Ever have one of those dreams where you show up at school and there’s a test you didn’t study for and all you can do is panic knowing that you can’t possibly do well because you aren’t prepared? Whether you’ve had that particular nightmare or not, we’ve certainly all had moments in our lives where we just didn’t have the right information at the right time. It comes up time and again in office collaboration, and in the worst cases it can be scary and frustrating.
Office collaboration is the same as an eighth grade algebra test. If you don’t prepare, you probably won’t do very well. And to prepare, you have to have the right information. But so often for meetings and work sessions, the majority of the participants walk in cold. They haven’t been offered deep background, or contextual information about the project either before the meeting or at its start. So rather than having productive, valuable conversations that lead to decisions and actions, the group is unfocused, asking irrelevant questions, backtracking over old territory, or, even worse, absolutely silent. It happens every day, and its one of the reasons that workers frequently cite meetings as their biggest time waste.
Two important components for successful office collaboration
There are many things needed to make a truly great meeting—including a clear agenda, the right participants, the right space, and a well-defined purpose. But one of the most vital things for a great meeting is information. We’ve talked about how to make information and ideas generated during meetings visual—using cards, post-its, whiteboards, etc. But just as important as is making background and contextual information visual.
When collaborators have the right information, they are better able to stay focused and on track. They participate in meaningful analysis and foster collaboration by creating a more even playing field. In order to provide the right information, you as a meeting holder, have to do two things: find the relevant information and make it digestible.
Keep it relevant
To find the information that is going to be most relevant, use an empathetic mindset. What would you need to know to participate productively? This will vary widely depending on the meeting purpose and the attendees, but here are a few categories and thought-starters to consider:
To keep everyone on track, ask yourself, “What internal and external data and information would help me better understand the problem and discussion solutions?“
Relevant quantitative data: This kind of information is useful when discussing root causes of a problem or an opportunity. Use this checklist as a guide to help you identify the right quantitative data to bring to your meeting.
- Performance indicators
- Financial statements such as P&L accounts, cash flow, depreciation and amortization statements and balance sheets
- Operational metrics like: production rates, production costs, and error rates
- Management accounting such as department budgets, asset accounts, and accounts receivable
- Human resource metrics such as turnover, tenure, average age, and education level
- Market size, share, and opportunity analysis
- Customer metrics like lifetime value, NPS, customer acquisition cost, and customer retention rate
Remember, looking at data over time is more helpful than looking at data at a single point in time. Experts recommend at least four years worth.
Relevant qualitative information: This kind of information is most useful for understanding current state to find solutions that best fit your organization. Use this checklist as a guide to help you identify the right qualitative data to bring to your meeting.
- Enterprise, department, or P&L business goals
- Existing department, technology, or market strategies
- Current product/service line-up
- Research and development or innovation initiatives list
- Supply chain flow and supplier/partner lists
- Organizational chart
- List of current clients/accounts
- Product lifecycle
- Customer quotes
- Competitive benchmarks
- Adjacent industry examples
- Buyer and/or user personas
One of the most useful ways to look at qualitative information is show how it relates to other information pieces. For instance, how does your supply chain align to your product offering? Rather than thinking about qualitative information as large, unrelated lists, try to find connections and relationships and use them to spot unexpected opportunities.
In addition to Business Intelligence, some meetings benefit from project intelligence. Many teams use project process dashboards to quickly assess projects or tasks that are on-track (green), in jeopardy (yellow), or behind (red). But there is more project information that just status. It can also be really useful for teams to be able to access other types of data.
Project process: What are the major phases and milestones of this project? What have we completed and what is yet to come? Most importantly, where are we now and what activities are we doing?
Problem boundaries: A running list of in- and out-of-scope items can keep teams from going down the same fruitless path multiple times. The better defined the problem is, the better the solution will be.
Criteria or principles: Has your team already determined what criteria the solution must fulfill? Have you already evaluated a build/buy/partner approach and selected one? Document it, and keep it visible.
Stakeholders: Whether it’s an internal organization chart of gatekeepers, end-users, or external customers, visual references can be very helpful. Bonus points for making some quick notes about their preferences or desired outcomes.
Keep it digestible
Digestible information is information that can be quickly accessed and understood. For meetings, this means making your information:
- Visible: It can be tempting to put all of your deep knowledge in a pre-read memo or presentation deck, but your audience likely won’t read it, and with a deck, you can only project one slide at a time. Instead, turn all your background information into posters and cover your meeting rooms. When it’s visible all the time, participants can gesture to it and easily scan it throughout the session.
- Visual: Sometimes information can be as simple as a list, but the more you can make it visual, the more digestible it will be. Use icons or colors to help collaborators sort through lists, and when possible, turn processes into visual diagrams. Most importantly, use white boards and hand sketches to illustrate intangible concepts and terms in a way that everyone can understand.
- Chunked: A room covered in background information can sound overwhelming, but don’t print and pin a novel to the wall. Instead, break information down into the smallest useful chunk. Think bullet points, word clouds, and key metrics (accompanied by judicious labeling).
- Grouped: Organizing information in space is a powerful and underused tool. Group related information together, like everything about the buyer next to sales numbers, or org charts next to stakeholder lists. Establishing clusters of information can reveal trends and correlations and helps participants know where to look when reaching for a key fact.
Having the right information at the right time isn’t easy. But it’s crucial for productive collaboration—especially the real-time collaboration and decision-making that so often happens in meetings. By using the principles of user-centered design and information design, you can provide meeting participants with relevant and digestible information that will supercharge your next work session.