Leading effective meetings

Meetings get such a bad rap in most organisations. They can be painful, directionless talkfests which everyone dreads attending. Yet as a middle leader a core part of your role to bring your team together to inform them, discuss contentious issues, or to make collective decisions.

In stepping into leading a team, I had to learn to shift from a sometimes introverted participant to someone who could lead an effective and productive team meeting. Below are five tricks that I have gleaned from both participating in meetings at different levels of our organisation, and some personal successes and failures.

1. Clearly frame the agenda

Team members become confused and frustrated when agendas are ambiguous. A group begins a passionate discussion, yet others are on a tangent already trying to make a decision.

Ahead of a meeting, clarify the intent of each agenda item to frame the thinking and direction. Explain if we discussing an issue to improve collective understanding, or if we are e trying to reach a consensus or thinking outside the box?

Typically agenda items fall into one, or a combination of four categories.

InformationSharing an important message face-to-face is important. Could you email some information in a bulletin to your team? Is there a section of the agenda which highlights important information, and where colleagues can ask clarifying questions? How do you check for understanding
Input and DiscussionIs the discussion to improve collective understanding of the issue?Will the fruits of the discussion help inform a future decision, or is this a veil of democracy where a decision has already been made.
Could you collect some thoughts online before the meeting begins?
Decision MakingClarify the process on how you make decisions as a team. Do we have the relevant information, have we surfaced everyones assumptions. How do you reach consensus, do we all have to agree?
Problem solvingOften discussions focus on tricky issues and problems. How can you steer the conversations in a positive manner. How do you facilitate out of the box, creative, blue sky thinking. How do you challenge and refine each others ideas.

2. Collaborate on a clear agenda

A couple of days in advance send around the draft agenda, giving people a chance to prepare for any items. At the same time encourage everyone to contribute items. The tricky process is deciding what items really merits the attention of the wider team and discussion. For small items perhaps arrange for a 10 min chat after the meeting.

A good agenda should give your structure but also allow for some flexibility. There are always items that will engender more enthusiasm and it is ok to give more time for these but you need to keep the discussion on track.

There are hundreds of different meeting templates available online to help provide structure but my one is here if useful. I use one document to keep the agendas and the notes of a years worth of meetings and attach it to the calendar invite.

A super tip I gleaned from an HBR article is try phrase the agenda item as a question. Rather than state “class redesign” perhaps “Under which conditions, if any should be consider a class redesign?” This will help colleagues in the meeting focus the conversation, and help you shut down tangents.

Rather than a bland statement, focus everyones attention by phrasing agenda items as questions.

3. Step up and lead

When meetings lose direction the leader is often sitting back, disengaged or too passive. Teams look for a proactive leader to steer conversations and maintain energy in a meeting. To provide mental space, delegate note taking to a colleague so you can focus on facilitating what is being said and where the conversation needs to go next.

I admire leaders who have that ability to think on their feet, eloquently paraphrase or clearly summarise the feelings of the group. It takes an enormous amount of experience to do this and indeed some of my senior colleagues have probably facilitated more meetings than I have had cooked dinners.

However experienced you are, it is always useful to have a bank of phrases to draw from if you need to move a discussion on or involve others in the debate. I find these especially useful when one or two people are dominating a discussion or for when you are at a painful stalemate.

4. Agree and clarify the process

For any of your agenda items, consider how you will lead the team through a process of discussion or decision making. Overtime these ideas can be part a regular routine in a meeting, but to begin with clarify and agree on the process with the team first.

For a discussion consider using a protocol to ensure that everyone has a voice. Harvard Graduate School of Eduction has a list that is useful for both the classroom and the meeting room. Susan Cain’s body of work about introverts and the Quiet Revolution offers an interesting perspective for those colleagues in your team who are less assertive in big groups.

When we want to have a genuine round table discussion, I always start by giving everyone time to jot-down a couple of points, and then begin with a partner discussion before ideas come back to the group. If you are having a brainstorming session, commit to a process of writing down every idea (good, bad or ugly) before moving to the second step of analysing possible solutions. Try a pre-mortem protocol if you want to stretch and challenge thinking about a project.

If you analysing data as a team, consider a data driven protocol to surface assumptions and to ensure an open dialogue. The work of Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman provide a wealth of ideas in this area.

A lot of this comes down to the culture of the team and how you role model and set the tone and nature of meetings. Collaborative norms are really important foundation of any team collaboration but you must collectively hold colleagues to account if they digress.

5. Summarise and follow up

Does your weekly meeting begin with the confusing follow up on last weeks discussion? It is essential that everyone leaves a meeting with a clear and common understanding, so try build in time to consolidate before anyone jets off to their next appointment. It you cant manage this, end an email around the team after the meeting clarifying the following.

  • a clear set of notes that captures the essence of any discussion
  • clarity on what was decided
  • a list of specific actions or follow up

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