When meeting invitations arrive, do you and your co-workers immediately groan in protest at the impingement on your productive time? Worse, do people start moaning when invited to your meetings? Many people have forgotten that most significant work happens with other people in meetings. This is particularly true for design work.

The design column Keeping Your Design Meetings on Track covered meeting problems like staying on the mainline conversation and keeping out of rat holes. In this second article in our two-part series about meetings, we offer solutions for overcoming other problems that get in the way of effective design meetings.

Meeting meltdowns

When design meetings degenerate into time-wasting yak, it’s usually due to obvious mistakes. Maybe the meeting holder forgot to set an agenda or even establish a clear purpose. Even with an agenda and purpose in place, people can quickly lose focus if they’re sidetracked by personal chats or side conversations. More insidious meeting-busters are ideas that pop up through free association that can lure a team away from the purpose at hand. So what simple steps can you take to make sure your design meetings make the best use of people’s valuable time?

Design meetings are like stages in manufacturing lines

Stick to the principles of what makes meetings work, and you’ll do well. But first, you must be aware of what makes a design meeting work. Take a station on a manufacturing line; everybody knows that you have to manage your manufacturing line processes. Each person manning a station has to know exactly how to use his tools and interact with the materials flying by. When two people man a station, they have to know the rules of how to coordinate and interact. Nobody questions whether we need a standard, repeatable manufacturing process. Design work and product definition of any type is really a hidden manufacturing line. The work just happens in rooms, at people’s desks, and inside of meetings. Like manufacturing lines, they need rules for interaction and repeatable processes.

Basic rules and regulations

Appropriate space

Traditional cultures don’t give teams “team places.” If the physical space doesn’t work to support the work, there’s a problem. This is why we have dedicated team rooms here at InContext. Teams need a place.

Know why you’re there

Our first rule is to know why you’re meeting, what you are doing, and how you’re going to do it. If you don’t know what the meeting is about, it’s pretty hard to follow the second rule. You shouldn’t be sitting with one another if you haven’t a clue what the meeting is about.

Stay on the mainline

The second rule is to stay on the mainline conversation, or you won’t move forward. This means that we know what is on topic and what is off topic. Anything that is off topic is a rat hole.

Meetings aren’t the time to chat or schmooze, like you’re at lunch. A meeting is not the time to have deep thoughts; it’s a time for productivity. If you’re leaning back in your chair and you’re waving your arms, you’re in deep thought. Process discussions belong at a process check meeting. If you’re chatting about the nature of design and how things should be done in software development, you’re off the mainline conversation.

Manage yourself

Part of the problem is that as human beings we tend to free-associate; something or other causes a thought to come to mind. But just because something comes to mind doesn’t mean it needs to be said. However, you may need to express it just to get it off your mind. Then you can get back to the task at hand. So…

Write it down

Keep pads of paper, 3M Post-it® Notes, and other ways of capturing ideas ready to hand. If a design idea or other thought pops up, you can write it down, knowing the team can deal with it later. This keeps you on the mainline conversation. Then at an appropriate time you can deal with these issues.

Processes to stay on track

Know your place

Assign roles and moderate. If you don’t know who is in charge of what you are supposed to do, you’ll have role drift. People will start managing each other, the content, and the process. Everyone will be trying to make it work without an agreed upon way to do so. Roles ensure that everyone knows what to do and how to create something productive in the meeting.

Stop rat holes

Any schmoozy sort of thing, stories about yourself, personal chatting, or interpersonal complaining are obvious rat holes. Less obvious is talk about the process. If you are in the process, talk about the process is a rathole. Teams need to talk about what and how they do things during a process check meeting, that’s when the mainline conversation is the process.

Make talk tangible

We use models to make our concepts tangible. This makes the conversation concrete by externalizing it. Instead of talking to each other, we’re talking to the “wall” in one form or another. When we update and discuss something tangible we make advances in our design and write it down. We are creating our work models, visions, and storyboards. Talk that is left in the air is lost and so is the design thinking.

Separate conversations

The reason people fight is because they’re actually discussing different things and they don’t know it. They may think they are talking about a particular icon, but what they don’t know is that one person is trying to talk about the user interface, another person about work practice needs, and another about the technology. We create separate models to represent the separate conversations. By standing in front of each model, we all know what we are talking about. In one form or another, good design happens when we separate conversations.

Separate creation from evaluation

Nobody can think creatively if they are being judged every minute. You can’t even have the idea if you have to defend the idea of the idea. You can’t share the idea if you have to work through all the reasons that it’s OK to voice the idea in your brain. If you’re being judged you become too self-monitoring and don’t share your ideas.

The only way that we can really be creative is to say that creation is a separate conversation from evaluation. And evaluation isn’t about good and bad — it’s about reflection to make the creation better.

InContext and Contextual Design are about customer-centered design. But, effective design for the customer also hinges on effective face-to-face communication within a team. Making your meetings more successful will help make your designs more successful.

If you’re interested in learning more about effective team work and communication be sure to read the article If We’re a Team Why Don’t We Act Like One?[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]