Meetings. Presentations. Brainstorming Sessions. Do They Really Work?

Meetings. Presentations. Brainstorming Sessions. Do They Really Work?

An office of the University of Virginia charged with leading organizational effectiveness and improvements across the institution has a new target in its sights: meetings.

No, meetings aren’t going away. But how they are conducted and, more broadly, the traditional approaches to how groups, teams and committees tackle problems, make decisions and generate ideas are getting a fresh look under an initiative supported by Organizational Excellence, UVA’s pan-University program focused on quality and continuous improvements.

The initiative is called “Liberating Structures,” one of the many approaches that have emerged in recent years as organizations, schools, hospitals and businesses seek ways to improve productivity, collaboration and creativity in spite of bureaucratic norms that often slow innovative thinking and progress.

Sarah Collie, leader of UVA’s Organizational Excellence program, and her team use the Liberating Structures tools in their work with faculty, staff and students. Seeing results, they have encouraged others across Grounds to try them and have organized a two-day workshop this month.

“Liberating Structures are about interacting and working together in different ways,” Collie said. “These practices make it possible to tap into the collective wisdom of any group for better results.”

UVA Today caught up with Keith McCandless, who will lead the workshop, to discuss the state of modern workplace culture and why he thinks the Liberating Structures initiative he co-founded can live up to its name.

Q. What are some examples of today’s workplace culture that make people groan, but more importantly reflect unproductive structures?

A. You try earnestly to get everyone’s best thinking on a big problem, only to hear the usual responses from the usual suspects while everyone else looks on with bored, cynical faces. You are subjected to droning Powerpoint presentations that exhort you to adopt imported “best practices,” but are a poor fit for your local challenges. Your leader, with the goal of gaining consensus, opens up a discussion to all points of view, only to have an unproductive two-sided argument break out. You walk into a meeting where a presentation is underway while the participants are checking e-mail on their computers and phones.

These familiar experiences spurred the development of Liberating Structures. While there could be justification for blaming leaders, the more compelling explanation is not that the people involved are bad, resisting change or incompetent, but rather that the practices they inherited are not adapted to today’s realities. It’s the structure of how we are working together, not the people. 

Q. How would one of your program’s structures work differently than that example of a leader clicking through a Powerpoint of decisions he or she already has made while coworkers in the meeting are checking email on their phones?

A. By creating alternatives to conventional patterns, LS starts to replace the unwitting ways in which we exclude people, stifle innovation and over-control people. Habitually using presentations, status updates, managed discussions, brainstorming and open discussions perpetuates a whole host of chronic symptoms and complaints.

We’ve developed more than 30 tools that are available through a creative commons, non-commercial license that can be mixed and matched for different purposes. They can be applied to workplaces for groups of all sizes and composition.

One of the simplest is called 1-2-4-All. This exercise is an alternative to status reports and traditional brainstorming, which tends to devolve into just a couple of people doing all the talking. 1-2-4-All is designed to generate many ideas from group members in rapid cycles. It does this by breaking a group down into smaller groups to tackle problems or generate ideas or actions. Each person thinks about the issue for a minute alone, then pairs of people discuss the issue for two minutes, followed by groups of four spending four minutes together. Ultimately, the full group spends five minutes sharing the ideas that have emerged and the conclusions are recorded.

Almost without fail, participants quickly discover that it is possible, and not that difficult, to include and engage everybody and give everyone the opportunity to contribute. That often produces more potential solutions and better results, and it gives team members more confidence in one another.

Q. In the end, though, doesn’t a person in a position of authority still have to choose what the organization or unit will do next?

A. Yes, and … leaders can responsibly let go of more control. Many decisions about direction and next steps are handled collectively by the group. The number of decisions handed up to managers and leaders goes down. More freedom and more responsibility is distributed across the organization.

It does not happen immediately. Leaders often need to show their commitment to “liberating” and develop trust before everyone jumps on board. One of our principles is “emphasize possibilities; believe before you see.”

Q. How much do you encounter cynicism that it’s another buzzphrase or workplace fad that eventually will give way to tried-and-true-if-imperfect forms of making decisions and building strategies in the workplace?

A. I don’t expect anyone to believe a word I have said. We strongly advise new LS users to avoid naming the approach. Wait until you generate some better-than-expected results. Wait until someone asks you, “What was THAT thing you did?” Everyone has been burned too many times not to be a little cynical.

Based on many people working different domains all over the world, I am confident we are inventing a new way to organize. LS is transcending – and including – the tried-and-true. 

Q. What does success look like through this approach?

A. Tangible results are produced quickly. Joy in work increases and confidence in collective intelligence is boosted. Clarity about the purpose of your work together generates momentum for bigger leaps forward. More people feel their voice is heard and they are authoring the future.  

For more information, email Organizational Excellence.

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McGregor McCance

Associate Vice President for Communications and Executive Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications