Everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves — Adam Phillips

Many of us complain that work meetings are predictable, frustrating and — most of all — a terrible drain on our limited time. In theory, organisations want their meetings to be full of life. In practice, not so much.

In fact, frustration may be the most common thing meeting attendees have in common, but they rarely speak about openly. They prefer to play safe, keep emotions at bay, and pay the price for politeness in boredom. And save our grumbling for the water cooler, or long suffering friends and family.

And our stuck meetings feel even more stuck as a result. Indeed, the surfaceappearance is that nothing can change.

Yet with a bit of play, we may find that just below the rigid surface lies a whole brew of emotion and feeling. This is where the real aliveness is, just below the surface. If we’re brave enough to meet it, the ground doesn’t usually swallow us up — and we get a chance to bring the meeting, and ourselves, back to life.

Bringing meetings to life

Many of us dread meetings at work. Too often they’re dull: they follow predictable patterns, and people struggle to stay engaged.

After regular meetings, the gossip by the water cooler afterwards is usually more interesting, and honest, than the meeting itself.

The best part of many conferences is the coffee break, when suddenly the whole audience comes to life and conversations and ideas start sparking?

What if we could bring all that energy into our meetings instead of squeezing it out?

Meetings for human beings

We are social creatures, fundamentally wired for socialising, playing and creating together. To release that energy into our meetings, we need to disrupt some conventions.

  • We need to have fewer presentations and more conversations.
  • We need to free people to move around, rather than remaining pinned to their chairs.
  • We need to give participants autonomy: instead of telling them what to do, we create choices for them about how to participate and collaborate.
  • We need to create a more level playing field in meetings, a space in which everyone feels able to contribute, so we don’t just get stuck listening to the usual suspects.

How to have better meetings

I’ve spent the last 20 years going around the world helping organisations have meetings that command attention and generate fun and excitement. There’s no big secret to what I do, it comes down to two things: using creative processes that allow people to really participate, and showing up as a facilitator that people feel able to trust.

I’m going to share all this experience in a two-day workshop in Cambridge in January. We’ll explore how to:

  • Get more out of every meeting — for you, attendees and the organisation.
  • Learn new techniques for creating engagement
  • Build your presence and performance as a facilitator

Not training-as-usual

I don’t believe in facilitation-as-usual and this won’t be training-as-usual. There will be no powerpoint, little use of a flip chart and certainly no “turn-to-page-94-of-the-manual”.

There will be movement, surprise, emotion, engagement and fun. We learn our most powerful lessons from experience, not from lectures. The greatest value in workshops comes from sharing experiences, rather than taking notes from the “sage on the stage”

There will be two threads over the two days: techniques and performance.


I’ll share a simple model of networks to show how you can shift the way you think about your meetings. Move away from hierarchy towards more creative, peer-to-peer engagement

I’ll share methods I’ve learnt and created over the years to bring that model to life, including:

  • Cafe processes for connecting and conversation
  • Open Space — a brilliant participatory process — and the pitfalls to avoid when hosting it
  • Full circle and other methods to speed up feedback and avoid the agony of “creeping death” reporting from breakouts
  • Bringing scenarios to life in three dimensions
  • Line ups — a simple but brilliant way to add movement and surprise to finding out more about what people think and feel about topics and each other
  • Playful approaches to serious topics, situations and people


When you facilitate a meeting you are on stage, and people are watching. The pressure to perform is high. If you can stay present and spontaneous, the chances are you will set the tone for the whole event, bringing it to life. If you can’t do this, even the best processes in the world won’t save you.

We’ll use a range of activities and challenges to enable you become more aware of your performance and to become a more engaging version of yourself.

We’ll explore:

  • Presence: how it’s not about showing off or making yourself the centre of attention.
  • Avoiding ‘teaching trance’ and ‘plenary vortex’ — the factors that most easily kill the atmosphere in meetings
  • Getting braver and more creative managing difficult conversations and people
  • Embracing surprise: some of the best things I’ve done when facilitating have been spontaneous, often in response to mistakes and curve-balls. The ability to respond well is a muscle we can build with practice.

Who should attend?

Anyone responsible for organising and leading meetings — whether that’s internally, with stakeholders or clients, or for consultation, feedback or generating ideas. Anyone who is frustrated by boring, uneventful, and time-wasting meetings.

Creative Facilitation: Bringing Meetings To Life

January 9th and 10th 2017 9.30am to 4.30pm King’s College Cambridge

My partner, Viv McWaters is offering a one-day version in Melbourne on November 18th

Organisational culture and its pitfalls

Keith Sawyer says you should avoid recruiting people who “fit your culture” if you want to support innovation.

We know from creativity research that the most innovative teams have cognitive diversity. That means that each person has a different set of ideas, practices, and knowledge. This drives innovation, because the most creative ideas combine very different ideas. If everyone in the group has the same cognitive material inside their skull, they won’t make those “distant combinations” that result in breakthrough creativity.

I’d add that it’s easy to talk about an organisation’s culture as if it’s some fixed thing, creating the comforting illusion that if we act on it in a certain way, it can be controlled. A lot energy gets wasted on cultural change programmes.

I prefer Nancy Dixon’s notion that culture is localised: individual groups within the organisation create their own cultures. The culture of the whole organisation, if it can be said to be a thing at all, emerges from those. Perhaps the best way to influence culture is to notice the little opportunities for change in each little conversation we have.


The perils of abstraction

Charles Scalfini gives a concise explanation of a way experts often make bad teachers.  As their experience in a subject grows, they are able to form more and more useful abstractions.

But they then attempt to teach their students these abstractions in ways that bypass the experiences on which they are based. If we add to this the high status ascribed to experts, the problem is increased, as students feel they need to act like they understand, still deprived of the underlying experiences from which we truly learn.

And this leaves out the possibility that expert abstractions can be mistaken – which I explored here.

Many training courses are made attractive by offering high-status abstractions, suggesting things like emotional intelligence can be taught by the transfer of dense, expert content.

But many of the most powerful experiences in training come from experimentation and practice, not explanation. (I’ll be exploring this in my January workshop in Cambridge – details here.)

Hat tip: Tweet from Sunil Malhotra

Having fun yet?

Viv spotted this New Scientist article: The paradox of fun. It’s a review of Ian Bogost’s new book, Play Anything. Its subtitle conveys something of its depth: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games. Bogost argues that we’ve come to think of fun as enjoyment without effort, leading us down a series of unhelpful paths, where we’re trying to achieve results without any effort.

Bogost invites us to celebrate strip malls, household chores and ready meals. Finding fun in these things involves work, he says – but it’s work in the same way that carpentry or exercise is.

Along the way, he picks a fight with Mary Poppins, arguing that “that renowned philosopher of fun” had it all wrong. A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but as a maxim for dealing with the drudgery of everyday life her song was a sham. It is a mistake to dress things up as something they are not.

One definition of work is “the expenditure of energy against resistance”. And perhaps play is a way to describe a way of doing so that is satisfying.

If I think about the weight training I do, the satisfaction comes less from setting personal bests, and more from discovering the subtleties of attention and posture that allow the lift to feel clean and effective, rather than pained and strained. It nearly always takes a set or two to find that zone. I’m just lifting weights, on the face of it a boring and possibly vain enterprise. But I find the play, the fun in it. Not fun as in goofy or the spoonful of sugar.

Yoga fans sometimes talk about “effortless effort”, pointing to the same territory.

And this guides my practice as a facilitator. I’m constantly noticing and ruminating about how participants are engaging and how I’m engaging with them. And searching for the subtle tweaks that might improve things. Sometimes the work is invisible, as it’s a conscious choice not to interfere, where I’m expending energy on impulse control. And sometimes it leads me to intervene to change things.

Essentially, I’m in a state of play with the group all the time: arguably for me this is the process, rather than the formal activity, the overt process (e.g. open space, world cafe whatever) that I am running. I am often happy to change the overt process so that we’re not following a ritual in a trance, but are actually alive to the moment.

Maps are not reality

Shane Parrish points to a recurrent problem managers face: they rely on “maps” of their organisations that can never really capture reality.

We are so reliant on abstraction that we frequently use an incorrect model simply because we feel any model is preferable to no model. (Reminding one of the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight because “That’s where the light is!”). Having a map in hand can be falsely reassuring.

I run into this all the time in training: people want to be given models, frameworks and recipes for how to deal with complex challenges. But by attempting to follow these imperfect maps, we easily numb ourselves to the actual experiences that might really teach us something.

Hat tip: Tweet from Tim Kastelle

Five Ps

I am wary of management formulae… seven habits, five steps, three rules. For any complex challenge, these inevitably end up simplifying what’s needed.  They appear to offer a way to make things easy, but often they bewilder smart people, making them think “gosh, this should be easy” when it isn’t.

So when Viv and I came up with a list for our recent creative workshop, I had mixed feelings. I find this list quite helpful as a set of pegs on which to hang ideas. But I reassured people that they didn’t have to take this too seriously. They could have fewer or more Ps if they wanted, or add other letters of their choosing.

That said, this little list says something about how we like to help people work together creatively.


According to legend, at the age of 93 Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice on the cello. He replied, “because I’m beginning to notice some improvement.” Instead of idealising leadership, we see it as something that requires constant practice.


We learn by performing into new roles. There’s an element of risk and a willingness to accept the attention of others. Leadership is not done in writing, but as a three dimensional performance. We can act our way into new ways of thinking, rather than the other way round..


Instead of commanding from above, we aim for everyone to feel involved and to have agency. Human organisations flourish as networks of peers. We work with formal systems but see that humans create much richer connections.


Change happens at the edges of our comfort zones, where we realise we don’t have total control but do feel secure enough to experiment. We aim to find the wiggle room in stuck places, however stressful or serious the challenge.


No-one wants to be a two-legged, talking version of the management textbook. Showing up as a human can be the best part of leading, whatever role you play.

These appear on our experimental creative leadership website. (I feel the same way about leadership as I do about lists, but we had to call it something.)

They’ve seen it before…

Everyone is used to being sold to. And they’re also used to being facilitated. They often feel the same way about both.

I keep reminding myself of this, to inoculate myself about getting attached to any method or process.

For instance, one of the simple ways I used to get attention when large groups of people are in loud conversations, is to raise a hand and say, “If you can hear my voice, raise your hand”. It usually works quite well, each time you say it, more hands go up and a wave of silence soon takes over the room.

For a time, this seemed to be a novelty; you’d often recognise a laugh of surprise.

And then recently, a participant confessed that they’d seen it before countless times and had come to hate it. It had gone from being a light intervention to a cliche.

You need to stay alert to the signs that your schtick has become predictable and over-familiar. Because the more you lapse into what participants see as routine, the more dissonance you create. If they think you are plodding along in a trance, if you’re lucky they might tell you; or more often they’ll suppress their boredom, play along, but actually be in a bit of trance themselves.

I try to be alert to the signs of creeping boredom in groups so that I can catch those kind of plodding trances. And I practice enjoying when things go a bit wrong as it’s normally the sign of a trance breaking and a chance for everyone to get back to spontaneity.

Not chasing outcomes

One of the joys of working with Viv is seeing how she can strip back processes to what feel like essentials. It’s not often I work with someone who can match me for wanting to simplify things – I think we both believe we should let the participants do complex things rather than being the guardians of some complicated technique.

I recently watched her run what she calls World Cafe Lite. It’s World Cafe stripped of what most people think is one of its key features: namely that people sit at small tables with flipchart paper for tablecloths, on which they are encouraged to write or draw their thoughts as they talk.  The contents of these cloths are often subsequently subjected to further elaborate processing involving the shuffling of post-it notes and a general reverential search for meaning. Sure, that can have its uses, but often it can feel like an empty ritual, as if the conversations aren’t really valid unless we can make things out of them.

So it was fun to see Viv just have people sit and talk and not be encouraged to write things down. Her one rather brilliant intervention was to ask people to sit so that their knees were touching. People did so, a bit reluctantly at first, but what an impact it had on the conversations.  There was emotional connection. So often I find that this is what people feel starved of in organisations. And generating lots of action points and outcomes easily perpetuates that starvation.

Bonus link: A post I wrote about Richard Farson which relates to this: we think management is about skills when it really may be more about sharing vulnerability.

Throwing away

Chris Corrigan highlights two quotations on writing. The first is from Jeanette Winterston:

Creativity is inexhaustible. Experiment, play, throw away. Above all be confident enough about creativity to throw stuff out. If it isn’t working, don’t cut and paste – scrap it and begin again.

This really lands with me. I think being willing to just throw stuff away is a great part of being creative. I think of times I’ve written something that’s taken what feels like days, and then some IT error wipes it. I panic, assuming it will take days to reproduce it. Once I’ve calmed down, I find I can do it again in maybe a couple of hours, and usually it’s better than the lost draft. Making films, I find it’s better to just do lots of takes and keep going until it feels right, cheerfully abandoning the ones that don’t feel quite right. A lot of learning happens out of the rational mind, we’re getting better all the time without noticing. If we get stuck in analysis, we’re often just getting in our own way.

This is how I use performance activities when exploring difficult conversations. If we stop trying to get them right, we can have more fun just playing with possibilities. And that greatly increases our likelihood of discovering things that just work. These days, I’ve become more ruthless about avoiding analysis of what’s happening as we iterate, instead aiming to just up our productivity.

Chris’ second quote is from Naomi Alderman:

Remind yourself, every day, that you’re doing this to try to find something out about yourself, about the world, about words and how they fit together. Writing is investigation. Just keep seeking

And this is another way to reframe what we’re doing when we play: we’re investigating the world. And ourselves.