Episode #5 Kevin Hoffman’s “Meeting Design for Managers, Makers, and Everyone”
There’s a stigma surrounding meetings. They’re often seen as unproductive wastes of time. But in Kevin Hoffman’s view, meetings are actually a design problem. In his upcoming book, Meeting Design for Managers, Makers, and Everyone, Kevin lays out strategies to make meetings better for all those involved, making them gateways to success. In this podcast, Adam Churchill and Jared Spool discuss some of the highlights from Kevin’s book.
Adam Churchill: Hello, everyone. Welcome to another episode of the UIE Book Corner. I'm Adam Churchill, and with me is Jared Spool.
Jared Spool: Hey, Adam.
Adam: Jared, I want to talk to you about meetings, which, I bet when you learned that I asked you to join us, I bet you thought that was a little strange.
Jared: Yeah, it is a little weird. We're in meetings all day together.
Adam: Well, I gotta tell you. There's a book coming out from my good friend Kevin Hoffman. It's coming out from Rosenfeld Media, and it's called Meeting Design for Managers, Makers and Everyone. It's gonna be a great resource for design teams.
Jared: It's really funny. When I heard that Kevin was writing about meetings, of course he's been talking about it for years, so it's not a big surprise he's writing about meetings, but I'm thinking to myself, I really want to read a book by Kevin. I really don't want to read a book about meetings. It feels like the only thing I would dread more than going to a meeting is spending hours reading a book about meetings. But now, having heard Kevin talk and thinking about all the problems we have about meetings, I'm actually excited about reading about meetings.
Adam: In this conversation he and I had, he makes this point that they're so important and his book promises to be something that's gonna help people ensure they get the outcomes that they're looking for.
Kevin Hoffman: Alluding to what I said earlier about the idea of people don't think about this stuff the way that I would like them to think about this stuff. Or they don't think about this stuff in a way that helps them be more successful. I don't think people think about how powerful meetings are in their process. How they win and lose the battles that define the war in the meetings. If you're a conflict person, the design being critiqued, the design being approved, your strategy being approved, your research being seen as valid. A lot of that happens in meetings. You could have the best data with a great hypothesis and if you get in front of a group and you do a bad presentation, you lose credibility. It doesn't matter how good your ideas are. It doesn't matter how good that research is. That's a real cost because that might be the thing that really helps the business grow or really helps the mission of the organization be realized. They're really important gateways to success or failure.
Jared: I really love that point. That idea that meetings are an important gateway to success or failure. That to me, that idea of a gateway is killer because it really puts the onus on people to structure that meeting. To really make that meeting work for them. Does he talk about in the book how someone who's planning a meeting, who's going to run a meeting, this is a meeting that could be critical to their success of getting the project going or getting their ideas accepted, how they actually pull that off?
Adam: Every part of that, step by step. Kevin has this concept that meetings are a design problem and that they can be approached just like designing a webpage or any other project that you might be working on. And the book is just loaded with how-tos on all those pieces from creating an agenda, running an agenda-less meeting. There's a couple of great chapters on facilitation, which, he thinks is one of the most important parts of having an effective meeting. The best part is, this design thoughtfulness, this thinking about the meeting in advance, preparing properly, all these pieces don't need to be that difficult, but they work really well for difficult meetings.
Jared: I find this fascinating because so many of the meetings I go to, and I spend two-thirds of my career in meetings. There's an old joke about how you spend half of your life sleeping and ... The time that you're on this earth, you spend half of it sleeping, of the remaining time you spend half of that eating, and then of the remaining time you spend two-thirds of it in meetings.
Adam: Can I ask you? You spend two-thirds of your time in meetings, they must be effective.
Jared: They are sometimes. And they aren't other times. And I really dread the meetings where they aren't. And the ones that aren't are because the person who is supposed to be running them, or whoever put them together, has not given any real thought to how they are. Now that I've gotten further in my career, and I've been in enough meetings, I can sort of pick out, oh my gosh this is going to be a horrible, horrible experience, from the ones that I'm energized. But occasionally I get surprised. I'll go into a meeting thinking it's gonna be horrible and I'll walk out, that was awesome. And far too often I go into a meeting thinking I'm really psyched for this meeting and I would've rather been in periodontic surgery.
Adam: So Kevin and I talked a bit about this overwhelming dread of going to meetings and some people are not wanting tie up their calender with meetings. Some people just don't like sitting in meetings. It's this idea of powerlessness, about being ineffective in the meeting, about not having a voice in the meeting, about not having an effect on the desired outcome.
Kevin: It's that textbook excuse that keeps you from doing the thing that would allow you to have the change that you want to have. Right? Some of the things that I hear people say in my mind, that I would say, well here, take a look at this, some of these ideas. And then see if you really still feel that way. One is, oh, it's not my meeting. I didn't call this meeting. I'm not in charge and if it was bad, it's not my fault. That's kind of a citizenship model. If you're in the meeting, you're a citizen of that meeting and it's success or failure is dependent on the citizens.
Adam: Jared, I love that idea of the citizenship model.
Jared: Yeah, I've never heard that before and I think that's a really interesting idea. This idea that even though I might be the person in the room with the least amount of power, from a role perspective or a management perspective in the organization, I might be the person who's reporting to everybody else in the room. I still have a responsibility as a citizen to make that meeting right.
Adam: It's an ownership thing. He makes this point that if you're gonna be in that meeting, and there's a desired outcome for that meeting, you own part of that. And if you don't know why you're there, you're supposed to ask.
Kevin: Thinking about I can make change in a meeting. I can change the direction of a meeting that isn't my meeting, if I feel like the direction is wrong.
I did a consulting engagement this year with a university and it was with a mixed design team. You had developers, designers, and researchers and some project managers and some technology managers, CTO was there. One of the developers was like, I'm in these meetings and I don't know why I'm there. And I was like, well, that's not necessarily your fault, but you can do something about it. And we talked about this idea of outcomes, decisions and agenda, specifically if you find yourself in a meeting and you don't know what the intended outcome is, you should ask. What is the thing that this meeting will enable to happen, that if we didn't have the meeting it wouldn't happen. And then the follow-up question, which is the important one, how will we know if it's happened. How will we measure if it's happened.
The developer that I was talking to at that university, he was like, I didn't know I could ask that. I didn't know I could be in a meeting and say, what's the outcome we're trying to get and how will I know if that outcome has happened. How could I measure the difference between the presence of that outcome and the absence of that outcome?
Jared: I think that that is gold. I think that that is really a very interesting point. This idea that in the absence of an outcome being stated, I could ask to have that void filled. And that, in fact, it's my right or my responsibility as a citizen of the meeting to make sure that happens.
Adam: What happens when you don't get an answer on how you're going to affect the meeting?
Jared: Well for me, I've got this rule, which is everybody's got two feet, the law of two feet. I'm a big fan of optional meetings. But it took me years to get to this idea that all meetings should be optional. We have so many organizations where you've got that meeting on the agenda, it was called by the senior person, you have to go. If you don't go, it looks bad. If an organization can make meetings optional, then it's up to the responsibility of the person who called the meeting, even if they have a lot of role power in the organization and they can be the one who fires you, they still have to sell you the idea of the meeting. They have to make it clear why you've been invited to that. I think so many meetings happen because there's a distribution list and you just call a meeting and it's easy to send it to the whole distribution list and, bam, you're there.
Adam: I like that idea a lot. That concept of they need to sell why they're taking up your time. Why they're pulling you away from some other important work you're doing.
Jared: I'm thinking, though, it's probably really hard to sell a meeting if the topic is gonna be a hard topic. Like it's a bad news meeting.
Adam: So Kevin talks about that and maybe some simple concepts here for meetings, things that maybe aren't too hard but become a little more challenging when they're in a difficult discussion. Like, maybe you're letting somebody go.
Kevin: In those meetings and in my experience in being in a few of those, we tend to fall back on the coping mechanisms that we use in other kinds of relationships in our lives. Some of those are healthy and some of those are not. I think anger shows up a lot. I think a lot of projecting, a lot of finger-pointing and blame and stuff like that. But I think the thing that I have found, and this is sort of in the book but it's something I had to cut a little bit because I wanted to talk more about it but really wasn't for this book, is that it was hard for me to learn that when you're in a meeting where somebody is shouting at you or where someone is really behaving unprofessionally, that that's coming from a place of believing that they know what is necessary for the health of the organization.
It might be wrong, the execution might be horrible like they might be really unprofessional or making all kinds of mistakes. But it's coming from a place of believing I feel like I'm a part of whether or not this organization will thrive or fail. And I have to say what I have to say in order to help that happen. And then sometimes is comes out badly.
But the thing that I have found helps me be relatively zen when I'm on the receiving end of those conversations and when I'm on the giving end of those conversations, when I have to tell somebody hey, this isn't working out or we need to abandon a thing or a relationship, is I remember whatever they say, they're saying because they believe it's the right thing that's gonna help us. It's more important that I figure that out, that I say why do you feel like that's important, why do you feel like that's the right thing, than it is to try to talk them into my worldview. Because if someone's in a place of conflict, or they're in a place of fear, they're not gonna be open to worldviews.
People aren't open to worldviews anyway. There's plenty of research out there that says the worldview you have is the worldview you have. It's very difficult to change. But we try to logic our opinions into tough meetings. We try to talk people into well, let me show you the data, let me talk you through the logic and you'll see that I'm right. And that's not really gonna work. I always find that it's better to hear logic than it is to dictate logic. Then slowly and in small pieces, deliberately find the overlap and say okay, well, I can see why you feel that way. I feel that way too about that piece of this.
But it's hard stuff. I've tried to write about the stuff that really along the way I've picked up and researched and experimented with that will make this hard stuff a little bit less hard for people who haven't done this stuff before, who haven't really thought about making it a part of their regular skill set that they polish and practice and try to improve.
Adam: How great is that, right? Don't focus on the yelling or the disagreement. You focus on those little pieces of agreement that overlap where you have common ground and you build from there.
Jared: I think that's really important. And it will be really interesting to read what he has to say about how you come and find those moments of agreement and how you work through that. Because that's a trick that I've learned by practicing, but no one ever taught it to me, specifically. I think a lot of people don't know how to do it. I'm not even very good at it, at times, and I think that makes meetings for me much harder. So I'm really excited that there's this resource out there, in Kevin's book that can help me get better at that.
Adam: Well it's gotta be even harder in those difficult meetings where people have best intentions, forgotten to leave their emotions or feelings at the door.
His book, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with it. It hasn't been printed yet, but it's a great guide book for any team. Whether you're in design or any kind of aspect of business or any kind of organization that has meetings where you're trying to accomplish things. There's so much in there. I can see it being one of those books, Jared, where a bunch of us at UIE are going to have it on our desk and we're gonna be referring to it from time to time when we're responsible for a meeting or a citizen of someone else's.
Jared: I'm very excited about it. I think I heard it's coming out later this year?
Adam: It's coming out later this year.
Jared: Where will I be able to find it?
Adam: Well, we're gonna get a free copy from Lou.
Jared: Thank you, Lou!
Adam: This book is gonna be available at most places where you'd be able to find great books on business and design, but certainly rosenfeldmedia.com is a place that you'd be able to go get it. I know when Lou launches a new book, he's usually offering a pretty generous discount code for his new publications, so certainly watch Twitter for that.
Jared: Or maybe he'll hold a meeting.
Adam: Maybe he'll hold a meeting and distribute it at the meeting.
Jared: There we go.
Adam: Jared, thanks for the conversation.
Jared: Thank you, Adam, this was really awesome. I'm really looking forward to Kevin's book.
Adam: Me too.
Well that's it, everybody. Thanks for joining us for another episode of the UIE Book Corner. We'll see you soon.