Take a Hike – business meetings

Take a Hike – business meetings

Most companies want workers to think outside the box, but some companies are encouraging employees to meet outside the box, too. Given today’s fast pace of business, employees are often grabbing meetings whenever and wherever they can. Sometimes they’re planned, sometimes not. But they’re always unconventional.

Called “impromptu” or “informal meetings,” they take place over coffee, during a walk in the park, in cafeterias, in elevators, and in many other unconventional spots, all in the name of getting the creative juices–and the lines of communication–flowing. They also can simply save time, or help overloaded workers kill two birds with one stone. It’s not a new idea, but anecdotal evidence suggests that just as surely as business has gone casual, so too have business meetings, that staple of corporate America.

Because sometimes they’re held in between other meetings, perhaps they should be dubbed “betweenings.” Whatever you call them, they entail two or more coworkers exchanging valuable information or ideas.

An HR manager at one Internet marketing firm comments that one of their programmers routinely clammed up during traditional meetings with his boss, but now opens up over Ping-Pong. The boss gets the information he needs and the programmer gets, well, better at his Ping-Pong game. Watch out Forrest Gump.

At Miller Brewing Company’s headquarters in Milwaukee, for instance, people might have meetings while playing pinball. According to “Next on the Agenda: PacMan,” an article that appeared in the January 1999 issue of Successful Meetings, one of the most frequently used conference rooms at the firm’s home office sports a row of arcade games along one wall, which attendees can use before and after meetings, and during meeting breaks.

It doesn’t stop there. Jeffrey R. Katz aptly describes the new “walking meeting” in the June 2000 issue of Walking magazine (www.walkingmag.com). Several years ago, he became an accidental participant, and he now sings its praises. Katz says that walking meetings have become a staple at his start-up firm. They allow workers to get away and focus on the big picture. In addition, he points out, “walking interviews” have screened out candidates who “wouldn’t thrive in our quirky culture.” Walking meetings help these folks get their inventive ideas flowing and literally keep their business on its feet. Talk about an interesting twist on “management by walking around.”

In firms that want to create an environment of innovation, such eccentric meeting practices abound. Open discussion in an open environment tends to open the mind. If you’re encouraging a culture of avant-garde thinking, you might consider where your firm’s brainstorming and brain drains take place.

According to Chicago-based Aon Corp.’s (www.aon.com) “United States @Work” study, about 20 percent of employees responding to the annual survey feel that their organizations aren’t meeting expectations in creating a work environment that supports open and candid communication. Bingo.

“I’m a huge believer in non-traditional everything at this point,” says Nancy Probst, a manager and organizational development (OD) consultant of management advisory services for Dixon Odom PLLC, a certified public accounting and management advisory firm based in High Point, North Carolina. “Traditional organizational structure and practices just don’t work in the year 2000.” Probst participates in two professional groups of organizational development colleagues, calling themselves a community of practice. One group meets monthly in an organization’s classroom. The other meets every month at the home of the same gracious hostess.

“We begin our meetings in her kitchen, having coffee and home-baked goodies that the members bring. We then move into the dining room and engage in the richest dialogue I’ve ever been involved in,” she says. “The first group [which meets in the office] is nowhere near as rich or comfortable. I truly believe that getting outside the confines of the rigid organizational world opens people’s minds and hearts in ways that can never happen inside. I’ve learned more from this group than any other I’ve participated in.”

“Whenever I join a new company, I [call this type of meetings] in order to make people comfortable. People tend to be more frank and open,” says Kaifee Siddiqui, manager at Social Marketing Pakistan, an affiliate of Population Services International, based in Washington, D.C. “I have used it with my peers and superiors as well, and it has turned Out to be very useful.” Siddiqui warns that “it should not be practiced very frequently, otherwise the impact would be lost.”

“Before starting my own company in 1976, I worked for 3M Company in their Learning Systems department,” says Larry Cipolla, chairman and director of CCI Assessment Group, an Edina, Minnesota firm specializing in 360-degree multi-rater feedback. “We were part of the 3M corporate training and development and their GD function.” While there, Cipolla says, several of their internal clients incorporated stand up meetings. “No chairs, no coffee, no tea or milk. No doughnuts. There was a table for handout materials. There was the usual 3M equipment (overhead projector, screen, sound-on slide, and so forth). All meetings were required to have an agenda, with clear objectives. There were no war stories. No ice-breakers. No one was allowed in after the start time. Agendas were distributed at least two days ahead of time. Amazingly, most meetings were concluded within a 30 to 45 minute time frame. Upon conclusion of each meeting, there was a clear ‘list’ of who was responsible for what by when.”

For an emergency meeting, there might not be time to distribute the agenda, but the meeting still had an agenda, with a clear purpose. “By the way, if the client discovered that there were several emergency meetings about the same recurring problems and issues, he or she looked at who was causing that emergency. That, then, could be the topic of the next meeting,” explains Cipolla. 3M Co. talks about “impromptu” meetings on its Web site (www.3m.com).

Christopher Avery, president of Partnerwerks, Inc. (www.partnerwerks.com), an organizational performance-coaching firm based in Austin, Texas, offers some insight on off-the-cuff meetings. He suggests that informal meetings are still meetings, and should have some structure behind them, even if no one is sitting down. Topping his list is the advice that employees should always be prepared for chance encounters with key personnel. If employees put together running lists of things they want to discuss with a certain person, they’ll always have the agenda clear in their minds and can take advantage of chance encounters with the very people they would like to speak with.

Second, Avery suggests that if an employee meets up with a colleague that she needs to talk to, she should first ask the person if he has 10 minutes to discuss something. This way, the other person has the chance to say “no,” as he might be on his way somewhere and not have time at that particular moment. If the other person agrees to the informal meeting, they should formally declare their conversation “a meeting.” This focuses both parties on the fact that the material they’re about to talk about is business, not pleasure.

Impact: An impromptu meeting can be a good business tool, if used properly Make sure employees understand impromptu-meeting etiquette, and communication will be enhanced, not hindered.

COPYRIGHT 2000 ACC Communications Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group