I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a organization where people didn’t complain that meetings were boring and they hated them.  (Unless it was because meetings were adversarial and stressful and they hated them.)   Some tips to make them better:

1. Pay attention to the basics first.  Gather input for the agenda, and send out an agenda in advance.  Start and end on time.  Appoint a facilitator to keep discussion on track.  Take and distribute minutes of the meeting.  Nothing is more boring than a meeting where people go off on non-relevant tangents or just wander in conversational circles with no defined objective.

2.  An old one but a good one: put toys on the table for people to play with during the meeting.  Make sure they are toys that provide a little entertainment but not too much distraction.  Silly putty, sponge balls, slinkies and other toys that invite you to fiddle and doodle with them are great for brainstorming sessions.  Toys that can fly through the air at someone can be used to playfully remind someone to be respectful, e.g. someone who interrupts a teammate gets shot with the nerf gun.  I used to have a stuffed pig that laughed when you twisted its tail, and I would turn it on whenever someone said something funny.

3.  Speaking of ground rules, make sure you have some and make sure they are meaningful.  I’m not talking about the old “turn off your cell phones” and “respect confidentiality” type ground rules.  I’m talking about things like, “Say what you really think”, and “Challenge others when you disagree”; rules that stimulate productive conflict and engage people in the discussion.  Make sure you also have rules about how to do these things respectfully, of course.  Refer back to the ground rules on a regular basis and hold people accountable when they are broken.

4.  Use “round robins” to make sure everyone gets a chance to participate, especially if you’re brainstorming or problem solving.  People who are naturally quiet or shy have a tendency to think, “I don’t want to interrupt” when the conversation gets energized and moves quickly.  By going around the table, everyone gets a turn to speak without feeling the pressure to break in.

5.  Appoint a second facilitator to keep an eye on the “maintenance” issues, such as making sure everyone is getting a chance to speak; ensuring no one is being disregarded, belittled or marginalized; mediating when things get heated; and praising and encouraging teammates for good ideas. 

6. Always connect back to mission, vision and values at the beginning and end of every substantive discussion.  Make it clear why that discussion was important in the larger context.

7.  Use tools from training sessions, like icebreakers, games, and small group discussions with report-outs.  There’s no reason these things cannot be just as effective for keeping people engaged in a routine meeting as they are in a training session.  When there’s time, I like to open meetings with a short icebreaker such as “Share one thing about yourself that no one else will know” or “What are you most proud of accomplishing this month?”

8. Challenge fear of conflict.  When you hear things being held back, when you sense that people are agreeing with something or smoothing issues over in order to be polite, say so.  Point out that diversity of thought brings innovation as well as conflict.  Set some ground rules for disagreeing respectfully, so that people feel safer in doing so.

9.  Use visuals, but don’t do “death by PowerPoint.”  Visuals can be as simple as a photo, drawing or prop that symbolizes the team’s mission or vision.  Handouts are good visuals because people can take them with them at the end of the meeting.  White boards and flipcharts are good because people can mind-map, brainstorm and otherwise “think” through the use of them.

10.  Have some zany, fun ways to enforce the ground rules.  I once worked with a team that would throw a wet sponge at any member that said “that won’t work” to someone else.  If you’ve got toys, have toys that people can toss to each other to say “your turn to speak” or throw at each other to say “you’re holding something back.”  Have everyone stand up and cheer or do the wave when a great idea is heard.  I don’t care what your organizational culture is; many people truly enjoy being given the freedom to be kids again.  Make it safe for them to play and most will do so.

Got any meeting tips to add?