We curse meetings, but they are essential to today’s collaborative leadership approach. We may long to eliminate them – and no doubt some could be trimmed – but the bigger issue is to make the ones we have more effective.
Richard Lent, a Boston-area consultant who has spent 25 years trying to improve his meetings, believes you can learn from the techniques he has tested. It boils down to not continuing with a laissez faire approach, wishing you can muddle through, but applying some structure that nudges participants in the right direction. Often those structures are drawn from the practices applied in large meetings. “I realized that some techniques of these larger group methods could improve smaller, ‘regular’ meetings led by someone without specific facilitation training,” he writes in Leading Great Meetings.
There are 12 basic structural choices in holding a meeting, and many tools you can apply at the various junctures. Six choices arise in planning: How you define the work of the meeting, who gets invited, how you design the discussion, how you intend to reach decisions, how you plan to spend meeting time, and how you arrange the meeting space. After selecting from that menu, the agenda can be prepared.
He highlights four choices while conducting the meeting: How you share responsibility, how you support productive conversations, how you manage time, and how you work with differing opinions, less positively described as conflict. Finally, he lists two choices for achieving results: How you build decisions and how you follow up.
FATT can be used in many of those areas. It’s an acronym for focused, actionable, timely, and timed, describing how to engage participants effectively in the work through a definition of what needs to be done. You want the topic for discussion clear and bounded, so everyone understands exactly what is under consideration. The group must have the authority and resources to take action. This should be the appropriate time to address the topic – it’s timely – and as well an appropriate time is assigned to complete the task. “A good FATT statement is like a ‘fat pitch’ in baseball – a pitch that is right across the home plate and easy to hit. A clear task statement helps meeting participants get a solid ‘swing’ at a piece of work,” he says.
The 1-2-All technique caught my fancy. He argues a meeting of seven or more individuals constitutes a large group and a potential problem because most participants won’t stay engaged. They can coast, expecting a few passionate colleagues to gobble up most of the air time. That allows these free riders to leaf through their email and maintain limited involvement.
Involve them by announcing the issue at hand and then telling everyone they have one or two minutes to reflect and write their ideas down. Then ask them to turn to a neighbour and share their initial reaction. After that discussion, the 1-2 of the technique’s name, you revert to all, reconvening as a group. Ask each pair what they talked about before edging into further general discussion.
The individual reflection allows who need more time to get their thoughts together an equal start with those who think as they speak. The dyad stage allows thoughts to be tested and reaction gauged. After that, participants can refine their proposals for distribution to all in the meeting. The approach engages everyone and gets more ideas on the floor than just throwing an issue out to general discussion.
Meeting engagement can be hampered when people don’t know the method by which an issue will be decided. If it turns out not to their liking it can lead to suspicion and withdrawal next time you gather. His tool here is the Five Cs, which guides you at the start to explain the decision-making process:
- Consensus: The group will develop a common conclusion that all will support. A common trap is to obtain false consensus, assuming approval when we don’t hear concerns. Later we find out we were incorrect. For consensus you must ensure everyone’s enthusiasm.
- Consent: Everyone expresses an opinion and those with a concern must indicate it’s not fundamental. They can live with the proposed course of action.
- Compromise: This is weak, simply developing an acceptable, middle-of-the-road outcome. But it may be the best you can manage for the situation. Sometimes a compromise may seem out of reach. It can be helpful to take a break, maybe a few minutes while everyone considers possibilities or even a few days while a small group you appoint develops a proposal.
- Count: Ask everyone to vote and the majority rules. This leaves winners and losers, which in some cases can be damaging.
- Consult: The leader indicates he is asking for everyone’s input to help shape the decision he will take. Even here, he stresses you must be clear about the process and how much influence the group’s comments are likely to have in the final decision.
Future focus is a technique for shifting from focusing on (or bemoaning) past problems to working on the desired future.
“Discussions about some necessary improvement or ‘fix’ to a problem often get stuck in an analysis of what went wrong in the past. The discussion is difficult as people try to discuss why something happened and who was responsible. This can create conflict and defensiveness, and limit development of better options,” he writes.
“When you focus the discussion on the future, you can identify how things could be rather than how they were. This helps to maintain a more creative, energizing environment for discussion.”
The first approach he suggests is to frame the discussion by asking: “How could this situation be handled better in the future?” Keep the discussion fixated on what could be rather than what went wrong. Sure, you need to learn from past experiences but the real opportunity is on the improvements you can develop for the future.
In the second approach you revert to the past but to recall how things were when they were at their best. So you would say: “Think of a time when we handled this very well. You felt pride in how this was managed. Tell the story of this time – what happened, who was involved, and what were you proud of achieving and how did this make you feel at the time?” After that discussion, ask the group to share what stands out from those stories of past success. Conclude with: “How can this performance be true again in the future?’
Multi-voting is increasingly common but perhaps not used enough. It allows you to get a quick idea of where people stand on options by revealing patterns of thinking. It can be used for showing priority or for exploring positive and negative judgments.
For developing priority give everyone a certain number of adhesive dots that office supply stores carry – between five to seven — and have them put those beside their preferences. The dot landscape will send a message of the group’s feelings. Discuss which items received most and least dots; what surprised people about the distribution; and what relationship people see between items that got many (or few) dots.
For exploring feelings, give people red and green dots – as many of each as there are ideas or option on the table (or, more accurately, on the flipchart or whiteboard). Ask people to place a green dot beside an item if it’s a good idea and has their support.
Alternatively, they should place a red dot if they have reservations or objections. They must place a dot beside each. You then want to consider which items received only green dots; ask if you can set aside for now those with a number of red dots; and for those with lots of green dots but a few red ask for people to speak about the concerns and then discuss how that might be handled. You might conclude by moving ahead on the solidly green choices while keeping the others under consideration.
His book includes many other techniques that can help you improve your meetings. We attend so many meetings each day it’s easy to assume expertise. That could be wrong. His ideas might help you and your team be more effective.