How to create breakthrough meeting designs with Elementary Meetings

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In their remarkable book Into the Heart of Meetings, Eric de Groot & Mike van der Vijver describe what they call Elementary Meetings:

An Elementary Meeting has a specific name and consists of an obligatory, tacitly agreed series of actions performed by those taking part in the meeting. It usually originates in a specific national culture.

Some examples of Elementary Meetings are weddings, court trials, Christmas dinners, autopsies, parties, and conversations.

You may be thinking: “What on earth have these got to do with creating an environment for participation at meetings?”

Eric & Mike explain that the power of Elementary Meetings is that they include a set of conventions and behaviors familiar to all participants. We’ve all held conversations, been to parties, and eaten holiday meals, and even if we haven’t attended a trial or an autopsy we’ve probably seen them enacted on TV or in the movies. If it’s possible to map the form of a professional meeting onto the form of an Elementary Meeting we can create an event where attendees possess a common underlying knowledge and/or experience of its components and flow.

Here are three examples supplied by Eric and Mike of the power of this approach.

1) A wedding
Suppose you are asked to design an event to prepare the workers of two companies that are about to merge. Merging two organizational cultures is generally a difficult task; for examples review the history of the AOL and Time Warner or Chrysler and Daimler-Benz mergers. Most of us do not have direct experience of corporate mergers. But we are familiar with what happens at a wedding—a ceremony about the merging of two people’s lives! Making this connection suggests modeling the corporate merger event on the marriage process. This could include how the couple (of companies) met, “courted”, and got “engaged”. Other marriage components suggest themselves: “stag nights” before the wedding, rehearsal dinners, etc., culminating in the actual “wedding” of the two companies. In their book, Mike & Eric recount how they used this particular Elementary Meeting model for a successful company merger.

Notice how the wedding metaphor brings up all kinds of creative ideas for process that can be used during the event. Not only that, but any of the matching process that is appropriated will be familiar and relatively comfortable to participants due to their existing knowledge of what the Elementary Meeting routinely entails.

2) A conversation
How would you design an internal corporate event to announce major changes at a company? Change is rarely easy, so you’ll expect a host of questions and potentially some confrontation. The likely first thought of most meeting professionals would be to use a standard presentation set-up: employees sitting in theater seating facing management making presentations on a stage at the front of the room. But here’s how Eric and Mike describe the message such a setup sends:

“Having management on the stage in the floodlight and the employees as spectators sitting in the auditorium in darkness carries a powerful message. The message is this: the employees are a passive audience of what the management wants to put across; there is a gap between management and the rest of the company and the employees are kept in the dark. The participants would feel this in an instant. It is not a message that is transmitted through words; it is transmitted through the experience they have when entering the theatre and the lights go out. They undergo a physical experience that tells them: you are mere onlookers, the important people are up there on stage. In fact, the gap is clearly visible, you can see it because there is an open space between the front row and the stage.”

Instead, what if we used a conversation as the Elementary Meeting starting point for the event design? Here’s what Eric & Mike came up with:

“All 450 employees were seated on the stage, in two groups facing each other. This made them actors in their own play. Centre stage stood a small pedestal, with a camera mounted on it. It worked as a whiteboard. Everything that was written on it was projected directly onto big screens, visible for everyone. Those who spoke stood in the middle, between the two stands. Meanwhile, each participant was constantly facing a whole bunch of people, namely their colleagues. This gave an instant feeling of ‘us’; having a conversation amongst ourselves.”

See how the simple metaphor of a conversation changed the dynamic environment for this event?

3) Saying goodbye
The Elementary Meeting metaphor can even be employed to design a single session. In this final example, Mike and Eric describe the end of a seminar using a sports-based Elementary Meeting, namely the ritual used at the start of a hockey game:

“…the facilitator instructs participants to arrange themselves in two rows opposite each other, like ice hockey players before a match. They find themselves standing in pairs, one in front of the other. When he signals they shake hands, express a brief wish, and then step sideways to meet the next person. In just a couple of minutes, all of the 64 participants have exchanged a meaningful goodbye.”

Powerful metaphors
As you can see, when designing an event it’s worth investigating whether there’s an Elementary Meeting that will provide a familiar format for the entire meeting or a portion of it. Mike and Eric’s book is well worth reading for more examples of this approach, as well as a host of other fresh and innovative ideas about meeting design.

Photo attribution: Flickr user clydeorama