How many times have you attended a meeting where everyone got their opinions out on the table, but nothing was decided? Or how many recurring meetings have you sat through where you wished you could have been anywhere else because even if you were to express an opinion, nothing would change?
We’ve all been in dreadful meetings. I’ve worked with executives who planned for their direct reports to page them out of meetings 15 minutes into it. I’ve seen people schedule telephone conferences to purposefully conflict with meetings they do not want to attend. I’ve witnessed people repeatedly bringing work to monthly information meetings because they’ve found them to be more of a “show and tell” session than a venue for learning and feedback.
The main reason that meetings are not productive is because the group framework is not effective, and the facilitator cannot move the meeting toward a predetermined purpose.
A Group Framework
Organizational culture plays a big role in the effectiveness of its meetings. Organizational culture refers to a set of values and beliefs that members of the organization share and that guide their behavior. Is the environment one in which everyone understands the mission and the vision of the organization? Are the core values of the organization exemplified every day by its executive leadership? Group culture refers to the set of values and beliefs that are shared by the group. A group’s culture may differ from the organization’s culture because of the demographic and professions of the group’s members, but a group will be more effective if the organizational culture is supportive.
Values and beliefs must be lived by everyone within the organization, or the culture turns cynical. It is one thing to say that an organization values accountability and respect and another if members of the executive team are not visible in the organization and do not show compassion for their colleagues or customers.
Your authenticity as a leader emanates from purpose. Are you aware of you individual purpose and how you plan to align that with the organizational purpose? How will you show respect for the individual purpose of each person on your team?
A Clear Mission for the Group
Just as an organization has a purpose and vision for it to be effective so must a group. The purpose of the group answers the question, “Why do we exist?” The group’s vision is a mental picture of the future the group seeks to create. So the mission of a monthly information meeting might be “To inform the management staff on the key indicators of the business while recognizing outstanding performance and enlisting their input in specific action areas.” Then people go away from the meeting understanding the specifics of what is going right and have helped define how to fix what is not. At every meeting, the group will evaluate whether or not to continue with its existing action items or modify them. Additionally the group will determine what new action needs to occur.
From a more strategic perspective, a group may not understand what philosophical direction to take an organization. So instead of just having a discussion around this topic that may go in circles, the group’s mission may be to decide what direction to take to meet best the mission of the organization. The group’s vision might be to become a recognized leader in a certain industry within two years. The meeting’s agenda may begin with a SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) to evaluate the current state of the situation before making a plan.
The role of the facilitator is key in determining the outcome of a meeting. A strong facilitator will see him or herself as a third party unless he/she is also an expert on the topic and will need to give relevant input. If the facilitator is also an expert, he or she will need to note when his or her comments are from outside the facilitator role. Mostly, the role is to facilitate not participate. The facilitator works with key people before the meeting to determine the mission and vision of the meeting as well as the agenda for pre-distribution, who will attend, who will take minutes, the meeting start and end times and the appropriate follow up. At the onset of the meeting the facilitator establishes the ground rules for the meeting such as the ones in the previous section: no idea is a bad idea; everyone can openly disagree, but opinions must be expressed with the reasoning behind the assumption; the goal is to identify gaps or problems in a theory, and meeting end time. When the meeting is over, the facilitator clearly reiterates: who takes ownership of the actionable decisions that were made; when the next meeting is; and the deliverables for that meeting. Try unconventional methods to gain enthusiasm. Hold short meetings standing up. Start at an unconventional time that is not on a quarter hour increment – such as 8:47 a.m.
Good meeting facilitation means making the fewest and smallest inferential leaps possible. An inference is a conclusion you reach on something you may have observed. A low-level inference might be to ask someone who has made a comment to validate it with why they feel that way. A high-level inference might be to point out that they do not seem to care what other people think. Stay with the low-level inferences.
12 Steps to Lead a Killer Productive Meeting
- Define the meeting purpose and vision before it happens.
- Define the meeting facilitator and who take minutes.
- Define who attends the meeting – consider representation from all parties needed to define and implement any decisions as well as who would be affected.
- Define the meeting start and end times.
- Define and pre-distribute the agenda that should include the meeting purpose and vision, any relevant reports, start and end times, and a list of attendees.
- At the beginning of the meeting welcome everyone and if people in the room do not know each other do a round table self-introduction.
- State the ground rules of the meeting such as: this is a safe environment; no idea is a bad idea; everyone will have a chance to share ideas, everyone can openly disagree, but opinions must be expressed with the reasoning behind them; the goal is to define which ideas have the best chance to succeed; attention will be given to the motivation behind the idea; time will be given to silently reflect on the plan before the meeting closes.
- Work though the agenda items, inviting a dialogue of views and creative scenarios.
- Go around the room, asking everyone at the meeting to share their ideas and give them equal time to express them. No interruptions.
- Write the ideas (not the names of who created them) on a chart visible by all. Gather consensus on which ideas have the least gaps and the greatest chance to succeed. If more information is needed define an accountable party to report back to the group at the next meeting.
- Review the action items with the group and assign an accountable party. Set those deliverable items at the beginning of the next meeting’s agenda.
- Set the date for the next meeting and thank everyone for their participation.
These steps make better use of everyone’s time and build consensus. The end result is an actionable plan with built in accountability.