By Allan Chochinov, Chair, MFA Products of Design
Sept. 25, 2018
I hate meetings.
We all hate meetings. I know people who, in their day jobs, do nothing but go to meetings—and are resigned to the fact that meetings are just what they do; that meetings are just how their organization functions. And sadly, that’s true for a lot of us.
There are a ton of books out there on how to have more productive, more meaningful meetings, but the fact of the matter is, you’re not going to read these books. You haven’t yet, and you probably won’t. So the problem is that everyone agrees that meetings are completely broken, but nobody will take the time or the trouble to learn how to fix them.
I have an alternative solution, and it’s made by changing one single word. No books, no seminars, no videos, no list of rules to post on the conference room wall. Just one word.
My argument is that we are never going to change meetings—as long as we call them “meetings.”
Meetings have gotten worse.
It’s grim out there. We go to meetings that have no agenda, except for the "I have a hard stop in an hour" threat. (That's probably the saddest, most defensive way to start anything possible.) Many people arrive late, and when they do finally get there, spend the entire time checking their phones.
Even before we attend a meeting, we have biases about what’s likely to happen in that meeting—that this person is always pontificating and really has nothing to say; that that person always has great contributions but gets run over by more vocal extroverts; or that the person who’s actually leading the meeting has no idea of what s/he is doing, or what the objective is, or how to separate missions from objectives from tactics.
Meetings are a great place to flex some muscle for people with big egos, and a terrible place for people who have great ideas but not much status. We talk about the merits of “failing forward” in our world, but the fact remains that people are extraordinarily risk-averse and are therefore unlikely to do anything that will put themselves (or their work product) in jeopardy.
And if all this weren’t bad enough, it turns out that most meetings aren’t really meetings at all—they’re “check-ins” where people give thin status reports and complain about insufficient resources, time constraints, and budget pressures. Sound familiar?
Install the Chrome extension and Slackbot below, ask all your co-workers to install them too, and make your organization go #nomeeting
Specialization is also a challenge. Everything in our world (and in our businesses) has gotten increasingly complex, nuanced, and interconnected. I am very pro-jargon, but the specialized languages now required to get anything of consequence done require very thin slices of expertise. What this means for meetings is that since many people in the room have different lexicons, they literally cannot talk to one another. In addition, they likely have different agendas and measures of success. (Design teams revere risk and daring, for example; legal and regulatory teams decidedly do not. And probably should not.)
Not only do these factors make it difficult for teams to meld to a common vision and set of challenges, but it’s often impossible for them to agree on any actionable next steps. Sadly, the objective of most meetings in the early stages of a project seems to be coming to a consensus about “what” should be done; to pick a direction on how to solve a problem. This is ludicrous. How could a bunch of people who haven’t put in any work or any preparation, or surfaced any new knowledge, hope to enter a meeting, and then two hours later expect to exit that meeting with any kind of agreement?
There’s a great deal more to be said about the dysfunction of meetings, but let’s get to a solution. Because again, you’re not going to read up on this stuff, and I’m suggesting that in the immediate term, you may not have to. (Well, hold on. Can you find it in yourself to read just one book? If so, make it this one—it's new, and it's awesome.) [Addendum: I didn’t realize that my fave podcast Track Changes did an entire episode on meetings! I seriously laughed out loud. (Transcript here on Medium.)]
Here’s a solution.
Here’s a possible remedy: Change the word “meeting” to the word “review.” Let me make that a pull quote here, because it’s the key:
Change the word “meeting” to the word “review.”
My suggestion is that simple. Literally outlaw the word “meeting” in your organization, and instead, replace it with the word “review.” (You’ll find two amazing digital tools to help you do this in less than two minutes from now.)
Let’s take a look at this in action: Your calendar says that you have a “meeting at 3:30pm today.” Okay, now imagine that , instead, it read that you have a “review at 3:30pm today.” You'd look pretty silly going empty-handed a review, right? It’s right there in the definition of the word “review” that the implicit (or actually, explicit) point of that gathering is to review stuff. Indeed, you would need to prepare something—anything—if you were going to a gathering of workmates that was labeled a review. (A “meeting” on the other hand doesn’t have any expectation built into it at all. And it already sounds dreadful.)
Here’s how I got there.
In 2011, I founded a graduate program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City called Products of Design—where masters students engage in a lot of group projects...and therefore have a lot of meetings “deciding what to do.” The program is ambitiously multi-disciplinary in teaching every kind design—from product design and interaction design to service design, platform design, and social innovation design. We have tons of business classes, ethics classes, and sustainability and resilience classes. The assignments in the program are broad and thorny—designers often call these kinds of problems “wicked problems”*—and the students are older, since it’s grad school.
This all adds up to the fact that they naturally like to talk about what to do, instead of jumping in and doing it. They don’t want to embark on the “wrong thing,” so they like to have a lot of meetings where the agenda is “what should we do?”
If you’re in a meeting, and the agenda of that meeting is “what should we do?”—get out of that meeting. And if you’re in a meeting with yourself and the agenda is “what should I do?”—then for sure get out of that meeting...and go make something. Make anything.
[*“Wicked” because they have no obvious simple solutions, are systemic in nature, and resist quick fixes. A few examples would be how to get better health services to the elderly, or how to de-stigmatize menstruation and decrease work and school absences for women and girls during their periods.]
Designers have a lot of nerve and hubris (they need both, since their whole mission is to turn an existing “thing”—a way of making prosthetics more affordable and accessible, or an advocacy campaign around diversity in government—into a better, more preferred thing.) Designers are also on the hook for “Design Thinking” of which, for the record, I’m a fan of, despite the backlash:). But although Design Thinking, wonderfully, at its heart, describes a process, it literally, and unfortunately, has the word “thinking” in it—leading many people to believe that solving problems is all about thinking. Which it is not.
Indeed, and tragically, most people in any industry believe that the way to solve problems or to invent new solutions or to fend off competitors or to plan their next moves, is to think—really, really hard—and then to discuss those thoughts with other people. In meetings. And then somehow miraculously all agree on them. Basically, their plan is to think things over, and then to talk those thoughts over. This is preposterous. There couldn’t be a worse process for coming up with better ideas or building consensus, nor could there be a bigger waste of time.
So during the first year of the Products of Design program (now in its seventh year), I designed and hung up a poster in the classroom that read “No Prototype, No Meeting.”
(Here are a couple more shots of it, from across the years, in the same spot!)
If you spelled it out in a sentence, the poster translated to the following: “If you don’t bring a prototype to your meeting, don’t go to the meeting.” Or more sternly, it demanded that “the price for entering a meeting is to bring something to that meeting.” I used the word prototype pretty liberally, so for design students, that “something” translates into anything that wasn’t there before: It could be a systems or user journey map, a competitive analysis of the marketplace in the form of a 2x2 matrix, a set of articles found on the web that informed, or better, challenged, the beliefs and biases of the people attending the meeting. A moodboard. Anything, really. (Hell, how about bringing a list of all the things you DON’T want to do? Even that would be more useful than just talking with no advance preparation.)
The effect of these “entry fees” is to surface new knowledge, and to give the meeting participants something to react to; we all know that it’s far easier, and more fun, to react to something in front of our face than to try to dream up something out of thin air. (Also for the record, I was hardly unique in thinking about the relationship between prototypes and meetings in the early 2010’s. Here’s a 2014 article by then-IDEO’s Diego Rodriguez. And another from 2013 by Tom and David Kelley. And Tim Brown writes beautifully about it throughout here…an IDEO triumvirate!)
[WAIT! Just heard from Tim and he points me to ‘Boyle’s Maxim’—named after Dennis Boyle who was employee #4 at IDEO, which states: ‘never go to a meeting without a prototype’. “I think this works nicely with your idea of a review,” writes Tim. “You can’t turn up with a prototype and not have a grounded, real conversation about its merits and what to do to improve it.” Thanks for the heads-up Tim!]
So this phrase became a kind of rallying cry for the students, taking hold pretty well, actually. (On occasion, it even became a sly hashtag for the keener students: #noprototypenomeeting.)
But a poster wasn’t enough. There had to be a better way to stop people from coming together and just worrying out loud about “what to do.”
"The whole 'no prototype no meeting' philosophy—and not ending a meeting without a clear next direction or a clear decision—really resonated with us in our work at MoMA. Honestly, it's changed the way we approach meetings and how we work with teams."
—Gabrielle Zola and Chay Costello, Museum of Modern Art
The moment it happened.
We were in a staff meeting. (Okay, busted. We have the occasional meeting!) I was thinking out loud that we needed something beyond an “entry fee” requirement for meetings; we needed to actually change the word away from “meeting.”
Could we literally change the word?
And right then, Alisha Wessler, our Director of Operations and an extraordinary visual artist, suggested the word “review.” Really, in an instant; it was the next breath out of her mouth. It was perfect. It was so simple. And it was obvious. (That’s how designers know that they have the “right” solution, by the way—when that solution seems completely obvious…after the fact, of course!)
And, again, the argument is beyond compelling: If you were going to a “review” rather than going to a “meeting,” it would seem pretty ridiculous that you would show up empty-handed. It’s also a nice word, filled with potential and excitement: “I can’t wait to see what the team has come up with at the review this afternoon!” Me either.
So what do you do in these reviews? Well, review the deliverables, of course, and then agree on the set of deliverables for the next review. And then at that event, you review those deliverables and agree on the deliverables after that. (You’re probably already doing this in some fashion, but by calling them meetings, you are inviting ambiguity and the escape-hatch of just talking.)
Okay, “but what about the first meeting,” you may ask. “We can’t call that a review yet, right?” Well, I’d suggest calling that a "briefing." The sole objective of that first gathering is to inform the group about the challenge, and then immediately to set the “reviewable” deliverables for the first review. Keep it under 15 minutes, and then go generate some knowledge to react to in the first review.
8 months ago, I configured my computer and phone with a simple auto-correct, making it impossible for me to type the word “meeting.” Now I never can, and I never do.
Let’s wrap this thing up; I’ve got to get to a, well, you know.
So here’s the thing. There’s not a lot going on here. I’m offering you something that takes zero effort and zero work. If you simply never use the word “meeting” at work or at school ever again, and use the word review, people will come prepared. If they didn’t, the word wouldn’t make any sense at all. It’s a self-fulfilling set-up. It’s like a little magic trick. So how do you perform that trick? Here's how:
About 8 months ago, I set my computer and my phone with a simple auto-correct, making it impossible for me to type the word “meeting”—it would immediately auto-correct it to the word “review.” I’ve been living with this change for a long time now, and I almost never see it autocorrect anymore...because the trick has conditioned me to never even try to type the word meeting. It’s kind of amazing.
Imagine if everyone in your department did this. If everyone in your school did this. If everyone in your company did this? Well, recently I was talking about this article to Bill Cromie, one of our amazing faculty, and Director of Emergent Technology and Co-Founder of Blue Ridge Labs at Robin Hood Foundation, and he eagerly offered to write some code to make it simple for everyone to make this change; to create a Chrome extension and a Slackbot that would swap out the word every time you tried to type it. (Can you imagine how many times the word “meeting” has been typed on Slack since you started reading this‽)
Here’s what you can do, right now.
Install the Chrome extension (this will help with Gmail), and then install the SlackBot on your computer:
Wanna go all the way? Make the change on your phone by adding a text replacement to your system. (iOS shown below)
Open an email to your team/group/org and paste this into it:
I just read a very short article on how we can have more productive meetings just by changing one word. Read it here, and then install the plug-ins. Let’s everyone do it!
And as a bonus track (and if you’re really, really keen to help spread the word), once everyone at your organization is onboard, extentioned, and slackbotted, take a picture of your workmates—with your organization’s logo somewhere in the photo—and post it to your social media with this: We Went #NoMeeting
So that’s it. No books, and a total reframe of one of the world’s biggest wastes of time. One word. One autocorrect. (And autocorrects on every one of your team’s browsers, of course, and in their Slack channels.)
I wrote Step 2 above because I would have suggested that you have a meeting with your colleagues to agree that your organization would trying going #nomeeting. But of course I can’t suggest that at all, because you don’t have meetings anymore; you have reviews.
So I guess, yes, please review this article with everyone at your workplace or your institution or your school, and then let’s never meet about it again!