Stories around the campfire: How do you run team meetings?

When we’re looking at how to make change happen, we often start with the complex issues we need to tackle, the radical visions we need to imagine and the pioneering approaches we should use. We try and go from the status quo to building movements, without talking about the basics we need to build relationships. When we talk about the how we do change, we talk about the drivers and the steps we need to take or the agents and leaders we need to be. We don’t talk about the basics we might need to change.

One of the basics I want to talk about is a tool that everyone moans about: a team meeting. It’s a constant of any organisation — whatever shade or colour. Why would you moan about an opportunity to get together with other people around a common cause?

One of the arguments about team meetings is they often exist without an intended tangible outcome, there might not be an agenda or pre-defined outputs. But unlike most meetings that shouldn’t make them unnecessary. It’s the intangible purpose that makes them so important.

People feeling like there’s a regular time they can come together as a team, where they can share what’s on their mind and find out what’s on other people’s and where you can work things out together. Relationships, therapy and democracy — what more could you want?!

In my first job, in a team of social workers travelling across the country to look after the care of families and children who were seeking asylum, the team meeting was the device that brought people together to come back to the office and meet. It blended the practical and the emotional. It challenged my assumptions of how a manager should lead. My first manager created the space for people to openly share what they had on their chest and intervened to share himself what was important to him which then had an impact on us. But he didn’t discriminate between the two. The way he did that was to rotate who chaired the meeting, so that everyone on the team could influence the purpose of team meetings.

When I went to work for think tanks, the team meetings blended the practical and the conceptual, between how we got funding for research, a meeting with government or the launch of an event, with what were the policy trends we should anticipate. Everyone was in a circle and standing up and it always started with how we were feeling before moving into what we were working on and then what amazing ideas we were going to wow the world with. Sometimes the “structured informality” didn’t feel natural, but it was good that we’d always blend the personal, the practical and the conceptual.

When I went to work for a partnership between organisations from different sectors, our team meetings were the only meetings which weren’t either called boards or design workshops. The process of organising boards and hack days always reminded me of when I was a kid acting in a theatre, the different rehearsals before the final play, the boards being making sure we’d anticipated and choreographed the meeting so that the discussion and decisions went the way we wanted them to (or at least that people made decisions so we could get on with the collaboration!) and the hack days making sure that people who didn’t know each other could collaborate in a productive and fun way. At the team meetings, we could come up for air and just unwind and these were always in different spaces hosted by each partner.

Since I became manager, I’ve always tried to make sure that team meetings are spaces where everyone can feel like they’re an essential part of the team, that they can contribute and influence what we do and how we work, whatever their personality, confidence or perspective. I also like testing different approaches out, whether it’s a weekly standup where people can find out what others are doing and what they need help with, whether it’s team workshops where individuals in the team can showcase methods we could all apply in our work or share a problem we can help them solve, or where we invite people or go and visit them to find out how they work. I also find that having team meetings in different settings changes the dynamics, whether it’s in the office, in a co-working space, in a community space or…outside! Finally, there’s nothing better to bring people together than food and our bring and share lunches are always the most popular type of meeting!

What if we used for team meetings the methods we try and test to create better forms of participation with our residents, be that citizens assemblies, juries or cooperatives?

What about if we used methods that help us be more creative and productive in our team meetings? We’ve tested out standing up, walking, sharing food which are all meant to do that, but how about silence?

What about if we time team meetings around the times that are best for people to come together? What works best for your teams, mornings, lunches, afternoons?

What if removed anything from a team meeting that didn’t require the whole team? Empowering people to make decisions themselves rather than escalate it, encouraging people to take responsibility to make connections between projects or issues, getting people to bring together the team on an important issue just for that purpose? Or using tools other than meetings like Loomio?

What if we encourage teams to argue at their meetings? At their best, teams get on well with each other, but that can also lead to confirmation bias where they’ll think the best of everyone’s approaches and ideas — what about if we encouraged more challenge?

What if the manager didn’t chair the meetings? The manager has numerous opportunities to lead the team, but what if they gave people the opportunity to lead team meetings to help them develop their leadership skills, get the team get to know their style and skills better and help the manager contribute in a different way? We’ve found this through our team workshops which helps put people in the spotlight.

What if a team meeting blended into another meeting? At the end of the best team meetings, you get a strong collective energy, sense of purpose and ideas. That could be a great platform for the team to influence something outside of it, be that another team, organisation or even community. We’re doing a joint team meeting with a strategy & change team from another council which will explore future skills we need as a function. Equally, it could be a different type of coming together, like a yoga or mindfulness session!

What if team meetings were organised like other forms of gatherings between communities of people which have nothing to do with work? Like a Sunday Assembly, Common Soup, or camp fires?

How do you run your team meetings? What do you love? What would you change?

Head of Strategy (Communities) @camdencouncil #localgov Director @euroalter Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese