5 nightmare meeting scenarios and how to fix them

Lisa Rossi
6 min readJan 10, 2020

Meetings should be magical.

Hear me out. Seventy-one percent of senior managers said meetings are unproductive and inefficient, according to Harvard Business Review. Sixty-four percent said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. I was troubled by all the problems with how we gather, so I studied and experimented my way to better collaboration. In 2019, I launched Bonfire Strategy with the goal of helping teams unlock breakthrough ideas through managed collaboration.

The truth is that you can’t keep doing the same thing and expect new results.

Take time to design your in-person meetings and you will get better results. Photo by Lisa Rossi

Here are some most common meeting problems we’ve seen and some new ideas on how to fix things:

Problem: Scratch-your-own itch-a-palooza

doodle by Lisa Rossi

The scenario: The time has come to pitch ideas. The writer has ideas for books. The software engineer has an app pitch. Even the office cat has a creative idea: the team should make a new scratchpad. With extra catnip. The issue becomes clear: Everyone’s idea is related to what they studied in school and personally like and does not solve the complex problem of the customer.

The fix: I recently heard Drake Assistant Professor of Graphic Design Neil Ward describe it this way: “Being an artist you create work for yourself. Being a designer you create work based on the needs of others.” Before a brainstorming meeting, each team member should schedule a conversation with a target customer about the problem the team has agreed upon. Challenge team members to learn about the customer’s behaviors and values. The job is only to listen and learn as much as they can. Then, when it comes time to brainstorm, team members are coming up with ideas and insights that relate to the customer, as opposed to themselves.

Problem: The get-a-promotion one-man-show

doodle by Lisa Rossi

The scenario: Everyone is sitting around a conference table and the boss is at the helm. It’s time to offer ideas! It’s clear that one person has more ideas than everyone else. In fact, when someone else is speaking, he interjects. He has lots of reasons why his ideas are the best, including the big unspoken reason: He is up for a big promotion and he knows the boss is watching. He wants to perform his very best!

The fix: Don’t invite the boss to meetings that involve creative brainstorming. This gives employees space to take risks and perform without worrying that they are being judged. If you are facilitating the meeting, ask the boss during a one-on-one prior to help you understand the problem. After the meeting, ensure she is aware of what resources you will need to conduct research and easy experiments to test whether new ideas work. Don’t forget to ask her input on key stakeholders that might create impacts you haven’t considered.

Problem: The brainstorming road-to-nowhere

doodle by Lisa Rossi

The scenario: A team leader wants to talk about ideas. They bring sticky notes and markers. They are excited! They ask people to “brainstorm.” It quickly devolves into a philosophical debate. One person cites what he heard recently on a podcast. Another person quotes an ancient scholar. Someone else lists what irritates them about the issue and offers solutions from the past. The meeting goes on twice as long as expected with no good ideas.

The fix: Stay away from sticky notes and brainstorming until your team knows what audience they are serving or the problem that needs to be solved. If your team doesn’t know the problem, spend some time listening to your key customers. Keep a shared list of problems that need to be solved as a way to get started. If you don’t know your audience, spend some time as a team discussing who you might target as an experiment. Designate a team person to facilitate a team meeting with the goal of keeping the customer and the problem at the forefront of the discussion. This can be a rotating position.

Problem: The snooze-fest.

doodle by Lisa Rossi

The scenario: There are donuts placed in the center of the conference room table. It’s time to get the creative juices flowing! One-by-one, people share their ideas while being ignored by their teammates who furtively glance at their Facebook feeds.

The fix: Get rid of the conference table and ask groups of five or six to stand around marker boards or larger pieces of paper. Instruct them to state their idea and then write it down on a sticky note before placing it on the marker board. Tell team members to avoid evaluating ideas until later. Instead, keep bouncing ideas off each other. Assume your ideas are brilliant and those of your teammates are, too. In the words of Del Close, a famed actor and improviser, “If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage.” But… do keep the donuts. (Water and fruit are also good ways to keep people fueled up. )

Problem: What happens in this meeting, stays in this meeting

doodle by Lisa Rossi

The scenario: Someone at the office wants to get innovative. They do everything right — there are snacks, marker boards and careful facilitation of team members with diverse backgrounds and skill sets. The team knows its customer and the key problem it is working to fix. The ideas are creative, and build upon each other. Everyone is really inspired and their energy soars! When they leave, they never hear of any of this again.

The fix: The team facilitator should give team members a chance to vote on what ideas most closely align with the customer problem. Then, she should take time to make sure each person leaves with their own role in next steps. For some, that may be another customer interview to drill down deeper on a subset of the problem. Another person may take the lead on scheduling a test of an idea with customers. Other team members may commit to researching stakeholders and others who may be affected by the idea. Get another gathering on the calendar that also serves as a deadline for the task list. Finally, take a moment as a team to look to the future and celebrate what you’ve done together. The facilitator should ask everyone to stand in the circle. And, one at a time, each person must say one thing that another person did during the meeting that they liked, and one personal goal they have for the next part of the project cycle.

This article was co-written by Lisa Rossi and Nathan Groepper of Bonfire Strategy. To find out more about us, visit our website at www.bonfirestrategy.com or email us at hello@bonfirestrategy.com

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Lisa Rossi

Obsessed with the growth mindset, design thinking and telling great stories.