Three go-to 'scaffolds' that sharpen any meeting


May I introduce you to scaffolding? Supportive rules that underpin faster, bolder meetings...

Part of reason some meetings are frustrating, circular or just weird is because the rules are unclear. Often we just talk. There is no 'playing field'. 

We want group sessions where:

  • Everyone contributes
  • Better stuff gets decided and done
  • And crucially they take less time

Expert in fast, agile teams, Roy Marriott, describes how in large group workshops, he would use 'workshoppy type techniques' and the group would achieve so much. He started to wonder if these techniques could be used to turbo charge regular meetings as well. And he was absolutely right to wonder.

Scaffolding just means helping everyone contribute better and faster in meetings with some supportive rules. Meetings are typically linear but scaffolding can make them multi-track.


Rounds - smart ways to extend a familiar concept

You’re probably familiar with “Rounds”. Everyone in the meeting answers a question in turn*. No cross talk. It’s often used as an icebreaker but it can be so much more useful than that. Here are some ways I use Rounds to help people contribute richer insight, faster and more equally. 

Ask for ‘incoming’ information that’s relevant to the session, at the start of a session. 

  • “Let’s do a round of updates on the latest figures/KPIs” (e.g. sales figures, sign ups, size of backlog - whatever)
  • “What’s the temperature of your workload right now?” I want to know what people’s mental load is like, coming into this session. Telling me the temperature gives me a measure but also allows them to convey how they feeling in the language e.g. “I’m on a rolling boil” (I’m busy but ok) vs “Trousers on fire” (I’m feeling the pressure)

Measure change in clarity, understanding or opinion at the start and end of a session

  • “Before we start - out of 10, how clear do you feel about our product strategy?”
    And at the end...
  • “Ok, how clear do you feel out of 10, right now? 8? Great. And what would make that a 10?”

Use a round to gather data and insights from each person 

  • “Let’s do a round to gather insights you’ve heard your customers. Tell us most surprising things you've heard your customers say."

Use a round as an informal way to gather opinions.

  • “We’ve explored quite a few issues here. Let’s do a round and see what direction each of us feels we should go in. Take a couple of minutes** to jot down...”

* Dr Nick Heap suggests doing rounds in reverse order of seniority

** You’ll notice I give people a couple of minutes to jot their thoughts down when I’m asking for a considered opinion. I want them to have time to judge for themselves, before they hear what others are saying. Which leads us nicely into....



If you haven’t already heard, brainstorming - where people just shout ideas aloud in a group - is actually not very effective for four reasons.

  1. People don’t think as well when they are also listening to others sharing their ideas.
  2. Hearing other people’s ideas creates what designers call ‘fixation’ where existing ideas and solutions constrain your own ideas to a similar domain - you will find that early ideas shape the whole session.
  3. The social pressure of calling out ideas seems to limit people to what they feel is ‘reasonable’ and workable so ideas are less innovative.
  4. The unbroken flow of discussion tends to limit the new of new, divergent ‘cycles’ of thinking.

The alternative is brainwriting where you give people some time to work ‘alone together’ on their ideas before sharing them. Not only does this allow people to think without social pressure but the break in conversation - the silence, in effect - encourages divergent thinking cycles (1).

This works best with a specific question to answer, a time limit and encouragement to produce as many ideas as possible. Give people somewhere to put their ideas - online or on post its, if you are face to face. Then group ideas into similar clusters and discuss… or apply another of the scaffolds in my e-course, Dotmocracy and Way Beyond… 

If you’re not yet convinced, consider this. There is not a single published study in which brainstorming outperforms brainwriting (2). 


Capture outcomes with a shared canvas

A final scaffold I use all the time is a ‘capture canvas’ which holds all the value as it’s created in the meeting, where everyone can see and contribute to it, through the meeting. 

My most-used sections are:

  • Decided (we rarely capture this in meetings - in fact, often it’s not clear when a decision has been made)
  • Next (wider than actions alone)
  • Car park (important - but for another meeting)
  • Comms (who do we need to talk to about what we’ve decided)

Download the Capture Canvas template - you’re welcome to share this with anyone.


And you can make up any rule that is sensible for your group and your meeting.

  • No one speaks twice until everyone has spoken once.
  • Meetings only start after everyone is clear on the deliverable of the session.
  • You can make any point you want - but you can only make it once (my friend applied this rule to her mother-in-law - she's badass).
  • The most senior person always speaks last. 

You decide. It's your meeting.


References and further reading 

1. Professor Leigh Thomson in an interview with Fast Company

2   Thompson, L. (2003). Improving the creativity of organizational work groups. *Academy of Management Perspectives*, *17* (1), 96-109.




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