How to use this crisis to spur innovation in meetings

Four-minute read

I think this moment will make people think creatively and think ahead

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet (owner of Google and YouTube),
quoted in this week’s Time magazine double issue (April 27-May 4, 2020).

COVID-19 has demolished the hopes, livelihoods and health of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Among the rays of hope are that this crisis would spur innovation. That’s why Sundar Pichai’s words inspired me.


To be honest, these words also depressed me.


BREAKING: I’ve co-authored a new book!

Check out my new book on helping people thrive as leaders…

Musings on Leadership: Life lessons to help you thrive as a leader

In its first month, Musings achieved rank #1 in five of Amazon’s Leadership and Management categories, and #1 in Amazon’s new releases of Business Management Science.

The Musings are short – typically 2-3 pages; great for a work break, your daily commute or that 20 minutes of “me-time” we sincerely hope you give yourself each day. A humble title for a humble book.

I aim as always, to inspire your leadership from what’s around you in your daily lives.
Every day brings you something new, both challenges and opportunities. It’s useful to have an inspiring book to give you a sense of the richness of these diverse experiences.

I’ve always been passionate about helping high-profile leaders and public figures. Musings on Leadership has been written in this intent. Whether you’re an established leader wanting to improve or just starting your career, I believe my book can help you immensely. It is an adaptable read, applicable to you no matter what sphere your work ambitions and career are in…

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Get the most out of meetings with some Swallows and Amazons-inspired thinking

How playful questions help you access the eternal, the colourful and the human

This post in 20 seconds

  • You can get the most out of meetings by asking playful questions 
  • Play helps you access the eternal, the colourful and the human
  • Swallows and Amazons embodies this. A captivating read, it fires the imagination with its joy, energy – and, as you’ll see, playful questions
  • Sign up for a Transforming Meetings Programme in Oxford and master these skills
  • See you in the University Parks for Creation Theatre’s vibrant new production of Swallows and Amazons!

This post first appeared on the Creation Theatre website.

“What if we were to make pemmican cakes?”


Last month, I read Swallows and Amazons for the first time. The joyful, hair-raising adventures of John, Susan, Titty, Roger and Bridget on Wild Cat Island charmed and delighted my attention.

Discussing rations with her mother, who had just rowed up to the Swallows’ camp, Titty didn’t say, ‘Make me some pemmican cakes’ (an instruction) or ‘Can we make some pemmican cakes?’ (a closed, uninspiring question). Instead, she asked a playful ‘What if ..?’ question. This opened the door wide to the richest dialogue the two of them had had on the island so far, full of colour and imagination and deepened connection.

My work is to help leaders release their potential, and Titty’s question got me thinking: What is the role of playful questions in unlocking potential?



Picture the scene: A board meeting in an Oxford hotel in early 2018. I am Chair and the topic is strategic expansion. The discussion feelsheavy and several members note that we have not been at our best amid uncertainty in recent years. As we keep talking, one person bravely admits – to nods from others – “I just don’t think any opportunities will ever come our way.”

This is a difficult moment. We are stuck and need a breakthrough.

Much advice on how play can benefit work focuses on ways to stop workingand do something playful. Have a game of Monopoly at lunchtime. Play rock-paper-scissors at work. Organise office football. These can all be good things, but I am referring to something quite different.

What if we were to find play while working?

Let’s return to the board meeting: A few minutes later, I ask, “If you knew that opportunities will come your way, how would we be as a board?” This leads to a wide-ranging, light, stimulating discussion. It is as if we have fallen through the floor into a deeper, infinitely more enjoyable dimension of debate – in a way that I can only describe as playful.

Why was this question so effective?

Put simply, when you play, you access the eternal, the colourful and the human. These sound like big claims, so read on…



The eternal

Let’s start with the biggest.

The reason why play helps us access the eternal is because it is all about joy.

The sociologist Peter L. Berger put it well when he wrote that play helps us ‘momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood’. In moments of joy, or true contentment, or flow, we access something beyond ourselves. Berger again: ‘Play appears to suspend, or bracket, the reality of us “living toward death” (as Heidegger aptly described our ’serious’ condition).’

If this is true, how do playful questions help us access this in our work? Can I really experience joy while filing taxes for my client? While clipping the toenails of a geriatric patient? While grinding out my 200th report or appraisal of the year?

Not only do I think this is possible, I see it regularly in some with whom I work.

A good way to get there is to ask a ‘What if …?’ or ‘If you knew … ?’ type question. The latter is an example of an ‘incisive question’, as coined by Nancy Kline. In a meeting, incisive questions enable people to move past untrue assumptions that may be limiting the discussion. Real joy is released when this happens.

As with any approach to the eternal, humility is needed. As I articulate an open, playful question, I accept not only that I do not have all the answers, but also that others have meaningful contributions that I might not anticipate.

If you knew that your meetings are joyful, what would you ask in them?



Recent research from psychologists at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) shows that playful adults are better at observing and seeing things from new perspectives. This study of 3,000 adults showed this to be true, independent of personality traits.

In short, play helps you access what is colourful (seeing things in new ways; solving ‘wicked problems’), not just what is grey (only seeing things as we saw them before; solving ‘tame problems’).

This is great news!

Incisive questions allow ‘the brain to play rather than obey, and the brain loves to play, even when contemplating a truth’ (Kline) – and, as we have seen, those who incorporate play into their work are at an advantage.

What if you were to ask a playful question in a meeting today?



In a world where many of us are successful yet overwhelmed, incorporating play into our work can help us access what it really means to be human.

In her book on living a wholehearted life, Brené Brown reports the research of Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist, clinical researcher, and founder of the National Institute for Play: ‘[Stuart]Brown explains that play shapes our brain, helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups and is at the core of creativity and innovation.’

Playful questions are a way to invite others to explore what could be. The exploration need not be limited to the first answer that comes to mind; indeed, the magic often happens with answers that come later. With such questions, we are inviting possibility and accessing opportunity. I believe that (almost) every person wants to flourish, and that central to this is an ability to express one’s gifts. These invitations are therefore central to what it is to be human.

How magnificent – especially when compared with the stultification that characterises so many meetings.

What if everything you did in a meeting were to help others express their gifts?


What next?

I am looking forward to taking my family to enjoy a playful afternoon – full of the best kind of questions – watching Swallows and Amazons in Oxford’s beautiful University Parks.

Want to have more effective meetings? Find out more about the 1-day Transforming Meetings Programme or email me to sign up now.



Berger, Peter L., A Rumour of Angels, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

Brown, Brené, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You Are Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Minnesota: Hazelden, 2010.

Kline, Nancy, More Time To Think, London: Cassell, 2015.


Image credits: Shutterstock


Get resolution faster | Make meetings more effective

New programme announcement

For the first time in my professional career, I have decided to put on an open programme. It is 1-day long, is called Transforming Meetings, and is accredited by Nancy Kline’s Time To Think organisation.

Shutterstock 2018

I have become increasingly convinced of Time To Think principles of for meetings of the approaches in this programe. In my roles as Board Chair of a small tech company, and Chair of Governors at a Primary School, we have slowly introduced these principles over recent months, to good effect.

For example, at the start of a recent board meeting, I shared some practical tips on paying magnificent attention to each other. This involves not just cursory attention, where I start raising my hand while someone is speaking so I can get in next, or where I wait for a micro-gap and then deliver a pre-loaded answer. But, rather, it involves looking at eyes of the person who is speaking, genuinely fascinated by what they will say next. And never interrupting. One of my favourite quotations is, “Interruption is an assault on the thinking process” (Nancy Kline.)

As we exhibited an increasing quality of such attention, it increased the quality of our thinking. We knew this because we got through more topics, better, faster. And because when we were interrupted by hotel staff with a breakfast order, our discussions for the ensuing 15 minutes went round in circles, so much so that decided to loop back and address a topic again.

Shutterstock 2018

As a board, generating effective thinking is critical to our success. (Hence the picture of the generator at the top!) And time matters. So we were delighted.

But, in my nearly 20 years as a coach, facilitator and leadership consultant, I have never run an open programme. So, why now? One reason is my confidence in the material (above).

Beyond this, in a pilot edition of the programme, I was encouraged by the positive feedback from clients in the business, education and charity sectors:

  • “I am not generally a fan of training. This training challenged my objectives of any meeting to aim for maximising the collective thinking and not just progressing the agenda as quickly as possible,” Brian Wilkinson, Head of Network Development, Viva
  • “Nick’s Thinking Environment programme really helped my firm’s thinking and makes our meetings more productive. Simple, logical, energetic and in a nice environment,” Victor Chua, Founding Partner, Mansfield Advisors LLP
  • “The programme has helped me to lead meetings and listen more effectively, impacting both on my professional and personal life. I have applied the principles and structures to a number of meetings since attending the programme. As a result, our quality of discussion is richer, there is greater balance in who contributes and for how long, and we generate ideas and solutions to problems more efficiently,” Jake Jones, Assistant Headteacher, Wheatley Park Secondary School
  • “The training is a revelation,” Andrew Dubock, Communications Manager, Viva

So, it’s happening! I’m looking forward to the programmes. If you are available on 1 October and 6 November in Oxford, sign up here!

Using technology to improve business results and make change stick

Street food vendor in Nanjing, digitally enabled. Photo credit: Mesoy

For this week’s blog, I point you in the direction of my friend Tor Mesoy, who shares his global perspective on the interplay between business, technology and personal productivity improvement. Notice Tor’s inspiring reference to Coachify in the full blog! He is a leadership coach and consultant for Agnus Consulting, of which he is also founder and chairman.

I am always curious about how society is changing.  I am interested in understanding change from many examples: what enables it, what catalyzes uptake, what the ramifications are and why it is happening now.

I was recently in Nanjing, China, and was thrilled to observe a keen adopter of FinTech.  The street food vendor in the photo above was selling steamed yams and corn.  The revenue stream was modest and could not fund much infrastructure of any kind.  The stall was homemade and dirt cheap. The vendor had no flyers or other marketing collateral.


Pilot productivity app (part 1)

Take advantage of a unique, free, transformational opportunity

Image of group coaching session with connected devices.

Image credit: | Syda Productions

Even a casual glance at the news will inform us that all is not well with the world. It’s tempting to join the ranks of those who bemoan the woes of our day without lifting a finger to contribute to redeeming the culture around us. But I know that you have a greater sense of purpose and it’s my desire to help you rise to the challenge – and it begins with the man (or woman) in the mirror.


Making the most of your reordered time

Image credit: | Max Griboedov

Image credit: | Max Griboedov

Are you feeling refreshed from the digital detox and now have a clearer sense that your diary reflects your priorities in life? As a follow up to having undertaken the aforementioned exercises, I would like to point you towards one of my most popular posts that focussed on time management.


Reordering Your Priorities

Sort out your bucket; enjoy the journey!

Sort out your bucket; enjoy the journey!

For this week’s blog, I invited Roger Eaton, Coachify’s Project Manager to write on how his recent experience in reordering his priorities has improved his productivity and reduced his stress levels.

Do you ever get the feeling that you have overcommitted yourself? As a result of your enthusiasm, or perhaps weakness for people-pleasing, you agree to take on more and more responsibility at work, or in your social scene, not to mention maintaining family life.

At the beginning of September, the summer holidays already a distant memory, everything was picking up speed. Working two different jobs, leading a new church in a foreign culture and language, married with two young children and trying to maintain a social life, I was feeling overcommitted! Something had to budge.


Do a Digital Detox

Image credit: Ariel Dovas

Image credit: Ariel Dovas

Just after Dana Hanna took a solemn vow to love and cherish his new wife for the rest of his life, he took out his phone, updated his relationship status on Facebook and tweeted a wedding announcement.

These are unprecedented times. As a society, we are hurtling headlong towards ever greater digital dependence, and there’s no road map. The embedding of technology in our bodies is not far off, but for the time being, we can keep our smartphones and other devices constantly at hand, and be online at any time of day or night.

The advantages to this are clear and multiple – we’re connected, informed, challenged and entertained like never before. Our voices can have a reach unimaginable to our forebears. Accessing the thoughts of the world’s most original thinkers, starting innovative new businesses and finding the answer to almost any question in seconds is now commonplace.

But, as we know, this comes at a cost.