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Designing better meetings: An interview with Kevin M Hoffman

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Kevin Hoffman talks about how to design and facilitate good meetings.

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Gerry Gaffney

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience Podcast. Today’s guest has been “making cool stuff” since 1972. He co-founded Boardthing and he is vice president of design at Capital One. He is author of Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers and Everyone. Kevin M. Hoffman, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Kevin M. Hoffman

Hi, how are you?

Gerry

Very well at this end. Now many people would be familiar with meetings that are too long, ill conceived and executed and that deliver little in the way of discernible value; why are meeting so bad?

Kevin

I think there’s two kinds of bad meetings that we experience in our career. I think there are meetings that we experience that earlier in our career where we don’t understand the intent or maybe we’re not privy to intent and we’re just asked to weight in if we have an opinion. And then I think as we advance in our career more and more there are the kinds of meetings that we think to ourselves, “Oh you know, this is just dragging along, you know this could be so much better. Nothing is happening.” And I think the reason, well I think there are a lot of reasons that both of those things happen. My hope is that by putting a design lens to it, it can help reduce some of those reasons. But like with any design you’re mitigating and managing constraints. You’re not eliminating bad meetings necessarily it’s just thinking about treating them a little bit differently.

Gerry

And why don’t organisations design meetings more intentionally?

Kevin

I think one reason is that it’s a human response, it’s kind of a fear response that if we sense that there’s conflict or we sense ambiguity or we sense a fork in the road that gathering is kind of amygdala response to what we do. And then a lot of software that we’ve build kind of functions to service that human fear, you know things like defaulting to an hour or defaulting to half an hour, things like the ability to just really very easily block out your entire calendar with meetings and think that that means things are getting done. And it’s not to say they couldn’t get done if you had a calendar like that, I have a calendar like that unfortunately, but I just think you know in a weird way it’s like a video game, like a video game is kind of this false sense of accomplishment because it’s triggering a lot of things in your brain that make you feel good. I think the idea of filling up a calendar with meetings, it’s kind of like a good game of Tetris in a sense, like you feel like you’re making decisions but you haven’t actually mapped out the decisions you need to make and that’s one of the things I hope people try from the book.

Gerry

How did you get interested in meetings from this kind analytical perspective in the first place? Did it suddenly, did a light bulb go on or what happened?

Kevin

I think it was a slow burn. I think, and I talk about this briefly in the introduction to the book, but at first I was, my first job was in a public library system in Baltimore, Maryland in the United States and in that job I did a lot of work with community organisations and there was a lot of passion and a lot of democracy, it was very egalitarian but it was also very slow and not decision orientated. Since then I’ve worked at other non-profits, I’ve worked in universities, I’ve worked in agencies, I’ve run companies and I’ve worked in a big company most recently and every culture is a little bit different but in each one I have felt like there were consistent things missing with regards to how people use meetings as tools, if they use them as tools at all. You know and even when they were using them as tools, I don’t think they were always well designed or universally designed tools. I think a lot of people when they think about meetings they think about meetings from a very neuro-typical or neuro-ego standpoint. And what I mean by that is like if I am somebody who processes verbally quickly and I’m someone who thinks on my feet, I’m going to assume that other people are like that and I can run a meeting that way. And one of the things I talk about in the book is the diversity of our brains and how to create meaning experiences that accommodate that diversity.

Gerry

I think that segues reasonably nicely into another question I have. You wrote in the book a fairly lengthy section on being a facilitator and the role of the facilitator, can anyone become a facilitator and what makes a good facilitator?

Kevin

I think anyone can become a facilitator. I think it requires practice and for some people just starting to facilitate is really not something that people, certain people may not be wired to do it naturally. But I think anyone can do it and I’ve seen people who are, I’ve seen people whom one might assume they would not be good at facilitating develop that skill. I think that in order to become a good facilitator there are two things that you need to do; one is the practice element and the other is having a really good self-awareness of where your strengths are as a facilitator and if those strengths are well aligned to the group that you’re with, the culture that you’re in and what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re a very visual facilitator, if you sketch, you use sketching to facilitate and you’re in a boardroom with a bunch of bankers there may be a chance that’s not a good fit and having the self-awareness to be able to read the room and make adjustments in your own facilitation style. I think that is probably the hardest lesson to learn, just learning how to run basic meetings, that’s just the function of doing it a few times, you do it ten times with the same group and you’re going to get into a cadence and it’s going to feel natural. But being able to go into unknown situations and understanding the relationship between your natural tendencies and then choosing to do something different, that’s something that is a completely different kind of muscle that you have to use and learn how to read the room, how to recognise that your own choices aren’t just driven by your logical brain but you might emotionally be more comfortable in particular mode and understand that that level of comfort doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work.

Gerry

Yeah, it’s interesting that you mention banking there and I guess there probably still is something of a reluctance to embrace what might be seen as soft or somehow woolly activities like a sketching and drawing but that’s changing very fast, isn’t it? I mean I’ve noticed in a lot of engineering type companies now they really are embracing the visual aspects of I guess facilitating and running meetings and just of working together.

Are things changing very fast?

Kevin

I think they’re changing at different speeds in different cultures and I think the single, if I was to hypothesise because I haven’t’ done the analysis on this, but I would imagine the single greatest driver of change in the culture of meetings in an organisation is the willingness for people to acknowledge the culture the way it is and to push it to be different. In my team now we have a group of about I want to say maybe 12 or 13 people that meet once a month to talk about facilitation because we’re aggressively trying to change the way that we facilitate with our business partners and in our design teams. But we’re making a conscious effort to reflect on what we do and talk about how it could be better or how it could be different. And I think that’s the change driver and the more people that are willing to question, the more people that are willing to push and say this isn’t good enough, this isn’t a quality use of our time, the more likely we are to actually see accelerated change. And there’s a couple of examples in the book that talk about how that happens. You know one interesting one that comes to mind is the external consultant. As an external consultant I think there’s a really interesting opportunity not just to provide the consulting on the user experience design effort that you’re being paid to provide but also to look at how well the culture accommodates that kind of thinking and that kind of human centred design. And a great way to see what the culture is like is in the meetings that they have. If you find that you’re in meetings and you can tell, and UX designers have seen this in lots of situations, if you go in with a positive attitude and do things differently than they’re used to, the response is usually like, “Oh that was like one of the coolest meetings we’ve ever had. That was so rich and we made some decisions and we actually visualised where we’re going and why we’re going there and we addressed the top issues.”

As an external consultant you have a really interesting opportunity to kind of reflect back what a culture’s like and I think that as consultants it’s really important, and when I was the consultant I tried to do this as much as I could, to really make sure you’re not just focused on the design work that you’re doing but the ability for that design work to be embraced and ultimately live on its own without you being there. And meetings are a good place to see if that can happen.

Gerry

I guess people who are in that sort of role typically see a lot of opportunities to move outside of what might be seen by the organisation that hired them as their core competency. I guess it’s also a fine line between being seen to be pushy and moving outside of one’s remit.

Kevin

Yeah, that’s a good point. I think that a good facilitator, it’s one thing as a consultant to actually offer advice where it’s not solicited. It’s another thing as a consultant to say, “Within the realm of what you’re paying me to do I’m going to run these conversations in a way that might be different than you’re used to but it’s for the end game of us making the best decisions for your organisation, for us providing the most value for you.” And when you link the value of whatever you’re working on to the way you have the conversations, usually people pick up on the fact that these conversations are working better for a reason. It’s different than saying, “Hey I think you’re not doing a good job with your meetings in addition to your design.” Yeah, I don’t, certainly I’m not advocating that. Although I know consultants that take that tact and some of them are successful and some of them are not.

Gerry

And some of them are still working.

Kevin

Yeah. [Laughs.]

Gerry

Yeah, I guess that’s a nice distinction. That does have imply that the person in that position has got a certain degree of empowerment or is enabled. What about a person who is attending a meeting as one of the people who is there and who can see that it’s largely being run in a format and a fashion that doesn’t achieve the best outcome? What sort of things can those people do within the context of the meeting or the bigger context of the organisation to adjust that do you think?

Kevin

Yeah there’s lots of things. I’ll give you the short answer and the slightly less short answer. The short answer is the most powerful thing that I have seen for someone who is not, when there’s a power differential and there’s someone who is experiencing a lack of clarity in a meeting or experiencing frustration, if they get up and start capturing the meeting as it’s happening in real time, in a visual way, it doesn’t mean sketching, although it can be sketching, it could just be taking notes or writing down key points that people make on a whiteboard; you know writing large enough for people to see it.

Doing that will create a feedback loop so that as people speak or as they continue through the conversation when they start to see the history of that conversation, visualising it either in words or in other ways, it’ll create a feedback loop and people will start realising, “Oh this is where we’ve been, we’re not getting very far. Maybe we need to change what we’re saying.” People will be become more self-conscious of what they say because they will feel like they’re being recorded, even if they’re not being recorded in a literal sense in terms of audio. So that’s the short answer.

The longer answer is more a message of empowerment. So I did a workshop with at the University of Chicago, they have a design and digital team that’s probably about 35 people, give or take. They serve, I think they manage between 400 and 500 websites for the University of Chicago. It’s a big school. And there was a developer in this workshop I was running on just trying to improve their meeting culture, and I said, “If you’re at a meeting and you don’t know why you’re there you could ask,” and that was like, he was like, “You mean I can ask what I’m supposed to get from a meeting?” And he was just young in his career and it had never occurred to him. He was a good soldier and he was used to following orders but I think that especially in Agile, capital A Agile or lower-case “a” agile or agile fall or whatever, having clarity about what the conversation is about or what you’re supposed to pull from it is really important and sometimes people just need to know they have permission to ask that question. Once they have that permission or once that permission is culturally presented, I have found that that can be a big change but usually that’s coming from, and that’s why it’s in the title, the perspective of somebody who is a maker, somebody whose job it is to make things, whether it’s make screens or make code or you know make documents or power points or whatever. When you’re in that maker mode and if that’s how you’re wired, meetings don’t feel like making anything. And I think as somebody who is a maker, you have a right to say, “Well what am I going to make from this meeting? What is this going to enable me to do that I couldn’t do otherwise?” And as a facilitator of that meeting, you have a responsibility for providing clarity for those people and giving them decisions, if you can make decisions, and giving them a clear understanding of the problem if you can’t.

One exercise that I like that has started to, a couple of people on my team have started to use and it seems to make a big difference is before you start a meeting, even if you have an agenda, even if you have a really detailed sequence of activities that you’re going to follow like a workshop, the first thing that you do is say, “Everyone in this room, tell me what would be the one thing or one idea that you want to get out of our time together?” And you write that down before you do anything else. You write that down on the whiteboard; you write the person’s name, what do they want out of the time? And then if it’s an hour meeting or if it’s an eight hour workshop, the last thing you do before you leave the room is you go back to that list for at least 10 minutes, if not longer, and you go through that list and you say you know, “Gerry, you wanted to make sure that we found some better content models for our type of podcast. Did we get that for you?” And if we didn’t then we acknowledge that, talk about it and talk about how we will get to it. That’s why I think it’s important to leave more than ten minutes to do that. But just that bookend, I feel like that was a powerful thing, I can’t remember who I learned that from. It might have been Karen McGrane or it might have been James Macanufo but somebody introduced me to that technique and that fundamentally changes the tone of a meeting because people feel invested, they feel like, “Oh I’m going to get what I want. That’s great.”

Gerry

I guess it concentrates the energy rather than having everything dissipate at the end of the meeting too which can be really deflating.

Kevin

Yeah.

Gerry

I guess one of the things that interested me in the book also was you were talking about the importance of the stuff that if you like peri-meeting, the stuff around or before the meeting, in particular establishing relationships or checking in with people prior to meetings. Can you talk a little about that?

Kevin

Yeah sure. I think that comes from my consulting background. Definitely when either, there’s two ways I think about meetings as a consultant, whether I’m an employee at an agency or when I was running my own agency. One is the cost, you know making sure that the meeting is cost effective and two, that the result of the meeting is valuable to all parties involved. And if I know there’s going to be a meeting I’ll pull one from last year that I can think of. So I was working with another design consultancy, together we were doing some work for a university building kind of a topic-driven clearing house of interesting things that were going on at this university around a particular topic. And there was a history of failure at this really getting off the ground in a big way. I think they had built something and it was working but it didn’t have the traffic and the energy and kind of the audience that they were trying to build. And you know before we had that conversation it was really important for us to talk to the different kinds of stakeholders that were involved in what had become. So they had a digital platform they felt hadn’t quite given them the tools or the environment to reach their potential and what we learned was by talking to the people that worked on the platform, that actually made it, and by talking to the faculty that sponsored the platform at the university, there was a real big gap between the makers’ version of what potential this could reach and the faculty version of what potential this could reach, putting aside the administration, for example, which was another thing. And just presenting that to them as part of the meeting, saying, “Look your university leadership wants this to do this job. You, as the people who create this thing, you want it to do this job.”

And the faculty that are sponsoring your efforts wanted to do this different job.’ And I’ll be specific, the administration wanted to generate funding, the people who were making the tool, they wanted it to generate community, specifically regional community, including with people who didn’t go to the university, and the faculty really wanted a tool for current students. And there were three completely different outcomes. But nobody had forced that conversation and that came from talking to people in advance because if we had gotten there, I used to talk about in talks the idea of using a meeting for research, I think you know a meeting is a terrible way to do research. Research is a good way to do research. And interviews are a good way to do research and if you do that cultural research in advance you can you know after you kind of assess the room and get everybody’s hopes and dreams, cut right to where you believe the problem is. And I felt like, in this case, that was a really effective way to do that.

Gerry

Yeah, your mentioning meetings as research reminded me of a quote from the book, you wrote that “meetings are usability tests for organisations themselves.” Can you tell us just a little bit about that idea?

Kevin

I think what I meant when I wrote that was the idea that if you’re creating a culture, you’re part of a culture and you want that culture to serve its constituents; so if I’m part of a, maybe I work for a very large company, a bank, a financial institution, I want the meetings that we have to serve the constituents of that company and that includes other designers, that includes our business partners, our product partners, it includes our technology partners, that includes the CEO of the organisation, of the board, and it includes our customer ultimately. If we have meetings that create drag, that create friction, that increase ambiguity, the organisation is making the experience of being in that culture less usable, less valued as me for a constituent. If we have meetings that reduce friction, if we have meetings that decrease ambiguity suddenly the culture of the organisation becomes more useful for me. So another way to think about it is if I think about meetings as a significant component of the time that I spent in my work, if they are useful to me, I will be useful to the organisation and I will be useful to the customers that we’re trying to serve.

If the meeting is not useful for me, and this is something I think I talk about early in the book, it’s okay to say “Well let’s not do that anymore. Let’s abandon that. We have a standard meeting every week. It seems to have fallen into disrepair, become very staid. Let’s drop that or let’s cut it in half.”

One of the things I’ve been experimenting with lately is the idea of one-on-ones. I have a number of direct reports and the classic one-on-one is like one hour a week, you know we meet. And there are models for running good one-on-ones, you know 10/10, they call them 10/10s where it’s like 10 minutes about you, 10 minutes about me and then 10 minutes about whatever we learn from that conversation. But in my mind that time constraint, that idea of an hour every week, it’s a false constraint and it leads to two, for me it was leading to two things happening every week that were not serving me; either we were having conversations that we actually wanted to get into designing things and building ideas and building strategies and we would run out of time or we didn’t have that much to talk about and it was a waste of time. So I looked at well if I have a meeting every week for one hour, that’s four hours a month. What can I do with four hours a month that I would get more value out of? And what I decided to try was, and how can I reduce the amount of time I spend in these meetings, what I decided to do was, and I’m doing this now, instead of having an hour every week, I have a 30 minute meeting once a month with someone and then I have a week off and then the next week I have a 90 minute workshop, one-on-one with that person.

So once a month we have a working hands-on, you know get our hands dirty meeting where we actually plan on like we’re going to work through two or three big things. And then once a month I have a thirty minute ‘tell me how everything’s going?’ kind of a 10/10 style meeting. And so far I’ve felt really good about that and it saves me about two hours a month in meetings with each of my directs. You know the question is if it’s high touch enough or they’re going to go down a path that I can’t coach back into a good place but I’ve been doing it for about a quarter and so far so good, you know? I don’t remember the original question, sorry. Tell me what the original question is.

Gerry

I’m not sufficiently scripted to say what the original question was but it was good things. [Laughter.] Listen, one of the things that initially concerned me about the book was I thought oh this is going to be a how-to meeting guide and you know there was going to be regimented you know do this, do this, do this but I was disabused of that misapprehension and you do talk about, I mean I guess we’ve all had the experience of the serendipitous event at a meeting or the tangents of a meeting that really can provide amazingly good value at times.

Kevin

Yeah.

Gerry

But how can meetings deal with and even embrace tangents without being overwhelmed?

Kevin

There’s a couple of books I like on that topic, one is, the title is a mouthful but it’s called The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making that’s a book that talks about how you treat tangents in time and how you create space for tangents and how you manage them into decisions. There’s another newer book called Moments of Impact which is about recognising when a tangent is potentially high value and thinking about what’s the word that Edward De Bono uses… It is the six hats guide but he talks about when you take a model from one thing and you apply it to a completely foreign thing. In terms of my book, and I’m glad that as you looked at the book it was clear that that’s not what this book is about. This is not a recipe book. I think there are lots of good recipe books about meetings but I think especially people in the first 5 or 10 years of their career, the assumption they make is that models are portable. So if I am you know a junior designer or designer getting started in my career and I read a book like Gamestorming which is a great recipe book and I see an activity called “cover story.” My assumption is that, “Oh I can run that activity with different groups and I’ll get this result that I need the same way both times.” The thing that I’m trying to create in the first half of my book is to dispel the notion that models of facilitation and meetings are portable and give you the tools to create both the self-awareness and the group awareness of what needs to happen in a conversation. So there’s some stuff about basic design method and testing and testing and measuring your way into quality. There’s some stuff about understanding the brains’ relationship to how we communicate and understand each other. There’s some stuff about the constraints of time and what we can actually remember. And then if you take all of those constraints and you look at your culture, here’s how you iterate on that.

My hope is that the book allows people to go on their own journeys of finding out what their relationships with meetings are and those relationships are going to be really different, especially for somebody who is new in their career, somebody who is a manager like myself who’s trying to change a culture, people who work in different kinds of organisations; every journey is going to be different. My hope is that these are more orientating tools and less like recipes. The metaphor I like is cooking. So if I’m a chef I know the way that vinegar and oil interact and I know that if I use vinegar at a particular heat level it’ll do a thing. I’m not a chef but I’m assuming those things are true, you know. As a facilitator, if you get to know your materials, which are the people you’re working with and the content you’re working with, you’ll be able to do things in an improvisational way or in a reactive way; that if you’re trying to do them in a recipe way sometimes they break, they feel brittle. There’s so many times that I’ve seen somebody junior in their career go into a meeting with the really written out, detailed agenda, even a script for what they’re supposed to say, and immediately find ‘oh this isn’t working’ and not really know how to react to that and how to still get value out of the room. And one of the people I wrote the book for is people like that, people who are just getting out of school, starting to work in the workplace, either remote or in person, and trying to figure out, well what is my relationship to meetings in my organisation? What kind of meetings do we have? For a start-up it’s going to be one thing, if we’re a giant bank, it’s going to be another think. If we’re G.E, and there’s 250,000 employees it’s going to be like kind of an unmeasurable thing, it’s going to be a million things. But just getting people comfortable with the idea that in a sense admitting that you don’t know what the meetings can be and what they’re going to be like, making a commitment to what you want them to be and then figuring out how you measure your way into that.

Gerry

Okay and I will mention that although it’s not a recipe book, the second part of the book does contain a lot of guidance for running specific meetings like agile scrum, sales kick-off meetings, presentations and so on which was very useful.

Now I think our meeting has just about run out of time here. Kevin’s book I think would be well worth reading for anyone who has to organise meetings or attend them. It’s called Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers and Everyone. You can get a 20% discount on the Rosenfeld Media site or on any of their books by using the code UXPOD.

Kevin Hoffman thanks for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Kevin

It was my pleasure.

Gerry GaffneyDesigning better meetings: An interview with Kevin M Hoffman

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