Robert Hopkin is the co-founder of a digital platform called Axis. I began our conversation by asking what led him to create Axis and what it does.
I am a management consultant by background. I’ve spent 16 years advising companies, predominantly on low carbon energy systems, how they can improve their performance operations and helping them with strategy.
As part of that work, I’ve been in many meetings and workshops and seen how people collaborate. Sometimes, meetings can be really special moments of insight and transformation. Some were pretty awful meetings, which have felt like a waste of time. Those experiences along with my co-founders led to a desire to change that. We want to make sure that every meeting matters, which is how Axis came about.
Axis is a digital platform for meeting facilitation. For any meeting to be effective, it needs to be engaging and inclusive so that everyone can have their voice heard. You will want it to work whether everyone’s virtual or everyone’s in a room, or it’s a hybrid set-up, which is what we’re seeing a lot of now. Axis allows you to design that meeting using a set of proven design thinking agile methods, which we’ve distilled down and digitized. You can then facilitate the meeting in a highly structured and simplified way and be confident that it will work well. It then takes all the outputs that were generated during the session and exports them digitally. They can then be shared or used for the next steps.
The reason I approached Robert is that I came across the product from Axis and whilst I was exploring it I noticed that the website talks about inclusion in terms of meetings. I was interested to hear about the research Axis has done into meeting inclusion, and wondered what Robert could tell me about the findings from that research.
‘We were awarded funding by Innovate UK to look into approaches and methods that use digital technologies to make collaboration more inclusive. The power of diversity is well-documented, we know diverse teams perform better and are better able to make high-quality decisions and innovate, all that great stuff.
Yet what we’d seen from our own experience is that in meetings, you might have a diverse group of people involved, but that doesn’t mean that you harness the power of that diversity. We’re all familiar with that situation where you have a meeting and one or two people dominate it to the detriment of everywhere else.
We worked with several other organisations focusing on a variety of different dimensions to fully understand what research had been done to look at that problem. There’s tons of research. Meetings will often see women more likely to be talked over or to be interrupted. There’s a big divergence between introverts and extroverts. There’s a big effect of seniority. There’s a fear around challenging orthodoxies too. These factors exist in all meetings and it’s pretty corrosive and damaging to the performance of how teams and organisations function.
From that research, we can identify the characteristics of an inclusive meeting that is inclusive and allows everyone to have their voice heard.’
I was really excited to be chatting with Robert because in my book Inclusive Growth I’ve got a whole chapter on how technology can help organisations scale up what they do on diversity and inclusion. I asked Robert how Axis developed their software with the research in mind.
The importance of inclusion and the power of diversity formed the core founding principles. At its core, Axis is driven by a principle of anonymity. It ensures that everyone can submit their thoughts anonymously, which is an important factor in making people comfortable to speak up. We’re very focused on giving structure that allows time and space for people to think and generate their own thoughts.
Another tendency in meetings where there’s open discussion is that some people are very comfortable in that environment so bouncing ideas, coming in, knowing when to interject with that confidence. This can come with seniority, for example, those dynamics I mentioned earlier. Lots of people aren’t comfortable doing that and need their own time and space to consider what others have said to then formulate their thoughts and ideas to share with the group. We’ve built a step-by-step approach that every time that you’re going to the group to ask them for their thinking, their ideas, you start with the first step of independent thinking. Crucially, we’re making sure that people have the time and space to think for themselves without other people talking, which is disruptive.
The second step starts with an exercise in actually reading and making sense of what other people have submitted. Another big flaw in meetings is that no one’s ever given any time to reflect on what other people have said and only remember who the most vocal person was. Our process allows a more kind of open discussion and builds it based upon everyone’s thoughts. Decision-making that follows is collective. In this cycle and step-by-step process, you generate your ideas, understand what other people’s thinking is, discuss and refine, and then collectively vote and prioritise.
The big thing is this process cycle means people can have their voice heard and that the outcome is a collective, not just simply the view of the loudest person in the room.’
I wondered if Robert had any personal bugbears when it comes to conducting meetings and whether he is now conducting meetings differently, to be more inclusive from a personal perspective?
‘My biggest frustration is to have a lot of people in the room, taking up their precious time, and then to not have them be able to contribute in a meaningful way. For me, it is a squandered opportunity. Why schedule a meeting, if you don’t have the intention of running it in a way that allows everyone to make the contribution that they can make?
Taking that further is that it has become an embedded culture synonymous with how many organisations now work. This tendency to call a meeting, invite tons of people who aren’t involved in the process. I now run meetings differently as a consequence of this research. I am much more cognisant of understanding the human dynamics that exist, and the variety that exists in people in terms of their neurological diversity. How comfortable people are speaking up and how long it takes them to make sense of ideas that other people have submitted. I can now design a session and facilitate it to be aware of that and give everyone, to the best degree possible, a level playing field to contribute and play their role.’
Because I was interviewing Robert for the Inclusive Growth Show, I asked him what the term means to him?
‘For me, growth is driven by innovation and thinking differently. It’s important to recognise the orthodoxies, those deeply held widely shared beliefs that hold us back and prevent innovation from driving growth. I am firmly a believer that diversity is the secret sauce, the magic that allows you to overcome that.
Inclusion in the way that we collaborate is a fundamental principle. It means rethinking how everyone does their job day-to-day and works together to ensure that inclusion is the primary driver of innovation and growth in any organisation.’
I love what Robert says here. When I quiz my clients about why they are so invested in diversity and inclusion, innovation and avoiding groupthink are usually number one or two on the list. They are followed by employee engagement, employee potential, and performance. It’s been great to learn how Axis can help organisations to give inclusion a boost.
Robert agreed, ‘Groupthink is so damaging. There are examples of organisations that have self-destructed on the basis of persistent groupthink. Diversity is the silver bullet to that, right?’
To learn more about Axis and how to run more inclusive meetings, visit getaxis.co where you can register for free. You can also access a range of inclusion and diversity templates, read research and opinions on all of the topics discussed in this article and try the tool for yourself.