Taking Meetings From Painful To Productive
From one-hour conference calls to multiple-day workshops, meetings are all too often considered a necessary evil. Although bringing people together can be critical for building consensus or tackling problems that involve multiple stakeholders, many of us see meetings as stealing time from more engaging and rewarding efforts, like conducting research, writing papers, or sharing your science with new audiences. However, with a little more investment upfront, most meetings could be much more efficient and—better yet— productive. I recently had the opportunity to attend a fantastic three-day workshop with Julian Griggs (Dovetail Consulting) on “The Alchemy of Group Facilitation”. Through both content and example, the workshop got me thinking about the common pitfalls of meeting design and how the ability to create and lead effective meetings is an often under-appreciated hallmark of leadership. So the next time you are asked to run a meeting, think of it as an opportunity to develop your leadership skills by setting the stage for group success, and consider the following strategies: 1. START WITH CLEAR OBJECTIVES • Understand the context: Scope what the meeting is designed to tackle and have conversations with key players involved beforehand. Without agreement on the ultimate goals of the meeting, you’ll have a difficult time reaching them. Effective meeting facilitators do much of their work before they step into the room. • Choose your words carefully: Beware of action words masquerading as objectives–is your goal really to “discuss” or “review”, or is to ensure everyone understands the context well enough to make informed decisions? This might seem like semantics, but the metrics used to determine if you’ve met these objectives are quite different.
2. DESIGN A REALISTIC AGENDA • Create honest timeframes: How much time is reasonable for each item? This is where wishful thinking often creeps in–if a task usually takes your group an hour, you’re unlikely to suddenly get it done in 20 minutes. • Account for process: For longer meetings, by the time you factor in breaks (and no, you can’t skip these), lunch, introductions, and closing, an eight hour meeting only has about four to five hours of focused work time. • Account for people: Be aware of the human dynamics. It takes a bit of time for a group to warm up (especially if they don’t already know each other well) and energy levels are likely to flag after lunch, so be a bit creative about planning for these timeslots.
3. DEFINE ROLES AND PICK THE RIGHT PEOPLE • Moderate or facilitate?: Do you just need a moderator to keep everyone on track and on schedule? Or do you need a facilitator to generate a flow of ideas and create a space for dialogue and decisions? These roles are distinct and require different skills. Unless the objective of the meeting is to hear a series of presentations, a facilitator will likely be more helpful than a moderator. • Remain neutral: Productive discussion happens when the facilitator is perceived as being neutral about the content…but that is rarely the case at most meetings scientists attend–whether in your own department or at a synthesis workshop. If you’re running the meeting, think about switching roles for items where you need to weigh in, or consider ways to share your input before or after the meeting. • Try not to filter: It’s tempting to rephrase or even reframe what you hear from participants, but reflecting back their ideas in their own words is a powerful way to make people feel they have truly been heard.
4. GET EVERYONE TO SHARE RESPONSIBILITY • Confirm buy-in: If everyone buys into the objectives, agenda, and roles of the meeting, it’s your responsibility to guide the group through the process, but achieving success is a shared responsibility. Though this can be more challenging than a top-down approach, it increases the chances you will not only meet your objectives, but do so in a way that engenders respect for your leadership style and a willingness to engage in a similar process again. • Keep the focus on the group: Create space for everyone who wants to contribute to a conversation to weigh in, but avoid singling out individuals (e.g. “Heather, we haven’t heard much from you.”). If a particular issue starts to dominate, check back in with the group to see if everyone agrees that the issue is important and shift the agenda if needed. Even a well-thought out plan needs to be adaptable.
Of course, you will want to scale your time investment in each of these steps to the length and importance of the meeting, but all of the these aspects are critical components to consider each time you convene a group of people together for a purpose. And as you refine the process over time maybe, just maybe, your meetings will become so effective you can have fewer of them—which is perhaps the surest path to being celebrated by your peers. Dr. Heather Galindo worked at COMPASS from 2010-2015. This post was transferred from its original location at www.compassonline.org to www.COMPASSscicomm.org in 2017.