Over the last few months I’ve been involved in the typical range of meetings from boring-beyond-belief to utterly astonishing in their success. Aside from the tone of the meeting, there are different types of meetings, from large meetings with complex agendas to small meetings with focused agendas and limited participation, and each will need different processes.
Here’s what made the successful meetings so successful and rewarding for participants. Maybe focusing on one or two of these approaches for your next meeting, whichever kind it is, can raise its success rate.
1. A clear focus. Two or three of the meetings I have in mind had a single agenda item, so the focus was crystal clear, but a single agenda item is a luxury you may not have. People may dread the time needed for complex agendas and may tune out right from the beginning of the meeting. If the agenda is long, then perhaps groups of topics can be combined, or maybe a committee structure could streamline both the work and the discussion, so that the group doesn’t function as a “committee of the whole.” Or maybe a different kind of meeting that better suits the work is needed.
2. Clear expectations. Some meetings are designed to explore a topic and are called dialogue. People get to know each other, disagreements and perspectives are explored, and there is no expectation, let alone rush, to reach a decision. Other meetings have a clear agenda; something has to be decided, and these are called discussions. It’s important to know which meeting you are having so expectations about outcomes can be clear. These meetings were definitely discussions.
3. Commitment to the goal. The successful meetings I’m thinking about had a remarkable lack of ego. The discussion was about something outside each individual participant, and the goal was to come to the best resolution without concern for individual success or self-promotion, something that takes enormous commitment to the goal and the organization. At no time did a personal agenda conflict with or overwhelm the organizational agenda.
4. Established relationships. Everyone in these groups had worked together before, so there were no new relationship dynamics to manage. In essence, the group had reached stage four of group development; they had stormed, normed, conformed, and were now performing at a high level. If new relationships are involved, the chair or facilitator should introduce the new person to the dynamics of the group before the meeting. In one group I coached for a year, the group developed a written introduction to the process of consensus-building used for decision-making, and no one participated in the group without this introduction and a mentor.
5. Superb facilitation. Maintaining the focus of these meetings was vital to accomplishing the goal, which was to make a decision on a difficult topic. A small meeting had a chair, but the discussion evolved so that no specific facilitator was needed except to summarize. A much larger meeting had joint facilitators who balanced each other’s approaches and kept the discussion on track. This approach relieved the pressure on a single facilitator to be aware of everything that was going on in the room. No cues or messages were missed and the focus was maintained.
6. Safe environment. The benefit of established relationships and superb facilitation generated trust and respect. A safe environment had been created in which people could disagree openly and with less hesitation than might have been present in other meetings. Group members heard each other out with a remarkable lack of interruptions; no reservation or alternative perspective was dismissed; and all disagreements were aired fully. However, a safe environment doesn’t mean a free-for-all, so facilitators need to be aware of the possibility of going off-track and maintain the focus on the goal.
7. Sufficient time. The best meetings occur when people find new ideas in disagreements, which are fully explored and lead to better outcomes. However, lengthy agendas may have to fit into limited time periods, so some agendas include estimated time limits for discussion of each topic. I find this tactic discouraging. Something like “eleven minutes” on a topic for a group of 12-15 people indicates that discussion is not really welcomed and nothing will be discussed fully, discouraging participation by any but the loudest voices in the room. These time limits are imposed when the focus is unclear or there’s too much to cover. In the meetings I’m thinking about, part of the success was that people knew they’d be there for whatever length of time it took to reach a decision, and in several cases, that was three hours or more.
8. Specific implementation plans. Sometimes the frustration from a meeting is that, even though a decision was made, there was no agreement on a plan for implementation, sometimes because everyone thinks the decision itself is the end of the work, and sometimes because people are in a hurry to leave. In successful meetings the action plan and assignment of responsibility are confirmed before the meeting ends, and yes, that makes the meeting longer.
9. Review and fine-tuning. Important meetings often need to be revisited to fine-tune a decision, fill in the gaps of a discussion, reconsider information, or change something that isn’t as ideal as it first seemed. These revisions are not failures of the meeting, the process, or the participants; they are demonstrations of continued thoughtfulness about the issue and the commitment of the group.
If I had to recommend just a few of these elements to improve your next meeting, I would suggest creating a clear focus, creating a safe environment for disagreement, and emphasizing a commitment to the goal. Having really good facilitation skills can’t hurt either, but even if those are missing, people who are committed to the goal and trust each other will facilitate themselves.
To those of you who recognize yourselves as being at these meetings, my congratulations.
Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation.