Finding a New Way to Meet: Ten Pitfalls of Pitiful Meetings ... and How to Fix Them - Part II

Meetings can be important team-building and idea-generating opportunities for your employees. The key to meetings success, says author Kimberly Douglas, is knowing how to do them right.

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[In Part I of this two-part series, Kimberly Douglas, author of The Firefly Effect: Build Teams That Capture Creativity and Catapult Results (Wiley, 2009, $24.95), began sharing the 10 common meeting pitfalls and how you can fix them. She continues below in Part II, or read Part I of this article here.]

Big talkers eat up all the time. Every meeting has them: those people who love to let everyone know they are the most important people in the room, have the best ideas and have a comment to make on every subject. Your conversational ground rules should help keep your big talkers (or big-headed!) in line, but there are other ways to ensure that one person doesn't dominate.

First, don't let big talkers sit at the front of the room or the back center of a U-shape. This definitely gives them a feeling of being on stage. In fact, you may even want to use assigned seating for the meeting. (If you decide to use assigned seating, change the assignments for each meeting, and if you are the leader, change where you sit each meeting.) Doing so will also prevent big talkers from sitting next to a buddy. Big talkers tend to feed off of one another, and separating them will help reduce their excessive input.

"There are other meeting strategies that will help you garner the participation of everyone rather than just one or two individuals," says Douglas. "I find that individual 'think time' is very valuable. Not only does it force your big talkers to organize their thoughts rather than blurting them out every chance they get, but it also allows your introverts to gather their thoughts and formulate what they would like to say. When the individual think time is up, do a round robin during which you ask team members to weigh in. Be sure to start with an introvert whom you saw writing a lot during the think time. You'll likely find that once you get this person talking, everyone in the group will be surprised by how great his or her input is, and they will wonder why the introvert hasn't spoken up before."

Douglas also notes that breaking attendees up into small groups can also be effective. If quieter attendees can bounce ideas off of each other without the threat of being interrupted by someone else, they are able to truly let their innovations shine through. Trust that those in the meeting are mature enough and self-aware enough that they can monitor their own behaviors.

"If someone is consistently getting out of hand, it will then be your responsibility to pull him aside after the meeting and let him know that his behavior cannot be tolerated," Douglas says. "Emphasize that by listening to the ideas of his colleagues, he actually sets himself and the company up for greater success because more ideas come to the fore.

Conflict kills productivity. An important thing to keep in mind is that effective meetings aren't necessarily free of conflict. In fact, conflict can be a good thing, and it should be valued by those attending any given meeting. The key is not letting it get out of hand.

Douglas advocates viewing conflict as "creative abrasion," a phrase coined by the president of Nissan Design International, Jerry Hirshberg. Here's a metaphorical explanation of how it works:

Picture two tectonic plates on the earth's surface — your way and my way, perhaps — grating against each other. Many people know that when this kind of friction occurs between plates, earthquakes often ensue. But what happens when these two plates — or viewpoints — come together? If the environment is right, they create a mountain — a third viewpoint that is a product of the first two approaches and that is grander, loftier and more powerful than either one was on its own. In other words, conflict is turned into synergy.

"For creative abrasion to work, leaders have to view conflict as a good thing," says Douglas. "When a conflict arises, maybe someone disagrees with an idea that's been thrown out or with how a certain issue was handled. Defuse the disagreement with collaboration. Openly discuss solutions and compromises that everyone can get behind. And remember, conflict is a group issue. Don't single anyone out when a conflict arises. Handle it as a group. Create and reinforce a common set of group conflict norms."

Similar to the ground rules you use to make your meeting more effective, conflict norms can be used to beget productive discussions that will lead to decisions to which everyone can — and will — commit. Have each member of your team write down three to five norms that would lead the group as a whole to a more productive conflict and allow for better decision making. Examples include: "Establish a common goal that the group fully understands," "Provide an opportunity for every voice to be heard," "Speak so others can hear your message," or "Clarify pros, cons and risks of options or potential solutions."

"When things do get heated, ask everyone to take a break for a couple of minutes to think things over," says Douglas. "Reinforce the ground rules and ask team members to listen to each other and consider what a possible compromise might be. Remind everyone of the meeting's ultimate goal and ask, given that goal, how you all can move forward to achieve it. You might hear from your team that more information needs to be gathered. That would make for a good reason to stop the meeting right then and set a date for a future meeting."

Douglas continues: "If the knowledge is in the room, it's likely people just aren't listening to each other. They need to balance inquiry with advocacy. They have probably spent too much time advocating their own positions and not enough trying to understand the other views. Break everyone into smaller groups and give them a moment to think through the other positions. Ask them to write down at least two to three reasons why opposing ideas might be good, as they relate to achieving the ultimate goal. Then give each side a few minutes to state their points. Ask everyone to listen and consider a compromise."

If worse comes to worst, Douglas adds, use humor to disarm a tense discussion, and then try to get everyone re-focused. "Once you've trained your team to truly value and listen to one another, I think you'll find that situations that may have previously turned into tense conflicts instead turn into intense brainstorming and collaboration sessions," she says.

No one knows who's making the decisions. So your meeting is nearly over, you've discussed everything on the agenda, and you're ready to send everyone on their ways. Unfortunately, no one is quite clear about what they're supposed to be doing or who is going to make that decision.

"As the leader, you don't have to be the one making all of the decisions, but you do have to make sure the decision-making process is clear to everyone," says Douglas. "Decide what the best decision-making process is at the beginning of the meeting based on the criticality of the decision, time constraints and the need for buy-in. Will a group compromise be necessary? Should everyone vote and defer to the majority's decision? Will it be better to build a consensus and go from there? Or should you, the leader, make the call? The best method is going to depend on what exactly the meeting's goal is."

The "Vroom-Yetton Decision Making Model" can be used to help you decide which approach to take. It is a powerful tool for determining and making explicit how groups will make decisions. As the leader, use this framework to help you think through which level of input you want from the team before you even engage them in discussion on the issue.

The levels of the Vroom-Yetton are as follows: Autocratic, Consultative and Group-Based (More information about these levels can be found in The Firefly Effect). With those levels in mind, a leader must also consider such factors as the need for complete buy-in from the team, timing, complexity of the problem, breadth of impact of the decision, etc. Basically, the more critical the decision and the more buy-in you need for the execution of the decision to be effective, the more consensus you need to build.

"Whatever decision-making method you choose, make sure everyone understands who will be making the final decision from the get-go," says Douglas. "The quickest way for a leader to lose his team's respect is for him to make a decision that his team thought they would be making. If you just want your team's input and will be making the final decision on your own, let them know that ahead of time. They will be happy to weigh in and will feel good that you respect and want their opinions."

Douglas continues: "I find that most teams don't care as much that they get to make a final decision; they just care that they didn't know from the beginning that they weren't going to be making the final decision. When this happens, it feels to them like the decision-making responsibility has been taken away from them because they didn't live up to what their leader expected."

No decisions, commitments or next steps are captured. Too often, meetings end and everyone simply goes back to business as usual without putting anything that was discussed in the meeting into action, or without even knowing what they personally should do. If you keep the format for capturing what went on in the meeting simple, you have a much greater likelihood of getting it done and getting it distributed quickly. There is no simpler way to record what went on than by writing on a flip chart the WHO, WHAT and BY WHEN of the directives discussed in the meeting.

"Do a round robin with everyone recapping what they are accountable for delivering," says Douglas. "Good questions for the leader to ask to get people thinking about the impact of the meeting include 'Who wasn't in today's meeting who needs to know what we decided today?' and 'How are we going to communicate this to them?' Once decisions have been made and everyone knows how they will be communicated, set the date, time and location for next meeting, making it clear that all will be responsible for reporting on the results of this meeting's action items at the next meeting. And always distribute a brief meeting summary within 24 hours of the meeting. The meeting summary will reinforce to everyone that results are expected."

No meeting evaluations are performed. For many organizations, meetings have simply become something that employees feel like they have to get through. They think that all they need to do is sit through the meeting, and then they can get back to the task at hand. A great way to ensure that this isn't the mindset of those in your organization's meetings is to do proper meeting evaluations.

"You don't have to wait until a meeting is over to evaluate," says Douglas. "A great strategy is to do a process check at least once during a meeting. Have everyone assess the four Ps:

  • Progress. Are we achieving our goals?
  • Pace. Are we moving too fast or too slowly?
  • Process. Are we using the right tools/methods?
  • Pulse. How is everyone feeling — frustrated, satisfied, energized?

"The process check will allow you an opportunity to get everything back on track if the meeting isn't going as planned," Douglas says. "Then at the end of the meeting you can do a plus/delta evaluation. This evaluation allows you and meeting attendees to assess what worked well in the meeting (the plus) and what could be improved for the next one (the delta). Don't look at meeting evaluations as a throwaway step. They are key to ensuring that your meetings are consistently well-organized and productive."

"I believe wholeheartedly that a team meeting can be the most productive and exciting time in that team's life," says Douglas. "Unfortunately, too many organizations meet for the wrong reasons or have simply fallen into a going-through-the-motions meeting style. By implementing a few simple tools, you can breathe life back into your meetings. Give these strategies time to take hold, and you'll find that your meetings can become times of trust building, problem solving and collaboration that will energize your employees and give way to innovation that will greatly benefit the organization as a whole."