Setting ground rules at the beginning of the meeting is the most powerful tool you can use to assure a productive and creative outcome.
In a previous article I described the building blocks for creative teamwork. However, it all comes down to what happens during the team meeting. The diversity of the team, the trust they built, the respect they all have towards each other will turn into a creative and productive meeting if the following 7 rules were followed.
1. Nothing is never off the table (and never say never...)
If you can't discuss the issues that are hardest to talk about, what's the point in the meeting? Never enter a meeting with preconceived notions, restrictions, boundaries, non-starters, or taboos. Everything is fair game. The more controversial the issues are, the more productive the meeting can be. Consider all alternatives and possibilities to get the most creative outcome.
2. We are all equal
You can't have people in the meeting afraid to voice their opinion, suggest ideas, or ask questions because there is a higher authority in the room. It doesn't matter if that authority is a technical, managerial, or otherwise. Every person in the room should have equal say. The diversity of opinions, experiences, and knowledge is what leads to creative outcomes. Not organizational hierarchy. Don't be afraid to argue with someone higher up in the organization, and don't intimidate someone lower.
3. Everyone participates, equally
Introverts don't like to argue, for the most part. Extroverts like to hear themselves talk. If 6 people attend a 60-minute meeting, each person should have 10 minutes or so to speak. You don't need to count minutes, but you should make sure that nobody monopolizes "air time," and nobody gets a free pass to be quiet. Again, creative outcome results from hearing everyone's opinions.
4. Nothing is personal
Don't let constructive conflict become destructive conflict by letting emotions get in the way, making it personal. Attack the issues, not the people. Argue the merit of ideas, not the character of the people suggesting them. Passion is great, as long as it doesn't become emotional. Keep asking yourself: am I still willing to go grab a beer (or any other social activity) with that person? If you feel you can't--you are doing it wrong.
5. What happens here stays here
You need to trust the other participants enough to make a fool out of yourself during the meeting. One of the biggest promises that everyone must make is not never let what happened in the meeting be "leaked" to people you don't trust. There is almost nothing that can destroy trust more than a violation of this rule.
6. Make a decision at the end
Remember that there was a reason to have the meeting. No meeting should happen without a purpose. At the beginning of the meeting be very clear about the objective. What does the outcome need to be? Throughout the meeting, remind yourself (and the other participants) what the goal is, and make sure you make the right decision at the end. Only two possible outcomes should be acceptable: either a decision is made, or you know exactly what information is missing, where to get it, who to get it from, and when will you hold the follow-on meeting to make the decision.
7. We are not really multitasking
I remember when we didn't bring laptops or smartphones to meetings. Mainly because they didn't exist (yes, I'm that old), and neither did Wi-Fi. At some point it became acceptable to bring them into the meeting. We say we are multi-tasking, but we really are not. We can't. We are not built to be truly multi-tasking. Something has to give. I recently left a meeting because someone wouldn't put his laptop away. It wasn't because it was disrespectful (even though it was), but because every now and then he obviously missed something that was said in the meeting. If you only dedicate 50% of your attention to the meeting (and the other 50% to your device), then eliminate the use of devices in meetings and hold meetings that are 50% shorter.
Setting the ground rules at the beginning of the meeting helps a lot. You could use the list of the rules I proposed above, and add more of your own before you start the meeting. You can (and should) let the team develop the final list of rules. Make sure you have a list of rules that would support a productive meeting for your team. Not all teams are alike, and therefore not all ground rules should be the same. If the team participated in setting the rules, they would own those rules and adhere to them much more than if you forced those rules on them.
This article is an adapted excerpt from my latest book, Un-Kill Creativity: How Corpora America can out-innovate startups.
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