My Best Meetings Accomplish Nothing

Why Sharing Hunches Is Critical For You And Your Organization

I have a hunch that, if you tried something new, the most important meeting of your day could very well be one that has no clear objectives. One where people share incomplete thoughts and unformed ideas, where no problems actually get solved.

That meeting probably sounds like a nightmare to you. Because if you’re like me, you spend more time in meetings than you do actually getting stuff done.

They say time is our most precious resource. I believe this, and recognize that “too many meetings” is a problem my organization is trying to solve. So why did I call an in-person meeting of eight staff of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation last week that had no objective? And why was this meeting the most productive meeting I had this week?

My Hunch About Hunches

I was first exposed to the concept of a slow hunch, when Gabriel Kasper from the Monitor Institute by Deloitte showed members of our Foundation’s Pioneer team Steven Johnson’s animated theory of where good ideas come from.

Johnson observes that rarely do amazing ideas just pop into someone’s head fully formed and ready to be put into action to revolutionize the world. More often, good ideas and profound insights start as inklings or hunches about something new or different or interesting. Over time, they are slowly shaped by new information and input from others.

In his book, Johnson describes how the slow hunch of a “portal of information” that jumped from a Victorian-Era book and lodged itself into the brain of Tim Burners-Lee developed over decades into the world-changing idea of the internet.

Gabriel suggested that our team start hosting slow hunch jams where our individual hunches could evolve, or as Johnson would say “collide,” with the ideas of others. His theory was that if we could trust each other enough to share our hunches earlier it would accelerate our search for pioneering ideas that could help us build a Culture of Health, where everyone has a fair and just opportunity to live their healthiest life possible.

Sharing Hunches Isn’t Easy

It took us a while to figure out what we were trying to do. Like most “knowledge workers”, my teammates and I weren’t in the habit of sharing or listening to incomplete thoughts.

I’ve observed this difficulty during conversations with colleagues and even during breaks at innovation meetings such as SXSW and PopTech! — places where people come together to share ideas. Some attempts to elicit “what did you think?” are more successful than others.

These experiences have led to a few hunches about why some people are reluctant to share their hunches:

  • I think some of us care a lot about how we come across to others. For a variety of internal and external reasons, we may be vulnerable to imposter syndrome, and fear we might expose ourselves as incompetent. Because we want to come across as smart, we may hoard our hunches until they are fully formed …or regrettably and too often, forgotten.
  • In the TEDTALK/ FOUNDER idea economy, great ideas confer monetary value and status. You don’t get 10 million views and a book deal from sharing a slow hunch, and the cost of having someone else steal your idea has never been higher. This may be leading some pioneers to want keep their hunches private in order to maximize gains.
  • Finally, some of the people I speak with find it hard to take the time that is needed for a hunch to develop and grow. Impatience and urgency are not conducive to sharing slow hunches.

How Do You Hunch?

The origin of the word, hunch, dates back to 1500 and it’s original meaning was to physically “push” or “shove”. It wasn’t until three hundred years later when this evolved to something more figurative “a push or tip towards a solution or answer.”

Despite innate differences in our proclivity to push out our hunches, there is precedence for designing spaces where hunches are shared more freely. Johnson points to examples like the coffee houses during the age of enlightenment and the Salons in Paris that fueled modernism as spaces where hunches were shared and built upon.

The famous apartment of Gertrude Stein where the hunches of modernists collided. By Wide World Photos, via Wikimedia Commons

Here are four principles from those examples that we are applying to our own slow hunch jams:

  1. Be brave/don’t judge: Key to the success of the shared hunch process is creating a space where people feel safe to express early, unformed thoughts about things that are striking them as important for reasons they may not be able to fully articulate yet with people who are willing to listen and to do the same. This is not a time for consulting the evidence base and requires participants not be worried about impressing others, looking smart or running out of good ideas.
  2. Build on others’ hunches: A successful slow hunch jam also requires that participants are willing to let their starts of ideas be combined with other sparks and turned into ideas that may not be fully theirs. Though it is not necessary that every shared hunch gain traction, you might think of the Improv rule of “Yes, and” as the most useful transition statement.
  3. Make time to hunch: In the modern work world, we don’t have the luxury of spending our days in coffee shops or salons, but hopefully, you have enough flexibility to set aside an hour or two once in a while, free of the constraints of short-term thinking and outcomes.
  4. Get comfortable with ambiguity: Done right, shared hunch jams don’t produce a list of next steps or even a “parking lot” of ideas to discuss later. The idea is to spend as much time as possible jamming, not to figure out what building on someone else’s slow hunch might mean for your work plan.

What’s Your Hunch?

Applying these principles into practice took a little time. But after a few confused looks and awkward silences, we soon got the hang of sharing and at the end of our meeting with no objective we had shoved several hunches into the air of our conference room. Some faded and disappeared, while others changed shape and grew stronger. Others entered the minds of team mates where they will ride around for a while. I think that all who participated felt energized by the break from our over scheduled and prescribed work days and excited to learn new things.

Slow Hunch Jams have become a common way for us to spend our team time. We have also taken this concept on the road and have jammed with attendees at several innovation meetings. Slow hunches from talks heard during the day have collided and led to pioneering ideas and insights to build a Culture of Health.

As you consider whether this has been persuasive enough for you to share your hunches one-on-one or even invite 5–8 colleagues to a meeting with no objective, ask yourself this: What is the opportunity cost to your organization and society for NOT sharing your hunches? Plainly put, setting your hunches free is THE ONLY way they can make a difference.

So, now that I’ve pushed them out, I’d love to know what the hunches I shared meant to you? Do they resonate? How might sharing hunches work in your organization? Do you have ideas that can explain or contradict my observations? Either way, let’s jam! Share your thoughts in the comments below or submit a Pioneering Ideas brief proposal for a hunch that we could explore together to build a Culture of Health.