Snowballs: The Secret to Successful Meetings

IMAGE CREDIT: ABC News

Maybe it’s my hometown’s gradual transformation into Arendelle, but I’ve been thinking about snowballs a lot lately. Not just the kind that sting your fingertips as you form the perfect friend-felling projectile, but the act of snowballing- of picking up speed with a combination of momentum and increasing mass. As an “idea person,” I am constantly looking for ways to add real weight and heft to my dreams and aspirations. Seeing ideas come to life only intensifies that desire, and this past week I had an opportunity to see such a vision realized.

At this year’s NACA National Convention, I had the opportunity to deliver a version of my session about assisting introverted student leaders in making an impact on their organization. A question I get often in this session and ones like it, is how to help introverts contribute in meetings. So many industries are fans of public brainstorming, sitting in a room and encouraging people to shout ideas for inclusion on a whiteboard, or flipchart, or broadcasted Google Doc. But not only is that not a great way to get the input of your most contemplative people- people for whom it is uncomfortable and draining- but it’s also unhelpful for anyone trying to solve your organization’s biggest problems:

Over 50 years of research shows that people often reach irrational decisions in groups … and highly biased assessments of the situation… strong willed people who lead group discussions can pressurize others into conforming, self-censorship and create an illusion of unanimity […] people are more creative away from the crowd. It is a universal phenomenon emerging in work across the world, including America, India, Thailand and Japan. In short – for seventy years, people have been using brainstorming to stifle–not stimulate their creative juices.

-Richard Wiseman, 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot

Despite increasingly louder chatter that combats the reverence surrounding brainstorming, we persist in running meetings for students in this fashion. When we’re seeking ideas for Spring Weekend, recruiting new members, or trying to decide anything at all…we default to this tried and true method, even if it doesn’t work. So how do we rock the boat? How do we break up the tightly held, solidified notions that have served us (well or otherwise) for so long? As I fielded questions on the topic at NACA, I realized that my plan to combat it has three parts, spread out over time. Idea generation and meaningful contribution can happen during a meeting, but they can also happen before or after. And to allow our flakes of ideas to roll, get bigger and bigger, and finally gain enough mass to do some damage, they’re going to need more time.

Before the Meeting

When do agendas or topics of conversation for your meetings tend to come together? Further, when do your meeting attendees get the message? Most people see agenda sharing as a matter of courtesy, but there’s more to it than that. For members of your staff or general member base, having an agenda in advance can signify a few other things. First, sharing an agenda in advance is a means to allow people to be at their best. Not everyone does their best thinking in the moment; given time to do research and come to the table informed, however, they’ll thrive. But just as you can’t prepare for a test without knowing what it’ll cover, you can’t prepare for a meeting without knowing what topics will be on the table. Those in charge of running meetings owe attendees the opportunity to be the best version of themselves in these gatherings. And sharing agendas or plans of attack in advance allow for that.

What else does sharing agendas signify? Trust. Strong leaders don’t treat information as a source of power, but instead as a resource that can make everyone in the organization stronger. Bits of information, put together in just the right way, can form strategy that allows a well-informed and trustworthy team to execute projects. Not unlike, well, a snowball. Loosely packed snow doesn’t get the job done in a snowball fight quite like a tightly smushed one; it is that trust, that willingness to pull closer, that provides the extra “oomph” to knock down anything that might get in the way.

During the Meeting

I’m learning to love the idea of snowballing in meetings that require a lot of ideas. In this instance, snowballing refers to the process of sharing ideas on small pieces of paper, crumpling them up and throwing them to a specified location (the center of a circle, in a bin or bucket, or even at a person), and then sharing them with the group sans attachment to names or roles. Why do I love it so much?

  • For those who express themselves better in writing, snowballing allows thoughts to be shared in a way that doesn’t get filtered through speech
  • For those who need to move around more during meetings, it offers an additional opportunity to expend some energy in a physical manner
  • Vulnerability of sharing a contrary or potentially contentious opinion could be tempered with a semblance of anonymity
  • It’s far less boring than what we normally do (and that may just be my favorite part!)

Once ideas are shared, they can be hung for the group to peruse later, scanned for posterity, or pitched/recycled as needed. For student meetings, where proposed ideas are likely to get revisited, this can be a good way to keep ideas around in a more convenient manner. They provide a reference point that has more visual interest than our standard pages of notes or flipcharts; and bonus: you get to throw things. And who hasn’t wanted to throw things during a meeting? Right?! 

IMAGE CREDIT: Lifehacker

After the Meeting

How often do we hear after meetings, “if anyone has any additional thoughts or ideas, please feel free to share them via email/note/[preferred communication for your office or team]?” If it’s anything like the offices I’ve worked it, that sentiment isn’t shared often. Could it be implied? Sure. But putting it out there vocally could make a world of difference. Especially in the case of students, who may not be sure of the norms of the organization, saying this out loud could affect their level of post-meeting participation. Particularly if decisions at hand are not urgent ones, taking solicitations or notes for improvement after the fact could be the extra heft that your idea needs to be executed optimally. Providing varied methods of contact, and setting a deadline for supplemental information, could be the difference between moving forward with the loudest opinions, and moving forward with the best and most thought-out ones. Here again, as momentum builds, adding well-contemplated contributions as momentum builds can make the snowball bigger and more impactful.

As you head to the snowball fight that is our landscape of ideas, are you coming with the best ammunition you can? And how is your meeting culture contributing to the creation of big snowballs? 

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