Book review – Let’s Stop Meeting Like This

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —November 19, 2014
Filed in Culture

Last week Victoria Ward and I wrote an ‘essay in two voices’ giving our impressions of a book called ‘Let’s Stop Meeting Like This‘ by Dick and Emily Axelrod. The ‘essay in two voices’ technique was developed by my good friend Madelyn Blair. Here’s a description of how it works in detail, but in a nutshell both authors write 500 words on a topic. We share it and then respond to each others piece with 250 words. Again we share that and respond with 150 words and so on until we end up with a 140 character, and of course very tweetable, statement.

Let’s start with Victoria’s 500 words and the back and forth and then we will switch to my piece and what followed.

Right at the end Victoria and I offer some reflections on the process.

Canoe team

Victoria starts. 500 words

Changing how organisations have meetings is at the heart of Sparknow’s practice. And I know it’s at the heart of much of Anecdote’s work too. Reading this book together with you, Shawn, matters to me as a way of exploring that practice together.

The authors quote Charles Duhigg on the power of keystone habits, habits so powerful that if you change those you change the organisation. That’s a reminder of how hard it is to change meetings. Rewiring for new habits takes massive, sustained, effort.

The central ‘meeting canoe’ metaphor has a useful simplicity (although I’m not sure why it’s a canoe: is it that we all stop paddling our own and get in one we paddle together? Perhaps I skimmed that part.) The structure of the meeting canoe (welcome, connect, discover, elicit, decide, attend) emphasises those things that are too easy to overlook, e.g. start by creating connections, both between people, and with the task. And the underlying principles of creating a learning environment: create a shared view of the reality you are facing, make sense of the reality, and neither flee from nor seek prematurely to fix it. Yes.

Story head on, I like the attention to beginnings and endings. There is a ‘rubber band’ analogy: participants discover the way things are and dream about the future, this creates a tension that propels them towards that future. That feels like story too. I was more taken with the ‘rubber band’ than the ‘meeting canoe’. The authors emphasise the power of talking about the future as if it were the present. Yes! Madelyn Blair of Pelerei taught me long ago with her future story.

I spend hours thinking about endings, and this as a Gestalt moment, was the single most useful new idea. Attending to the end follows a natural cycle, the cycle of experience: failure to attend to the end interrupts this natural cycle and makes future work harder than it needs to be.

There were handy techniques sprinkled through the book, especially the first aid for meetings, and in particular the role of the leader in naming rotten underlying patterns in which the meeting is stuck, in a way that allows everyone to shift on from them.

What was missing then? Two things in particular for me. The ‘red thread’ of the longer narrative in which the meeting sits: what happened before and before that, what happens after and after that? The meeting is now, but it sits in a long now. Secondly, a big hole was curation. How are you recording the meeting, and how do the different stories of the meeting travel for it to have a ripple effect, or which parts of it are private, necessarily, because it’s a hidden shared moment? None of that was really covered, and that’s a vital part of the process.

Shawn responds. 250

Thanks for practising the canoe Victoria. I felt welcomed to this essay. It’s probably a habit for you, just automatic, but it really affected the way I read what you wrote. It was inviting and exploratory. I now wonder how you read mine, which lacked such an inviting beginning.

It’s interesting we both picked up on the role of the larger narrative, or should I say, narratives. These stories stroll into the meeting with all the participants. Then there are the stories of what happened in the meeting. What’s done and how it’s done will be just as important as what’s said.

I’m very interested in how new habits form. It’s hard to create a new habit but it would be even harder to help groups of people to create them. I guess this is culture change. My sense is action comes before intention, which sounds arse-about but I reckon you act your way into a new way of thinking.

I was always a bit loose-string on the importance of beginnings, middles and ends in stories. It seemed to be in the category of true but useless. Then I met Paul Costello who showed me how signposting these parts of a story can really help in the journey. I now call out in the middles of my workshops and quickly review the past and ask the participants if they want to modify anything we have planned for the future. Damn, I’ve run out of space for the ending.

Victoria responds. 125

Yes it’s a welcome habit! I didn’t notice that you didn’t, I was so relieved you also thought it a bloated book with some useful ideas. That made a strong early connection to move on from together.

Stories ‘strolling’ into meetings prompts me to Kahneman’s fast and slow thinking: the experiencing self in the meeting, the remembering self after the meeting. Making meetings memorable matters. You need strong stories to ‘stroll’ out of meetings too.

Action before intention or after? I don’t know.

So much to say about Paul’s BME model, a middle has many beginnings and endings. We’ll have to save it up and talk. Exciting.

Shawn responds. 60

“Making meetings memorable matters,” nice! Dare I say, “share a story,” or do something that’s story-worthy. Of course this only happens when there’s trust. People often say nothing when they feel danger. The red thread will determine the threat level. Perhaps the organisation needs a great big culture yacht to contain all the canoes. Yes, we’ll need a quiet pub.

Victoria responds. 30

Not just trust: ground the meeting in time and place, and muscular, touch things, move about, inhabit the space. Making meetings muscular and memorable matters. Stories live in the sinews.

Shawn responds. 140 characters

Meetings need trust. And much is built beforehand. Canoes are unnecessary. We just need a red thread of good intent. That means culture.

Shawn starts. 500

Dick and Emily Alexrod’s canoe method for better meetings is a book that could have been an essay. It would have been a useful essay, one full of handy tips and practical perspectives. But it was the 2–3 page chapters that left me wanting more in a book format. Where was the research supporting their method? Where were the stories showing how things could really go wrong and how they could be righted? Instead the reader is interrupted in every chapter by the incessant Clockman (a rhetorical device the authors included to ask the unspoken questions).

The Axelrods’ premise is well founded: organisational life is full of meetings and most are unproductive. Their tonic involves a clear process and a set of guiding principles. The process is defined as a canoe. Imagine you’re looking down from the sky at the boat. Starting at the pointy front-end the meeting host WELCOMES the participants. This is a human process. People are productive when they feel safe and welcomed. The canoe sides expand as we CONNECT the participants with one another. Knowing who’s in the room and why they’re there creates vital context. Now we set about to DISCOVER the way things are, what’s the situation? At the middle the canoe begins to narrow and now we ELICIT people’s dreams, their hopes. And flow to the point at the other end of the canoe we finish by DECIDING and ATTENDING to the end, because endings are important.

Last week I facilitated a Board meeting. I designed the meeting according to the canoe method. Our aim was to engage the Board in a conversation about the new strategy and get clear decisions about the strategic choices the organisation will make. We moved through the canoe process over four hours. Just before eliciting dreams I could see some people wanting to jump to decisions. It felt slow for them. Most were engaged. I stayed in the canoe. When we arrived at the decisions they seemed easy. The work had been done. In front of each person were three cards, each of a different colour: red, yellow and green. I asked everyone to hold up a card indicating their level of agreement with the strategy: green=full support, yellow=tentative, red=rejection. Everyone held up a green card. It’s the first time I’ve seen a Board give unanimous support for a set of strategic choices.

The success of this meeting came from more than just the canoe meeting process. The organisation had spent nine months working with their employees, customers and the vast diversity of people who have a stake in the organisation’s success. This diverse group developed and tested the strategic choices, the values and the purpose. There was incredible integrity in the broader process. A meeting doesn’t happen in isolation. What comes before has an incredible impact. In this case the work had been done, so when we convened the board meeting the canoe became the perfect vessel to deliver the best possible strategy we could create.

Victoria responds. 250

Yes, it’s wildly overblown. The Clockman annoyed me so much that I’d obviously drawn a veil over him in my memory.

I love that you’ve given it a go and stayed in the canoe when people wanted to jump out and swim into decisions. It reminds me of a favourite children’s book called ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’, where if you jump to the island of conclusions it’s a long cold swim back. The cards is a brilliant way of voting people into decisions. I’ll borrow that one for sure.

And we’re agreeing about the need for integrity in the broader process, although I call it a red thread in my thinking. What about the time in between meetings? One recent series of four meetings for a client, a Museum rethinking their content framework, made the meeting series a journey, and the client had a ‘process museum’ with artefacts from the series so that people could go in between and be part of the process. It was symbolic as much as actually used. But that was a meeting space too, and part of the whole, longer meeting trajectory.

I want to know, Shawn, did everyone in the room know they were in a canoe and did that help, or could you have been in a canoe visible only to you and your sponsors and had the same effect?

Shawn responds. 125

Like Wonder Woman’s plane, our canoe was completely invisible, even to my sponsors. I helped mold the agenda with the canoe in mind. Not knowing didn’t seem to work against the group. Next time full disclosure to see what happens.

Years ago I was told by an experienced facilitator that if you don’t know the end point you need a clear process, and vice versa. The Dilbert cartoonist, Scott Adams puts it this way: “goals are for losers.” I love the way you combined process with metaphor and the museum. It’s a lovely way to gain process clarity without over-defining it.

I’m imagining getting a bunch of cynics to adopt the canoe. How do you get a skeptical audience on-board? Or is invisibility the answer?

Victoria responds. 60

Start with invisibility, maybe whip the cloak off as a kind of reveal and gift to participants for other meetings. Although does it have to be a canoe? Sparknow already has collaborative encounters thinking, which I’m very attached to. Does the meeting canoe add something? Or is there another, less whimsical, metaphor that creates the same mnemonic reminder?

Shawn responds. 30

Yeh, I don’t get the canoe. How about hosting a party? Mind you, coming up with a good metaphor is hard work. Metaphors everywhere and not a drop to drink.

Victoria responds. 140 characters

Stories stroll into meetings, new stories are shaped there and stroll out, embodied in those who were there. Meetings make story sinews.


We both found this a stimulating process. Rather that tell you what we each thought, we thought we’d tell you this as Shictoria/Vawn so here goes.

It got me to read the book and take notes so I could write about it, so increased discipline. Committing to reading a book for the essay resulted in a deeper read.

It felt like a conversation.

It reconnected me with you. It was nice to hear your ‘voice’ in the words, and felt like we were meeting face to face because of the rapid back and forth.

Also, it created real curiosity as I was quite impatient to know what you were going to say. I’m glad we did it quickly at the end.

Responding to your writing took me on unexpected perspectives and I really liked the red thread even though I don’t believe I really understand it – another topic for conversation.

The constraints of reducing size meant being disciplined too, and created a squeezed space into which energy was poured which spills over into us needing to talk to say all the things there was no room for!

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

Comments Off on Book review – Let’s Stop Meeting Like This