Reverse your thinking about time-consuming meetings

Why flip meetings can have a major impact on learning, innovation

HR professionals have a key role to play in helping organizations to develop leaders of innovation and overcome innovation gaps. 

One of the ways they do this is by developing leaders to excel at facilitating generative conversations, which means they learn how to work with diverse teams to generate insights and innovative solutions to complex issues.  

Yet leaders often identify a barrier to becoming leaders of innovation: A lack of time to facilitate generative conversations with their entire teams or with cross-functional, diverse teams. 

But leaders do not require “new time” for this essential activity. Instead, they need to reallocate the way they use time. 

Perhaps the best example of how leaders can use their time differently is the concept of a “flip classroom,” which has become popular in school systems. Traditional education methods usually involve a classroom lecture and homework for students to complete outside class. 

The flip classroom model changes the method of instruction so lectures are online for the student to view outside of class. The next day, students do their “homework” in class.  Essentially, the classroom flips from the traditional lecture environment to a laboratory where students apply ideas and do their homework in class in an interactive, self-discovery manner. The teacher’s role becomes facilitator of the students’ learning and self-discovery process in class.

This same idea can be applied to one of the major time-wasters for leaders — meetings. Many business meetings focus on updates from a leader to the team and from team members to each other. If a conversation occurs that requires further exploration, the leader might say, “Let’s take that offline.”  What this really means is the generative conversation will occur outside of the meeting, while the meeting itself will be used for the updates. 

Yet many meeting participants want their leaders to organize meetings so generative off-line conversations occur in the meetings instead. In essence, they are requesting flip meetings — the meetings are flipped so the updates occur in advance and the meetings themselves focus on generative conversations. 

Flip meetings require attention to two key aspects: Pre-work before meetings and generative discussions during the meeting. 

There are two areas of pre-work that should be requested of team members to flip the meeting:

• For regular meetings, distribute updates as pre-reading. This way, the generative discussions can occur when the team meets. One concern with this approach is sometimes the updates contain so much content, team members do not have time to read all of the material. It’s recommended team members become skilled at summarizing their key points so the information can fit on one page. 

• For problem-solving meetings, have team members input individual ideas about the issue prior to the meeting so the meeting can focus on contrasting and exploring new ideas. This can solve the issue of too much time being wasted taking inventory of what individuals believe about an issue. Since the leader does not need to spend time during the meeting collecting what individuals believe about the issue, most of the meeting time should focus on generative discussions to integrate and contrast ideas so participants gain insight into the issue and discover innovative solutions. 

Of course, there may be some team members who test the new process and will not provide the input, read the material or provide ideas in advance. Leaders should set the standard operating procedures and hold team members accountable to do their part before the meeting.

It is important not to let the dysfunctional behaviour of one participant ruin the flip meeting process. The rule should be that if an individual does not do the pre-reading or input her ideas, that person cannot participate in the group discussion on the issue. Most often, team members learn quickly that the new procedure is a real requirement and they will start to read the material and input their ideas in advance as requested.

Generative discussions 
Assuming the pre-work inputs and ideas have occurred, here are four guiding principles to maximize the value of generative discussions during meetings:

Individual ideas before team ideas: When engaging in generative discussions, leaders of innovation sometimes make the error of immediately asking the group to give input. What often happens is the individuals who are most vocal dominate the discussions and the quieter members do not have room to input their ideas. The preferred method is the leader should begin the generative discussions by hearing each person’s opinions or, alternatively, by having each person write her integrative ideas on a flipchart based upon what she read prior to the meeting. In this way, no individual ideas are lost and the potential for insights and effective solutions will be enhanced.

Team members before the team leader: In most meetings, the team leader is in a position of authority, which is very helpful to expedite decision-making. However, this authority can have a negative impact on others if it reduces the openness of participants to share alternative ideas. This can happen if people feel uncomfortable sharing ideas that conflict with what the leader seems to be saying. 

Leaders should consider adopting a principle of leadership that “Leaders should not say things that people already know.” This means leaders should hold back their opinions until they hear what others think — in other words, leaders should not be the first ones to speak but should allow other people to speak so they understand what the other team members know.

After everyone has had time to speak, the leader can add value by contributing new ideas.  Of course, if the leader has already made a decision, then he should share this decision with the group and then identify the areas where generative conversations are needed. 

Gain insight before discovering solutions: Many leaders make the mistake of jumping to problem resolution before they fully understand what the issues are. We recommend that before leaders entertain even one solution, they spend 50 per cent of the time allocated for the issue on gaining insight to surface the real issue. Once the team clarifies what the real issue is, they can engage in a focused brainstorming process to discover innovative solutions.

Divergence before convergence: Many leaders of innovation move too quickly to evaluating ideas without allowing all the ideas to surface unencumbered by judgment from others. The problem of converging too soon is exacerbated when the judgmental comments come from the leader who has authority to decide what to do. 

Leaders of innovation need to protect the divergence stage so no convergence or judgment occurs — especially by them. Once divergence is completed, then the leader of innovation can proceed to guide the team through the convergence stage by identifying options and innovative solutions. 

HR’s input
HR professionals have a unique opportunity to be significant contributors to developing leaders of innovation. They have the ability to teach leaders how to deal with issues in more innovative ways. They also should guide leaders to flip meetings, so valuable time is reallocated to the really important activity of engaging in generative conversations that enable them to uncover innovative solutions to complex issues.  

David Weiss is president and CEO of Weiss International in Toronto, an international consulting firm that focuses on innovation, leadership and HR consulting. For more information, see and follow David’s tweets on innovation at @DrDavidWeiss.

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