Even in organizations working hard in pursuit of lean production systems, process improvement, and employee capability development – the failure to host effective meetings is all too common. It’s a drag on productivity and a key source of frustration.
In this piece I’ll share some insights I’ve gained as a meeting facilitator. Then I’ll share a story of how I worked with one team to improve meetings and what happened next.
1. Purpose: The key to effective meetings is to clearly identify the meeting purpose. How will the world be different after the meeting? State the meeting purpose using powerful action words like decide, plan, solve, create, etc. Once the purpose is identified, everything else follows. Objectives, attendees, tools, timing, resources, etc. grow from meeting purpose. Tier meetings are a good example of meetings with a clear purpose.
Improvement Hint: Take time to identify the purpose for every meeting and communicate it widely. As a participant, make sure you know the meeting purpose (if you don’t, ask at the beginning of the meeting).
2. Clearly defined roles: There are three critical meeting roles.
Meeting Owner: Typically this is the meeting convener who is often a senior person in the group. Meeting success or failure is the accountability of the meeting owner. The owner identifies the purpose, attendees, resources, secures the meeting facilitator, and provides the political muscle to empower the group.
Meeting Facilitator: Often overlooked, the meeting facilitator is a professional skilled in meeting management. They assist the owner in meeting planning and own the overall flow. To be effective, they should know a range of process tools and structures and be skillful in understanding and influencing human interactions.
Meeting Attendees: Who needs to be in the meeting to accomplish the purpose? Having extra people or not the right people creates waste. Meeting attendees should be invited or un-invited by the owner based on the purpose.
Improvement Hint: Use trained facilitators who have demonstrated skills. Untrained or incompetent facilitators can cause more waste and frustration. If no facilitator is available, ask the group to self-manage, recognizing the meeting owner is “first among equals” to ensure the meeting purpose is achieved effectively.
3. Plan: The key to efficiency is to have a good plan. In most situations, improving meeting planning delivers the greatest benefit to meetings overall. This work occurs prior to the meeting and is typically done by the facilitator in consultation with the meeting owner and perhaps some of the attendees. The plan should include a checklist of logistical items, a clear and complete agenda, attendees, resource requirements, etc.
Improvement Hint: A good plan isn’t a thin agenda with standard items or a hastily created flip chart flow. Take time to plan every meeting. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” or “Ten minutes planning is worth hours of wasted meeting time.”
4. Use Process Tools: In all human interaction there exists the “content” of the interaction… the “what”, and the “process” of the interaction the “how”. “What” items are budgets, plans, problems, strategies, etc. “How” items are processes, tools, structures, and frameworks devised to help the interaction be successful. If the purpose of a meeting is to make a decision, there are a number of decision-making frameworks and methods that could be used to simplify decision-making. The meeting owner and attendees focus on content while the facilitator focuses on process.
Improvement Hint: Many process tools, structures, and frameworks are available in the public domain. (Check out the Facilitator Tool Kit from the Office of Quality Improvement, University of Wisconsin-Madison).
5. Standard Meeting Rules: Applying the concept of standard work to meetings provides efficiency and quality benefits. Standard meeting rules (groundrules, norms, rules of the room, etc.) that are reviewed and made visible create, over time, more productive meeting behaviors.
Improvement Hint: Create a list of meeting rules in collaboration with attendees at the beginning of the meeting to create engagement. These rules can be used to keep things on track.
6. Trust your instincts and be courageous: Meeting participants generally know when things are working well and when they are not. When improvements are needed, it is common that everyone knows an intervention is needed, yet rarely does anyone challenge the status quo. Everyone rocks along feeling frustrated and knowing the meeting is going poorly without the courage or willingness to call out “the elephant in the room.” When your gut tells you something is not quite right, say so. Do it in a way that does not cause more damage than benefit, however, do share your insights.
Improvement Hint: Take a few moments to write down sentences you might use to stop meeting dysfunctions, using words that invite people to join you in getting the meeting back on track rather than provoking a defensive response. Having your words preplanned makes it easier to speak up in the meeting.
In one organization I worked with, here’s what happened. Awareness of meeting waste grew over time as employees could not do their day job for going to poorly planned and poorly executed meetings. Once the problem was widely felt, the team worked together to create a set of good meeting practices. To institutionalize this good practice, these were eventually taught in short training events across the organization. Meeting facilitators were identified and trained beginning with a three day deep dive experiential facilitator training. Skilled facilitators soon grew to be in high demand with some becoming permanently assigned to senior level teams. A community of facilitators was formed with ongoing brown bag lunches designed to share experiences, problem solve tough meeting situations, and learn new techniques and tools. In the company’s manufacturing sites, tier meetings were introduced and institutionalized as a standard way of working. Over time, all meetings improved significantly.
How are you using your team meetings?