Creative Ways to Spice Up Your Meetings

When you conduct business meetings exactly the way they have always been done, the result is comfortable and many times forgettable. Energize your meetings by confounding expectations with the following tactics, exercises, and suggestions.

In advance of a meeting, frame a problem or issue to address. Ask each person to bring, at least, one new idea or suggestion about the problem as their ticket of admission to the meeting. Have the people write their ideas on index cards and collect them at the door. No one gets in without a ticket. Start the meeting by reading everyone’s contribution.

Stagecraft counts for a lot in today’s fast-paced, visual world. Think of your meeting as a theatrical production – with sets (colorfully decorated classrooms), props (well-designed materials), and plot lines (theme) with the manager as the director. As the director, the manager manipulates the participant’s perceptions. The director prods, provokes, challenges, inspires and challenges the people who feel stuck and stymied. For example, in a workshop for sales supervisors, the sales manager wore a football jersey and carried a football. When he asked a question, the manager would throw the ball to the person that he wanted to respond. When the manager wanted to change the topic, he would blow a whistle and make a change. The walls were decorated with goal posts displaying quotes from successful football coaches. At the end of the meeting, participants received a miniature football as a reminder that they now had to carry the ball into the field.

Just like in the movies, in meetings, music can help set the tone and heighten the experience for participants. For example, play soft classical music when the group is brainstorming or light jazz during coffee breaks. The sound track doesn’t have to be music. You may want to use the sound of roaring crowds to cheer people on, laugh tracks to loosen people up when they get uptight, jungle noises when someone becomes too negative, bells and gongs when a consensus opinion is reached, bombs blowing up when ideas are discarded, and so on. The possibilities are endless.

Sometimes, it takes a five-alarm wake-up call to jolt people out of their complacency. At the beginning of the meeting, ask the participants to imagine that they are “fired.” Now ask them to reapply for their own jobs. This will shock and force them to rethink about their knowledge and competencies and, most importantly, what they need to do to improve. Or, print an imaginary newspaper of the future that announces your company’s bankruptcy. Then ask the participants to imagine why the company had gone bankrupt. It’s the element of shock that makes us wake up to see, hear, and experience our world anew.

Ask each person to write a current job-related problem or concern on a blank sheet of paper. Examples: “How can I get better cooperation from our warehouse employees in fulfilling orders on time?” “How can we overcome the low price and discount program of our competition?” After allowing a few minutes to write out the problems, ask each person to pass his or her problem to the right. That person reads the problem just received and jots down their responses. They are given 60 seconds to respond to the individual sheet. Keep the process going until each person gets his or her sheet back. Then share and discuss the ideas.

Children do most of their important learning while playing with toys. It’s no wonder that toys have a liberating effect in meetings. They are not only fun, and a disarming way to break the ice, but they are also a deceptively powerful way to break down the barriers of conditioned thinking and responses. Bring a box of toys to the meeting. Just having toys in the room will change the feeling in the room and invite people to be more open and playful. Have the participants choose a toy and give them time to explore it. Then ask them to compare the problem or issue under discussion with the toy.

For instance, a group of employees were brainstorming for ways to improve customer service. Each participant chose a toy from a pile of toys – a pail full of Legos, a yo-yo, a toy dog, and so forth – to find the toy that represented their customer service best. The typically serious, driven employees erupted in laughter as they took turns standing in front of the group comparing the problem to a lump of play dough. The playfulness of the exercise, however, allowed them to be more bold, truthful, and perceptive about themselves and the problem than they probably would have been with a more traditional approach.

Write the alphabet vertically on the chalkboard. Then ask for names of famous (real or fictional) people for each letter: A=Neil Armstrong, B=Alexander Graham Bell, C=Charlie Chaplin, D=Leonardo daVinci, E=Albert Einstein, F= Fred Flintstone and so on. Have each person in the group pick a random letter. One might end up with Albert Einstein or David Letterman. Then have each person think about how the famous person might approach the problem. Finally, have the group share their perspectives. How, for example, would William Shakespeare improve office morale?

In this approach, people turn around to find out what it’s really like to be someone in a different position. For example, to help its salespeople improve their selling skills, a realtor sent his salespeople to car dealerships. Posing as customers, they walked through the entire sales process, recording particular behavior, words, and actions that critically affected their attitude as “buyers.” At the sales meeting, they shared their experiences and talked about ways they could improve their own selling skills. It was an eye-opening experience – proving the point that it is one thing to talk about what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes and another to actually do it.

Storytelling is one of the oldest ways to teach and transform. Such devices as parables, personal experiences, and metaphors allow people to think about things that would be difficult to approach any other way. Storytelling, for example, can help people envision the future they want and how to achieve it. Tell each person to imagine that he or she had been voted employee of the year. Then, have each one give a speech to the group, telling what they did and how they did it to earn the honor. Or, ask each person to write out their most ambitious goal for this year. Then, imagine that the goal has reached or surpassed. Again, ask each person to give a speech on the specifics of what they had to do to achieve it.

Have the group create two opposite extreme ideas. For instance, what would you create if you had all the resources (people, money, time, etc.) in the world? Then, ask what would you create if you had no resources? Then try to combine the two into a practical, affordable idea.

With this approach, ideas and solutions come by looking for ideas in unrelated fields. As a pre-exercise for a marketing meeting on strategies and tactics for selling luxury boxes for a NFL football franchise to corporations, sales and marketing employees were sent out to observe marketing and sales in unrelated retail operations such as designer-fashion stores, computer software franchises, fast-food restaurants and bookstores. They came back with long lists of ideas and suggestions that could be applied in their own business.

In our daily lives, a regular rhythm propels us along and tells us what to expect next. But if the rhythm goes on too long, it dulls our imagination and we stop paying attention to the world around us. Consequently, we need to break the rhythm. In meetings, breaking rhythm can be as simple as being contrary to a group’s expectations. For instance, in one meeting, managers watched a video that showed what they assumed were positive examples of how to motivate employees. What they saw instead was a series of bloopers that were plausible enough so that they nodded in acknowledgment. Sure, I do that! By the time they realized that they were examples of don’ts rather than dos, they had been disarmed into recognizing their own mistakes, and they became more open to change than they might have had they just been shown what to do.

This is a technique that Fred Stryker used to create daily plots and stories for “The Lone Ranger.” He created a chart that consisted of the major parts of the story: good characters, bad characters, kinds of crimes, different kinds of weapons, locations, etc. Then he generated long lists of variables for each category and numbered them. Each day, he would ask a colleague for a series of random numbers (one per category). Then he looked up the items corresponding to the random numbers chosen by colleagues, and began writing a new story based on those items. You can do the same with any challenge. Separate and list categories and write possibilities under each category. List a dozen or so different possibilities for each. Then randomly combine them and brainstorm the possibilities.

Divide the group into left-brain (rational) thinkers and left-brain (intuitive) thinkers. Ask the left-brainers to come up with a practical, conventional and logical idea; ask the right-brainers to come up with a far-out, unconventional and illogical idea. Then bring the group back together and combine the left-brain idea with the right-brain idea to see what you get.

The obvious way to plan a project or think through a process is to start at the beginning and work through it logically step by step. But by shaking up the accepted sequence of things, people see processes in a new light and become open to new approaches. For example, a computer company set out to rethink its process for software rebates. It looked at every step in the sales process out of order, then reordered all of the steps. The startling result was that it was able to shorten to two days what had been a five-day process in processing rebates.

Announce the theme of the meeting, and then invite everyone to identify a related issue for which they’re willing to take responsibility. When someone suggests an issue, he or she becomes the sponsor, writes the issue on a large sheet of paper, and posts the sheet on a wall. The process continues until all of the suggested issues have been posted. Next, have participants take part in an “Idea Marketplace” in which each person signs one or more or the large sheets to discuss the issues. The sponsors get together with their groups in private to discuss the issues and record the ideas.

Post sheets of flip-chart paper around the room, one per participant. Participants stand silently and write their ideas on the sheets (one sheet per person) for 10 to 15 minutes. Then the participants are allowed 15 minutes to walk around the “gallery” and look at the other ideas and take notes. Now, using the other ideas to stimulate further thought, participants return to their sheets and add to or refine their ideas. After about 10 minutes of additional writing, the participants examine all the ideas and select the best ones. Another option for the gallery technique is to ask participants to draw or diagram their ideas instead of listing them. For example, how many windows are there in your house? Diagramming your house allows you to go inspect and count the windows. Creative insights sometimes occur as a result of drawing or diagramming a problem, because they help us notice certain features that may be overlooked.

When we compare problems to something unusual, we tend to have a need to understand it. Consequently, we break it down and analyze the different parts to see if this will allow us to understand it or make it somehow familiar. When this happens, we form new links and relationships that may lead to breakthrough ideas. For example, years back, a group of designers were looking for ideas for a new light fixture. They compared a light fixture with a “monkey” and imagined a monkey running around a house with a light. This thought led them to conceive track lighting. Ask metaphoric questions to stimulate the group’s imagination. For example:

What animal is like the problem? Why?

A cold, half-eaten pizza is like the solution to problem because …

How is your problem like a flash light battery? How can the similarities spark new ideas?

If your problem were a lawn, what would the weeds be?

What famous historical figure comes closest to resembling the essence of the problem?
Each participant silently writes three ideas on the tops of sheets of paper. One idea per sheet. The sheets are passed to the person on their right. That person is asked to write down an idea that improves on the one listed at the top of the sheet. If participants have difficulty improving on the idea, ask them to list new ones. Do this for all three ideas. After five minutes or so, the idea sheets are again passed to the right. Continue the process until all members receive their original papers.

Have each participant construct a paper airplane. Each participant writes down an idea on the airplane and sends it flying to another participant. Upon reading what’s been written on the airplane, he or she writes down a modification or improvement of that idea, or an entirely fresh possibility and then sends it flying to someone else. Continue the exercise for twenty minutes and then collect and categorize the ideas.

Creative people frequently say that inspiration hits when they are doing something else. To the extent that your “else” is limited, so are the odds of a stunning insight. Repeated encounters with an alien realm of experience open you up to provocative new viewpoints. A sales manager recently told me that she recently joined a sculpture class. After she finished shaping her first mound of clay on a swivel tray, her instructor advised her to turn the sculpture around and look at it from several different viewpoints. The idea of looking at something from all sides was a revelation to her. Now whenever she works on a sales problem, she looks at it in as many different ways as possible.


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