September 19, 2019
By: Sheela Nimishakavi
Raise your (virtual) hand if you’ve ever left a meeting and wondered, what was the point of that?
We’ve all been in meetings that seem to drag on forever, where we just go around and around the same topic. Or meetings that go way off course.
In fact, studies show that there is widespread dissatisfaction with meetings from how they are run to what they actually accomplish. But, they continue to be the cornerstone of how we all work together in teams- from weekly check-ins so we all know what we are working on, to one-on-ones to get feedback, and board meetings, stakeholder meetings- you name it. Meetings are how nonprofits convey information.
As much time as we spend in meetings, how much time do we really think about how to run them well? Typically, not very much time and training is spent on an activity that we all do and that takes up a ginormous amount of our time.
Yet, we’re all familiar with the frustration of an ineffective meeting- one that leaves us feeling as if our time could have been spent better.
While we can’t really control how someone else leads a meeting, we can become better facilitators ourselves.
Here’s the thing, at some point in our careers we’ll all have to facilitate meetings- whether it’s the entire meeting or just our piece of the agenda. That’s why learning how to facilitate a meeting properly is so important. We want our co-workers and colleagues to be impressed with our facilitation skills and we want them to know that when we call for a meeting, it’s going to serve a purpose.
What makes meetings unproductive?
Studies show that while people are in meetings 90% of them are daydreaming, 73% do other work in meetings, AND 25% of that meeting time is spent on irrelevant topics.
There are five commonly cited problems with meetings that leave participants feeling as if their time was poorly spent.
The pace of the meeting. This could look like rushing through the agenda items to knock them out quickly and get on with your day, or the opposite- meetings that drag on and on.
Poor meeting design. Meetings with a poor design don’t have a clear goal, agenda, or participants are inadequately prepared for the meeting.
Poor focus. Wandering off topic and discussing irrelevant information seems like a harmless indulgence but it detracts from the quality of the meeting.
Lack of closure. Meetings lack closure when the meeting time is up but there is no outcome.
Poor process. When meeting participants don’t feel actively engaged, there’s little discussion, or the higher-ups in the meeting dominate the conversation, the process of the meeting could be poor.
What’s the big deal?
Here’s the thing- poor meetings can actually be costing your nonprofit. In the short term, the negative effects of unproductive and ineffective meetings can linger for a couple of hours after the meeting in what is known as “meeting recovery syndrome.” This occurs when meeting participants kind of grumble after the meeting and hold that after the meeting, meeting where participants commiserate over how useless that was.
In the mid-term, meetings can literally cost your organization hard-earned dollars. It is estimated that $30 billion a year is wasted on unproductive meetings in the US.
And finally, in the long term, you’re going to lose quality staff. We all went into nonprofits to make an impact, to create change. When our time is spent in unproductive meetings, that means we’re not being inspired and we feel like we’re not making a difference. And if you don’t feel like you’re making a difference, you’re going to find a new nonprofit where you can feel that way. It’s only fair.
Given how much negativity surrounds meetings, should we just do away with them completely? Personally, I don’t think so. While we can do away with some meetings, they are not all bad.
Meetings serve an important purpose. They bring individuals together to work in a team. You feel like you’re part of a community when you problem solve together. It also helps us coordinate our individual duties so that we can coherently address our mission.
Components of an Effective Meeting
A meeting can be defined as “an interaction that utilizes a set of resources to transform the group’s present problem state into its desired future state through a series of action steps.” The resources we have during a meeting are the people involved, the transformation is accomplishing the meeting outcomes, and the action steps make up the agenda.
There are three types of action steps which include: sharing information, seeking input for a decision, or making a decision. Whenever you look at an agenda or create an agenda, you want to make sure to categorize each agenda item into one of these three categories so you know how to guide the discussion and so you know when discussion on that action item has concluded.
Overall, the process of the meeting has two outcomes- the task outcome and the relational outcome. In terms of the task outcome, meetings bring people together to accomplish a task, and this task is the content of the meeting. The relational aspect is that, in order to accomplish the task, we need to create and maintain positive emotions that will promote working together effectively.
While we think of meetings as just the time that we spend together around a conference table, meetings are made up of three stages- pre-meeting, meeting, and the post-meeting.
Out of these three phases, the pre-meeting phase should get most of your attention. During this phase, you clarify what the desired outcomes of the meeting are, you draft the agenda, determine who needs to show up- all the pieces that make a meeting productive get put together during this pre-meeting phase
An effective meeting design focuses on formulating the problem and outcomes to be addressed during the meeting. When you get together a group of participants, there should be clarity around why the meeting is being called. When participants know why they are meeting, and the outcomes you are working towards together as a group, they are more likely to come prepared to discuss and actively participate in the meeting.
Once you have identified the problem and desired outcomes for the meeting, then you draft an agenda. Start the agenda with a description of the purpose of the meeting and the desired outcomes.
Ideally, the agenda will get sent around to participants prior to the meeting- and not just right before- but with enough time so they can review the agenda items and add any input they may have. Soliciting input from participants also increases the likelihood that they will remain engaged.
When drafting the agenda items, make sure the items that make it to the agenda are topics that impact the entire group. This is valuable group time, so you don’t want to add agenda items that only pertain to a few of the members. You can talk to them separately.
Next, you want to phrase agenda items as questions. Questions enable the team to better prepare for the discussion because they can come up with an answer. For instance, an agenda might be: “Brainstorm conference venue options”- this is pretty vague. But, if you change that to, “What are your favorite conference venues?” participants can come up with ideas right away.
Another benefit of listing agenda items as questions is that you know when the discussion gets off track. If what the group is discussing does not answer the question at hand, it is irrelevant. And finally, questions alert the team to when it’s time to move on to the next agenda item. Once you’ve answered the question, the discussion on that topic is done.
Finally, identify the appropriate participant to lead each part of the discussion. Research shows that when attendees take part in meeting facilitation, they feel as if the meeting was more productive and effective.
Now that the agenda has been drafted, it’s time to really consider who should be a part of the meeting. If a potential attendee won’t have any value to add or gain, they really shouldn’t be in the room. Or if only a tiny segment of the meeting applies to them, perhaps just let them know you’ll update them after the meeting.
Next, you want to make sure that ground rules are established. A lot times when you have an external facilitator come into your organization to run an important meeting, rules will be established- so I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. But these ground rules don’t only apply to the big, important meetings. Remember, one important outcome of a meeting is that relational aspect- we want to make sure that as a facilitator we are promoting a positive meeting environment, and ground rules allow us to do that. You don’t have to go over these ground rules at every single meeting, but you can include them on your agenda as a gentle reminder to meeting attendees.
Finally, in the pre-meeting phase, you’ll inform your invited participants of any pre-meeting work that they should do in order to show up to the meeting prepared and ready to discuss the agenda items.
During the meeting phase, the facilitator has two responsibilities- to maintain the structure of the meeting and to provide support.
In terms of structure, you’ve created the agenda, so now you want to hold the team to the frame that you’ve built. For instance, once your agenda item, phrased as a question, has been answered, the facilitator recognizes the question has been answered and moves the group along to the next question to be addressed.
Importantly, facilitators ensure that a positive work environment is established and supports the group in creating constructive relationships by minimizing disruptions and keeping the group on task.
I think the function of a meeting facilitator is best described by this quote from Paul Axtell, who says “Skillful facilitation creates a flow to the conversation, elicits diverse viewpoints, and achieves meeting objectives with clear direction and alignment moving forward.”
To help you facilitate the flow of conversation, here are some tips from literature that examined what promotes a positive meeting:
First, more structured meetings are better than less structured meetings. Structure helps address the five common problems of meetings: pace, poor focus, poor meeting design, lack of closure, and poor process.
Second, maintain focus on the task goals by discussing task procedures- so clearly indicate how you will move through each agenda item. If the agenda items are phrased as a question, you can say once each question is answered, we’ll move to the next item. Or, we’ll allot 5 minutes for updates, 10 minutes for item 1, 15 for item 2, and so forth.
Third, encourage broad participation. Remember, people get the most out of meetings when they are actively engaged.
And finally, emphasize consensus over majority votes. Consensus ensures everyone is bought into the outcome of the meeting. While it might be quicker and easier to go with the majority vote, participants will feel more positively about the outcome, and ultimately more positively about their experience, if a consensus is reached.
In the last phase, the post-meeting phase, you just want to ensure immediate distribution of any notes and action items from the meeting to keep the momentum going.
The Big Picture
Imagine how much closer you would be towards achieving your mission if unproductive meetings weren’t taking over your calendar.
While it does take some planning and forethought, it’s possible to design an effective meeting- aka making sure they are not a huge waste of time. I don’t expect you to walk away from this training and implement everything you’ve learned here. But, now that you are aware that there is a formula for achieving success in meetings, you can begin to move closer to best practices, and take one step closer toward achieving your mission.