7 minutes read

Imagine if the alphabet would only have five letters M, O, B, S and P. How many words could you make with those? Well, regardless of what you can think of, they’re probably not making much sense on their own, so the follow-up thought of having to communicate solely by using them is just ridiculous. Because it’s just way too limited, right?

Well, when it comes to our workplaces, to our organisations, to our teams, we actually only have five traditional ways in which we interact:

Managed discussion  |  Open discussion  |  Brainstorming  |  Status Report  |  Presentation 

You must’ve experienced them all and they get you through most of the work you have to do. There’s nothing inherently bad about them, they’ve moved teams forward and allowed us to interact. However, we can appreciate the learnings they’ve given us and upon them, build new ways of interaction that tackle the challenges we might have encountered. When we organise our meetings aimlessly, we might just get into the trap of not really fostering proper innovation and done wrongly, these meetings have the potential to waste time.

The main elements to be analysed and counter-balanced are content-control and participation, both referring very much to moderation. Content-control looks at the power to contribute: who prepares the content, how can people provide their own input (at which point / how often) and how is the meeting moderated. Participation refers to all the opportunities participants have to contribute: do they jump in, is there a structured process?

To translate these concepts into what you know already, there is a lot of content control for one person and a lack of participation for the managed discussion, status report and presentations. We have mostly one active participant at the time in charge of the content, having everybody else listening, have the same 1-to-1 or 1-to-all interaction for presenting, asking people to talk, asking a question, answering a question. For open discussions & brainstorming, there’s less content control given to one person, allowing a high degree of participation, which might sometimes appear unstructured.

If you ever felt drained at the end of a full day of meetings, I’m here to tell you it can get better. The solution is simply finding ways to increase participation, allowing more people to contribute at the same time in a way that doesn’t feel disconnected, either to the group or themselves. What we want to foster is an environment where people feel engaged, inspired and listened to, so they feel safe to share their experiences and thoughts. We’ll know we achieved this when you see creativity and innovation flourish and flow around the room. If the past years have shown us something, it is that connection is vital for our sanity and we owe it to ourselves to create the best working environment we can think of, given the amount of time we dedicate to this. 

There are many methods and tools you can start using and I’d like to just give you a taste of what can be achieved when you increase participation and reduce content control. Serious – play, as I’d like to call them. My personal favourites are the Liberating Structures, developed by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, easy-to-learn microstructures that enhance relational coordination and trust. They quickly foster lively participation in groups of any size, making it possible to truly include and unleash everyone. In short, thirty different settings, with different aims, from problem-solving to creative ideation. Allow me to introduce you to the easiest to work with, which you can already implement today!

1-2-4-ALL to help you with your brainstorming

Meet your team, online or offline, and clearly state the topic you would like to work on (solve a problem, gather ideas, collect suggestions, build a network, think of stakeholders, etc.

Step 1: Give everybody a few minutes to think and individually write down their input;

Step 2: Pair everybody up, allow them to share ideas with each other, get initial feedback, solve possible confusing formulations, discover similarities and differences in their approach;

Step 3: Pair two pairs, forming groups of 4, allowing a second round of feedback, asking everybody to choose the best ideas, the ones worth mentioning;

After these three steps, return to the big group and allow the groups to share their input. The difference between this and a regular brainstorming session is that everybody works at the same time, you have two rounds of feedback, ending up with the curated suggestions to help you advance your process. This can be repeated. 

Do you want to get more out of this setting? Add specific prompts to help with whatever you are solving:

15% solutions to help you with your open discussions 

Are you stuck? Do you want a collective process to search for solutions for the problems you’ve encountered? We fool ourselves thinking it’s big steps to crush big challenges, but in fact, it’s our immediate chance of action which will save the day in any given crisis. 

State your challenge and ask people to think and answer questions such as:

What is your 15% when it comes to your contribution in solving this problem? Where do you have discretion and freedom to act? What can you do without more resources or authority?

Decide if you want people to share the answers in pairs or in pairs and groups of 4. Return to the big group with a team that has undergone a reflection process, with a better understanding of each other’s freedoms, boundaries and available resources. You should expect more intentional action points to solve the challenge and be surprised by what only took 10 minutes to have your team come in sync with one another has done.

Be curious, be playful, be open. Encourage people to reflect before they contribute. Allow more feedback and exchange, allow your teams and peers to contribute often and be conscious about what they have to say. Creative working environments, with their members in sync, is the only way to move forward. Try it out and allow yourself to be surprised by the outcomes.

Written by Estera Mihaila