Culture Factor 2.0

How Having Better Meetings Can Impact Your Culture Overnight

Episode Summary

In this episode, we dive into the culture of meetings. Douglas helps us understand ways we can create more productive and positive meetings that can transform an organization overnight. He gives us many ideas on collaborative software tools that can be used to run better meetings.

Episode Transcription

 

Paul Jones 

Today on the show we're with Douglas Ferguson who is a talented technologist, serial entrepreneur, author, speaker, investor and master facilitator Currently, he serves as president of voltage control, a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom design meetings and workshops. He is also a partner at Capital factory and a mentor at Tech stars. In addition, he serves as an advisor to many different organizations in the Austin, Texas area. Today, we're going to talk about how to have better meetings. And I'm really excited because this is a topic that I think could use a lot of work, we could all do much better on how we meet, how we organize our meetings, and how that impacts culture. So let's get started.

 

Holly Shannon 

Welcome to The Culture Factor, Douglas Ferguson.

 

Douglas Ferguson 

It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

 

Paul Jones 

Well, Douglas, we're gonna get right into it. And I wanted to give our audience a little bit of a background get to know you a little bit. As we've gotten to know you, you know, you're kind of the OG of The entrepreneurial scene in Texas. You've started a lot of different companies, you've sold a lot of companies, you've had a lot of great success, and you're always innovating. Could you give us a little bit of background history on on that journey? And as it relates to culture as well, I mean, you know, a lot of the executives out there and companies out there that are focused on people. So can you give us a little bit of your history?

 

Douglas Ferguson 

Yeah, absolutely. I started off writing software in the mid to late 90s. And that's what took me to Austin. And my first startup was actually in North Carolina. And we were way ahead of our times we had a system called Community a publishing software and it was kind of like Facebook way before Facebook. And it was really not great to be early. A fun, fun culture. We were all having a lot of blast building cool stuff. And really proud of being on the cutting edge. But yet, it's much nicer to hit that demand curve. A little bit more appropriately. So then I came to Austin and began writing software for CoreMetrics, which was founded by Bret Hart, which is a huge pioneer here in Austin around culture. And one of the early participant founders of the Cultural Equity Conference, I think he's still advisor now, and a real big fan of that conference for all the culture junkies out there. And I guess my personal journey, I learned a lot from working underneath Brett and then as I took on more leadership roles, and ultimately I think that the thing that really drew me toward the leadership roles was realizing how important people were. Blending different disciplines together. Because technology for technology's sake doesn't serve anybody. And we have to stitch together this deep understanding of the market and deep understanding the technology, and even design and form and how all these things come together to make great products. And then we can't do any of that unless we have a healthy organization. And the only way to have a healthy organization is to concentrate on the people.  There's this interesting phenomenon of the power of networking, and tapping into the broader culture of the community. And how can you play a role there, whether it's community building, across other CTOs and bringing together people that are like minded and working on similar things, and creating that community of practice that then transcends the organization and feeds the ecosystem. So then as you move to maybe found other companies or or consult with other companies the the community can support the journey from from one generation to the next maybe? I think that's, to me a really fascinating concept.

 

Holly Shannon 

Let me let me switch gears for just a second. So, you know, we're all working with a virtual world, in businesses and in events. Events are really struggling. And, you know, we're still trying to figure out how to get that human connection. I like a couple of the ideas you came up with. But outside of events, obviously, you run a company and you've worked with other companies. Can we jump into the conversation about I'm going to really switch gears here but in terms of meetings and how they affect company culture, so you know, conference is one thing you know, you have your community and you're trying to keep that momentum. But, and but very often people come to an event more, you know, it's something that they want to do. They're interested in participating in something. But in an office, if your boss says we're having a meeting at three, everybody shows up. So my question is, how many meetings is ideal? Is more meetings better? Is less meetings better? Where's that tipping point? We've talked with people about company culture, and some people hate having meetings, and they feel like it's a negative and some people feel as though more is better, because it's more collaborative. What is your take on that?

 

Douglas Ferguson 

Well, I want to unpack a couple of things you said there. First, I'm going to start with this. The notion that we're shifting gears, because I think therein lies a real potential, and we don't think about it so much as shifting gears. That meeting should be considered little events. And how you described an event as something someone was interested in participating in. They should feel that way about meetings or you shouldn't have them. And so if we can have tons of that, if we can have more meetings, and everyone feels that way, then we should have more meetings. If having less meetings means that everyone feels that way, we should have less. Whatever we can do to intentionally design our meetings so that people feel invited, they feel like they can participate and they want to be there. Then the we're in a good spot. And we have about 10 different meeting mantras that we believe can help people get to that kind of Mecca. We refer to them as magical meetings. And one of them is that all meetings are optional. And it's kind of a playful way of saying that if you don't think you're going to provide value to the meeting, or that the meeting is going to influence your ability to do your job, then don't attend, have the courtesy to let the organizer know that you're not going to attend. And maybe why? Because that's a learning moment for them. But, certainly giving everyone the authority to say, you know what, you're not going to just carpet bomb my calendar with a bunch of meetings and steal my time.

 

Paul Jones 

Right? You know, it's interesting. It brings this capitalistic approach to meetings where it puts the pressure in the right places. There's a number of reasons why someone could leave a meeting and meetings are optional, then you as the meeting organizer, you're gonna have to have a pretty good idea of what that meeting should be and what the outcomes, what the goal of that meeting should be. I can't tell you how many meetings I've organized where it's been half assed, I thought about it for a second, I thought, Oh, we need to talk about this topic. So I've got a topic of mine, but I haven't structured it beyond that. And then invite people to a meeting, and we end up wasting some time or someone doesn't feel like they need to be there. So that's a that's a really interesting concept.

 

Douglas Ferguson 

Yeah, you know, that, that's brings up a couple of things that are near and dear to me, which is a good agenda. So many people say, oh, well, if you're gonna have a good meeting, you gotta have a good agenda. And then there's the 80 percent of people that don't even bother to do an agenda. And then other people that are doing agendas, at least 80 if not more percent of them are just making lists of topics. Yeah, agenda can be so much more. You know, an agenda can be a blueprint for how we're gonna make decisions. And you can take that so much further. The other thing you talked about not having a goal where you can't have a good agenda unless your goal is really crisp. And I would say that even better, where it is purpose, what is the reason we're bringing people together? What is our bedrock purpose for spending all this money that we're going to spend to gather these really smart people that are well paid together to spend all this time? And if you really think about honoring that, then you can really craft a good agenda. And there's also different frameworks that you can use to kind of break down the types of meetings because the word meeting is so overloaded and it can actually help culturally, it can help you out to just remove the word meeting from your lexicon to be more descriptive, you know, what are we actually doing? And you know, if it's just a status report, then maybe we shouldn't do it, maybe we should asynchronously figure out how to convey this information. And, in fact, you know, if a meeting is purely informative, in any manner, we can probably accomplish that in a way that is much more friendly to scaling and to giving everyone more time to do important work and multifaceted. 

 

Paul Jones 

I mean, in even trainings, a lot of times we do training meetings. And so you gather everybody in a room, and it might be two in the afternoon, and everyone they just don't want to be there. Because you're just presenting information. It's not engaging. So there's a lot of different ways to think about that. And I think that plays 100% into the culture of your company, you can really change the culture of your company by changing the way that you meet what ar some of the things that people could do right now that would kind of signal if someone's looking to change their culture, and they wanted to use meetings as a vehicle to do that, what are some things they could do in their meetings?

 

Douglas Ferguson 

So we already talked about making meetings optional. That will change our culture overnight. Also do the work in the meeting. If, if you adhere to that principle, let's say in every meeting that we're going to do work together, so rather than talking about stuff, and then everyone divides and disappears, and to go do the work, what if we started to do the work together? What if we refuse to meet unless we had a prototype? So that we had something to review and react to rather than just words that are kind of floating around evaporating and we're not quite so sure. If we're all in alignment, it sounds like we're saying the same thing. But two weeks from now on something surfaces, is it going to look like what I'm imagining? Yeah, sure. And in that's talking about I'm talking about structure and, and, and conceptual stuff, not necessarily visual aesthetic, when I say does it look like what I'm what I'm imagining, right? Because structurally, if things are completely different, that it's really valuable to surface that early on. And also, I think when there can be much better communication around the type of the meeting that's happening before it happens so that we walk in knowing are we coming together to make a decision? Because if your team is expecting a decision to be made it may just be because that expectation was not set. They just planted one of their own. Because if you don't tell the story, somebody else will. And so, if I don't explain exactly my intentions of this meeting, then people can get things in their head and if we walk out without making the decision, then that can hurt people and make them feel unheard or make them feel not included. Likewise, if they were not expecting the decision to be made, and or they were expecting one to be made, and then we walk out and there's still more options floating around that can be frustrating too. So the timing of decisions communicating how and when, and and making sure that we inform them if they're going to be consulted, or if we're expecting them to make the decision or if we're going to collaboratively make the decision. Because there's I don't think there's any right or wrong answer and different situations dictate different tactics. But if we communicated ahead of time, people tend to be a lot more receptive.

 

Holly Shannon 

Oh, you make me think about something here. So you said magical meetings and your number one thing is all meetings are optional. I feel like number two should bring us back to a comment you made about creative destruction. So maybe an agenda is built with the notion that we are creatively, deconstructing, or just being destructive. It's our opportunity to really rebuild it. And then maybe number three is saying, the net that next meeting is we're coming to the table with decision making, so that everybody has had an opportunity to eat to come to maybe play devil's advocate and really dissect something and then know that now we're going to make a decision. So they had their say, and that and I feel like that would feed into a good company culture because I feel as though a lot of people don't feel as though they get to say their piece or contribute. And that might just be because the meeting structure is not there.

 

Douglas Ferguson 

Yes, and you're touching on a lot of things that are, get me really excited. And one of them is one of our mantras is to include and unleash everyone. So it's super important that that happens in some way. And, you know, the structure you just described would be a way to include and unleash everyone. And there are other ways to approach it. And it gets into this work that we call meeting systems, which is, you know, thinking about your meeting culture, and when you have meetings and what types of meetings you should have, and when it wouldn't be appropriate to have a certain kind of meeting and how it's structured and, you know, the decision making processes, etc. And so thinking about those things, just like you would your office culture and your values, but thinking about your meetings as constructs that are the vehicles by which your employees interact and if you don't think about the design with the care and intention, then you're really missing an opportunity to structurally support any other behaviors and culture that you're trying to instill.

 

Paul Jones 

Absolutely. We've been doing a lot of interviews lately, and we've been talking a lot about outcomes, outcome based leadership. And you're seeing that emphasis more and more with going remote and a lot of companies are not going to go back to the office. And so kind of circling back to what we were talking about earlier, where in the office, there's this organic kind of bump into you get to know you, things that start to happen. Well, virtually here on meetings. That's really where employees are having intersections with each other and social dynamics. And so when we talk about the meeting, and this is why I think this subject is so timely because meetings now are really the only place right now where social interaction is happening. Douglas, how would you recommend when we try to become meeting senseis inside of our organizations, and we come up with our agendas, and and we realize that it's optional. How do we add that social element into a meeting that we also want to be productive?

 

Douglas Ferguson 

Yeah. So that's a fantastic question, because it's so important. And the BBC even had this report come out that said that most meaningless meetings are actually a form of therapy, which I found really fascinating because, you know, on one hand, you could say, well, let's get rid of all these meaningless meetings, but if they are providing a form of therapy, then we should design that in intentionally.Let's be really intentional about it. What if we designed it into productive and effective meetings rather than having a whole meeting that people are just drawn to? Because they need that? What if that was part of every meeting, and that gets into meeting design, how we think about agendas, and you can think about designing your meetings with with your agenda being a narrative. And the meeting tells a story and unfolds in some organic way. One of my favorite narratives for a meeting is just a really simple open explorer close, you can almost thinking about it as like, the classic storyline of the beginning, the middle and the end. And in the beginning, we have to open things up, we have to get people warmed up, and then there and then the middle, is when we explore and then and then we end with a closer and we tighten things off and you know, we put a bow on it. And another way to think about that, as in the opener, we're going to allow people to come up with their own ideas. It's when we give people time to boot up and consider things. And then during the Explore section, that's where we look at collisions and intersection. That's where some of the serendipity starts to happen. We don't allow for that, then we might not find the novel solutions. And then the closer is this more kind of convergent kind of space where we're starting to add constraints and make decisions. There are other narratives you can consider as well. But the point is if we think about those narrative arcs, then we can think about when it makes sense, probably the opener, right? If we're gonna design an opener, or if we're doing a hero's journey, narrative arc, where might or might there be a good point for for design and some serendipity but, but often, it's when we want to energize the room where we're coming back from a break or we're starting, we might design something. There's this the phenomenon that I refer to as "The weather report" just generally happens when people started meetings, and they're like, oh, how was the weekend? or What did you do? Like it was raining outside? And like, oh, did you see the football game? And, you know, it's all this kind of stuff that's happening. But what if you were really intentional about that? So right out of the gate, you have a prompt, write really provocative question that tie it into the work we're going to do, but didn't expect people to have answers. Didn't expect, like really serious, like brain power or, or like cognitive like input on whatever this thing is, but it was related enough to get people just in the mood of talking about this thing. And it was loose enough to where people would allow people to connect. Maybe you even use breakout rooms, even if it's only a meeting of like 10 people, maybe you're breaking out into groups of two, and you're creating some informal things. And then outside of the meeting there's lots of people that are, you know, starting up a meeting for a team that normally works together, or would sit together in a pod, and the meanings just kind of going in the background. Or they kind of create little impromptu events that are less topical and is more about connecting. Whether it's like over a forum chat or whatever. So I think just considering ways to bring the team together and, and new and creative approaches is smart and also giving people time to voice an opinion around how they might do that, right and letting it be a bit or self organizing, because that's a very powerful dynamic as well.

 

Paul Jones 

That's a great point.

 

Holly Shannon 

How would you guide them in self organizing because there's always those people who love to take the lead. And then there's a lot of people who like to follow and there's nothing wrong with either types of personalities. How would you foster that?

 

Douglas Ferguson 

Yeah, you know, the thing I look out for is the the folks that naturally want to lead. Are they mature enough to realize that part of their leadership responsibilities are to, to bring out the insights and ideas from those that are more likely to follow. Because if they're following, and they're just, they're just saying yes to everything, and not giving their true thoughts are actually not speaking up, then there's a real risk and that dynamic and, you know, identifying the leaders and really upskilling them and in the abilities of facilitation, and how it's just a new way to lead. It's much more of a sort of rather than the sage on the stage its the guide from the side kind of approach and empowering them to unleash everyone versus just kind of Blazing the path and having everyone follow exactly what they do. And so that's my biggest advice as someone who's watching some of these dynamics unfold, really leaning in as a coach and encouraging them to be coaches. And but I guess my real thought around the self organizing stuff is rather than, you know, seeing the vision of this is how we need to adjust our meetings, really just inviting a conversation, because it can be really powerful to sit down with the team and say, What do you like about the way we meet? What do you dislike about the way we meet? And what are the opportunities where we can do better? Rather than just come in and say, I heard all this awesome stuff on this podcast. Really inviting that conversation then they can. Then you really extract you're facilitating them to have even bolder eyes. Ideas then then we even have because they're in the trenches, they're living it. They're, they're gonna know what they need. I'm reading a book right now by Gary Messner, who was one of the first FBI negotiators. In fact he is the one that the school at Quantico had existed, but he's the one that really took it and grew it and even helped them transform a lot of the advice and techniques. He was there at Ruby Ridge. He was at Waco. He has seen a lot and he said, "The only compromise is to listen".

 

Paul Jones 

What you're talking about Douglas is, when you don't have a structured meeting. I think you're going to get this kind of social pecking order where you want to prove that you you're a contributing member of the group, right? And so the narrative that you end up participating in is that narrative rather than what is the purpose that we're trying to accomplish. And I love what you said earlier about prototyping. I think prototyping is a great way to create this mindful group that's living in the present working together. Because you're not trying to all get on the same page conceptually, or you're not trying to necessarily debate something, but when everybody's working toward this the goal of this meeting, and the purpose of this meeting is come out of it with a prototype. Now you're getting people to stay in the present. And as soon as you stop being in the present, you're gonna have a good point I want to make you've stopped listening right. So you have to let go of, you know, an idea or a thought that you have had to for the betterment of the group. So that You can move forward together. And the idea of working together on a prototype, I think really helps that.

 

Douglas Ferguson 

Yeah. And you know, there's lots of great collaborative tools that allow us to do that, whether it's sticky notes in a physical meeting, or like sticky notes a virtual board like Mural or Miro, or even Figma. We love using Figma to design assets together, or we're in a Google Doc together, or Google Slides or any kind of collaborative tool that lets us be in there at the same time, then any ideas we have, can be inserted in real time. We don't have to wait till someone else's finished. And the act of recording those things. I've found that can be an amazing way of capturing what we hear someone else say with her own spin on it. And then and then as all that stuff, it's almost like a multi threaded brainstorming versus, you know, the kind of single threaded approach of one person documenting well a bunch of people talk and If we can all capture at the same time, we're all kind of influencing it. And then then if there's time to zoom back out and kind of take note of everything that's been captured or the progress has been made, then that that creates a really, really interesting dialogue. Because instead of someone having to make a bold point, we have a really visual, definite prototype to react to. So then our language can be really terse, we don't have to have this really articulate, descriptive, you know, deep vocabulary, we can say should not be moved to the left. We can be more tactical their language, and then we don't have to, you know, even just, you know, we're not going to forget how to say move that to the left, right. And so we can wait or even make a little side comment. Because we the tool allows it right. Or we just make the change and see how people react to it. And so it just the possibilities become infinite compared to, you know, the dialogue in a room where everyone's Talking circles words are evaporating. Like we're saying things and we're not sure if we're disagreeing or agreeing sometimes, and it's the visualizing the space just opens up so much more potential.

 

Paul Jones 

I love that perspective. That's so cool. Douglas, thanks for coming on the show and sharing this, this new way to look at meetings. I said earlier, I think it's really timely. And you've given us a lot of fantastic tools and some great perspective to think about.

 

Holly Shannon 

Yeah, I really appreciate this. This was great.

 

Douglas Ferguson 

You guys were a pleasure to chat with I feel like I could go on for hours and I know it has to come to an end. But I really appreciate you taking the time to chat and it's been great to be here.

 

 

Awesome. Thanks, Doug. Listen, thank you for coming on The Culture Factor.