Opinion: How to own the battle space for successful meetings

How to own the battle space for successful meetings

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“When you have an ugly and bad meeting space, creativity and productivity are both likely casualties.”  –Martin Senn   
We’ve all had the experience of attending a workshop intended to promote collaboration, innovation and team learning only to be stricken, lightly wounded, while navigating the sharp-edged furniture cramming a dark, stuffy meeting room. Too often we make do with rooms that are too small, filled with useless artifacts or arranged in a way that drives people crazy and inhibits the creativity we seek from human interaction. 
For example, among the ranks of those room layouts that tend to defeat truly interactive meetings is the well-known, and somewhat infamous, Hollow Square. A defensive infantry tactic designed, since antiquity, to physically arrange foot soldiers in a geometrical formation that will successfully defeat or deter attacking cavalry, the hollow square room layout can similarly defeat the flow of your meetings. Therefore, unless you are planning to give a presentation or another type of meeting that requires little audience interaction, the hollow square and its colleagues should be consigned to the battlefield. 
We have been delivering workshops for over 20 years, engaging with groups from two to 200 people in dynamic, creative and team-based multi-day activities intended to help them work together to change the world for the better. In some cases, especially where our clients have not been given the permission or resources to book a suitable space, we have suffered in silence along with them as we “sucked it up” and made the best of a bad situation. 
So, what are the characteristics of the best meeting spaces, and what should you pay attention to when selecting and preparing meeting spaces for your innovation-focused meetings?  
Here are three keys to success that we’ve learned the hard way:  

1. Be open

“Make an empty space in any corner of your mind, and creativity will instantly fill it.” –Dee Hock 
Creativity lives in the white spaces, so the more room people have to work in, the more creative they will be. One simple but honest mistake we see people make all the time is to book the room that is available, not the one that’s big enough for their needs. One rule of thumb we use is to plan the room size based on an area of from 80 to 100 square feet per person. 
How much room is that? Stand up and hold your arms straight out from your shoulders. Imagine that your arms are twice as long as they really are. Now mentally draw a circle around you encompassing that area; that’s about 80 square feet. You may think that’s a lot of space, and it is, especially for meetings with more than 20 people. But if the purpose of your meeting is to engage people in collaborative problem-solving, you will need every single inch. 
Oh, and you should also look for a space that has high ceilings. As noted by Dr. Sally Augustin, “We’re more creative in spaces with higher ceilings. All else being equal, people are more innovative in places with 10-foot ceilings than they are when the ceiling hovers eight feet above the floor.” There’s a commonly used phrase in the English language that echoes this observation: The sky’s the limit. 

2. Range freely

“We see in order to move; we move in order to see.”  –William Gibson 
If you want your audience to participate in group problem-solving activity, you need to make sure that the group can physically ebb and flow in alignment with their thought processes. To do this, get rid of the barriers to physical movement in the room.  
How many times have you been invited to a meeting that encourages discussion, collaboration and wants you to work in small teams, but a gigantic boardroom table occupies the centre of the room? This is the business-meeting equivalent of the Berlin Wall, and the interpersonal impacts emerging from this kind of room setup can, coincidentally, wind up resembling that of immediate post–Second World War Europe.  
The best type of room setup is similar to that often seen in children’s classrooms these days. Small tables with clusters of four or five chairs around them spread out in a way that promotes small to large group discussions and learning are the best layout for meetings trying to promote creative interactions. Apart from the physical and intellectual freedom this offers, it gives the introverts among us a safe “home base” to head back to if they need to recharge their socialization batteries.  

3. Seek enlightenment  

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  –Steve Kazee  

Dark rooms are great for presentations. And sleeping.  
If the goal of your meeting is to help people think outside of the box, make sure they can see outside of it first. Satisfaction always tends to be improved when there is natural light available in meeting rooms. Although most of us would intuitively agree, this is backed up by some solid research. During a recent University of Illinois study, “researchers found that high school students perform better on tests if the classroom has a view of a green landscape, rather than a windowless room, or a room with a view of another building or a parking lot.”
For us, on the list of most important things to pay attention to during the meeting room booking process, this is the one that leaps to the top: always try to book a room with windows. Many of Berlineaton’s clients have been defeated, however, by the prevalent design features of many modern buildings. Group meeting space tends to be seen as an extra add-on to the place where the “real work” gets done: cubicles or small, dark, enclosed spaces with thick, solid doors that most people refer to as “offices.”
How do you get around the problem of no natural light in our traditional meeting spaces? We suggest that you consider using non-traditional meeting spaces for your interaction-focused meetings. Cafeterias, large and spacious hallways or ante rooms, and patios, balconies or other outdoor venues like local parks can be amazingly effective for your purposes. One of the best sessions we’ve ever delivered was held in a partly constructed building that was missing a couple of walls and therefore allowed lots of air and light into the space. So when thinking about the right space for your meeting, think about using ones that no one else would consider using. 
Ultimately, successful meetings are mainly about the planning phases. Location selection is just one of the many steps you will take in planning a good meeting. However, unlike the agenda or the type of sandwiches, the physical space you’ve chosen is generally the most difficult part of the event to change at short notice, and so it’s critically important to make sure that you match the type of space to the purpose of your meeting.
As the sign on the farm in Saskatchewan said: “Pick your ruts, you’ll be in them for the next 50 miles.” However, it’s equally important to make sure that your vehicle fits in the ruts you’ve picked. 
Richard Eaton is a co-founding partner of Victoria, B.C.-based Berlineaton and a senior management consultant with over 20 years’ experience facilitating significant and positive culture shifts within large organizations and complex human systems. You can reach him and the Berlineaton team at 250-472-3767 or reaton@berlineaton.com