by Pat Sanaghan (The Sanaghan Group)
Most meetings simply don't work and are a waste of precious time. Unfortunately, many higher education leaders spend much of their professional lives in these unproductive meetings. Higher education runs on thousands of daily meetings including committees, task forces, departmental meetings, and so on.
When was the last time you participated in an engaging, productive meeting where you felt that it was a great use of your time and attention? When’s the last time you looked at your meeting calendar and said to yourself, “I am really looking forward to Tuesday’s committee meeting!”
Here are 10 practical tips for improving your meetings, based on Academic Impressions's powerful Meeting Diagnostic Tool (MDT):
1. To Lead or Facilitate?
Senior leaders often ask, “Should I facilitate or fully participate in the meeting?” We have found that trying to be the leader as well as the facilitator is not a good idea.
Facilitators move the group towards good decisions, use good processes, and are neutral. Often, a leader cannot be neutral about where a decision is going. Attendees know this and will wait until the leader signals his or her desired decision.
We suggest that the leader appoint a neutral facilitator; this will allow the leader to participate as the leader.
2. Monday Morning Meetings are Usually Not a Good Idea
About 80% of the organizations and campuses we have worked with have Monday morning meetings to “kick off” the week and get on the same page. This is especially true at the senior level. This idea looks good on paper but is often detrimental in practice.
On Monday mornings, people are thinking about their staff, thinking about the weekend, and worrying about the unknown problems that await them. Instead of having Monday morning meetings, let people have this time to deal with Monday morning distractions. Then, you can have a Monday afternoon “kick off” meeting or wait until Tuesday morning to engage participants who are ready to be fully present.
We have found this technique to be useful in de-stressing frenzied work environments. One organization, for example, had full-morning meetings for the senior team on Mondays. When the team members anonymously evaluated these meetings, leadership found that the Monday morning meetings were highly disliked. Upon changing the meeting time, the leader observed a dramatic decrease in the team’s sense of stress.
3. Select the Right Participants for the Meeting
If you have a regular team or group meeting, the membership is rather fixed. But, if you are organizing a meeting where you need to invite people to help solve a problem, create a strategy, make an important decision, or unpack a complex challenge, be judicious when selecting participants. There are several questions that you need to consider:
- What experience or skill does this person bring to the table?
- What would be lost if you didn’t invite the person?
- What is their interest in the topic?
- Are there any political reasons you need to think about before you invite them? (This could be potential blowback, stepping on someone’s toes, or resistance to the outcome if not invited.)
- In your experience, what past contributions has this person made to other important meetings? How can they contribute to your meeting?
Make sure the right people are there to accomplish the purposes and goals of the meeting. Keep in mind that small meetings aren’t necessarily better; the right people being present is key. Don’t be intimidated by a large group of the right people. Manage them well by using the techniques and suggestions, and you will be able to tap their gifts and talents.
4. Prioritize Your Agenda
Facilitators often cover trivial items, like updates and gossip, at the beginning of meetings—before the “real” meeting begins. They develop this habit because they believe that:
- It allows the latecomers to be there during the “real” meeting. Unfortunately, this also encourages lateness because people think, "Heck, the first 10 minutes aren't important anyway."
- This creates positive momentum by giving attendees an early sense of accomplishment. This is not true.
Instead, starting with the most important agenda items is more effective because:
- It conveys respect for participants who arrived on time.
- It discourages lateness because important conversations happen early.
- The priority stuff is dealt with early when people are more alert, not feeling rushed or overwhelmed, and not thinking about the next meeting they need to go to.
It communicates discipline and rigor, and attendees understand that they are expected to show up on time and start working.
5. Make Sure Everyone Understands the 'Decision Rules' in Advance
It is very important that meeting participants clearly understand how the group will make decisions. This sounds simple, but often the agreements or rules around decision-making are fuzzy and can create a lot of frustration and confusion for people.
Before the group makes a decision, the meeting leader or facilitator needs to articulate the decision rules. There are several voting conventions you can use to make decisions. For example:
Consensus – This term can cause a lot of confusion for folks because they often define it differently. We suggest that you agree upon a definition so that everyone understands it. The following is our definition:
Super Majority – 75% of the group agrees to the decision.
Legislative Majority – 67% of the group agrees to the decision.
Simple Majority – 51% of the group agrees to the decision. Stay away from these types of decisions; due to the minimal support, they will rarely get implemented.
When it is time to make the decision, give each participant one to two minutes to state their position and rationale. But don't allow any debate or questions. After this advocacy round, have participants vote anonymously on their choice.
6. Review Group Agreements Before People Leave the Meeting
One of the things that promotes ineffective meetings is poor wrap-up. Even an exciting, energizing, and productive meeting can be rendered ineffective in the last ten to fifteen minutes.
Effective wrap-up requires strong discipline to summarize the decisions made and next steps. Three things to remember:
- People will tend to resist this wrap-up because it holds them accountable.
- Psychologically, attendees are already out the door by the end of the meeting.
- You have to build time into the agenda to summarize, or it won’t happen:
- For a one-hour meeting, use the last ten minutes to summarize.
- In a two-hour meeting, reserve fifteen minutes.
- In a three-hour meeting, reserve twenty minutes.
- In a daylong meeting, take the last twenty to thirty minutes.
During this time you also need to review any issues that are in the “parking lot” and define clear next steps for these items. They don’t need to be solved; just makes sure there is an owner and action that moves the items forward. Since the “parking lot” is a means of capturing ideas that are worth consideration at a later date, it is very important that these items not be allowed to die.
Review time at the end of your meetings communicates accountability and offers a sense of closure for participants.
7. Consciously Encourage Participation
Many people think that “If someone has something to say, they will say it.” However, introverts often won't fully participate. The meeting leader or facilitator needs to encourage meaningful participation by everyone. The following techniques help do this:
For this technique the leader/facilitator:
- Asks the group a focus question regarding an agenda item (e.g., “How can we have a reward and recognition program that doesn't cost more money?” or “What can we do to improve customer service?”)
- Gives each meeting participant two minutes to think of some strategies and ideas and write them down on a piece of paper. Participants then spend two to three minutes sharing their ideas with the person sitting next to them. Finally, participants share their paired ideas with the entire group.
- Takes one idea from each group, writes it in full view of everyone on a flipchart, and goes around as many times as necessary to record all ideas. Taking one idea from each pair allows everyone to feel like they have added something of value to the conversation. If you take all the ideas from the first and second pair, there is a good chance the other pairs will not have anything to contribute because the first two groups will have shared all the good ideas.
For this technique, the leader/facilitator:
- Hands out several index cards to each meeting participant while asking a relevant focus question
- Asks participants to spend five minutes writing their answers legibly and anonymously on the available index cards. Let them know there are plenty more index cards if they need them.
- Collects the cards and writes down the suggestions on a flipchart. The leader/facilitator might want to ask someone to help write the ideas down, so the meeting moves quickly.
- Leads the group in review and discussion of each idea. If you are trying to reach a decision about the suggested ideas, you can use the Las Vegas vote or the nominal group technique.
Using this technique neutralizes the most verbal participants, encourages more thoughtful and considered suggestions, involves shyer meeting participants who may be reluctant to participate verbally, and neutralizes power or bias in the meeting discussion through anonymity.
For this technique the leader/facilitator:
- Asks a focus question (e.g., “How can we improve our retention efforts?” or “How do we reward and recognize our people?”)
- Goes around the room to solicit ideas from each participant.
- Allows participants to “pass” if requested, but makes sure to double back to see if they have anything else to offer.
This technique creates a sense of gentle structure, neutralizes the overly verbal participants, and communicates a desire to hear from everyone.
8. Let People Advocate Before Making an Important Decision
When a group is at the place where they need to make a decision on a set of actions or recommendations, give each person two minutes to express their views and opinions about the set of actions and recommendations. Make sure you keep the “lobbying” to two minutes, especially for senior leaders; if participants see the leader getting more “air time,” they will resent it.
After each person has “lobbied,” have people anonymously indicate their top three recommendations. This is a fair process that gives people a last chance to influence others in the meeting.
9. Use Silence Strategically
This is a great technique to use when things are moving too fast or the group has just run out of ideas. When this happens, suggest that participants take a silent minute to think about what is being discussed. This will help people feel less overwhelmed and give people time to generate new ideas to spark a creative discussion.
This can also be a useful technique when a group is experiencing some conflict or tempers are rising. One minute of silence can create the space for something new to evolve.
10. Ground Rules are Essential
Almost everyone comes to meetings with hidden or tacit expectations about how people should behave or how a meeting “should” operate (e.g., everyone “should” be on time, come prepared, fully participate, etc.). Unfortunately, we rarely agree on a handful of these ground rules. Creating these powerful protocols will vastly improve the effectiveness and productiveness of your meetings.
Two ground rules that we strongly suggest are:
- One person speaks at a time. This helps eliminate sidebars that take the energy and focus away from the discussion. If you see more than one person talking during a meeting, gently remind people of the ground rule. Don't single anyone out (e.g., ”Pat, can you stop talking while Barbara is explaining the new budget?”). Do it as soon as it occurs so you nip it in the bud. Also, apply it equally to all participants. If you let the senior leader violate the ground rule, you don't have a ground rule any more.
- Start and end on time. This helps communicate that everyone's time is valuable, and it gives the meeting facilitator permission to begin the meeting on time, even if someone is missing.
Use whatever ground rules you believe will help you have an effective meeting. Pay attention to both task (e.g., start and end on time, distribute agenda before meeting) and process (e.g., practice active listening, one person talks at a time, define the decision rules before making decisions). Also, remember that meeting participants need to agree to the ground rules before you begin the meeting. It is hard to impose ground rules after the meeting begins.
Take This Powerful Meeting Assessment
Use Academic Impressions's Meeting Diagnostic Tool (MDT) to assess the effectiveness of your regular meetings and identify the specific factors that either help or hinder your meetings.
The MDT goes beyond looking at the nuts and bolts of an effective meeting and looks at the process of a meeting. That is where the real challenges lie. You might find that meeting participants rate some of these elements quite low. It is difficult to fix a meeting when you don't know exactly what needs “fixing.” This tool uniquely uncovers both what is working and what isn't; allowing you to build on your strengths and identify opportunities.