Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Meeting Architecture

I just got an email from my friend Becca Krantz, asking for my views on a bush-full of thorny questions about how to run effective meetings. While the list is somewhat eclectic, they’re all worthy queries and I’m inspired to offer my responses as a blog series. Here’s what she asked:

1. Setting up meeting space—what are the minimally acceptable standards?
2. Children in meetings—what's appropriate for the children and what’s appropriate for the adults? How might the answer here vary by topic?
3. What considerations should be taken into account when determining how informally or formally to run meetings?
4. What can be done about getting input from and building consensus with people who don't come to meetings?
5. What are the pros and cons of rules in community?
Today I’ll tackle the first topic, which I’m labeling meeting architecture, or how you set up the physical meeting environment. There are several things to keep in mind, and savvy facilitators and meeting planners will take these factors into account when selecting a room and preparing it for the meeting. With good meeting architecture, the space enhances the experience in subtle ways that operate mostly below the participant’s consciousness level (whereas poor architecture will often be noticeably irritating). In no particular order, here are my thoughts on what to think about:
A. Outdoors versus Indoors
While there is often an impulse to meet outdoors—especially if the weather is inviting—it is generally not a good idea, as there will be more distractions outdoors and it is hard to create a container for focusing the energy. Typically, you’ll lose half the energy outdoors that you’d be able to achieve with the same group meeting indoors. A notable exception to this guideline would be a field trip to view something in place that is specifically related to what the group is meeting to address.
B. Furniture
While there are times during a meeting when having people move or stand is an appropriate change of pace, in general people sit. The longer the meting lasts, the more valuable it is to provide comfortable seating, so that physical discomfort does not erode participant attention. In my experience it often works well to provide a variety of seating options, including cushions on the floor, rather than expecting everyone to find one kind of chair design or seat padding equally comfortable. What’s soothing for one may be fidgety for another.
Subtlety #1: Be aware of how height differential can affect power dynamics: people sitting higher than others will tend to be deferred to. Note that this caution also applies to a meeting space where the floor height varies, as in a split-level room or where some are on a stage or dais and others are not.
Subtlety #2: Pay attention to the spacing of chairs, or how many you can reasonably expect to occupy a couch. People’s comfort zone here will vary with cultural background and how well group members are connected with one another.
Should you use tables, or not? It depends. Tables can create psychic separation between participants, making it harder to connect. They can also assist with taking notes, or spreading out drawings or documents for better viewing.
C. Layout of the Room
While there are a lot of things that can work, it’s typically best to use a horseshoe seating arrangement for business meetings—a three-quarter circle with the open end facing the facilitator and any visual aids (such as a whiteboard or flip chart and easel). A closed circle (or oval) tends to be superior if your session is more about sharing from the heart (rather than problem solving, or sharing from the head). If there are too many people to accommodate in a single crescent, consider double rings.
If the room is oblong, it generally works better to orient the focal point in the middle of one of the long walls, so that sight lines to the front are shortest (a boon to those with weak eyes or less-than-robust hearing). Another consideration is whether you have wall space close to the facilitator where you can post flip chart pages, so that the group can continue to have visual access to sheets other than the one you’re currently scribing. (Note: if you anticipate wanting to post flip chart pages on the wall, be sure you have markers that won’t bleed through the paper and blue masking tape to adhere pages without putting the paint in jeopardy.)
Other things being equal, it’s better to position support functions (bathroom access, snacks & drinks, registration, literature table, and entrée to the room) in the back (best) or the side (next best); worst is right next to the facilitator, where every shift is disruptive. You should anticipate that some participants may come late or leave early, and it will be better for all if such adjustments can be made without calling everyone’s attention to them.
If minutes are going to be taken electronically, or you otherwise need electricity for technical support, find out where the wall outlets are (maybe you’ll need an extension cord, and perhaps you’ll need to protect participants from tripping over it). Plan ahead. If you anticipate the need for small group breakout sessions, are there appropriate spaces nearby to accommodate that? If the group is unfamiliar with the space, do you need signage?
D. Lighting & HVAC
At a minimum, people need to be able to see each other’s faces—we take in a lot of important non-verbal clues by reading facial expressions, and you may as well be meeting via conference call if the lighting is so low that you cannot see one another clearly. If you will be relying on visuals aids, then the lighting needs to be better than that—at least good enough for everyone to be able to see the visuals. Going the other way, if you will be showing a movie or giving a power point presentation, can you get the room dark enough to see well?
If you are using artificial lighting (as in an evening session), it’s acceptable to slant this more toward the front, where the facilitator and visuals will most need to be well lit. That said, find out ahead of time what your options are for adjusting the lighting. If the meeting is happening during daylight hours and you have natural lighting in the room, it will work better if the windows are oriented more toward the back of the room and are not behind the facilitator, where whatever’s happening outside will tend to compete for participant attention.
Finally, what are your options for adjusting temperature and air flow (do the windows open, do you know where the thermostat is)?
E. Acoustics
Check to see how sound travels and reverberates around the proposed meeting space. Can people reasonably hear one another (caution: an empty room can have very different acoustics than a full one)? If not, you may need an amplification system, or another room.
F. Size and Shape of the Room
There are nuances to assessing ceiling height in proportion to floor dimensions. When the ceiling is too high, the energy is dissipated; when it’s too low, the energy is suppressed.
Size the meeting space to comfortably hold the anticipated attendance. About 3/4-full is perfect. The energy fills the space, yet doesn’t feel crowded. It also provides a certain amount of cushion in the event that your meeting unexpectedly proves more popular than you anticipated.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is a book called Meeting Architecture that is a manifesto for the discipline of Meeting Architecture. It provides insights and it creates the taxonomy of meeting architecture. Also see and .com

Larry, NYC