Last month, this newsletter focused on planning and preparing for effective meetings. Now let’s look at getting meetings underway, becoming more aware of what can go wrong and learning how to keep things on track.
At this point in the process, you should have clearly defined/sent out/prepared:
- The purpose for the meeting and its goals
- Where and when the meeting will take place
- The list of attendees, including guests
- The meeting agenda
- The decision-making process (voting, consensus, etc.)
- The meeting materials (presentations, handouts, etc.)
Now the start time is here
You, as the person holding the meeting, should arrive 5-10 minutes early. If you stroll in after the start time, you will likely be considered disrespectful by the attendees.
You may have designated others to facilitate, take notes, run projectors, and similar elements. Make sure that everyone knows their role and is ready with their materials.
In the first few minutes of the meeting, you should review the purpose of the meeting, ensuring that everyone has a clear idea of why they are there. You can also use this time to familiarize participants with any handouts that you will use. This time accommodates late arrivals as well, but limit this to a few minutes, unless there is a good reason to delay.
Remember that this is a work setting, using the same language styles and recognizing that people are there to perform work tasks. Some meetings deteriorate into would-be comedy routines, or gossip times. You would be wise to curtail these excursions right away. But you are also wise to establish an air of collegiality in the meeting. There is a delicate balance here.
Establish the ground rules
Depending on the purpose of the meeting, you should establish and maintain ground rules. These can include limiting the time for each speaker, ensuring that everyone’s thoughts and ideas are heard, setting confidentiality guidelines or whatever is the most relevant for your meeting.
If you are the facilitator, your job is to simultaneously drive the train down the track, keeping to the time frame and the agenda, while also getting everyone to participate – something like being an orchestra conductor.
So what could go wrong?
It’s fair to say that whenever there are people with differing points of view, agendas, thoughts and ideas, there will be conflicts. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – constructively working through conflicts can be a major driver of forward progress. While it takes practice to know when you have harnessed the energy of conflict versus when the meeting is spiraling out of control, it’s important to know that conflict can happen and that it can actually be a productive part of a meeting.
Other things that can derail your meeting include personalities who went into the meeting already at war with one another, people competing for what might be available to them in this setting, and poor planning on your part.
What can you do?
If your meeting has gone astray, you might consider dividing the attendees into smaller groups; or you can move on to other agenda items if you have them. Simply closing the meeting, while a tempting choice, can tarnish your reputation and future participation.
For almost all of these areas, knowing in advance if you have interpersonal conflicts at the start, and having some idea of the various positions at play can minimize the worst-case scenarios. You may even decide to talk to the people one-on-one before the meeting.
Many facilitators hold meetings with the goal of getting buy-in by all concerned. This is certainly a valid position. But there is an interesting phenomenon that can arise, called “groupthink.” This refers to decisions made by a group of participants who hold very close positions on an issue. What is lost here is the important give and take among various people. The decisions of this group can lack the concerted discussions that reflect a range of positions.
Closing the meeting
As you get to the end of your agenda, or the time allotted, you should review the discussions and decisions made. Also, any next steps and responsibilities for future actions need to be clearly outlined.
And, there may be a time for a celebration! If appropriate, you may want to spend some time recognizing the efforts of the attendees and their collective accomplishments.
Thanks to the “Managers Guide to Effective Meetings” by Barbara J. Streibel for some of the material in this newsletter.