First Aid for Painful Meetings
by Rick Brenner
The foundation of any team meeting is its agenda. A crisply focused agenda can make the difference between a long, painful affair and finishing early. If you're the meeting organizer, develop and manage the agenda for maximum effectiveness.
As the hour wore on, Geoff began to wonder why this meeting, too, had gone so wrong. Here they were, plowing over well-plowed ground yet again. With just ten minutes left in the hour, they still hadn't started talking about the Release Team's findings. Frustration was rising. Geoff wondered if perhaps this team just couldn't work together.
Have you ever been here?
To help your team achieve its potential, make meeting agendas crisp and focused. A solid, agreed-upon agenda gives your team a better chance to prepare, to stay on track and to maintain focus. Here are eight tips for improving agendas and how you manage them.
- Circulate a draft agenda in advance
- Draft an agenda and circulate it in advance. Because you probably aren't omniscient, ask attendees for their contributions. This builds ownership of the agenda by the team. Allocate time for each item. If you don't, how will you know if you're running late? Include a Draft "Not-Agenda" — topics that are off limits for this meeting.
- First agenda item: review the agenda
- Reviewing the agenda smokes out confusion, and helps solidify consensus about the agenda. With everyone on board, it's easier to manage digressions.
- Allocate time for puzzles
- Usually, we're reluctant to admit that we don't know everything. Time for puzzles gives people permission to surface confusions early, and helps avoid major problems later.
- Limit in-meeting handouts
- Circulating handouts during meetings wastes time. Often we have too much to read, and too little chance to digest it. Limit each handout to one side of one page. Circulate longer reports in advance by email.
- No routine announcements
- To help your team
achieve its potential,
make meeting agendas
crisp and focused
- Shift routine FYI's, such as status reports, to prior-to-the-meeting email. Reserve meeting time for delicate or complex announcements, and for issues that require discussion.
- Designate Someone as a Digression Detector
- The Designated Digression Detector (DDD) signals a possible digression in a fun or humorous way — a bicycle horn, a New Year's noisemaker, whatever. On the signal, the meeting stops to decide if a digression has occurred, and whether to adjust the agenda, or make a note for a future meeting, or adjourn until further information is available.
- Look in the rear-view mirror
- Circulate the as-executed agenda as part of the minutes. By comparing the as-executed agenda to the pre-meeting agenda, you might be able to find ways to improve your agenda-creation process.
- Learn from digressions
- Use the notes of the DDD to develop future draft agendas. If an item repeatedly appears in the Digressions List, consider doing something proactive — apparently the team really wants to discuss the topic. That's valuable information, even if a discussion of the topic itself isn't really appropriate.
For more on agendas, see "An Agenda for Agendas," Point Lookout for May 25, 2005; and "Have a Program, Not Just an Agenda," Point Lookout for May 9, 2007. Top Next Issue
There are lots of good references on running meetings and forming agendas, especially Michael Doyle and David Straus, How to Make Meetings Work: The new interaction method, Berkley Books, 1993. Order from Amazon.com.
Do you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- The Mind Reading Trap
- When we think, "Paul doesn't trust me," we could be fooling ourselves into believing that we can read his mind. Unless he has directly expressed his distrust, we're just guessing, and we can reach whatever conclusion we wish, unconstrained by reality. In project management, as anywhere else, that's a recipe for trouble.
- No Surprises
- If you tell people "I want no surprises," prepare for disappointment. For the kind of work that most of us do, surprises are inevitable. Still, there's some core of useful meaning in "I want no surprises," and if we think about it carefully, we can get what we really need.
- Recalcitrant Collaborators
- Much of the work we do happens outside the context of a team. We collaborate with people in other departments, other divisions, and other companies. When these collaborators are reluctant, resistive, or recalcitrant, what can we do?
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: Part III
- Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
- Asking Clarifying Questions
- In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Meetings for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 4: Virtual Trips to Abilene
- One dysfunction of face-to-face meetings is the Trip to Abilene, which leads groups to make decisions no members actually support. It can afflict virtual meetings, too, even more easily. Available here and by RSS on March 4.
- And on March 11: Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates. Available here and by RSS on March 11.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
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