Leading Effective Meetings

December 9, 2019

Those in leadership positions spend more time attending and leading meetings than perhaps any other activity throughout the workday. But how effective are these meetings?

More than 55 million meetings are held in organizations every day in the United States. The annual cost of these meetings (based on the average salaries of attendees) is $1.4 trillion! That’s a serious amount of money and it’s worth questioning to what degree meetings are a good investment.

“Too many meetings,” was the number one timewaster in the office and cited by 47 percent of 3,164 workers in a study conducted by Salary.com focused on workplace time drains. Microsoft surveyed nearly 40,000 people about productivity and work-related practices, and found that 69 percent of workers globally and 71 percent of workers in the US indicated that meetings were not productive.

Are meetings necessary? Absolutely. According to Steven Rogelberg in his book The Surprising Science of Meetings, “I would hazard to say that there is no single investment that organizations treat so carelessly, with so little evaluation or drive to improve, than meetings.”

Rogelberg says the benefits of meetings include:

  • Allow attendees to interpersonally connect with one another, which serves to build relationships, networks and support.
  • An ideal venue to bring together ideas, thoughts and opinions—things that should help each person perform his or her job in a better, more coordinated and cooperative manner.
  • Enable leaders and employees alike to create a shared understanding that promotes efficiency and teamwork.
  • Build commitment to goals, initiatives and broader aspirations that may not be explicitly stated in any individual job description, and that employees can see that they are part of something bigger than themselves.
  • Bring individuals together as a coherent whole, which can then be more adaptive, resilient and self-directing.

Leading effective meetings is clearly important, but how? Many things can be done such as reducing the standard length of meetings from 60 minutes to 50 minutes, something Google and PricewaterhouseCooper implemented so attendees have time between back-to-back meetings. Keep the number of attendees to eight or fewer, especially when trying to solve a problem or make a decision. Remove the chairs and have a stand-up meeting to keep it short, or have a walking meeting when there are few participants to stimulate idea generation.

Brainwriting is a technique to use silence as a way to generate and prioritize ideas beyond the loudest voices in the room. Silent Reading is common practice at Amazon where a detailed six-page document is provided and read by all attendees at the beginning of the meeting, which can then lead to a deeper discussion than presentations provide.

Meetings should be effective, yet there are no clear guidelines most organizations provide and follow. With that, I submit Rogelberg’s “Good Meeting Facilitation Checklist” in his book. This includes:

  • Time Management
    • Keep track of time and pace of meeting
    • Acknowledge emergent issues that warrants discussion or new meeting
    • Keep conversation moving forward
  • Active Listening
    • Model active listening and asking good questions
    • Clarify and summarize where things are and people’s input
    • Listen for underlying concerns and bring them forward
    • Ensure note-taker issues, actions and takeaways are recorded
  • Conflict Management
    • Encourage conflict around ideas and manage so that it benefits decision-making
    • Invite debate so that people feel comfortable respectfully disagreeing
    • Deal with disrespectful behavior quickly through re-direction and reminding attendees of ground rules
  • Ensuring Active Participation
    • Actively draw out input from those who are not contributing
    • Keep any attendee from dominating the conversation
    • Keep side conversations at bay
  • Pushing for Consensus
    • Test for agreement and consensus to get a sense of where attendees stand
    • Be willing to take the pulse of attendees to ensure process is working
    • Know when to intervene assertively and when to let the process run as it is
    • Be an honest broker of the conversation at hand, and work to remain impartial

Putting to use the above checklist when facilitating can result in your meetings being much more effective. Don’t let your attendees see your meetings as a waste of time. Instead, lead effective meetings that reflect well on you and achieve the results you’re looking for.

Meetings Rule our World

October 28, 2019

As a coach and consultant, I regularly meet with clients challenged to find time due to other meetings crowding their calendars. Meetings rule many of our working lives and this requires we push back to make the best use of our time and to make meetings better.

If you find most of your workday is simply moving from one meeting to the next, you are not alone. Collectively, we attend some 11 million meetings each business day in America. Many of these meetings have no clear agenda, may not require our attendance, and some may not be necessary in the first place.

There’s no doubt some meetings are very important and need to take place with you in attendance. Your challenge is to ensure you participate only in those and find ways to avoid meetings that don’t make the best use of your time.

The higher you rise in an organization, the more your day will be filled with meetings. Therefore, you need to be selective by understanding the meeting’s purpose, determining whether you are the right person to attend, and ultimately whether this meeting is a priority for you right now given your role.

You may find it difficult to push back when you’re invited to attend a meeting, but it’s important that you do this.

When to Decline a Meeting:

  • You should decline when the purpose for the meeting isn’t clear well in advance. The meaning should make it clear why your attendance is necessary. That’s not to imply that what is discussed or decided is not important, but this information can be communicated back to you in the minutes after the meeting.  
  • You should decline when an agenda is not available ahead of time and it’s clear that one will not be used. An agenda helps you best prepare for what will be discussed. It also demonstrates that the meeting organizer has a plan and respects your time and attention.
  • You should decline if you’ve attended a similar meeting in the past from this organizer and found that your participation was not the best use of your time. This may require that you find or appoint someone to attend in your place.
  • You should decline if the meeting is likely to serve as primarily a data dump of information rather than a discussion. Insist that meetings be used for discussion and decision-making, so that you and other attendees stay engaged and feel valued.
  • You should decline when your attendance is not a priority for you in your role. This means you decline due to conflicting priorities. This is not saying the meeting is not important, only that it is not as important as your other priorities.

It should go without saying that how you decline a meeting will influence the reputation you’ll leave with the organizer. There’s obviously a polite way to say “no” and it is important to learn how to politely decline.

Ultimately, if you are able to decline effectively, you may help influence organizers to ensure that future meetings are conducted more thoughtfully. These meetings would include providing agendas in advance, carefully selecting the right people, using the time most effectively, and providing minutes following the meeting. Your ability to decline effectively may then lead to helping to improve meetings organization-wide.  

Five Essentials of Meeting Facilitation

April 28, 2016

Sometimes seeing something done poorly makes me better appreciate why things should be done a certain way. This was the case when I witnessed a recent meeting facilitation.

I had an opportunity to learn from a committee meeting where I was merely a spectator—not the facilitator or a participant. It gave me a unique perspective to simply observe from afar. I was on the balcony rather than the dance floor. Watching the meeting evolve, I found myself continually second-guessing the facilitator’s methods.

The meeting itself had about 20 committee participants, a co-facilitator and a number of community members joining in at various times without clear distinction of who was and who was not on the committee. Discussions were often derailed into areas far off-topic and not drawn back to the area of concern. Several times the facilitator asked open-ended questions to the entire group as to what they wanted to do next. The group was mostly unresponsive.

When one committee participant voiced a concern over a conflict that had begun between him and another participant at a previous meeting, his comment was essentially dismissed and went unresolved.

Though the meeting lasted nearly three hours, I came away feeling like very little had been accomplished. The minutes distributed later confirmed my conclusion.

The definition of facilitate is “to make easy or less difficult.” To do this, a facilitator must have a number of qualities and skills to make progress on achieving objectives with a group of people. These include intuition, experience leading groups, keen power of observation, ability to pay attention to what’s said and—perhaps more importantly—what’s left unsaid.

And good facilitation should include these five essentials:

  1. Design & Plan
    Before the meeting, a facilitator must design and plan the structure for the meeting: what, why, where, when and how. This is not something that can come from a template, but is determined for the individual group and the specific issues they are working on. The agenda should be determined very carefully along with timeframes allotted to each item; the agenda should be distributed to participants well in advance of the meeting. And the layout of the chairs should be such that everyone can see and be seen by everyone else.
  1. Control & Guide
    While the meeting is taking place, the facilitator must be able to balance the needs of progressing through the agenda while making substantive progress on individual items. It is vital that everyone’s voice is heard and therefore the facilitator needs to monitor those who are talking too much and those talking too little or not at all. The facilitator should also keep conversations from straying too far off topic and ensure that important items are placed in the “parking lot” for later consideration. It’s also important to know when the group is at an impasse and needs to move on. Think traffic cop with an interest in the final destination.
  1. Ask Good Questions
    The art of asking good questions is perhaps the most important quality of a facilitator. A good question requires good listening and discernment for what is unclear or missing from the discussion. One question might be, after first summarizing all that has been said on a specific topic and then articulating a conclusion from it, ask the group if they agree with this conclusion. If yes, be sure to record it. If no, seek to gain further clarity and repeat.
  1. Cultivate Constructive Conflict
    In Bruce Tuchman’s model for team development (forming, storming, norming and performing), it is the storming phase where conflict shows up and it is essential to allow for and even encourage it. When conflict is discouraged or repressed, a group cannot expect to norm and perform. A facilitator must be courageous by leaning into conflict as it will ultimately strengthen the group and lead to better decision making. If the facilitator fails to do this, members of the group will not feel safe to disagree leading to groupthink and poorer decisions.
  1. Record & Make Actions
    It is vitally important for the facilitator to either take notes or appoint someone to do so, and distribute them well in advance of the next meeting. If important statements and decisions from the meeting aren’t recorded, very little action will be taken when it is completed. And participants are likely to take away very different impressions for what was said and what was decided. The facilitator must also ensure that those who were appointed action items are held accountable for completing them.

Another thing I like to do when facilitating larger groups is to break into small groups for brainstorming sessions. This enables those who may feel somewhat intimidated or less confident speaking up in front of an entire group to share their ideas and opinions. It also is less likely to lead to groupthink as multiple ideas can be gathered separately and then later debated on their merits against other ideas.

Good facilitation is all too rare, but when done well it can be tremendously fascinating to be a part of. A good facilitator can make accomplishing objectives easier. A good facilitator can lead to better group decision-making. And a good facilitator keeps track of time, conversations, conflict, emotions, and the facilitation includes the above five essentials.

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