting that is just a status update. Think this through ahead of time before spending any more resources. If there isn’t a clear purpose and work to be done in the meeting, then it would be like going into surgery without having anything to fix. 

Another pro-tip is that once you answer your meeting decision tree questions, you can share the answers (Questions #1-4 for example) with all of the attendees of the meeting prior to the meeting and at the start of your meeting. Clarity is comfort and your attendees will understand why this meeting is necessary, and hopefully, they will look forward to contributing. 

Let’s Cancel In-Person, But Meet Virtually 

We are seeing the rise of tele-surgery. It is amazing really. Qualified surgeons are virtually controlling advanced robotic equipment to perform procedures across the world in a very different timezone. A surgeon specialist in North America can do a surgical procedure on someone in a remote area in South-East Asia. If there isn’t an expert locally to perform the task, we can bring them in via an internet connection. This is lovely because a specialist across the world can share their gift thanks to amazing software. For people planning surgerys, this is now a part of their consideration.

Again, this applies to our analogy of meetings thanks to breakthroughs in online workshopping tools. You can focus on the knowledge capture and less on the logistics in your decision making. 

Sometimes we can strategically cancel the meeting in person to get a better outcome by facilitating the meeting online instead. We do this often because of strategically working with timezones of ideal participants. 

Ask yourself: What is your outcome and purpose? Who are the ideal participants? Does it make more sense to meet in person or is it better for all desired participants to do a virtual workshop – is it less stressful for participants and can they save money on travel? What is your meeting trying to accomplish here, and is that better to do in-person, or can we best achieve it online? Those are the considerations of a magical meeting facilitator.

Logistics has kept a lot of amazing gatherings of diverse minds from happening because the facilitators didn’t consider that it would be better done online.

You would never fly someone from China to Austin have a two-hour workshop on Monday and another on Friday. Even if that was the perfect design for the content and the arc of decision making, it’s just too expensive. This is now possible because all of the logistics are different.

Once you embrace virtual facilitation more, you will realize there are some things you CAN’T do in person. 

We have found some silver-linings in embracing time zone differences for increasing diversity and outside thinking into working meetings.

Double It When You Go Virtual  

If you do decide to make your workshop or meeting virtual, you need to have twice the amount of preparation time and double your facilitator count. If you are the facilitator, you also need a minder to help you manage all of the online tools and attention. 

In a virtual meeting space, you need to invest extra time prepping the environment where each meeting participant will work alone.

Timing and attention are much different in a virtual meeting or workshop. Things take longer online because of the tools and getting everyone on board. You also have to make sure people are paying attention behind their screens. One of the best ways to do this is to stretch out the activities in a way that allows people to work asynchronously and have key moments of high-engagement, where the entire group is involved at the same time. The calendar for a multi-day workshop is much different when you go virtual. Rather than blocking off one big chunk of time for each day in your workshop, we think about the key deadline moments for all participants. We consider adding that on their calendar in addition to the moments where everyone will be on a video call at the same time. 

People are not in a room together where there is a natural state of accountability. So how do you replicate the social pressure virtually? We have had success with giving individual deadlines because it is impossible to guarantee that all participants have the same working environment. So you can standardize the accountability with deadlines to have things uploaded to MURAL or other online collaborative spaces. Then, have a sync video call to workshop all of the collective solo work.

You need to double the prep time for virtual meetings because you must spend way more energy in your virtual workspace prep.

You have to make the virtual workspace highly visible and filled with self-explanatory instructions. Pre-reading assignments are bullshit and nobody does them. Deliverables with social pressure work, i.e. each person logging on and sharing an inspirational image or concept. You have to make sure that they know what their deadlines and deliverables are. As a facilitator, you demo an example of the homework for everyone, field questions, and then let them go off and do their individual work. You don’t want to surprise anyone and embarrass them. Expect that they will not read your instructions in an email. Again, this is more prep time that you need to do ahead of time and you need another facilitator/minder to help you run it smoothly. Also, what happens if the internet connection drops and you are the only facilitator? Having another person there is a smart contingency plan.

It’s also important to set expectations and explain them to participants before the workshop so that the team understands what they are about to do. You have to prep your tools, your virtual environment, and make sure the participants are trained up. Participants need to understand the tools and the process, what is expected of them, what is going to happen, and why are they even doing this. 

Set The Protocols, Rid Distractions, and Set Meeting Safety  

Online or offline, you need to establish group rules, design boot-up time, and ban distractions. 

In a short pre-meeting message to participants or in your calendar invite, include the following boilerplate to make the meeting productive:

  • Introduction: Share why this meeting is happening (use your meeting decision tree answers above.)
  • Get people excited: Explain why this meeting is important and what participants will contribute and/or get out of it.
  • Outline the working session: Give people an overview of the narrative arc of the meeting. You don’t need to go into the schedule by the hour, but outline the major activities, boot-up time, break times, etc.
  • Set expectations: Let people know how you want them to behave (i.e one speaker at a time) and outline any ground rules. For in-person meetings, one of our default ground rules is to put away smartphones and to also give each person a clear personal working space. 

Invite Others That Can See What You Can’t See  

Invite people outside of the core project team to workshop with you. Once you have your meeting purpose set, you can consider the following question in your planning: Who has an opinion or perspective about this opportunity that you don’t? Rather than assume and brainstorm what a user or potential partner wants, invite them to the meeting to give the entire group an opportunity to empathize and see things they don’t see. Some of your best meetings could be co-creating with customers, other companies, experts, communities, and even internal teams that don’t normally create together. 

If you are going to invite outside attendees, it is important to also prepare a win-win–the co-creation begins by ensuring an outcome is jointly created and mutually valuable.

Ask the potential participant what they are hoping to achieve and understand regarding your project or company and make sure that this is baked into your meeting narrative.

We have also found that inviting outsiders increases the attention and enthusiasm of your team. Because who doesn’t like hosting and hearing a new fresh perspective?

Including outside opinion and thoughts can help make a compelling and meaningful meeting narrative. Don’t be limited to just the ideas within your usual walls.

Being a Meeting-room Architect  

The art of venue selection and arranging space changes up the meeting dynamics. While you plan your meeting, think about your purpose to decide where and how you should meet. Here are some examples:

  1. Are you hoping to have a straightforward deep dive into an important decision? Try making it a walking meeting.
  2. Looking to keep a prototype review short and sweet with only essential, constructive feedback? Make it a standing meeting.
  3. Leading a team to think about and sketch moonshot innovation ideas? Host your workshops at new locations to invite fresh modes of thinking and open-mindedness.
  4. Had a sudden need for a workshop on a pressing issue? Spin up a virtual whiteboard and get your group together quickly for a design jam. Drop-in pictures and other visual components to get them in the correct mindset.

Just like an architect thinks about the dance between form and function, you can do the same with your venue.

Center The Meaning With 9-Whys  

If you are ever struggling with justifying a meeting’s purpose, 9-Whys is a tried and true form of co-creation that helps you quickly reveal a compelling purpose and move forward with clarity. At worst, you will decide you shouldn’t have a meeting! Do this with stakeholders prior to the meeting. This way, when you kick it off, you will remind people of the deep purpose of holding the meeting why the work matters. 

Below are examples of how to use the 9-Whys structure to identify a meeting’s purpose:

Why #1: Why are we prototyping a new product idea?

Example Answer: Because we need to innovate in the market.

Why #2: Why is that important for us to do?

Example Answer: Because our customers’ needs and preferences are changing.

Why #3: Why are their preferences changing?

Example Answer: Because with ecommerce and sustainability, they have a higher expectation on supply chain transparency.

And so on…

You would ask the “why” questions up to 9 times to get to a deeper understanding of why you are going to take the time to meet and capture room intelligence. If you are calling the meeting or are being asked to facilitate a meeting, this exercise is helpful to do beforehand. The answers to the questions can be a powerful way to start the meeting or workshop. It reminds the participants of a deeper purpose of why they are gathering and why they are needed to work on something meaningful.

Do not try to establish the why and purpose on the fly. Plan properly for the most meeting success.

Want to learn more about how to have Magical Meetings?

Check out Douglas Ferguson and John Fitch’s upcoming book, The Non-Obvious Guide to Magical Meetings (No Matter Who is in the Room) & our online Magical Meetings Course.