How to hold successful horizon meetings

Horizon meeting, group of employees in a work meeting

In this extract from Success Secrets of Disruptors, communication consultant Kate Faragher explains how to master the art of a successful horizon meeting.

Meetings are often boring, long and ineffective, with the main outcome to have another meeting. In times of systemic change, we need solutions to complex problems. How do you make decisions in turbulent times? The answer is that we need to improve meetings. This article is not about meetings that share information. This is about horizon meetings: meetings that require decisions to be made about problems on the horizon.

Confused

Horizon meetings improve the quality of decisions, the quality of scrutiny and can identify the direction of travel. Sometimes, that will mean stopping something that isn’t working. In my experience, this is a huge mindset challenge. Many don’t want to lose face so pursue bad ideas. Better meetings will stop bad decisions and find better, braver solutions.

A good horizon meeting needs to feel messy and uncomfortable. If you allow the discomfort, you allow new ideas to emerge. When a new problem arises, it’s not always easy to articulate the complexity of the response needed. Often it’s an instinct, a part of an answer. Here are a few pointers for how you might approach this.

1. Feel weird

To solve problems, you need a united vision, but you don’t need united values. Differences stretch our thinking. This can mean people will feel triggered, angry and annoyed.

If they’re still listening, they will feel confused. Part of feeling confused is losing the thread and feeling out of control. Go with this. Clarity lives at the other end. Keep listening through the weirdness. A good facilitator can help; even better, teach your leaders the art of facilitating these types of meetings.

2. Trust the weirdness

When we feel confused and out of control, we do everything to try to keep the status quo. Our judgement kicks in; we disagree. We get annoyed by what we perceive to be others’ stupidity. Our ego gets louder: we are right, and they are wrong. We shake our heads and can’t see the logic in their argument. We make assumptions; we voice our preconceived ideas; we interrupt their flow and stop listening to anything that disagrees with our point of view.

What happens if we do the opposite? We trust the weirdness and disrupt the status quo. We learn to give others in the meeting the space to feel and be weird. To explore their thoughts even when they don’t seem logical. We stop our judgement, believe there are no wrong or right thoughts. We suspend logic and assumption and try to listen beyond it. We notice the anger and discomfort, but see this as information to keep listening, not judge.

In select committees in parliament, MPs holding different beliefs come together to scrutinise government officials. It works when there is respect. In well-run committees I often hear, ‘We might disagree with… however…’ If you respect the person with a different point of view from yours, you can use that difference to stretch your thinking.

3. Think together

If you can feel and trust the weirdness you can start to think together. Thinking together is a communication technique that requires you to step into the unknown. This blind spot is often where the answers to the most difficult problems lie. Only with confusion can we find the key to that quadrant. In social media, on TV programmes, in the news and in education we are consistently taught that debate, opinion and influencing are the keys to unlocking solutions. We need to feel confused before we learn. It’s how our neurons rewire.

I would imagine some of you may be thinking, ‘This is ridiculous, how can this solve problems?’, ‘We need clear strong leadership, not namby-pamby BS,’ or ‘It’s critical thinking, logical argument and debate that helps solve problems, not giving up our expert opinion.’ To think together we need to disagree together, which is why conflict is an essential part of great meetings, better decision-making and deeper learning. Let’s clarify what thinking together is and isn’t.

Co-create

Brainstorming is recalling information. Brainstorming can involve ego. It is where you want to say something that makes you look good. It can also be that you use language you’ve used before, stories you’ve told before and ideas you’ve heard before. It is a great way to share information.

Thinking together is not brainstorming. When you think together you co-create.

Thinking together requires a shift in mindset and brain use. It’s where you listen and respond to an idea in real time. It requires you to say something you don’t completely understand yet. It’s messy. On one level it’s simple – be idea-led. On another level it’s complex – don’t follow the certainty.

To do this you have to hold the new idea and integrate your thoughts. You offer part of an idea to evoke the other’s response, then start building the idea together. You hear what they say and make an offer: ‘That makes me think…’ If you feel disagreement, put it aside. This part of thinking together is about saying yes and suspending judgement.

You need to get rid of certainty and assumption to open up the spatial part of your brain. It can feel weird. A bit like brain yoga. You are stretching your thinking to take into account other ideas that you might disagree with. This spatial brain use helps us move through physical places and it also helps us navigate ideas.

You need to feel safe to do this kind of thinking. You need to know you won’t lose your job, your position or your status if you say something silly or controversial. You need to say what comes to mind even if it goes against the current narrative. The more people bravely say the unsaid, the richer the quality of the discussion and the better the decisions made further down the line. You need to create these spaces to rise to the challenge of these types of meetings. You know the meetings are working when the confusion leads to courageously disagreeing and allowing positive conflict.

Conflicted

Positive conflict requires trust. You need to be comfortable with people disagreeing with you. As I said previously, this needs to be supported with mutual respect.

Positive conflict requires everyone to be able to voice their discomfort. You need to be able to say, ‘This is making me feel angry.’ Anger can be a useful emotion as long as it doesn’t turn into aggression. If you get to that point, work out the best solution. It might be that everyone needs to take a break, or people are allowed to leave and return without the rest of the attendees trying to rescue the person.

Inner conflict is a great teacher. It means we’re growing and there might be a new approach emerging.

Here are three ways to facilitate conflict in meetings:

1. Set out some guidelines to help people know how to communicate during conflict

The aim here is to pre-empt what could go wrong so if it does there’s a strategy already in place to deal with it. It helps avoid confusion. You simply refer to what was previously agreed. Ask people to speak with respect and to use ‘I’ statements so they take ownership of the topic.

The goal is to create a safe space for people to voice opposing thoughts without the fear of being shut down or ridiculed. I find that when these thoughts can be fully heard there are places of overlap. You need to allow these to emerge. It’s important to realise that conflict comes in many forms: inner, outer and cultural. Guidelines help navigate them.

2. Use visual prompts

To activate the spatial problem-solving brain, create visuals. Use timelines to record ideas, holding boards for those ideas that don’t quite fit yet, theme boards to explore multiple issues at the same time. These visual prompts can be either online or in person.

3. Ask people to build on ideas rather than state opinions

Rather than saying ‘I think’, use ‘That makes me think…’ Solving together ideally comes from that unknown unknown place. It starts from an instinct of knowing without being able to form the words around it.

If you are experienced in your role, your instinct has hidden wisdom. If your meeting includes people who live the problems daily, these instincts are rich in understanding. When you think and solve together, new narratives are created, not reworded.

Review

There is a fourth ‘r’ that is required in this process. After resolve, resilience and refusal to take no for an answer comes review.

Coaches and trainers often feel the need to end sessions with actions, but when you think together in disruptive/ horizon meetings you often need a time of reflection. You need to move into the slow brain. This percolation time is important. It’s like we’re running the thoughts through our experience. We see what remains, what pops up and what emerges. Ideally, you want to sleep on it because that’s when your unconscious makes sense of the unknown unknown.

It’s important to know when to stop a meeting. Meetings get too long if you allow people to talk about their opinions rather than co-create. If you plan the visuals well and if the group have embedded trust, it’s incredible how quickly you can disrupt. Humans work well with deadlines. A bit of healthy stress can help you think deeply.

It is possible to find clarity from complexity. We just need to disrupt our ego. The secret ingredient is navigating our confusion, feeling comfortable with conflict and facilitating braver, better solutions by thinking together.

About the author

Kate FaragherKate Faragher has been a communication consultant for nearly twenty-five years. She has worked in the corporate sector, training people to write, speak, question and influence without bias. She creates bespoke awaydays and horizon scanning sessions for parliamentarians, academics and C-suite executives.

She is also a contributing author to Success Secrets of Disruptors.