By Adena Philips
Do you remember that company retreat you went on three years ago? Can you recall the exercises you participated in and what you learned from them? If you’re struggling to conjure an answer, you’re not alone. The annual meeting or offsite is an invaluable way for organizations and teams to come together and reflect on where they’ve come and where they are going – but it can be challenging to make it engaging and memorable.
During Passover this year, I found myself considering that the Seder may be the oldest annual meeting in the world. For millennia, Jewish families have come together at this holiday to reaffirm our narrative, explore questions about who we are and align on a vision for the future all in less time than it takes to conduct a half-day strategy session. The unparalleled success of this meeting isn’t an accident; the centuries-old Seder employs methods we recognize today as best practices for intentional meeting design.
With Passover fresh in our minds, here are 10 winning elements of the Passover Seder that serve as a checklist for a well-executed meeting:
1. Set a clear agenda. The word Seder itself means “Order,” and it opens with the recitation of the 14 steps of the evening, from Kadesh (the sanctification of the wine) through Nirtzah (the closing). As at the Seder, a clear agenda at a professional meeting lets participants know what will be covered and allays potential concerns that an important issue will be overlooked. It allows them to relax knowing the meeting is under control and that everyone present can move along together, one step at a time. Agendas are essential to assuring participants that a broader process is in place so that they may focus on the topic at hand and be fully in the moment. Always start your meeting by reviewing the agenda, and make it visible, on a whiteboard or a handout, so attendees can orient themselves at any time.
2. Use props. We open the Seder by pointing at the matzah on the table and declaring “THIS is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in Egypt.” The Seder is filled with props that awaken our sense of sight, smell, touch and taste, from the mortar (Charoset), to the tears (saltwater), to the pillows that are reminiscent of royal feasts. Props at a meeting likewise remind us that this isn’t a typical day at the office. They invite us to step into the experience. They help trigger access to different neural pathways so participants can connect to the subject matter tangibly, expansively and creatively. Consider brightening up your meeting room walls and tables with your company’s product, brochures, photos and posters. Bring crafty supplies that allow participants to model the scenarios or prototype the products you are discussing. Add playful items that invite desired behaviors; place referee whistles on the table to remind people that they are taking a “time out” to reflect, for instance, or put a melon out to invite fresh perspectives. Ask executives to choose their “leadership spirit animal” from a bucket of plastic toys and keep it in front of them for the duration of the meeting to set an intention of how they want to show up. Though they may seem silly at first, props shift energy and serve as powerful catalysts for innovation.
3. Frame with thematic scaffolding. The number four features prominently in the Haggadah. That there are four questions and four sons, as opposed to five questions and three sons, makes it easier for participants to remember these core concepts and refer to them in discussion. The most significant structural employment of this tool is the four cups of wine. These four moments of drinking a glass of wine with a blessing punctuate the evening and create natural breaks to acknowledge the completion of one component of the Seder and the beginning of the next. Clear declarative transitions are moments to pause, absorb learnings and recalibrate as a group to move forward. Telling participants that there are three parts to the day and marking each section with a repetitive ritual like a one-word go-round, helps people appreciate and remember the key components of each section and transition with freshness to the next.
4. Open with questions. Maggid, the storytelling portion of the Seder, begins with the Four Questions, or Ma Nishtana. Why is this night different from all other nights? The practice of opening with questions as opposed to information establishes the tone for an evening of inquiry and exploration as opposed to one of dogma. Sometimes we are afraid to open meetings with questions because we have so much information to relay that we worry about ceding control to the audience. Yet Ma Nishtana is masterfully positioned as an opener that catalyzes receptivity. It asserts that we don’t need to start with all the answers to have a meaningful exchange. A well-formed question will serve as an invitation to be curious and expansive. It is not an invocation to dive narrowly into answers. Try opening your meeting with a question that gets people to ponder the past or muse about the future. The questions are an end in and of themselves; you don’t have to collect answers!
5. Lead with inclusion. The Four Questions are recited by the youngest person at the table; seemingly an anachronistic way to begin a revered ritual. By empowering the youngest attendee to speak up early on, we establish non-hierarchical norms for participation. Once this precedent has been set, all bets are off and everyone at the table – young, old, new or seasoned feels welcome to contribute. We remind everyone that sometimes the most incisive questions or comments come from those who are most unfamiliar with the material and can see it with fresh eyes. Try being radically inclusive by asking the most junior person in the room – or even a brand-new employee – for their perspective early on to break any covert barriers, insecurities or rules and to ensure robust participation.
6. Acknowledge your audience. Ever lead a discussion for a group of people who know a lot about the subject of the meeting? Have you sat through a meeting you felt like you could lead? In the world of facilitation and management, these are unavoidable occurrences, but it can be uncomfortable for a facilitator and frustrating for participants who don’t want to be schooled on matters they are already familiar with, and who are also unsure the meeting is a good use of their time. Letting your audience know up front that you are aware of their expertise and naming your intention for your time together can help ease unspoken tension. It will assure your audience that you have designed the conversation with their experience in mind. Before launching into Maggid, the Haggadah gives a disclaimer: And even if all of us were wise, all persons of understanding, all elderly, all of us knowing the Torah – there is still a Mitzvah upon us to tell about the Exodus from Egypt. And whoever talks about it at length is praiseworthy. By giving this disclaimer, we preempt disengagement by naming the fact that many people at the table already know the story of the Exodus and are well-versed in the Haggadah. We affirm that the process is not about learning the story; rather there is inherent value in retelling, relishing and mining it. By showing your audience that you see them and appreciate what they bring to the table, you build buy-in for your process.
7. Design for different learning styles. The Four Sons is a paradigmatic reminder that people approach learning differently and that we must design conversations accordingly. Indeed, the Seder includes various modalities from literal retelling to poetic and metaphorical explanations, to repetition and reenactments. Opening the evening by acknowledging different learning styles asserts that the discourse is indeed for everyone and that we must learn to flex accordingly. Try intentionally mixing different modalities in your meeting design to reach different types of learners, knowing that not everything will land for every participant.
8. Activate an authentic connection. When the Haggadah implores us “In every generation one must look upon oneself as if they personally had gone out of Egypt,” we are challenged to make a personal connection to the story before us. This moment amidst the collective storytelling and national narrative prompts each person at the table to think very personally about the subject matter. What is Egypt to me, and do I personally feel that I have made an exodus from it? Meetings transform when the people in the room have an authentic connection to what you are discussing. If you are talking about organizational strategy, you want every person to locate their own sense of purpose and contribution within it. If you are discussing organizational norms or values, you want people to think about their own values and needs and how they are reflected in collective actions. No meeting is too mundane to bring into the room the full authentic selves of your participants.
9. Summarize the essential. At the end of Maggid, we state: “Whoever has not discussed these three things has not fulfilled their obligation: the Passover Offering, Matzah, and Maror, the bitter herbs.” The Seder can last many hours and span myriad topics, but before we close the storytelling portion, we are reminded explicitly of its three essential points. While you can convey many topics in a well-planned meeting, it’s crucial that you distill and prioritize a few key messages with which you want every participant to leave. Design the meeting with the objective of delivering these core ideas, which can be facts, feelings or skills. Don’t be shy about being direct with attendees; make it easy for them to know what is essential.
10. Close strong. When the meeting ends, the work begins. As important as intentional meetings are, their success is measured by what participants remember and take away. A strong close is critical to creating a lasting impression of the meeting and mobilizing energy around the desired outcomes. After a long evening of potentially digressive textual parsing, cranky kids up late and a protracted search for the Afikomen – not to mention four cups of wine – Seder participants might find themselves counting the remaining pages in the Hagaddah with heavy eyelids. Still, the Seder closes with fun, imaginative, upbeat songs and a proclamation of shared desire for next year in Jerusalem. Regardless of how rigorous your gathering may be, make sure to bring everyone back to the table and seal it with positive energy, and a shared vision for the future.
Adena Philips is an organizational consultant and executive coach based in New York. She works with Fortune 500 companies, government and nonprofits internationally in areas including strategic planning and change management. Adena is a Schusterman Fellow.