Research has shown that free form meetings aren’t the most effective way to produce good ideas. Suggestions brought up earlier in the meeting tend to have more influence. Additionally, the negative aspects of an idea often alters our judgement more than the potential upside. And yes, in most meetings the same people do most of the talking.
We need to rethink the way we approach meetings that promotes collaboration and facilitates a responsive and flexible environment. Most importantly, we need an environment where more than just the usual suspects can be heard and where ideas can be challenged—in a friendly way, of course. This is where “sparring,” a structured format for breaking down and building new ideas, comes in.
Sparring gives groups the opportunity to question their work, idea, or project in a public environment and receive valuable feedback in a non-threatening way. By design, creating an actual “sparring zone,” a scheduled session for teams to spar, encourages discussion between people at different levels (owners, CEOs, freelancers, and entry-level employees alike). Disagreement is encouraged, but in a way that avoids conflict.
The Foundations of Sparring
There are three roles in a sparring zone: the Sparring Lead, the Sparring Audience, and the Sparring Facilitator.
The Lead describes the idea or concern that the group will spar on. It’s often best to have one of the more unusual suspects be the Lead to encourage diverse perspectives. I suggest a junior or newer employee, or a colleague from a different office.
Next is the Audience. These can be experts or novices at any level of your company who form a team to question the Lead and open up new possibilities about the Lead’s idea.
Third is the Facilitator. The Facilitator is a neutral moderator who initiates each step in the session and ensures that the attendees are following the rules.
Order of Operations
So what does a session actually look like? There are four steps to the sparring process:
First, is the “statement of awareness.”
This is a 90-second explanation of an idea, project, or concern by the Lead that will be the focus of the session. For example, the Lead might say, “This session I want to propose a idea for how we should design our new office. I think the priority should be collaboration and having open space. We should have seats everywhere and couches. The less walls the better.”
A statement of awareness can be anything, big or small, from, “I want to bring a pool table into the office,” to “I’m struggling with how to bring more partnerships onboard for a fashion line.” After the explanation from the Lead, the Audience responds to the idea and shares initial reactions, such as what is exciting, meaningful, or interesting about what they just heard.
Next, the Lead poses questions about the work to the Audience.
The Audience should answer the questions truthfully and stick to what was asked, trying not to bring up other topics. For example, to expand on the collaborative office idea, the Lead might ask, “How would everyone feel if we had no offices, but just communal tables? How do you think an open office would increase or decrease productivity? How should we organize the tables? By project team or by department?” The Audience answers these questions, sharing their thoughts and views. The Facilitator takes notes and tracks progress, while also ensuring that the Lead is the only one asking questions.
Third, the Audience asks the Lead questions.
Now we turn the tables. The most important rule in this step is to phrase the questions neutrally, in a way that does not reveal an opinion behind the questions. Examples could be:
- “What might be the challenges of having such an open atmosphere?”
- “If it gets too loud, will there be a protocol for controlling the noise?”
- “Where will we have client meetings?”
The Lead answers these questions and the Audience can keep asking questions. The Facilitator continues to take notes, track progress, and ensure the Audience is phrasing questions neutrally.
Last, the Audience state opinions about the project to the Lead by first asking permission.
Audience members say, “I have an opinion about X, would you like to hear it?” The power of letting someone know that an opinion is about to be expressed moves the conversation forward without ill will and allows the Lead to hear opinions without feeling compelled to agree with or act on them. For example, “I have an opinion about your idea for an open office, would you like to hear it? … It’s very difficult as an introvert to work in an open space with so many people around. I don’t see how I could thrive in this environment. Maybe we could have an alternative smaller space where some people could work if needed.”
Sparring With Your Team
The reason sparring is so powerful is that it prioritizes the importance of thoughtful questions, rather than personal opinions. The four-step order also ensures that group members are always focused on discussing the work or issue presented, rather than making comments about a individual’s person belief. We are separating the person from the idea, and that makes honest, productive discussion much more likely.
There are a few companies that use sparring zones in exemplary ways. DreamWorks, for example, created the “Life’s a Pitch” program. Employees are encouraged to use sparring and are trained to create cross-functional teams to pitch creative ideas to the senior team. Employees at all levels, from lawyers to engineers, can suggest anything they want.
Through this program, DreamWorks is able to take full advantage of its strong culture and diverse employees. DreamWorks runs workshops, similar to sparring, for teams to strengthen their ideas, and then the top teams present them to the senior employees.
A sparring session can come in many different forms:
- 15-Minute Sparring: If you come across a roadblock, host an impromptu sparring session to tap into the connectional intelligence of your team.
- 1-Hour Sparring: Set up a time once a month or once a quarter for sparring on your most pressing topics. Have a “sparring idea slam” for diverse teams to join together and maybe invite your clients.
- Half-Day Sparring: Spending a half-day sparring hones in on each group’s unique skill sets to create why-didn’t-we-think-of-that projects, and helps to harness the power of all of their differences in order to bring about transformative solutions.
Sparring isn’t easy—It requires creating a space for tension and confrontation, which might scare people. But wouldn’t you rather have the excitement of real idea generation than another boring meeting that squashes creativity?