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Business Insights from Andrea Hill

Tips on how to make meetings more powerful, to develop strong facilitators, and to become more effective as a management team.

Who Says Purgatory's Just for Catholics?

Originally Published: 23 August 2007
Last Updated: 31 October 2020

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I received lots of email on yesterday's post, mostly breaking down into two camps - Camp A says it's impossible to have a management team that develops trust and open communication, because politics will always get in the way, and Camp B says management teams aren't the problem - indecisive and/or authoritative leadership is. Of the two types, people seem to far prefer authoritative leadership over indecisive.
There were some inquiries asking which one thing could make a management team noticeably more effective, and some curiosity about my comment about making meetings matter. In fact, meetings can contribute significantly to management effectiveness.
Don't guffaw now. I know very few people ever get to sit in a meeting that isn't a complete waste of time. But ineffective meetings are one of the easiest management nightmares to fix, because the fix is 80% process and 20% willingness.
Start with an agenda. That's original, right? But bear with me for a moment. Here are a few quick steps for a better meeting:
1. Ask for agenda items in advance
2. Ask how long each agenda item is expected to take
3. Ask what the expected outcome is for each agenda item. This one is tricky. This doesn't mean that the person looking for approval for a budgetary item lists "approval of budgetary item" as the expected outcome. This means that the outcome will be "information sharing only," or "a discussion to get everyone's opinion prior to making a decision," or "a final decision," or "an agreement whether or not to pursue further research," an "agreement about whether or not to shelve the project," etc. Attendees need to know what is expected of them in terms of contribution.
4. Ask who is responsible for keeping that agenda item within the time frame and on track to achieve the objective.
5. Prioritize the agenda items - most important first to least important last.
6. Post the agenda (or pass out the agenda at the beginning of the meeting) with all of those details listed. It's just a little 4-column form with Agenda Item/Time/Outcome/Responsible Party at the top.
7. NEVER schedule a meeting with more agenda items than time available. Be careful with this one! People will start underestimating the time their agenda items will take, so you have to watch out for this effect. If your agenda items exceed the meeting time available, push lower priority items to the next meeting or ask attendees in advance if the meeting should be scheduled for a longer time frame.
8. Identify who the meeting facilitator is. This should not necessarily be the most senior person at the meeting! This should be the person with the best facilitation skills, who can use respectful humor combined with prodding to keep the meeting on track.
9. Always have a minute taker! Meetings without minutes are like vows made while under the influence - they just don't stick.
10. Never leave an agenda item without a resolution. If the resolution is that more information is needed, then schedule who is doing what by when. Every attendee's goal for the meeting should be to achieve the desired outcomes listed on the agenda.
11. At the end of the meeting, before anyone leaves the room, review the decisions made and actions assigned during the meeting. An action without a responsible party attached isn't going to get done.
Regarding point number 3 - why is it so important to list the desired outcome? What frequently happens in meetings is that people don't know what they are supposed to do. One of my past clients was having terrible meetings and his management team was frustrated with him. I sat in on a meeting and realized that what my client wanted was input so he could make a decision, and what the management team thought he wanted was a decision. So the management team would recommend a decision, the client would become frustrated because he wasn't ready to make the decision, and everyone would get defensive.
I suggested that he be clear with the group regarding his expectations, and say "I'm going to make this decision on my own, but I want to make it fully informed of your input and ideas. So this agenda item is meant to be a rich discussion presenting all the viewpoints, and then I'll take it all under consideration and let you know my decision next week."
At first my client was worried about this approach. While he had every intention of making the decision on his own, his worry was that it wasn't politic to be so obvious that he was going to make the decision on his own. I assured him that people would much rather be told the truth than to feel like he was yanking their chain, and to give it a try. It worked like a charm. Did a few people grumble later? Probably. But his leadership was clear and everyone benefited from the (much) more productive meeting.
Too often people schedule agenda items for which they are not clear themselves what they expect to achieve. Forcing them to think about this before the meeting makes a huge difference in meeting effectiveness.
Now let's look at point number 8. What exactly does on track mean? On track means the discussion is appropriate to arrive at the identified desired outcome. A number of derailments can present themselves along the way - some acceptable, some not.
• New Item: If someone brings up a topic that is related but not necessary to achieve the desired outcome, write it on the whiteboard (oh, by the way, NEVER have a meeting without a whiteboard. You need to write agreements and check off agenda items visibly, or you will have a helluva time keeping the meeting on track) - write the related-but-not-necessary idea off to the side somewhere on the whiteboard, and tell the attendees you are putting it 'in the bank.' When you review the action items from the meeting, ask if the items in the bank need to be on a future agenda, and who will be responsible for them.
• Argument: This never happens, right? If two parties in the meeting get into an argument, let them try to work it out for a few moments. As long as they aren't getting personal and are articulating the points of conflict clearly, you might be OK. But as soon as entrenchment seems to take hold, or the argument gets nasty, you need to bench the argument and give the arguers time to cool off. An argument with emotion attached can derail an entire meeting, which isn't productive. If the arguers can resume their agenda item with cooler heads before the end of the meeting, fine. If not, ask them to convene a private meeting between the two of them and work out an acceptable solution to present - together - to the next meeting. It's amazing how productive some arguers can become once there is no longer an audience for their posturing.
• New Information: What about when the group comes up with something that really needs to be discussed, but wasn't considered when the agenda item was initiated? Don't sacrifice content for the sake of keeping a meeting on track! The facilitator needs to be able to recognize when an important idea is forming. At that point, his job is to say, "it looks like this is important, and it wasn't allotted time on this agenda. Should we reprioritize the agenda items now to allow the conversation to take place, should we extend the time allotted for the meeting today, or should we push this discussion to its own meeting? This provides clarity to the group, allows for schedules, interests, and other agenda items to be considered, and allows the conversation to take place.
There are a lot of other ways to make meetings more powerful, to develop strong facilitators (sometimes out of the most surprising people!), and to become more effective as a management team. Did I say at the beginning of this post that this was going to be quick? Sorry. It wasn't. But I'm sure it was less interminable than some of the meetings you're attending!

(c) Andrea M. Hill, 2007