Walls, windows and pillars

My dream meeting space is bright and spacious, with room to move around, armchairs or bean bags as well as tables and chairs, plenty of walls and pinboards to put things on, a garden and trees running down to a river perhaps, or even the sea.

But now I’m getting carried away!  Though I can think of a few rather wonderful places that have some or all of these qualities. I know how they’ve lifted my own spirits and I’ve

Flowers every day, Gokarna, Nepal

seen the difference to people’s energy as soon as they walk into the room.

The reality is that we often have to create hospitable and welcoming space in less than perfect circumstances. It’s all part of creating a culture of collaboration, and the conditions for great thinking.

Making sure there are areas and spaces to display the group’s thinking is an essential part of this.

A recent experience in Geneva prompted my co-facilitator Lesley Adams and me to update our checklist. Here are a few tips to share:

Assume nothing

The photos of the big and spacious room looked great. All that wall space! But when we got there the day before we were told in no uncertain terms that we could NOT put anything on the walls. No, not even masking tape.

  • On your checklist – nice walls? Good, but make sure they can be used! And if there are pictures, ask about taking them down (most venues are happy to oblige).

The ballroom was surplus to needNatural light

A few years ago I was facilitator for a Save the Children learning event held in a hotel in Egypt. I’d gone through my checklist with the person booking the venue – plenty of wall space, room to move around. After a 4-hour drive from Cairo we were shown into a huge curtained ballroom. A rather lonely looking circle of chairs in the centre. Dark. No windows. Our hearts sank. The programme manager went into action and thankfully found us another room.

  • On your checklist – another for the ‘assume nothing category’. Ask about windows, ventilation and natural light.

Boards for displaying groups’ thinking 

In spite of Geneva being the city of aid organisations and mega-exhibitions, it was surprisingly difficult to get hold of boards for group displays. In the event we begged (from the venue, who made some available), borrowed and improvised. If you can’t use the walls, there’s always the windows ….

  • On your checklist – go through your session design and determine the size and number of boards that you’ll need, how and when they’ll be used/ re-used. Ask the venue what they’ve got (they might be stowed away in a cupboard somewhere). If they haven’t got any or you need more, hire facilitation boards or borrow display/ exhibition boards from one of the organisations involved in the meeting.

Get creative

Use a washing line (or two) when you don’t have enough wall space to put up visual displays (such as flip chart posters) from groups.  The joy of a washing line is you can space things out – which works particularly well for a big group. We did this at a HelpAge International conference with large drawing created by graphic recorder Bill Crooks. We tied the rope to the (very sturdy) light fittings.

IMG_1209 copy
Spot the washing line
  • On your checklist – washing line and pegs.


We’d asked for photos of the room in a hotel in Kathmandu, so knew there were pillars in the main meeting room. This was a learning event for CARIAA , and it was important for people to see each other, see what’s happening at the front, and to move around. Pete and I spent time the day before working out the sight lines from different angles of the room, and moved the tables and chairs accordingly. The pillars were later used for displays and a creative rendition of the ‘ground rules’ prepared by participants.

  • On your checklist – if pictures of the room aren’t on the hotel website, ask someone to take some photos so you can plan in advance how to deal with pillars and other obstacles. Factor in time to work out the best possible set-up.

Static post-its and magic whiteboard flipcharts

For when you’ve got limited walls and boards. They’re expensive but are re-usable. Use whiteboard markers so the sheets can be wiped clean.

My dream scenario is the norm in the creative industries. Their’s is a culture of creativity, connection and design-thinking for real-world solutions.  Many institutions are still in a paradigm of telling, ‘talking at’ and downloading information. This lives on in the rigid seating and set-ups of many meeting rooms.

Care and attention

When we insist on, and give care and attention to the physical spaces in which we meet, we’re consciously creating the conditions for good thinking, listening and a culture of connection and collaboration.  Oh, and don’t forget the flowers.

Please do get in touch if you’d like to think about a meeting you have coming up and how we might help.