5 time-honored practices of dysfunctional meetings

Forget what you know about meetings. Engagement expert Jack Ricchiuto outlines a whole new way of thinking about reinventing the conversations we call meetings.

It's time to totally rethink how we do meetings. I know it's possible because I've been transforming meetings of all shapes and sizes across a variety of industries, sectors and geographies for the past three decades. When it comes to meeting design, business as usual is no longer a viable, affordable or sustainable option in a world with unprecedented levels of change, complexity and connectivity. This realization culminated in one of my recent books, The Power Of Circles, in which I curate my 30+ years experience as writer and global leader in facilitating engagement.

The reinvention of meeting design begins with demythologizing many of the most time-honored meeting practices that we now associate with the secret to dysfunctional meetings. These are the Industrial Era habits that lose relevance in a Digital Age. The short list includes: agendas, presentations, brainstorming, parking lots and voting. What they share is that they cause us to be more assumptive than present, and they ironically sustain a not so subtle culture of disrespect and disengagement. It's no wonder why over 75% of people hate meetings.

I would argue that if we want meetings that make people feel engaged, respected and collaborative, we must shift from outdated to skillful practices.


Agendas assume everyone in a meeting should be interested in and necessary for each agenda item. They assume how long conversations will take and fundamentally that this meeting is the best way to get things done.

The alternative to agendas is asking everyone to name the kinds of conversations the group should be having in real time. Not all conversations will require everyone's participation and not all will require this or any meeting. For those requiring an approach other than a meeting, people can decide together on the best timing, methods and participants to any named conversations. We get done in meetings whatever makes sense given these shared decisions.


Presentations are monologue deliveries of information. They assume to know what other people want and need to know. They often also assume that presenters are the ultimate owners of unique knowledge or perspectives. Monologues in an Information Age are the lowest forms of communication because they create a special kind of mental, emotional and social disengagement.

The alternative to presentations is inquiry based dialogue. Anyone with unique knowledge and perspectives responds to everyone's real-time questions. It's a more pull rather than push approach to real-time sharing of unique knowledge. In the process, people learn to extract large amounts of information into quickly digestible units of understanding, not just data. The important thing to remember about presentations is that monologue delivers data; dialogue delivers understanding.


When I interviewed global art and innovation leaders for my first book, Collaborative Creativity (1996 Oakhill Press), most people interviewed literally laughed at the idea that this very peculiar practice called "brainstorming" could ever lead to anything truly creative or inventive. Brainstorming assumes people do their best thinking in groups, watching someone else record their ideas and working hard to pretend to not judge ideas as they emerge.

The alternative to brainstorming is group writing and appreciative critique. Everyone records their own ideas in their own words, sharing each verbally as well. They actively work to build each emergent idea with the four appreciative critique practices of So, Like, And and Else. So are the questions any idea raises. Like is anything about any idea we like and why. And is suggesting another feature to an idea to improve its value potential. Else is another approach altogether to the implied value of any idea. Together, these support the growth, pruning and shaping of ideas that bring out everyone's best thinking and that work.

Parking lots

Parking lots are the visual spaces where declared needs for conversations not on the agenda are exiled to a list of postponements. They are tools of the status quo. Parking lots assume that unplanned conversations are less valid and worthy than those planned. For any process in search of new ideas and perspectives, it is a direct violation of the principle that by, definition, new always happens unplanned.

The alternative to parking lots is empowering people to invite others into new conversations that matter. Anyone who brings up a call for a new conversation can invite others into it, then or later. This allows people to "vote with their feet" to the conversations they feel they can most contribute to or learn from. The significance of this freedom is that it allows people to collaborate from their sense of passion. A group where everyone feels free to invite others into conversation moves talk to action every time. A group that acts from passion rather than permission is unstoppable.


Voting assumes that success comes to those who can divide a list of options into winners and losers. The reality is that if  any one option isn't instantly obviously "the" answer to the whole group, the situation likely calls for multiple approaches, crafted from several available options. There is no evidence that voting makes any group smarter together, however well it succeeds in making any group more divided.

The alternative to voting is moving forward with the best of the most viable options. We develop ways to optimize the potential benefits of any considered options and minimize the potential disadvantages of these options. This leads to a more organic and intelligent progression toward best possible approaches that are inspired, realistic and supported. Everybody wins.

If you want people to do their best thinking and trust building in any meeting, consider introducing any of all of these radical proposals and insights into the look, feel and function of your meetings. Never have a pathetic or even mediocre meeting again. Never again have meetings that waste anyone's time. Become known for meetings people love to engage in and contribute their best to.