Think about all the meetings you’ve been to and what went right and what went wrong. What kinds of meetings do you participate in or what kinds of meetings have you yourself put together and facilitated? Some of the responses I’ve heard in the past reflect comments that include: some meetings run too long, some meetings have no direction, some meetings seem to be unnecessary, or why am I there, I have no role in this meeting, no advance notice was given as to what the meeting is about or whether I need to prepare for it. Some meetings have no results or, at least, no record of what came out of it. So let’s take a look at what makes a good meeting.
Category of Meeting
We can come up with many different names for the varying categories of meetings; however, as a generalization, and for the sake of argument, there are three categories:
(1) Recurring and regularly scheduled meetings are those that are a matter of routine. Consider the weekly team meeting or the company’s quarterly town-square meeting; these are examples of recurring and regularly scheduled events. Regularly scheduled training meetings are also in this category.
(2) Progressive meetings are standard for project managers and program managers to track and report the progress of the project(s). Project and program managers, as a course of doing business, will have these types of meetings with the team, stakeholders and leadership to track progress, exchange information, coordinate activities and resources, manage change and provide everyone the projects overall health.
(3) Stand-alone or one-time meetings are those meetings that are specifically called for a unique purpose. They are not routine. Problem solving and decision meetings fall in this group. Business decision meetings fall in this group, such as when the organization announces a major change in the way they do business.
Types of Meetings: Five common types of meetings that can fall under any of the named categories.
(1) Decision Making: This is a limited scope and straight forward meeting intended to gain a final decision on any particular issue, plan, action, etc.; for example, the meeting participants present a prepared briefing on an issue impacting the business and the facilitator offers pre-selected options as possible solutions, along with any supporting data in relation to each option. Then, after the main body of the briefing is completed the question is posed to the leadership, a request for their decision as to which option they want to take.
(2) Problem Solving: This can take many forms informal and formal but usually is an informal facilitated opportunity for the organization to bring together the “creative thinkers” and subject matter experts to try and solve a question. These types of meetings rely heavily on the skill of a strong meeting facilitator because when problem solving in a group words, ideas, criticism, debates, emotions can run hot and cold and it isn’t hard for these meetings to become unproductive. The larger the group the more difficult the control of the meeting becomes.
(3) Briefing: These are intended as primarily one-way presentation type meetings; although, it’s also normal for there to be an exchange of questions and answers in relation to the presentation. Example: an organization holds a meeting to brief the employees on the implementation of a new program or policy. If there is no intent on an active exchange of information, a project progress briefing may fall into this group.
(4) Information Exchange: Team meetings and small group meetings with the boss(s) are usually information exchange meetings.
(5) Combination: The most common “combination” meetings are the Problem Solving with Information Exchange or the Decision Making Briefing.
Factors Impacting a Meetings Success:
Remember those things I asked you about at the outset of this discussion: What went right and what went wrong with meetings you’ve participated in the past? The most common complaint is: No Format or Structure.
Try this “NATO” Meeting Model Format.
Nature: Why is the meeting necessary? What type of meeting (Problem Solving, Decision Making, Briefing, Information Exchange or a combination)?
Agenda and Attendees: List of the meeting topics (In a logical order) and a list of the people or stakeholders that need to be there to accomplish the nature, outcomes and agenda items. Make sure you don’t over invite or add people that have no stake in the outcome. Don’t waste people’s time.
Time: Simply put, this is the when and what time (starts and stop time) for the meeting.
Outcome: What are the “expected” products, results and outputs of the meeting? What is “expected” from the participants?
Roles, Responsibilities and Group Dynamics
The Meeting Facilitator:
Come prepared and stick to the agenda. Set the time limit and keep to it. You can be sure that some attendees will be watching the clock. Different types of meetings require different skills: if this is a problem solving meeting or decision meeting, know how to manage the process involved.
Prepare the roles team members play in the meeting? Prepare yourself to keep the meeting moving. Prepare to deal with group dynamics. How will you deal with it when another topic brought up (not on the agenda)? How will you deal with “side bar” conversations? How will you confront the difficult member? How will you deal with it if you’re running short on time? How to manage hidden agendas Have some responses ready to go: “I don’t know, I’ll get back to you”; “Let’s put this as an action item and I will follow up”; “We should have a separate meeting on that issue”; “Why don’t you schedule some time with me to discuss this further.” Don’t allow yourself to get pulled off of the mark into issues unrelated to the purpose of the meeting. Be the unbiased moderator. Guide the attendees through the agenda items. Facilitate problem solving, encourage participation. Dissuade participants from negativism or personal attacks.
Communications: In an earlier article I discuss the “Communications Model”: things to consider are the communicator, the message, how you encode and presenting information, what methods will be used (the medium), what are the barriers and climate (attitudes, emotional temperature, etc.), how will the participants decoding or interpret the information, who are the recipients or receiver, and how will you encourage and handle feedback.
Group Dynamics: Groups or teams have their own dynamic evolution: they experience forming, storming, norming, and performing. Forming refers to the stage when the group or team initial comes together and begins to become aware of each other’s role and individual agendas. Storming is that phase when the group jockeys for their place within the group and how they make their position clear on the issues or outcome of the activity. Norming is when the group has settled into their roles and begins to focus on the actual issues and outcomes. Performing is the phase when the group is productive in a positive manner; everyone (for the most part) is forward driven toward the overall goals and objective: Performing is the “money maker” phase.
Every type of meeting has to be planned and prepared and serves a legitimate purpose. Don’t waste people’s time. Have an agenda. Send out the agenda as early as possible. It must include who needs to be at the meeting. Let participants know what type of meeting this is so they know how and what to prepare ahead of time. Follow the agenda and deal with one issue at a time. Allow each member to contribute in their own way. Support, seek opinions, gain commitment, and make the decisions and record. Identify action Items. Develop action plans that include suspense dates, include who will be accountable, and establish the time and place for next meeting and follow-ups. Stay in the role of a facilitator and remember that the boss has the final decision-making authority and finish on time.
The “boss,” the person with the authority to make final decisions, should not be the facilitator. When the boss facilitates a meeting, especially a meeting that requires free exchange of information and ideas, often time employees or team members will not give it their full effort. The boss works with the facilitator to establish the expectations and outcomes prior to the conduct of the meeting. The boss is a participant in the meeting and helps to define or refine problems, ideas, and possible solutions – but remember – the boss should not stifle input from the attendees. Sometimes some of the best ideas and solutions come from the group. The boss can’t be expected to have all the answers; however, the boss must take ownership of the final decision and approve or disapprove final recommendations.
Capture the notes of the meeting, especially regarding action items, pending items, future issues, status information – anything that is not provided prior to the meeting. Use technology solutions whenever possible to automate the record keeping requirements. Consider audio and or video recording of meetings. Recorder assembles the meeting notes for the facilitator and, with the facilitator’s input, sends the notes to the attendees.
Time Keeper’s Role:
Although the facilitator will be watching the clock to stay on time, it is often beneficial to have someone serve as the meeting time keeper, especially in long meetings that may require periodic breaks. The facilitator needs to keep focused on the meeting activities and the processes for information exchange, problem solving and decision making.
Be on time and prepared to participate. Listen – be positive – be involved – be productive. Let the facilitator do his/her job. Keep track of what you take (or have to take) ownership of, i.e., issues and actions. Remain focused on the outcomes and expectations.
Meeting Room Set-Up
Everything needed for the meeting should be on site and in-place before the first person walks into the room. Don’t find yourself setting things up while everyone is entering or already seated. This needlessly eats up the attendees’ time and usually gives the impression of a lack of preparation. Use technology: notification or reminder via Email, agenda’s sent by Email and any meeting preparation requirements sent well ahead of time via email. If this is a re-occurring and progress type meeting, you may want to include in the meeting reminder a list of the suspense action items due for completion prior to the meeting’s scheduled date.
Closing the Meeting
Closing out the meeting: Briefly review the results or outcomes of the meeting. Review the completed action items, and then restate the critical suspense issues, then the near-term, and working outward to the long-term items. Ask the group whether they see anything that needs to be added to the final meeting minutes or needs to be addressed in a follow-on meeting. Thank the attendees for their participation. After the group leaves, complete the minutes and distribute in the quickest and most efficient way possible: usually this is in an email or on a business’s intranet site. Make sure that the meeting minutes include the action items, names who is responsible for each item, and when they are due to be completed. With the various information technology tools available and or with a skilled typist in the meeting, it is feasible to send out meeting results immediately with the closing of the meeting.
To sum up, remember that meetings are tools and a process that serves to meet a business or organizational need. They take time and resources, so don’t waste them. They can be very productive ways to exchange information, solve problems and make decisions. Meeting facilitation is a valuable skill that can be developed through experience. Facilitators guide the attendees through the maze of agenda items, the process of problem solving and decision making.