True story – Manhattan 2001, at an enormous, chaotic digital agency that populates several floors of a converted Soho warehouse. I’m headed to a small meeting room on the 4th floor.
Inside that room, the new Manager Director has strong opinions about how to run a meeting. For one thing, he believes they should always start on time.
At 9:58 or so, he enters expecting to find all attendees seated. He chats and checks his IDF-issued Adi watch.
At 10:00 sharp, he locks the door. Not at 10:00:29 or 10:00:59, but right on the dot at 10 am.
At 10:02, I arrive and try the door handle. Locked. I knock a couple of times – nothing.
Show up on time or GTFO.
Usually, I was on the inside. The Managing Director’s reaction to latecomers’ knocks was always the same.
He shrugs his shoulders, shares a chuckle with us, and keeps running the meeting.
People learned when to show up.
At the time we thought this evil or even militaristic.
What do you think? Evil or reasonable?
In retrospect, I think it was reasonable if not brilliant.
It was a refreshing dose of time appreciation in the anarchic dotcom world, where half of us were straight out of Dazed and Confused. (A world captured in the apocryphal New Yorker classic, My Fake Job ).
These meetings were management check-in meetings to some extent. But for the most part, they were brainstorming sessions yielding ideas related to UX, information architecture, etc. Creative work.
Besides punctuality, there was one more constraint on our creativity: brevity.
The rule was: “Say what you have to say in one 1 minute or less”. The aforementioned meeting facilitator observed it himself.
He measured our speaking time with his watch for the first few meetings until we got the hang of it. He then relaxed the one-minute rule slightly. We learned.
Here’s how one felt in those meetings:
- Alert, because you were aware of the value of time
- A feeling of fellowship, derived from alert collaboration
- Respected/respectful of your peers for being alert and focused
- Reassured that your time would not be wasted 
- Reassured that you’d have the opportunity to contribute
Good mind-conditions for thinking, I’d say. And the sine qua non for a brainstorming meeting.
The Management Meeting vs the Brainstorming Meeting
Meetings exist for the following four reasons:
- To make decisions that require group assent (which may or may not be part of a brainstorming meeting)
- To communicate sensitive or complex information, ideally in fluid response to a series of mini-objections or questions that happen in real-time
- To let people meet and get to know each other
- To create and validate ideas in a group context (brainstorming); speaking to a group is a form of creative thinking
I’m not addressing reasons 1-3 here because they pertain to management meetings. All are valid reasons to meet but all are often abused, especially #2. Usually what’s happening is someone who likes to hear their own voice calls a meeting for that purpose, when they could just as well use Slack to simply broadcast information and collect objections or alternatives.
But here we’re focused on the brainstorming motive. And what besides punctuality and brevity makes #4 work?
Have you heard the question, “what’s the agenda for this meeting?”. It almost hurts to write those words out. It cringes me. I imagine an enormous hall of 30,000 pained faces asking that question on repeat, like a Black Mirror episode. What a tragic thing to have to ask.
Bad Meeting culture is tragic at worst and a waste of time at best.
Agendas are not the solution to the Bad Meeting, but they help.
Why? Not to create order. Not to “stick to a schedule”. Not to “get things done”. None of that is my problem.
Here’s why agendas matter: to let you perform the relevant research in advance. This goes beyond preparation.
If you research in advance, then your ideas could be better. If a group of people researches the same material in advance, magic could happen.
Maybe it doesn’t matter for some. Maybe if you have been working at IDEO for 40 years and you designed Apple’s first computer mouse back in 1981, you can just show up to a product design meeting, after you fold the agenda up and make a paper airplane. Maybe if you’re Barack Obama, you can just show up to a communications strategy meeting.
Maybe that’s how sloppy brainstorming meetings became a thing?
But even then, wouldn’t it help you to focus your attention on the specific problem that needs solution ideas? And wouldn’t it help you to review the same information as others in the group?
Think about the very best classroom discussions you had in high school or college – and all the collective research (reading, exercises) that went into them. Good ideas pop when a dozen alert people have all read the same material, reviewed the same data.
Brainstorming Meeting Agenda – Research and Questions
So here’s what to do, as the organizer(s) of the meeting:
- Make and deliver an agenda at least 24 hours before the meeting commences
- Call it the Research Agenda
- Divide the meeting into agenda items, but call them “Questions”
- Name a facilitator  to each question in order to accomplish three goals: (a) let every participant lead at least part of the meeting, (b) give each participant an entry point into researching meeting material, and (c) cut down the talk time of the those who love to talk.
- Provide links, attachments, etc., to the material so that every meeting invitee has the opportunity to do research. Research can mean simply exposure.
Is it a lot of work for the meeting organizer? Yes, or they’re probably not doing it right.
And here’s what attendees do:
- Look at the research agenda well before the meeting begins
- Set aside some to answer for yourself the questions that will be asked in the meetings
- Figure out you know that other people don’t that will help answer the question and refresh your knowledge of it in your mind
- Sleep on it, ideally. At least for one night, if not more.
It’s also a lot of work for participants and I’d look for ways to compress this process down to its bare minimum without compromising it. So that it stays a brainstorming meeting and not a group research project.
That’s the simplest possible recipe for a brainstorming session. The table stakes matter, of course – the timing of the agenda delivery, the facilitation style, the punctuality of the meeting itself.
But the most important thing is research and the questions – if you find yourself asking more helpful questions during the meeting, you’re on to something.
This is so much more work than just showing up – try it and let me know how it goes.
PS. There’s a Brainstorming Meeting Agenda template for you https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Wosu1QZkifhHR0CH671Rl_ZdLjeMkG-0/edit
FOOTNOTES & ERRATA
 We now know that the article itself was fake as a piece of journalism. Rather, it was satirical – but without being clear on that point, as David Remnick apologetically lamented.
 A bit irrelevant but he would also leave the meeting at precisely XX:55:00 – mid-sentence on one occasion. Of course, he was doing this to make a point about the value of time. He was teaching us to respect our own time. And to be fair, he always gave the 5-minute warning. Now whether the meetings needed to last an entire hour is a separate question
 The best article I have ever read on how to design a meeting is from HBR https://hbr.org/2015/03/how-to-design-an-agenda-for-an-effective-meeting. I used it for many years when I ran a consulting firm. It doesn’t quite apply to brainstorming meetings, which should definitely not be so beholden to arbitrary time-constraints, but I have adapted it
 Consensus decision-making is useful here. I learned it at an SCA co-op in the ’90s and then re-learned it in 2011 with David Graeber, the “anti-leader” of OWS https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Graeber. The key piece here is facilitation; that the asker and owner of the question not dominate the answering of it
 Probably one of the top 6 or 7 books on Ideation is A More Beautiful Question https://amorebeautifulquestion.com/book-a-more-beautiful-question/. He presents plenty of thought-provoking questions, though he does get a bit rah-rah on Silicon Valley and neurodemia (neuroscience-fanboyism + academia + tedx talks), where the obvious is sometimes stated too breathlessly
UPDATES ON MEETING SCHEDULING TOOLS
- x.ai has an AI-based software solution to scheduling meetings. Let’s see how well it works (ie let’s see how well it integrates)
- Calendly and Acuity are the best meeting scheduling tools I know of. Acuity has better Google Calendar integration; Calendly is slightly better overall but a bit weak on integrations