The Big Oak Table in the Middle


Guest post by Moazzam Ahmed, Master’s in Organizational Leadership, you can visit his website at TeamsThatDo

Meetings are held to make decisions, create action plans and get things done. But can I show you how you can make your meetings more productive over the long run by re-structuring the seating and the big oak table in the middle?

A table or surface in the middle of participants signifies convergence because it helps you to conclude and write the decisions down. On the other hand, empty space in the middle signifies openness, ideation and connection since the table doesn’t serve as a barrier in between participants. Often, a table in the middle can push the group towards a conclusion even if they are not ready. The effect of this can be jumping into action too soon, not considering other (maybe better?) options or worse not being ready for action.

Before scheduling each meeting, consider the agenda for the meeting. Are there topics that still need brainstorming and ideation? If so, encourage the group to sit in a circle without a table in the middle. If the table can’t be removed consider holding the meeting in a different room, a different section of the meeting room or even outdoors. Watch the participants ease into a discussion rather than jump to conclusions. Notice how the conversation allows for more brainstorming which in turn will open up more options and better understanding of the issue at hand. You will also notice participants relax as they will not need to conclude prematurely.

Here’s a living example: during the planning phase of a regional conference, I noticed that organizers wanted action items so they could go get things done. Over several meetings I watched the group create and take away their to-do lists only to be frustrated because the tasks were too large and silo-ed among the various committees. I suggested we hold the next meeting at an ice cream shop. Once everyone sat down with their ice creams, I removed the table from the middle. Some team members even stood up as they enjoyed their ice cream. The brainstorming that ensued at this meeting was refreshing to be part of. Since we no longer had the urge to make decisions, a couple of team members shared their frustrations with their tasks. This allowed others to share how these large tasks could be broken down into smaller pieces and also shared among committees. This led to much richer and productive to-do lists which in turn helped everyone get started with more confidence.

I suggest mixing and matching your meetings every now and then; hold some meetings without the table, notice how this strengthens the connection of the group and produces better results on your decisions. I would love to hear your experience with this and any comments/questions you may have.

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