In the previous post, I provided four techniques you can use to set your meetings up for success. This post includes four strategies for facilitating a great meeting.
More Effective Meetings
5. Scan Before Diving
Once you’re in a meeting and starting to discuss a topic, save yourself both time and frustration by getting a lay of the land before going deep on any one aspect of the discussion. This is easier said than done because many participants can’t help themselves but jump into the weeds when the first concrete example is provided. That’s a sure way to spend half of your meeting time on 1/32 of the problem. Instead, ask your well-prepared participants to share what they see as important aspects of the discussion. Write the components down for all to see. Continue until you’ve got the major sections mapped.
The item sponsor (for more on the role of an item sponsor, read Part I) should then negotiate on the order of discussions and the depth into which you’ll go on any specific topic. Use a timer to stay on track. If someone goes off on a tangent in section one, remind them that you’ll cover that issue in section three. If they add an entirely new topic, figure out where it fits and add it to your prioritized list. If you want to use my ridiculously structured 6-List method to meeting facilitation, you can find it here.
6. Prioritize Juicy Conversations and Productive Conflict
Meetings that are just about regurgitating last month’s sales numbers or listening to someone read a PowerPoint presentation aloud are the worst. Use your meeting time wisely by focusing on diverging, disagreeing, and debating. What you’re looking for are juicy conversations. I define a juicy conversation as one that’s deep, probing, uncomfortable, and goes beyond the normal safe, boring talk that consumes most meetings.
If you followed the advice in my previous post to set up your meeting well, you’re already much more likely to have a juicy conversation. Primers are particularly useful for ensuring that the more thoughtful, deliberate, or introverted folks have had time to prepare and won’t throw their brilliant idea in at the last minute. In addition to having item sponsors and providing primers, here are some things you can do to focus your meeting on juicy conversations and conflict:
- Provide a prompt to get people thinking differently—to change the frame. For example, “We’re a $50 million company today. What would our systems need to look like if we were a $500 million company?”
- Ask big open-ended questions. You’ll learn as much from how people interpret the question as you will from the specifics of their answer. This is when you figure out that you’re solving for a whole variety of different issues, not just the one or two you had already thought of
- Start with small group discussions to allow people to trial controversial ideas. Getting a discussion warmed up with people talking in pairs or triads can create enough psychological safety for the contentious issues to out
- Be vulnerable first. Particularly if you’re the team leader or the item sponsor, if you’re willing to say something that raises eyebrows, you’ll be more likely to get others to reciprocate. Try starting a sentence with “I’m worried that…” or “I fear that…” or “What if it’s not…”
- Get out of the way. Frame the question. Model vulnerability. Then be quiet. If you must speak, use a question or a two- or three-word comment at most. The rule of fostering juicy conversations is to zip it or clip it.
- Leave the silence. Wait people out. Let them squirm.
- Reward the most uncomfortable comments. Even if you’re gobsmacked and the best you can say is, “Wow, I’m glad you said that!” you’ll get more delicious, diverse suggestions if you celebrate the brave souls who rock the boat.
The vast majority of topics I hear taking up meeting time could be replaced by email. They are about informing, reviewing, or highlighting. Reserve your precious time together for diverging, adapting, modifying, and testing.
7. Formalize the Meeting Close
I’ve written about the importance of a strong meeting close before. You can get all the steps here. Let me call out the one segment that is most closely tied to making your meetings more effective, which is ensuring that everyone is aligned on what you’ll do after the meeting.
The easiest and best way to do this is to have someone taking notes during the meeting that can be projected for everyone to see at this point. (If you’ve been using my ridiculously structured meeting facilitation approach, which I shared in #5, above, then this step will be simple because you can just turn to what I call “Page 5.”) When you share it, the list should already have each action item, a description of the next step, the name of the person who is responsible for doing it, and the date by which it will be completed.
Stop for a moment and let everyone poke at the list. Are there any action items that aren’t clear? Do you need to define any terms that are open to misinterpretation? Is there anyone who needs to be consulted? Are there any milestones in advance of the deadline date?
The big advantage of having this list digitally is that the moment everyone agrees, it can be sent as an email or uploaded to the team’s Slack or MS Teams site. Then everyone’s working from the same commitments list.
There are other components of an effective meeting close. You can read about them here.
8. Evaluate on the Spot
Before anyone leaves (I’m imagining an old western with a cowboy drawing his pistol and yelling “don’t anyone move.”) take a moment to evaluate how the meeting went. I’m amazed how much of the kvetching and complaining about meetings takes place at the water cooler rather than anywhere it can be heard and translated into better practices. That’s passive-aggressive and it’s self-defeating. Instead, take a moment to go around and evaluate the quality of the meeting on these measures:
- Did we have the right topics on the agenda? Which were the most valuable? Which were the least valuable? Were there any that didn’t need a meeting?
- Did we have the right discussions? Did the primer set up the conversation well? Did we move through the discussion at the right level and in the right order?
- Did we have the right dynamic? Did people raise dissenting perspectives? Did we get to the juicy conversations? Were we respectful of one another? Did we follow our ground rules?
One of the ways I love to have these course correction conversations is a technique I got from Andrew Davis. Participants simply answer the questions above in two categories: what they loved about the meeting and what they wish could be true in future meetings. For example, “I loved that we brought the Agile Product Development method to this table. I was glad that Sales got a chance to weigh in. What I wish is that we’d had a bit more information in advance on how other organizations have integrated Agile into their sales approach.”
Now, if you read Part I, you already know that last thing I’m going to say. Yup…
Build Your Next Agenda
It was the first in the list of 8 techniques to make your meetings more effective and it’s where we’ll wrap up. Set your next meeting up for success by collecting the agenda items now.
Great meetings require a little discipline. If you set things up well and have just the right amount of structure, then you can relax and let the juicy conversations flow. You’ll find you need fewer repeat meetings where you cover the same ground over and over. You’ll also find yourself looking forward to meetings because they’re efficient ways to get aligned so you can get going. Wouldn’t that be nice!?!