Mike van der Vijver, Co-owner of MindMeeting

Mike van der Vijver is co-owner of MindMeeting, an agency specializing in the design of successful international meetings. Since 2003, Mike has provided advice on programmes and formats, and designs full conference and meeting programmes. In connection with his design work, Mike presents, moderates and facilitates about 30-35 meetings a year. He is also a regular speaker at conferences or during workshops on topics such as meeting effectiveness, innovative meeting formats, and especially Meeting Design. He also works as an advisor coach and trainer on intercultural management and helps organizations with structured creativity. Together with his Mindmeeting colleague Eric de Groot, Mike wrote “Into the Heart of Meetings”, the first book on Meeting Design, widely acclaimed as the standard work in the field.


Q: What is meeting design and why we need to rethink the way we organise our events?

We define Meeting Design as: the art of matching the format of a meeting to its contents and aims.

Many (very many!) meetings today follow some blueprint that has never been properly thought through. The format they follow tends to be a copy of earlier or other meetings. And generally, that format is classroom teaching: the classical situation where one person stands in front of a room and tells other people how the world works. There is some opportunity for response by the audience, but often to a limited extent. Naturally, we have inherited this dominant model from centuries of teaching at schools and in universities.

There are several problems with this model. Let me give you three, but there are more:

  • It treats meeting participants as passive consumers;
  • It has little alignment with the meeting’s objectives;
  • It does not do justice to the experiential opportunities meetings offer.

Let’s say a couple of things for each of these, although they overlap at the same time. So, first on being passive consumers. Meeting participants are thinking adults. I believe it is fair to give them that responsibility. When they come to a meeting, they bring along lots of experiences and know-how. The added value of a meeting is that you can float that. In his seminal book, James Surowiecki calls it “The Wisdom of Crowds”. Meetings with just someone talking are like watching television. You can do that from home. But there is the networking, you may object. True, but that, too, is left for 90 % to chance and the remaining 10 % to the effects of alcohol consumption. Although in some meetings the percentages are different. The networking, too, requires proper design!

We have now worked for 15 years as designers and the most difficult part of our job is to get the objectives for meetings right. This refers to my second problem issue above. Time and again, I am amazed how much thinking and resources go into the logistical part of meetings (transport, food, coffee, etc.) and how little into understanding what sort of change the meeting is supposed to bring about. Very often, the objectives for the meeting are worded in terms like: ”We want to have a high-level discussion”; or: ”We really want people to leave with a WOW feeling.” So, what? These are not objectives that produce a change. In fact, they are not even true and measurable objectives. The point is that the high-level discussion or the WOW feeling should produce a change. After the meeting, some (and preferably many!) participants need to behave in a different way. If that doesn’t happen, then all the money spent on the meeting was wasted. To know if your investment in the meeting was worthwhile, you need to specify beforehand what change you want to achieve and how to measure that change.

Q: What is wrong with the format of meetings as we have them now?

People are physically present at meetings and this implies they have an experience by definition. But, to put it a bluntly, in the classroom set-up, that experience is limited to “Sit and Listen.”

“Meeting participants are thinking adults. I believe it is fair to give them that responsibility. When they come to a meeting, they bring along lots of experiences and know-how.”

That is not a very rich experience! There are lots of ways in which participants can be made active and stimulated to learn more effectively, network more actively, participate in alignment, etcetera. It is the task of the designer to create the experiences that make this happen for participants.

So, do we need to rethink the way we do events? Absolutely yes! Today’s meetings may often look spectacular, but they fall dramatically short in what they achieve, compared to what could be done.

Q: What would you do to make a meeting creative and powerful?

The design process is a well-structured method. That means you start with a proper analysis of needs and objectives, which includes a proper understanding of the participants and the organization responsible for the meeting. You study the content and find areas that lend themselves for the creation of participant experiences. And you propose ways in which attendees can become really active participants, who are at the center of a useful experience. That requires a whiff of creativity, but that is not the main point. The point is that you must give shape to a process that achieves the desired outcomes.

Q: How can venues support meeting design?

The venue has a central part in the design! An appropriate venue can help enormously to create the right experience and to achieve the outcomes. For this, the venue needs to have a distinctive character that strengthens the main messages in the programme. It is not just about beauty and “Wow” impact, it is about being an integral part of the participant experience. It will mean that the meeting venues of the future will look different and will offer a different type of services. More flexible and more consultative.

If you are more ambitious you can introduce a meeting designer to help design a meeting that creates maximum value. The venue can train their own staff to become meeting designers, or they can cooperate with an external meeting designer.

Q: What’s the best way to implement meeting design for your next event?

This is a hard question. I would suggest that every meeting should be properly designed! Otherwise, the chances of actually knowing what you want to achieve with your meeting, and the chances of getting that right are very small.

Actually, I would like to be a bit more provocative: I have difficulty understanding how organizations convince themselves on spending cartloads of money on meetings for which they only measure satisfaction outcomes and not change outcomes.

“I am amazed how much thinking and resources go into the logistical part of meetings and how little into understanding what sort of change the meeting is supposed to bring about”


Q: Who is a ‘meeting designer’?
Objectively, today meeting designer is not a recognized profession, nor is there any specific place, or university that trains people to become meeting designers. So, we can say that meeting designers are self-proclaimed.

Personally, I find that anyone who gives shape to meeting programmes (and gets paid for that) is a meeting designer. That means: not the logistics or the “planning” of meetings, but designing programmes in accordance with the definition I gave earlier. This year, MindMeeting launched the “Meeting Design Practicum”, a gathering in which around 25 professionals experimented with various design issues. Most of those worked within organizations or as free-lancers on meeting programmes.


Q: Give us an example of one of you favourite and best-designed meetings?
We recently designed the programme for a small meeting in a family company. After going through the design process, the design became a life-size board game about the dilemmas that the participants encountered, as shareholders, family members and private persons at the same time. Participants played with a unique mix of fun and serious discussion. The game turned out to be so successful that it has been re-used several times already. The management board, for instance, has used it for its strategic analysis of the company’s future. So: no empty Wow factor, but a meeting that dealt with vital issues in an engaging and effective programme.

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