When I entered the meeting room I was not happy. A big U-shape filled the room. The four round tables I had requested for were squeezed in a back corner, hardly noticeable. They were not even the tables I had requested for. These ones were awfully small. In a split second I was reviewing my options and decided that I would not be able to work in such a setting. With less than half an hour before the start of the meeting, I rushed to the conference staff and told them to change the set-up.
The set-up I design for a meeting is crucial. A poor set-up, like with a central table or a U-shape, gives room to vocal persons, reinforces the hierarchy and hides shy persons in their chairs. It’s ideal for duelling egos, one-way discussions and the statement of stubborn opinions. Settings like these exacerbate the differences within a group.
The set-up of the room should reinforce what people share
But for change and innovation to run smoothly, participation by the whole group is required. The meeting and thus the set-up should reinforce the commonalities, what people share. So I usually refer to a café style or open space (without any table in the middle). A café style creates small groups and thereby intimacy, an open space enables participants to see each other fully without distraction from the tables.
Take the shifting of ideas seriously
So that’s the way I start. But it’s only for the start, because for a meeting to become truly transformational ideas, opinions, judgements of the participants need to shift. And I take this shifting very literally. For every different step of the meeting I ask the group to stand up for a presentation in a part of the room, to sit again in a different setting, to present in one corner and then the next, etc…
That’s why I like to have a meeting in a room with a lot of empty space.