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As a consultant focused on training and development, I get invited to help with two major types of initiatives – courses and meetings. Most of my clients, and I’d argue most leaders, see these two things as separate and different things. Courses or training initiatives are designed to help your employees advance their skills, or to help individuals gain new skills. Meetings or retreats are designed to accomplish organizational tasks or keep ongoing work progressing. Effective meeting planning does not always include attention to learning strategies and goals.
But what if I told you that training programs, courses, meetings, and retreats can (and should) ALL be considered learning experiences?
Would you believe me?
Would you believe that you could be learning and growing when you attend an organizational meeting?
If your answer is “no,” I don’t blame you. Meetings are often poorly designed and poorly used by organizations in any sector. They are often formulaic, unproductive, and boring. I hear you. That’s why I’ve written about why we should stop having pointless meetings.
But here’s the thing – if you were to treat a meeting agenda like a course syllabus, the results could be transformational for you and your team. This approach can be a key strategy for planning more effective meetings.
So, let’s break this down.
Here are 5 strategies you can borrow from curriculum development theory and apply to your meeting planning:
Set Clear Goals & Objectives for your Gathering
One of the first things that an instructor needs to be clear on when planning a course is the goals (by the end of this course you will understand) and objectives (by the end of this course you will be able to). The same should be asked of any meeting. What is the GOAL of the meeting (what do you hope to convey or cover) and what is the OBJECTIVE (what will you accomplish by the end of it)?
When you are clear on the SPECIFIC goals and objectives of your meeting, you have set the foundation for WHY you are having this meeting in the first place, and achieved one of my top 4 P’s for planning effective meetings – PURPOSE.
Create Opportunities for Engagement
Experiential learning theory teaches us that individuals learn not just by listening to someone talk, or reading about a concept, but by engaging with that concept and trying it out (read more about this and other adult learning theories here). That’s why seminars are often more effective than lectures.
Your meeting agenda needs to be multi-directional with opportunities for participants to engage with the topic, contribute their own ideas, experiment with solutions, and reflect on decisions. I know, that sounds daunting, but it doesn’t have to take all day. Rather than delivering a lecture on the company’s latest challenges and then asking for solutions, try creating opportunities for attendees to explore those challenges in interactive ways – well-planned small group breakouts, simulated case studies, and solutions-focused brainstorms can all be effective strategies to create more engagement, leading to better results.
Embrace Collective Learning as an Organizational value
Learning is both an individual and group activity. While many people think about “learning” as an activity that an individual does through a class or training, there is also such a thing as collective learning. Garavan and McCarthy (2008) described collective learning as learning that occurs “between dyads, teams, organizations, communities, and societies.” A learning organization is one that emphasizes both individual and collective learning in many settings and functions of the organization, including during meetings and retreats.
Collective learning in a gathering can take on many forms. It can be seen in ideas that emerge through brainstorming and problem-solving sessions; in the relationships that develop when staff members learn more about each other’s values and talents; or in the ideas that emerge when new concepts and resources are introduced in a retreat session. When you see collective learning as a value and frequent activity at your organization, it is easy to see meetings and retreats as learning activities.
Incorporate Reflection Regularly
As a participant in a training I was running years ago said, “Reflection is not just about puppy dogs and balloons.” Reflection is a scholarly tool used to elicit learning from experience. By reflecting on organizational challenges, events, programs, and relationships, we can learn how to improve them.
In an academic setting, reflection is best accomplished through structured activities and exercises that ask specific questions (i.e. not just a blank page). The same is true for organizational settings. By creating structured opportunities to reflect on organizational work with clear questions, frameworks, and structures, we can elicit meaningful learning that will improve our organizations.
For example, some organizations have borrowed the concept of an “After Action Review” from military frameworks. After an event, program, or project, an After Action Review asks questions like:
- Did we meet our objectives? Why or why not?
- What were the strengths of the initiative (what went well)?
- What could we do better next time?
- What do we want to remember about this conversation and how will we document it?
Measure Learning Outcomes
Any effective course incorporates a way to ask the question, “Is it working?” Schools and colleges, instructors and trainers, need to find out if their learning strategies actually achieved the learning goals and objectives they set at the beginning. Assessment strategies are essential.
The same is true at your organization. If you have set goals and objectives for your meetings or retreats, you should then be able to measure whether they were met. This can be done in a number of ways – quick after-meeting surveys can be effective if you ask the right questions; the final conversation at a meeting can be, “what did you learn today?”; and periodic feedback on meeting effectiveness could be incorporated into your organizational culture.
Likewise, creating assessments to measure whether people are learning what you THINK you are delivering is essential. This can be part of performance appraisal processes, and/or assessed anonymously through organization or team-wide assessments and quizzes, as well as observation of individual and team performance. The feedback you receive from these multiple sources can help you to address any gaps or confusion. It can also be used to give you an indication that folks are ready for the next step.
So here is my challenges to you – next time you are hosting a meeting at your organization, pretend that you are actually planning a course.
- What do we want folks to learn and accomplish?
- How will we design the meeting so that those goals and objectives are achieved?
- How will we encourage both individual and collective learning in this setting?
- What type of reflective exercises will we incorporate?
- How will we know if learning has occurred? How will we measure it?
Then, after the meeting, do your own internal assessment. Did this feel different? Did it feel more productive? What would I do differently next time?
After all, you’re still learning to create a learning environment. Try it once, then try it again when you’ve learned from the experience. Let me know how it goes, and of course contact me if you need support!