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If we want to build inclusive cultures, we need to run inclusive meetings.

Feb 7 to April 18, 2023 Group leadership course
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Back in my consulting days, I remember joining a client where we built software for a new product line. We had a project manager – let’s call them Steve (not their real name) – who was responsible for delivery. Steve would regularly run our team meetings, from standups and planning sessions to retrospectives.

The first retrospective I attended with the team was the most poorly run retro I’d ever experienced. Everyone took their seats in the room, and Steve stood at the front next to the whiteboard. He drew two columns, ‘Working Well’ and ‘Going Badly’. He pointed at the first developer and said, ‘Tell me what you think is working well’ before turning to the flipchart and writing up what he heard. Satisfied with one statement, he pointed at another team member and said, ‘Tell me what is going badly.’

This experience was one of the things that led to me writing, The Retrospective Handbook. It also inspired me to learn more about how to run effective and inclusive meetings.

Teams and organizations fail to benefit from the ideas and perspectives of diverse opinions if they don’t focus on building inclusive environments. In this article, I’ll share how you can avoid being like Steve and what to do instead.

1. Facilitate, don’t manage

One reason people don’t like the term, ‘manager’ is because it often conjures up images of micromanagement. Our project manager Steve interpreted their role as very directive rather than facilitative. To build a more inclusive meeting, Steve could have focused on thinking about what is needed to facilitate the discussion, rather than direct the discussion. They could have thought more like a facilitator, and not the manager.

As I studied facilitation and learned from some great facilitators, one strong characteristic that resonated with me was that facilitators try to stay in the background as much as possible. They might introduce an activity and set up the conversation framework, but the goal is always the same: to allow others to stand in the spotlight and to hold it as little as possible themselves.

As a facilitator, you think more about what you can do to help participants talk to each other rather than via you. If you’re in a physical room for example, you might set up the chairs in a circle shape (where participants face each other) rather than a traditional classroom shape (where all participants face forwards to the person at the front). If you can’t do anything about the room layout, you could encourage whoever is speaking to replace you at the front, while you step to the side or behind people.

2. Be aware of power dynamics

When the team lead, tech lead, or engineering manager facilitates a meeting, the power dynamics can be confusing. Are you speaking in the role of a facilitator or their leader/manager? For team members who may come from a high Power Distance Index culture, or for those who put more weight into opinions from an authority figure, your words will be interpreted with significantly more weight than others in the room. This might mean that some people simply agree with your idea because of your role and not necessarily because it’s a better idea. You’ll have others who won’t even share their idea because they expect the authority figure to have the answer.

To counterbalance the power difference, try to share your opinion after everyone else has expressed theirs. Encourage others to contribute their ideas whether or not they think they’re good or bad, and ask questions to invite the quieter people to speak. Even if you still think you have the best idea or solution, build an inclusive environment by first thanking participation and waiting until the end to share your ideas.

3. Encourage idea-writing over idea-storming

At the beginning of this article, I shared the story of Steve, who was running the meeting using a traditional brainstorming technique. He invited each person to share, one by one, and wrote up what he heard. This traditional approach to idea-storming introduces a number of biases as the person speaking influences others in the room. Someone might think, upon hearing the person speaking, that their idea isn’t so good after all. The facilitator, if they’re not actively listening, will write up their interpretation, rather than what someone intended, introducing further bias.

To avoid this and to further increase inclusivity, encourage idea-writing over idea-storming. In Steve’s case, he could have given each person a pad of sticky notes and asked everyone to write down as many ideas for ‘Working Well’ and ‘Going Badly’ within a timeboxed period (e.g. five to ten mins). Idea-writing is more inclusive because it allows for people to concurrently contribute without biasing the original output.

With this approach, everyone writes down their ideas (without seeing each other’s ideas to avoid bias) and only when everyone has finished their output do they share it with each other, such as by putting them all up on a flipchart and grouping related/duplicate ideas. You might replicate something similar by asking people to write their ideas in their own spreadsheet, before copying and pasting it onto a shared whiteboard, like Miro or Mural at the same time.

Inclusive meetings don’t have to be hard

Teams and organizations won’t benefit from the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ if people don’t build inclusion into their meetings. Avoid being like Steve in your company and use these ideas to improve everyone's participation. Remember to facilitate, rather than manage the discussion. Be aware of the power dynamics, particularly if you’re in a formal leadership or management role. And prefer idea-writing over idea-storming to involve as many participants concurrently without bias.