Simple Design in a Complex World

I facilitated a meeting today where a thoughtful, simple design for the session really paid off.

The client is just starting a major IT project that will alter (in a good way) how most of their activities are carried out.  A big deal for them.

The project leaders genuinely wanted input from the people who were invited to the meeting, but hadn’t had much success engaging this audience in the past on similar, less extensive projects.

The audience was made up of the people who would be the main users of the new system.  I couldn’t imagine how this bunch wouldn’t be chomping at the bit to have a say in what it would do and how it would look.

Reflecting on what happened, I discovered a handful of principles were at play.

Be clear on your intended outcomes, and don’t be too ambitious.

Here, we wanted simply to bring everyone to the same understanding of what the new system would do, and give people the chance to tell the project team what they thought was missing from the current concept.

DO something to establish the tone you want, don’t just declare it.

This doesn’t have to be a big deal.  However, if you want a conversation with people, you can’t start off a meeting with 60 minutes of PowerPoint.  (You should never have 60 minutes of PowerPoint, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Instead, ask people to talk to one another about their expectations for the session.  Voila!  You have conversation!  Now you can dump a little bit of content on them and they are ready to talk back to you.

Allow space for people to engage with the content and with each other.

This means don’t over-engineer the agenda.

Express appreciation for everyone’s time and interest, and be committed to follow up.

If the people who just gave you the benefit of their best thinking don’t see you taking it seriously, good luck getting them to come to your next meeting.

That’s it.  The session was a home run.  Everyone in the room left excited about the work and ready to play their part.

One of the many paradoxes of this work is that the more complex the setting and the higher the stakes, the less rigid the design of the session should be.  That’s not to say you shouldn’t be rigorous in your upfront work, but you also need to relax your grip on the agenda and outcomes in case the group needs to go somewhere else.