Businesswoman in bright office getting bored while attending presentation
ATD Blog

Not Just Another Secret

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

This little secret is likely known to most everyone, yet discussed by few. At the same time, it’s the truth in most organizations. It’s often placed in the “hopeless, denied, or avoided” category by those who know it but feel unable to change it.

We have been nosing around the world of leadership and facilitation for just about 50 and 25 years, respectively, and the secret is this: Although we know a huge amount about how to run engaging, interesting, productive, collaborative, and fun meetings, most leaders (in spite of access to dozens of how-to books on meeting design) remain committed to their predictably boring and disengaging meetings. It’s endemic because our research shows the average middle or upper-tier executive attends the equivalent of 20 meetings a week, and leaves most of these questioning either the meeting’s value or their role in it. Why is this?

Apparently, many people attend meetings more for their networking benefits or through a sense of obligation than for anything that is worth the intellectual or experiential price of admission. Yet, when we ask leaders how interesting, challenging, productive, and memorable their own meetings are, we are given the same eye-roll in response. Even those whose primary business is excellence, sophistication, and technical innovation live in the realm of meeting mediocrity—as do a surprising number of similar organizations that are helping to change how the world thinks about human intelligence and behavior.

So, why such a contradictory reality for so many successful organizations? And, why change if such mediocrity still draws large numbers from near and far, requires relatively little preparation, and poses no risk?


Imagine if key leaders were challenged, by internal or external constituents, to apply what we know and began to intentionally design their meetings. And what if these leaders were measured against criteria that match what the research says good meetings should be? What if they were invited to begin modeling at all their meetings how to actually engage participants? Suddenly, terms that have been around for 30-plus years like design, criterion-based outcomes, and quality of facilitation would have meaning and would reflect what is actually occurring in meetings—whether a workshop, an evaluation, a planning session, or whatever.


Our research shows that leaders of almost any stripe, across most types of organizations, are not inclined to seek out creative meeting designs when same-old, same-old will do. Who in their right mind would test a design that could demonstrate a mediocre outcome and might publicly embarrass them among their peers, subordinates, or bosses? We have found that if leaders and facilitators have not experienced the design firsthand and witnessed its value, there is no way they will risk it in a situation that demands success. In a world of death by PowerPoint, the ease of posting ideas on a screen trumps taking the risk and additional time to be creative in meetings every time.

The habits of 40 or 50 years of less-than-thrilling meetings has created seemingly immoveable norms, and an abiding culture where creativity is no longer expected by the compliant individuals attending. This is true whether such meetings are for two, 10, or 100 people, and whether or not they are supposed to reflect the organization's business and expertise.

We hope to change this and to start to shift the tide—even just a little bit—with our new book Not Just Another Meeting. In it we have included a baker’s dozen of classic designs covering wide-ranging goals and different types of meetings. The individual reader can peruse the detailed written description of each design, and better yet, view each design in motion by downloading our animated videos. The idea, of course, is to help the viewer to “be there” and experience our designs, as much as possible. They can then practice until they are comfortable and confident they can replicate what they are witnessing. Our hope is to help leaders and facilitators of every type of organization to finally put to rest this little secret that influences practically everybody—and rid the world of boring meetings.

About the Author

Rod Napier has taught in the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program of organizational dynamics for more than a decade. He is a teaching fellow of the Wharton Business School.

About the Author

Eli Sharp is a recognized expert in Japanese Lean and Six Sigma methodologies who travels extensively analyzing and improving business, manufacturing, and transactional processes.

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