Given the amount of time people spend in meetings, organizations expend shockingly little effort to ensure that these meetings have value. Rarely is an employee – much less a volunteer – provided any formal instruction on leading or participating in meetings; most of us learn by observing the behavior of others. The low probability that those around us have been trained in optimal meeting practices renders this exercise equivalent to “the blind leading the blind.” The nature of these meetings is more likely to demonstrate the power structure of the organization than proper protocols.
Typical meetings suffer from a raft of problems that render them inefficient or ineffective. That is, they range from a moderate waste of time, while accomplishing something, to a total waste of time that accomplishes nothing. This need not be the case, however. Though an immediate overhaul may be an unrealistic expectation, incremental changes can be made to the way meetings are conducted, progressively increasing their value and developing a more efficient organization.
Common Meeting Problems
The following treatment of meeting deficiencies is by no means comprehensive, but it does capture a range of problems that seem to be nearly universal. If you recognize any of them in the meetings you attend or lead, your organization exhibits potential for significant improvement.
The most productive format for your meetings depends on the type of organization you work in, the purpose of the meeting, and the makeup of the group in attendance. It is the responsibility of the meeting leader to choose the format – experiment as needed – and communicate to attendees the expectations for the meeting. Attendees should be advised how the meeting will be conducted, what topics will be open for discussion, time limits, and other procedural details. Doing so in advance is ideal; if this is not possible, declaring this information before conducting other business will facilitate a successful meeting.
Adhering to Robert’s Rules of Order, or similar guide, is a popular choice for meetings of administrative or regulatory groups, particularly when proceedings are open to the public. Without the structure afforded by established rules of order – compulsory for all in attendance – boisterous participants could derail the proceedings. Many city councils, zoning boards, public utilities, and various other administrative and legislative bodies conduct their meetings according to established rules of order to ensure that the necessary business is conducted in full.
Stipulations included in typical rules of order include:
Meetings in other contexts – business, collaborative groups, training sessions, etc. – may not benefit from the hierarchical structure of Robert’s Rules of Order. For meetings of a team, the Interaction Method is usually more appropriate. This meeting format was presented by Michael Doyle and David Straus in How to Make Meetings Work. Central to the Interaction Method are four roles of meeting-goers: facilitator, recorder, manager, and member. Each role is described below:
Facilitator: One individual is responsible for moving the meeting according to its agenda, diffusing conflict, encouraging creativity, emboldening the quiet, and quieting the bold. One part coach, one part referee, one part timekeeper, one part traffic cop. The facilitator is expected to remain neutral, guiding the discussion, but not its content or conclusions.
Recorder: One individual is responsible for creating a “group memory” by recording the information shared, ideas generated, etc. In some cases, multiple recorders may be needed. For example, when recordable statements are made faster than a person can write, such as during an energetic brainstorming session, multiple recorders sharing the responsibility ensures that all information is captured. Also recorders may alternate during long sessions, allowing each periods to rest and massage their writer’s cramp. The recorder is expected to remain neutral, assuring accurate documentation of information or ideas without judgment or revision.
Manager: The “highest-ranking” individual in the group retains the authority to make a decision or resolve an impasse. Until such time that the manager’s authority is required to proceed, s/he participates as an equal member of the group, deferring to the facilitator to advance the agenda.
Member: All other participants are equal group members. Each is free to offer ideas and information, engage in debate, and participate in all activities appropriate to the meeting agenda. Members are expected to be engaged and to follow the facilitator’s guidance to ensure a productive meeting.
Defining these four roles has some obvious benefits, chief among them being that the expectations and responsibilities of each person attending a meeting is clear. However, it may not be desirable to conduct every meeting, or the entirety of a single meeting, in this way. If a meeting has both information-sharing (one-way communication) and collaborative components, it may be most effective to switch formats during the meeting. For example, a manager may act as “chair” to make announcements and receive status reports before relinquishing authority, deferring to a facilitator to lead a problem-solving exercise.
Of greater concern is that maintaining the four roles is not realistic in today’s cost-cutting environment. What organization is sufficiently staffed to assign two neutral parties to attend each meeting? A more realistic approach is to accept that meeting attendees will fill multiple roles and focus on teaching your organization how to do so effectively.
Let’s Be Realistic
To be clear from the outset, implementing this proposal successfully is no mean feat; to do so is exceptional. The cost, however, is surprisingly low, especially from an ROI or break-even perspective. No capital expenditure is required in most cases; the payback period is extremely short.
Research suggests that 30 – 40% of meeting time is unproductive. To put it another way, for every 1-hour meeting, nothing is accomplished during 18 – 24 minutes of it! Multiply that by the number of attendees to get a sense of how much productive time is lost to meetings in your organization.
Most organizations are highly inertial and most of all when it comes to topics as mundane as how meetings should be conducted. Many think it is simply not worth their attention. Therefore, a rapid transformation should not be expected. Critical mass may not be attained quickly, but every incremental reduction in wasted meeting time is a direct contributor to productivity. Considering how almost everyone feels about meetings, the resulting improvement in morale may have a multiplier effect on productivity!
In many cases, a manager will fill all four roles; each role may be assumed intermittently or simultaneously. This is the most difficult situation, requiring the highest degree of self-discipline and communication skill. The manager must be disciplined enough to exert authority only when appropriate, maintaining the neutrality of a facilitator when required.
Superb communication skills are necessary to ensure that all participants understand the role the manager is playing at any time. The manager must declare, clearly and unequivocally, when switching from a member or facilitator role to the manager role. All in attendance must know when s/he is assuming a position of authority.
Creating an accurate record of a discussion, while guiding it and participating in it, can be extremely difficult. Thus, the role of recorder is often the first to be delegated. More often, every member is also a recorder; discrepancies in understanding are resolved by comparing notes. Individual records may be flawed, but a composite of them usually offers a fair accounting of the group’s discussion and outcomes.
For meetings to be consistently successful with role-switching participants, the organization must embrace open feedback, humility, and integrity. Bias toward one role can cause members to neglect responsibilities of other roles; generous feedback is invaluable. Developing a culture in which any team member can remind any other member of the bounds of their current role without fear of reprisal is paramount; members will not sustain the effort to improve meeting productivity and group performance if doing so puts them in peril. Role-switching managers are the greatest threat to success; abuse of authority, whether deliberate or unconscious, will doom the organization to perpetually unproductive meetings, poor decision quality, and low morale.
Guidelines for Productive Meetings
Conducting a successful, productive meeting begins long before participants gather. Likewise, it doesn’t end when they disperse. Key elements of productive meetings are summarized in the points below. These guidelines can be used as a checklist for evaluating your organization’s progress in developing the leanest meetings possible.
It is important to remember that creating a productive meeting format is a journey. Taking an entire organization on any journey is a monumental task; it requires patience and passion. When to emphasize each cannot be explained here; it requires judgment and insight that can only be developed from within. Enjoy the journey; the stops along the way are inspiring and the final destination is glorious!
If your organization is ready to begin its journey toward productive meetings, feel free to contact JayWink Solutions to make an appointment. We can provide your organization any level of assistance required, from assessment and road-mapping to full-scale training and facilitation.
[Link] Robert, Henry M. Robert’s Rules of Order Revised; Scott, Foresman and Company, 1915, 1943.
[Link] Doyle, Michael and Straus, David. How to Make Meetings Work; Jove, 1982.
[Link] “How to Run a Meeting Without Talking Too Much,” Art Markman. Harvard Business Review, May 3, 2018.
[Link] “Meetings Aren’t Meant to Make People Crazy,” Liane Davey. IndustryWeek, April 19, 2019.
[Link] “Why Your Meetings Stink – and What to Do About It,” Steven G. Rogelberg. Harvard Business Review, January-February, 2019.
[Link] “Why Meetings Go Wrong (And How to Fix Them).” HBR Ideacast, November 5, 2019.
[Link] “How to Make Meetings Less Terrible.” Freakanomics Radio, September 18, 2019.
[Link] Cushing, Luther S. Rules of Proceeding and Debate in Deliberative Assemblies; William J. Reynolds & Co., 1854.
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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