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Planning: Forced creative sessions

No one wants to attend

Have you ever attended a meeting you just didn’t want to attend? Ever attended a meeting that no one wanted to attend? Have you ever had to direct such a meeting?

I have. In fact, I had to lead meetings in which most of those required to attend did not really get along.

Let’s face it; regular planning meetings are a necessity. But it’s no secret many companies are bogged down in meetings, and the news business is no different.

Have you ever tried to add more meetings, creative sessions? We’re talking about meetings in which your staff, or selected members of your staff, gather to enrich the concept of stories and further their visual presentation.

One time my executive editor decided we would hold weekly advanced creative sessions to better plan our centerpiece stories, visuals and cover designs. We would be collaborating.

Not another meeting!

We were already holding story planning meetings, but we had not required attendance by representatives from the design desk, the copy desk, the reporters and the photographers before this time. Originally, each of the team leaders would coordinate assignments and communicate design concepts independently, and only the team leaders would discuss these with one another. The process was rather disjointed. We had been studying the ways other newspapers held their meetings and had been considering "innovation" sessions for some time, but we had not taken the steps to hold similar meetings because we had not ironed out the details. The truth is we didn’t want everyone fighting with one another. (How we got to this uncooperative point is a long story, but I know it’s not that uncommon.) So, news of the required creative sessions came as a shock.

It occurred to me that required attendance would be resented by those involved, to say the least. My interpretation was that these meetings would be forced creative sessions. The terms forced and creative do not go hand in hand, so I knew trouble was on the horizon.

The first session was the disaster predicted. For one thing, we had to postpone the meeting until we could round up everyone. A couple of people chose to be absent during the meeting time. It was my responsibility to gather everyone and spread the word that these meetings were indeed required, and that everyone was expected to attend — no excuses. In addition, I had to enforce the requirement that everyone had to be prepared.

It goes without saying that during the first creative session none of the reporters had any ideas for visual concepts for their stories. The graphic designers did not understand the story concepts and they were less than enthusiastic when asked to present design ideas. The photographers did their best, but I could sense that they felt the meeting was a waste of time.

It started to work

We didn’t stop holding the meetings; we weren’t allowed to stop. The second meeting was much like the first, but attendance was better. The third meeting and the fourth were not good. The fifth meeting went surprisingly well. By the sixth meeting, I was raving about the results of our previous meeting. Then I began asking for high quality printouts of our covers, and I started displaying them on the walls of my office. My office became an art gallery of our own front cover layouts. This is when the pride kicked in. My pride in their work was reinforcement to continue the spirit of cooperation and creativity. They found their pride in their own creativity and skill was extremely gratifying. A feeling of quiet professionalism and confidence was thriving. From then on, most of those attending these creative sessions were well prepared, and the meetings were no longer considered forced sessions. My job was becoming easier and enjoyable once again. I continued to remind everyone about the meetings and continued whatever reinforcement I could muster, but these meetings became a success for the most part.

Warning: don’t try gimmicks

There was one session in which our executive editor did her best to raise everyone’s enthusiasm for one particular special summer kickoff issue. She wore a Hawaiian shirt, played Beach Boys music and brought beach balls to the meeting. Unfortunately, it flopped embarrassingly. Our cynical staff found the approach to be a little juvenile for their tastes. They became de-motivated by such a display. That particular effort was another good lesson for us.

Keys to starting creative sessions and keeping them going: 1. Make sure everyone knows these meetings are going to happen, and that those invited are expected (required) to attend. Remind them.

2. Let individuals know what is expected of them and what they need to bring to the meetings. Let them know that they will be called upon, and that they will be required to contribute. Set a simple agenda for each meeting and make sure each individual is aware of and understands the agenda items.

3. Keep the agenda simple, maybe three items. Make sure each item on the agenda has a deadline that is set well ahead; give your team enough time to complete their tasks sufficiently. Don’t use these meetings as catch-up meetings. These are creative sessions for improving presentation within the format. If you need more time to talk about more projects, consider scheduling more than one creative session each week, but contain them to no more than a half hour each.

4. Make sure everyone knows that they are expected to cooperate with one another in the spirit of collaboration. This is a team effort, so each person needs to do his or her part so the team succeeds.

5. Let everyone know that they need to be “on,” that they need to be ready to add creative ideas.

6. Use the concept of “reverse peer pressure” to reinforce attendance and positive contributions to the meeting. Work in positives, reward participation and clever ideas, and do everything in your power to make positive contributions a popular thing among staff members.

7. Start the meetings on time. Be efficient.

8. Keep the meetings short or you will lose everyone’s attention. Limit the meetings to half an hour, and stop them on time. You can follow up with individuals on your own after the meetings.

9. Keep the meetings headed in a positive direction. Conduct the meetings as if you are conducting a live broadcast if you must. Cut into any negative conversations and redirect.

10. Don’t let the conversations get off track, but allow levity when possible. Allow any laughter or joking if it happens. Do your best to keep the mood light and foster the spirit of creativity.

11. Do not allow a vote for the best way to present a story. The person conducting the meetings should decide, and the others should then add their creative ideas to further the success of the concept selected. In addition, do not allow one person’s opinion to kill off a good idea, no matter who they are. Many creative ideas have been silenced by one person spouting off.

12. Do not (I repeat, do NOT) allow for critiquing of the previous project during these meetings. These are creative sessions, not gripe sessions. Nothing will kill the spirit of cooperation faster than members of your team criticizing one another. Do not allow it! If you must hold a critique session, save it for a managers meeting.

13. Display the good results of these meetings. Make it known that you are proud of your team’s accomplishments. Give credit to the people who helped make it happen. Brag about them openly to your superiors if you must. Let everyone know the work was not easy, but the results are incredible.

14. Be sure you do not attempt positive reinforcement that might be considered juvenile or dorky. Definitely don’t reward people with candy bars or lollipops or ice cream bars. Your workers will resent this and it will send all your effort into a tailspin. If you want to reward their efforts somehow, make the reward something grown adult workers will appreciate, like a little extra time off if possible.

15. Follow up on these meetings and make sure everyone is keeping up their part of the projects discussed during these meetings as the week progresses.

16. Be consistent in every way, including the way you run these meetings. Make sure you hold these meetings at the same time and on the same day of the week each week. Do not skip them, not once.

With any luck, your creative sessions will not be as difficult as my initial experiences. Don’t be surprised if things are a little rocky at first. Just stay with it, be consistent, and the results will be worth the effort.

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