How Productive Meetings Are Like Bonsai Trees

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

How Productive Meetings Are Like Bonsai Trees

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]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.