"I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom.
– Noam Chomsky
The infinite complexity of the human mind is enthralling; each unique and teeming with ideas, questions and experiences that our ours. In a formal committee meeting though, you would very rarely know it. In traditional meetings, statuses can be silently assigned and there are unspoken hierarchies of knowledge and power; deeply ingrained on all sides and very rarely challenged. But are these hierarchies legitimate? Could our approach to meetings be different? What if we took a less hierarchical and more transdisciplinary approach to meetings by creating more playful and equal environments in which to meet? Just imagine a committee meeting where everyone attending – regardless of role, rank, background, discipline, or gender – believed their contributions and perspectives to be equally valid. An environment where everyone felt respected and encouraged to participate and where the ‘this might sound silly but..?’ questions and ideas were actively invited. These play-based tasks encourage this by introducing simple tools and materials to lighten the atmosphere and help level the playing field.
There are some important questions to ask yourself before looking to develop more playful meetings:
- What is the aim of the meeting?
- Who is attending? Why?
- What are you hoping to achieve by incorporating play?
There are endless ways that you could use play to change the atmosphere in a meeting but knowing answers to the questions above will help you re-assess your intentions and determine how bold you can be with the techniques and materials you choose.
You will no doubt be freer to take a playful approach in casual meetings, ones where creativity and idea generation is the aim. In more structured or formal meetings less dramatic modifications – such as a simple change to the venue - may be all that is necessary to have the impact desired.
There are a number of activities that you may like to try and they have been detailed in the activities section below under the following categories:
- Creative stimuli
- Purposeful distractions
- Energy boosts
Post-it notes can be a useful tool for pooling ideas and finding connections between them. During brainstorming sessions, you can invite all attendees to write their ideas onto individual post-it notes and stick them up on a nearby wall.
This can be adapted to suit the disposition and needs of the group. It works as a quieter and more solitary activity, with everyone working alone and coming together to stick ideas up on the wall at the end. Alternately, you could encourage people to work in pairs, or small teams or the entire group can work together, speaking their ideas aloud as they stick them to the wall. Once sufficient time has gone by and all ideas have been added the group can set about finding overlaps and making connections.
The benefit to using post-its is that you can move them around, group them, tier them and find visual ways of making sense of complex information. This is a useful technique for creative thinking, brainstorming, event-planning and project management.
Theory building requires its participants to actively engage with materials, to form their own ideas and to share them with a group and so depending on the task at hand it can be a useful technique to organise thinking around a particular project, or to support the planning of workshops and events.
Further information about theory building can be found on the Open Space Learning (OSL) website and guidance on how it can be used for project and event planning can be found here.
Have you ever talked yourself out of asking a question in a meeting - just in case it might sound foolish - only for someone else to ask it a minute or two later? Having the confidence to question and challenge in a room full of experts can be difficult for everyone but when you’re coming from the position of lower-grade administrator or undergraduate student it can, at times, feel like more trouble than it’s worth. Introducing playful tasks to meetings has the capacity to distract the internal dialogues of more uncertain attendees and showcase the simple and undeniable truth that everyone is a beginner - and indeed a master - of something.
These purposeful distractions can be as loose or as directed as you feel is appropriate. You may wish to simply leave a great mound of LEGO in the centre of the room, hold the meeting around it and see what happens. Alternately, you might provide a range crafting materials and set the group a task. These techniques can be a less threatening way of asking broad, challenging or strategy driven question such as:
‘Design and build your ideal university using LEGO’
‘If the university was an eco-system what would it be? Draw it. What is your place within that ecosystem?
Playful techniques like these can be useful at away-days and in meetings where strategic direction or idea generation is the aim. They can be a useful way of tackling big issues whilst inviting comment from and being respectful of, all contributors and types of knowledge.
In particularly lengthy meetings there are inevitably those moments where discussions – and the people having them - would benefit from a cup of coffee and a short break. At CounterPlay 2016 The Dark Would team were introduced to the Danish Clapping Game. This playful activity can be played in groups of 2 or more and requires its players to engage physically and mentally making it the perfect mid-meeting activity/break to help refresh the mind and reinvigorate the body.
Some meetings are more challenging than others and it’s important to consider the task at hand and the audience before identifying the most appropriate playful activities to suit your needs.
By introducing play in meetings we invite participants to forget about their roles and engage as their whole-selves and should be mindful of the fact that this will be more challenging, desirable or beneficial to some than to others.
I recognise that play is not always appropriate or appreciated and would stress that any notion of ‘forced fun’ be avoided at all costs. I do however see play as having three key benefits in a meeting setting and the activities detailed above have been divided as such. Firstly, there are playful techniques to help to spark more creative thinking. These are fairly low-risk, visually stimulating and collaborative. Secondly there are techniques that offer distraction. These are more overtly playful and surprising but can be beneficial in meetings that bring together a broader group of individuals. By involving everyone in playful tasks they help showcase the fact that we are all beginners at something and in doing so they have the capability to create more equal working environments, where all contributors and types of knowledge are acknowledged and respected. Finally, there are playful techniques that help to increase energy levels in a meeting. These can be used at the beginning or in breaks to offer a burst of energy, putting a stop to any yawns.
The challenge here is to alter the way that people approach a meeting. We are creatures of habit and have ingrained ideas of how we – and others - should behave from the second we walk through the door. Generally speaking meeting rooms are uninspiring at best and so I would challenge you to consider whether you actually need one at all.
Do you really need a table? Having tables to lean on will immediately encourage people attending the meeting to write. If the ability to take notes is essential in the meeting you are organising then great but it’s important to consider – on a case-by-case basis – whether or not this is actually the case. I would suggest that in most meetings, attendees notes - along with the elaborate doodles and shopping lists that adorn them - are neatly positioned in their authors ‘to file’ tray before being disposed of – unread – at a later date. But that’s just a hunch.
The minute you determine that tables aren’t required the venue options available to you will increase no end. Is there a sofa nearby you could use? Or a café? A flexible classroom with a circle of chairs? An imaginary campfire? A field? Do you even need to be seated at all? Perhaps a walk across campus would be best to inspire you? Why not think outside of the box.
The level of anchoring required will vary considerably depending on the types of activities you chose and the kind of meeting you are holding, but I would suggest that if you are using play in ways, and in meetings, where it is appropriate then you shouldn’t need to provide much justification for its purpose. Instructions – if there are any - for the tasks themselves, may well be all that is required.
When changing the structure of a meeting – or any activity – it is important to consider how these changes might impact attendees. If you choose to take your team on a walk across campus, or would like to invite them to sit in a circle on the floor, then you will need to be mindful of and sensitive to their physical capabilities and needs.
If you are using any dangerous objects (e.g. craft knives) then you will need to ensure they are used carefully and all collected back at the end. We recommend that a risk assessment be completed for any unusual activities, to help assess and manage the levels of risk. Further paperwork and guidance for risk assessments at Warwick University can be found here.
In addition to considering the physical needs of meeting attendees it is important to be mindful of how they might feel. By introducing play you are challenging normal structures and hierarchies of knowledge and may find that not everyone appreciates or supports this. Be clear in your mind about why you think play could be beneficial in the meeting you are organising. Consider why it might help with the task at hand and how it might effect the group. This may help you to prepare for any difficulties or issues or raised.
- The de Bono Group, Six Thinking Hats
- A Secret Club, in reference to their 'Castles in the Sky' session at CounterPlay 2016
- The Danish Clapping Game, introduced to The Dark Would team at CounterPlay 2016
When working on The Dark Would we held a number of meetings and - aware that we all came from very different roles, levels and backgrounds - tried a wide range of more playful techniques to help create a respectful and equal learning and working environment. Keen to avoid the traditional hierarchies of ‘chair’ and ‘secretary’ all meetings were audio recorded and a list of actions – rather than minutes - were drawn up as a group at the end. After an early meeting in which we discovered that the trade name for our audio recorder windbreak was ‘dead kitten’ we began the recording of all future meetings with the - somewhat questionable but suitably informal - phrase “Dead kitten, let's begin…” This became our tradition and through small changes like this and many others we worked hard to create a more informal and equal working relationship. We found this way of working was beneficial and at times essential for creating a collaborative working environment rather than one based around status and role. Having gone through the experience of working on The Dark Would I would however stress how important it is to consider what happens before and after meetings too and how any differences that may be encountered there, could impact discussions and the people who are having them. How might the breakdown of hierarchies be maintained inside and outside of your meetings? What could you stand to gain or lose by allowing people to step out of their roles? What might they gain/ lose? It’s important to be aware of the structural systems that we are each working within and how they might differ. Respect of individual differences and capabilities needs to be genuine and continuous in order for this way of working to succeed.
LEGO and a range of craft materials can all be borrowed from IATL. Please email IATL at warwick dot ac dot ukfor further details and equipment requests.