When you walk out of a conference room less effective than you went in, it’s easy to blame meetings as a concept, not the way you, specifically, facilitated the meeting.
Instead of writing off meetings as a whole, we dug into why people seemed to be dreading them. What we ended up finding was a lot worse than “the conference room is too cold.” Too many people felt they weren’t being heard and their input wasn't welcomed. Even companies with a flat corporate structure and all the respect in the world can let bad conversational habits creep in.
For example, in my role as CEO, I tend to get too excited about things, and feel too much pressure to have an answer and a vision when leading a meeting. I can end up accidentally steamrolling over other people’s ideas in an effort to share my own. But there are good ideas there! And I want to hear them! So we started to think about a new meeting facilitation technique to make it easier for everyone to have a voice and for everyone's input to be heard — not just the CEO's.
To create an entry point, we knew we wanted to turn meetings into a game. We thought of red cards in soccer. No, no one’s literally head-butting anyone in our meetings, but proverbially … kinda?
Flashing a card was a simple, tangible, non-confrontational way to reorient the discussion and bring some humor to a potentially tense interaction (like telling someone they are interrupting too much).
Once we landed on the idea of a game with facilitation cards, we couldn’t stop coming up with ideas, and we pulled in collaborators with all kinds of communication styles to add theirs. We started a list of the most common frustrations in interpersonal communication that left people feeling shut out or shot down. Just a few examples:
- Rabbit Hole card to keep someone from getting too lost in the weeds and not communicating at the same level as everyone else in the meeting
- Kicking a Dead Horse card to stop someone saying the same thing over and over (and over) and not making space for the other voices
- Interrupted card to call out the times when people talk over the quieter voices in the room
- Tangent card to prevent someone in a position of authority or power from taking the conversation off the rails and off topic
This first deck of Inclusion Meeting Cards will have several "warning" or "communication anti-pattern" cards (plus a few opportunities for extras … more on that later).
How do Inclusion Meeting Cards work?
At the start of a meeting, you distribute the cards across the team based on communication styles. Everyone watches out for poor communication habits (like going off on tangents that distract the group's focus). Other people can be assigned specific roles, just for the duration of that meeting:
- A "Devil's Advocate card" encourages junior team members to challenge more senior members without fear of critical response. They can just blame the game when they have to challenge other people's ideas and provide critical, constructive feedback.
- The "Angel’s Advocate card" is perfect for a grumpy person who complains that things will never work. With this role assigned, they have to say "Yes and..." to everything, while finding some positive reason to encourage others ideas (and not just automatically shoot them down).
After roles are distributed and the cards are shuffled, you get started with your meeting. Cards are flashed, roles are reversed and better ideas are discovered, with a lot less tension and frustration (and a little more humor).
We all share the responsibility for making meetings inclusive and that means calling out the bad behaviors and encouraging the good without derailing the conversation. That’s not something everyone is comfortable doing — especially when you have to provide critical feedback to someone's personal communication style. Imagine trying to tell your boss that they interrupted you — again! Or telling your VP of Sales they they are talking too much and not letting others contribute. In some company cultures that is a very difficult thing to do, especially for junior team members.
By playing the dreaded "Kicking a Dead Horse" card or flashing the "Interrupted" card, you can bring some levity and much needed humor into the situation while providing real time feedback to both people to change behaviors.
Once you start recognizing and correcting the behaviors in real time, you may preemptively catch yourself when it’s time to speak up or quiet down. In our office, it only took a few months before the cards hardly had to be flashed at all — people learned the behaviors and adapted. And when they did backslide, the cards are still there to catch them.
Why we think inclusive meetings are so important
We create ways for people to have better experiences. That’s basically all we do at Table XI. Usually we do it with software, but hey, we’re adaptable. We’ve even designed processes to make snack foods in people’s lives easier (the snack foods also made our lives better).
When we realized something we do every day — have meetings — was creating a bad experience for the people we care about most, we had to solve that immediately. The last thing a meeting needs is more screens, so we knew apps and technology were a bad way to solve this kind of problem. Instead, we liked having a simple analog card game that can be easily left in conference room, ready for the next group to walk in.
Designing our way to better meetings
At first, we just created a few cards for me — specifically the opinion cards. When I went into a meeting, I was challenged to just ask questions the entire time. Only three times in a meeting could I actually state my opinion. And when I played all three of my opinion cards, I had to stop and encourage others to share their inputs instead. That was tough!
I used to think being a CEO was all about leading with a loud voice and strong opinion — to have the vision and the clarifying voice to give a clear direction. But using the cards has helped me tap into the power of other's voices and opinions. And I’ve heard from a lot of other leaders who want to do the same.
So we started thinking of other people we wanted to hear less of, and the people we wanted to hear from more. We brainstormed a bunch of cards to make that happen, and started testing and refining them in our own meetings, getting closer to the final product.
Pretty early, we pulled in Katie Gore, a speech pathologist who coaches teams on communication styles. She’s one of our longtime partners, and was helping our team recognize and change these behaviors before the cards. She was able to add her clinical experience to the deck, shaping the cards to line up with therapeutic practices.
Once we got the cards working on ourselves, we wanted to hear from more voices and get more input from the community. That’s why we’re doing this Kickstarter, to give our community a fun way to bring inclusivity to their meetings and to get more feedback we can use to make the cards better. We really want to hear from you: How would you use Inclusion Meeting Cards? And what new cards should we design for the deck?
How could you intentionally steer your company culture to be more inclusive in your meetings?
About the Game Designers
Table XI is a product consultancy based in Chicago, Illinois. For 17 years, we've grown around three small words and one big idea: tech done right. To us, it means more than clean code and sound design. It means doing right by our partners, by our peers and by our community.
We've used that philosophy to help clients connect caregivers with families, students with leadership opportunities and museum-goers with scientific principles. We've also used it to create more diverse and inclusive cultures. All 45 of us depend on mutual trust and respect to do our jobs, and we’re constantly doing the work to make our team stronger.
What we learn, we share, so the whole community benefits
At Table XI, our product is our people. To deliver the best solutions, we need as many bright and diverse minds in the room as possible, and we need to be able to learn from them once they’re there. That’s why we do everything we can to create environments that are comfortable and inclusive for everyone. Inclusion Meeting Cards are just the latest — our first product helps improve employee experiences.
We use sticky notes to design a path for employee growth
Most career development focuses on forms, assessments and what employees can do for the company. We understand — we also want to get great work out of our employees — but we know that it doesn't happen in a vacuum. We created The Sticky Note Game to set goals for all aspects of an employees life, from the conferences they want to attend to the volunteering they want to do to the life events on the horizon to the new skills they want to practice.
We help others build better software, teams and even companies
While our podcast is about design and development, it often tips over into company culture as well. On each episode of our podcast, Tech Done Right, host Noel Rappin engages diverse leaders in conversations about what doing right by our clients and our communities looks like in practice.
We give leaders a safe space to grow
When our CEO Mark moved into the role in 2017, he found himself with a lot of questions about how to lead a company that works for everyone. Instead of stewing on those ideas alone, he invited 10 tech leaders grappling with the same issues to travel to the Scottish Highlands for a walk through the woods. The idea was to get offline, recharge and work together to become better leaders.
The camaraderie and learnings were so useful and effective that Mark turned the event into a regular retreat and co-founded Walkshop, an annual conference for leaders who need a quiet place and trusted company to test ideas, get feedback and grow.
Risks and challenges
One of our real risks at the moment is securing the printer that creates the high-quality card we are looking for.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (31 days)