How Productive Meetings Are Like Bonsai Trees

It's much more than just keeping them short and tidy.

What is a meeting for? Getting to a decision.

That is according to author, Fast Company contributor, and former Toyota creative advisor Matthew E. May, who wrote on 99u about how to turn bloated, wasteful meetings into lean, productive ones.

Effective meetings are only as long as they need to be, May writes. Rather than following Outlook's quarter-hour despotism, the length of a meeting should be tailored to the decision-making work being done, whether that's 22 or 2 minutes.

Just as your emails grow succinct (and get read) with proper preparation, your meetings will grow focused with the proper root work. To illustrate this, May borrows from bonsai, the traditional arboreal art:

  • "At Toyota, the principle of nemawashi is used to gain consensus on ideas and plans. The term comes from the art of bonsai, and means 'preparing the roots for planting.' In other words, socialize your content before the meeting using quick huddles, office fly-bys, one-on-one conversations."

By doing these small meetings, May says, you can gather a team's input and build a soft consensus. In this way, you can pay down the transaction cost of conferring before you answer the call of the conference itself—which is, as we can see, a process better suited to the psychology of creativity.

Why do more meetings make for less meeting?

As we've discussed before, one of the reasons that meetings are so unproductive is because of the social anxiety of making your ideas vulnerable to a group of would-be shamers.

By going for a walk together and talking about the subject at hand well before the meeting gets held, you allow for the best ideas (rather than the loudest talkers) to get heard. Then, once you get to the meeting, the interaction can fit its purpose: to affirm a decision made together.

Oh, and the analogy of the meeting and the bonsai tree? Another example of how insights arrive via cross-pollination.

Have More Meetings (But Keep Them Short)

[Image: Flickr user Danielle Henry]

Add New Comment


  • Sdgav

    I'm not sure I get this. The problem with this is that meetings generally stem from different purposes and this article weaves consensus building meetings (especially in heavily bureaucratic orgs) with another type of meeting that is more innovative oriented.  These are not necessarily around something everyone has to believe in or even understand at first.  To bring these together is dangerous, as this article espouses the Japanese Management style, which is very much group think.  The most productive meetings I've seen are those of catharsis. The hashing of opposing views, often times dynamic ones, yields some amazing ideas.  The fact is, those afraid to share in that are probably not the ones bold enough and frankly with the passion and muster to see these ideas through.  This is where leadership comes in and if there, the idiots that yell the loudest quickly fall from rank.  Read about some of divisive types of meetings/styles of Bill Gates', Jeff Bezos or certainly that of the late Jobs (who took many a walk).  These people lack in many ways, but how to get to the intersection of passion/innovation productively is probably not top of that list.

  • Chadandy

    That's a big assumption to start from. If the purpose of your meeting is to come to a decision, then this makes sense. That said, many meetings are for brainstorming, idea sharing, or simply for a team catch-up, often because few people have time for all these social conversations. 

  • BarbChamberlain

    And here I thought the bonsai comparison was because of the careful pruning to get rid of excess and arrive at a beautiful finished product.