Five Good Ideas about running effective meetings
Life’s too short for boring, unproductive meetings. Yet that’s precisely where many of us spend too much of our time. We know that working together is a good and necessary thing, but we also know that getting the right combination of people in a room together (or in a virtual space – even worse…) is not enough to ensure effective collaboration. Join Certified Professional Facilitator Dr. Rebecca Sutherns for Five Good Ideas on how to run meetings that are purposeful and engaging. Learn how to create the conditions that can transform time wasted as a group into time well spent.
Five Good Ideas
- Know your why
- Plan in chunks
- Pay attention to content and experience
- Hold your script loosely
- Use strong process to offset poor behaviour
- The Purpose Revolution by John Izzo and Jeff Vanderwielen, March 2018, Berrett-Koehler, drjohnizzo.com
- Facilitation Planning Template, sage-solutions.org/training/free-resource-library/
- The Fearless Organization by Amy C. Edmondson, November 2018, John Wiley and Sons
- Nimble: Off Script but Still On Track by Rebecca Sutherns, forthcoming in March 2019. rebeccasutherns.com
- “Dysfunction FAILURE!” One of many helpful facilitation resources available from Michael Wilkinson of Leadership Strategies. www.leadstrat.com/blog/tuesdays-master-facilitation-tip-dysfunction-failure/
Full session transcript
Thanks very much, Elizabeth. It’s such a pleasure to be here, and I do appreciate it very much.
I’m going pick up where Elizabeth left off. And that is to say that if you were to pull out your phone right now – please don’t unless you’re tweeting about this – but if you were to pull out your phone right now and look at your last five work days, I’m curious: How many of you would have had at least ten meetings in the last five work days? How many of you suspect you might have had 20? Are some of you running four, five meetings a day? How many of you run meetings, as opposed to showing up at them, how many of you run them? Most of us, not all of us.
I’m going to give you some tips if you’re not running them, and you’re sitting in a disastrous meeting and wishing you were running it. Because if you were, it would be over right now, those kinds of meetings. We’ll talk about those as well.
I think if we actually did the math on how many hours and how many people and therefore person hours are spent in meetings, we would be feeling a little bit like our shoulders would slump and be like: “Oh, here we go again.”
And yet there are reasons why we do that. We do it because collaboration is important and necessary. None of us has the market cornered on full perspective on any given issue. We know that we need these meetings to happen. We just want them to be better.
What I look forward to doing today is walking you through five ideas that are then linked to resources and tips that I hope you can implement right away in your practice, team, life. Whether those meetings are work meetings or in roles that you have in your community, in unpaid capacities, maybe even around your family dinner table. I hope that you’ll find that these tips are helpful.
Idea #1: Know your why
Idea number one is know your “why.”
I’m curious: How many of you have ever in your life lived with a toddler? Did that toddler go through a phase when he/she said: “But why?” 20 times.
I’d really love for you to get in that habit quietly. It doesn’t go over well at dinner parties if you do it out loud. If you do it quietly in your head, you’re going to start zooming in on one tip to run effective meetings. The reason being that if you cannot think of the why this meeting is happening then I would hazard to say that perhaps it needs not happen.
I would say also that “it’s Wednesday morning” or “it’s the first Monday of the month” don’t really constitute a great reason for a meeting.
My first and biggest tip is to be purposeful in your meetings. If you can articulate a clear why, people will be more inclined to be invested. It’s not just about the cadence on the calendar but really about what is that meeting achieving.
We’re going to talk about how to unpack some fairly nuanced reasons why meetings are helpful. The first place is knowing that you have a why. Some of you may be familiar with Simon Sinek’s work. He has a well-watched TED Talk, and now subsequent books and other things, all about knowing your why. You may have seen his model, a simple bullseye with why in the center. He argues that people buy things from companies and interact with organizations not because of how they work or what they offer but because of why they exist.
Simon’s work, frankly with all due respect to him, is not rocket science, but it has gone viral. The reason being that people crave purpose. We want to feel like we’re doing something for a reason and not wasting our time. All we can do is trade our time. We can trade doing this activity for this other activity, but we haven’t yet figured out how to increase our time. We want to know that we are using it meaningfully.
Knowing your “why” involves two sides of the same concept. One side is actively pursuing purposeful engagements. Meetings that have a clear why. We want to go after those ones. The flip side is deliberately avoiding the ones that lack that.
Here is the tip for managing that calendar that I mentioned earlier. One is really take control of it and remember that just because somebody puts a meeting on your calendar does not mean that you absolutely need to say yes and be there.
I’d be asking questions: “Is this a useful meeting? Does it need me there?” Then without burning too many bridges, you might consider avoiding useless or lower priority meetings right now and really try to make it a priority to attend your higher leverage ones.
The second piece is that once you’re in a meeting or about to run one, take control of that meeting and be very explicit about the purpose for it. Elizabeth mentioned earlier that I help organizations run more effectively. One of my first set of questions is: “What’s this session for?” You would be really surprised at the blank looks I get. Purposeful meetings are difficult for people to articulate sometimes. My job is often to help my clients express intuitively, deeply what they know this meeting is for, or occasionally to have them go: “Actually, now that you mention it, I really don’t know.”
And if you’re feeling like that, I think that you really can go back to what I said earlier, in terms of if you can’t figure out the why, it’s okay to say: “We’re not going to have this meeting this month.” Say you have a weekly team meeting. If you were to say to your team one of the weeks: “You know what? I don’t think the stuff on our agenda warrants the time that this is going to cost us collectively, and so we’re going cancel it this week.” Cancel the meeting for good reason only if you can’t determine what the why.
The third thing I would talk to you about is what happens if you’re not running the meeting. I have a colleague named Michael Wilkinson. You’ll see him mentioned on resource number five. He runs a company out of Atlanta called Leadership Strategies. He wrote an article on guerrilla facilitation. It is around what you do to be a really good facilitator when you’re not the facilitator. He says that if there is no clear purpose for a meeting, you can put your hand up and say some variation of: “I think I missed it when you said what this meeting is for?” “Can we clarify the objective before we go any further?” You are kindly and respectfully asking for clarification of that “why” before you dive in too much.
Idea number one, know your “why” and relate it. Actively pursue strongly purposeful meetings and avoid those that aren’t.
Idea #2: Plan in chunks
Our next good idea is more appropriate for those of us that are actually leading the meeting. It is a planning tool. I’m going to use the flip chart to demonstrate. The idea is that we plan in chunks.
I’m curious, how many of you have been hiking in the woods? Do you know what a blaze is? Blazes are the colorful, usually plastically kind of tags that they hang on trees. I’m always grateful for the people that put those up there. My husband, when he was in grade 11-ish, was a junior ranger not far from Kenora, Ontario. Part of his summer job was to check blazes on trails. The idea for blazes is that, ideally, when you’re standing at one orange tag on a tree and you’re walking along a path, you look down the path and see the next blaze. It keeps you on track. That’s what this tip does in terms of effective meetings.
Let’s use the example of a full-day session. I know we don’t have that many full-day meetings anymore, but if we were to have a full-day retreat I’d love for you to think about it in chunks.
A one-day meeting, I think of it as four chunks. It’s four 90-minute chunks. So, if you go: “Oh, I have to plan a whole day. What am I going to do for a whole day?” Could you plan four 90-minute chunks? I think most of us could. It keeps your meeting a little more manageable.
Here is a planning template that you can use to plan a full day session. And if you have a shorter session, the same concept applies, you just shorten it up. Here is your lunch, and these are your breaks: Bathroom breaks and food breaks happen mid-morning, mid-afternoon and lunch in the middle. Basically, for most of us, each of these chunks is 90 minutes long. Think about a four times 90 minutes chunk day. You could then further subdivide that if you wanted to into 45 and you have eight of them. I probably wouldn’t subdivide it much more than that. Most of us only have about a 90-minute or less attention span, increasingly short. When you think about planning in chunks, it makes your planning task more manageable.
Each chunk needs a “why.” As much as we’ve talked about knowing your “why,” which should be your overall “why” for the meeting. You actually need purpose for each of the mini chunks. I say that partly because if you set a “why” for the whole day, it’s really easy to lose your way as you get along here. You may not end up at your purpose by the end.
In case one chunk goes off track, you get to reset as you get to a new chunk. The reason being that it’s not a completely cumulative design. You have an opportunity to say: “Hm, yeah, that little exercise did not go quite the way I thought, but I can reset back here.” As a facilitator, that gives you a way to find your blaze again in the forest. You get to your next marker and go: “Okay, I felt like I was starting to get a little panicky there. That wasn’t quite going the way I thought. But I know, even if we didn’t really get that 45-minute chunk well, I know what this one looks like.”
You’ll see on your resource page you have a link to an online prettier version of the facilitation planning template. It will help you make sure that you have little mini “why’s” that all cumulatively add up to that big purpose for the meeting.
You might have some questions about that, I hope you do, and I’ll look forward to taking those questions at the end.
Idea #3: Pay attention to content and experience
Let’s move to our third good idea. There is a way to make the planning template even better. My suggestion is that in order to have effective meetings, you pay attention to both content and experience. The big takeaway in this section is that an agenda alone is not enough for a good meeting.
How many of you have walked into a meeting and there’s an agenda, either that you’ve received or that’s sitting waiting for you? It’s got a list of topics, one through four, or one through 20. If I’m the facilitator that alone is only what I would consider to be half of what I need to plan as an effective meeting leader.
I also divide my agenda down the middle in terms of content and experience. Another way of putting it is rational and experiential.
The traditional agenda for a meeting would fit under content. For example, we want to renovate a park and we’re going to talk about the equipment that needs to go in the park. That’s not enough to know if your meeting will be effective. You could talk all day long about the equipment, but you might be spinning your wheels because you haven’t been clear what done looks like for that chunk.
For example, if you just need to share information about all the different options of climbers and swings we could put in the park, this would be the “share the options” chunk. But if you want people to actually do something, for example, “I need each of you to go and visit three parks between now and next meeting,” that might look like one chunk. Or maybe it’s time to make a decision, and you’ve got four options of playground designs you need people to look at. That’s a different level of done about playground equipment. If I only write playground equipment on my agenda, that’s what people get.
Here is the key: If I do it on my own facilitation plan and that’s all I write, how do I know if we’re done? I want to be really clear about the topic. Is it information sharing, action, or decision making. I’ve already made that a little deeper than just taking the topic. It’s the topic and what about it that goes in the content side.
Let’s talk about the experience side, because it has two parts. Whenever I run a meeting, I want to be thinking about the experience that people have with that meeting. That experience comes in two ways: an emotional or intuitive way. How do people feel about that chunk or that day? What are they leaving feeling like? I do a strategic planning. I literally set it as an explicit experiential objective that people that come to my meetings won’t hate them. Because a lot of people come into strategic meeting and go: “Ugh, I don’t want to do it.” “I don’t like it, I’m not good at it.” “It’s useless, it’s whatever.” I want them to leave going: “Oh, that was actually kind of fun.” “That was better than I thought.” Even better than that, they leave with some buzz, with some enthusiasm and some buy-in, and some ownership of what’s going on. That’s an experiential objective.
The second part of experience in my facilitation planning has to do with methodology. If I’m talking about playground equipment, are we just going to talk about it or are we going to work in small groups? Are we going to put some things on the walls? Are we going to have people do a design charrette? Are they going to be looking at architectural drawings on the walls? It matters how you’re going to work through that topic. As the facilitator, I need to know what that is. The problem is, if we don’t specify that, our default methodology is talking too much. The less the person who’s running the meeting has planned, the more talking they do.
If you want your meetings to be engaging because perhaps your experiential objective in the first half was: “I want people to participate.” You have to think about how you’re going to get them to participate. It’s not enough to just say playground equipment. It’s playground equipment, make a decision about it, I want this to be fun and we’re going to use a design charrette methodology to do that. I would write that out if I didn’t know quite what that was. You’re looking at various elements of both content and experience. What this means is that you can track your progress in your meeting against those objectives.
Think of a time when you felt like: “Oh, this meeting is not making good progress, but the reason it’s not making good progress is because people are laughing their heads off.” It doesn’t happen very often. Sometimes our meetings aren’t that funny. But say somebody gets the giggles, right? You got a funny person around the table, they crack a joke and everybody’s laughing. You’re the facilitator. You got a choice in that moment. You can choose to cut that off, or you can choose to add to the fun. And in the moment, if you can be thinking about this and saying: “Huh, this is interesting. We’re not making good progress on choosing the playground equipment, but we are making really good progress on this being a fun, engaging meeting that’s building the team, and that was part of my experiential objective.”
I can know in my head I may not be achieving one of the objectives right this minute, but I’m achieving the other one. It means that I’m still on track, at least half of the way. I need to make up some ground on the other half in a while, but I may not want to shut things down because part of the purpose is to have a good time together and build the team. Tracking your multiple objectives from both a substance and an experience point of view can really allow you to have a richer understanding of whether a meeting has gone well or not.
I really believe that having a content objective and an experiential objective might be even more true for your repetitive, so called, predictable meetings than for your one-off one-day retreats. Partly because you have to know your “why” and if there isn’t one, cancel the meeting. Also people walk into repetitive meetings thinking: “I have so much to do.” “This is a waste of my time.” “Nothing is going to be done.” “Same old, same old.” It might be the same space, maybe the same people, maybe you feel implicitly like you know what people are already going say before they say it because you’ve been working with them for a long time, and nothing new happens.
Imagine if you’re the leader of that meeting and you take some of this stuff into account. All of a sudden you want the experiential objective to be newness, something different. I want to surprise people. The one-hour departmental repetitive meeting becomes about variety. It becomes about the unexpected. It becomes explicitly about injecting surprise and creativity. The meeting is now kind of fun: “Oh, I wasn’t expecting that.” When you come in next time, or maybe two meetings later, three meetings later, you’re like, “Oh, I wonder what we’re going to do today.” You have a really different stance toward the meeting than you would if you, as the leader, just perpetuate Groundhog Day at that meeting. This is number three: paying attention to content and experience.
Idea #4: Hold your script loosely
I’ve filled in my script. This is my facilitation plan. I have my chunks and they each have a why. I’ve got content and experience all planned out. At that point, if you picture this, you love this now. You’ve spent time on it, designed and crafted it. You’re invested now. You love this plan. My encouragement to you is to then loosen your grip a little bit on it and hold it loosely, because you’re dealing with humans, not with robots. And that’s why we love this. We like dealing with people, but people don’t behave predictably.
Have you ever met the oblivious facilitator? I mean the facilitator that just barrels ahead with their plan because they have a plan, and they’re not paying attention to you at all. They’re not listening, watching or looking at the clock. They’re facilitating because their plan said so or because they’ve got more slides to cover. We’ve probably all been in that meeting where the oblivious facilitator or oblivious presenter or negotiator or parent, or whomever, is talking and talking. Then all of a sudden they look at the clock and gasps. If they’re doing PowerPoint, what do they do right at that moment? Click, click, click, click, “Oh, these weren’t that important anyway.” And you’re going: “Well, they must’ve been important to someone at some moment because you put them in there, and now I’m missing them because you weren’t well organized.” That’s partly a time management question, but it’s also not paying good attention to what’s going on in the room.
Let me give you another example. I was a participant in a meeting and the facilitator came up to the front and said: “I’m going to walk you through a process today that is brand new.” I’m already thinking that person had an experiential objective. They’ve paid attention to methodology. He goes: “Okay, how many of you have tried,” and then he named the methodology he was going to use. He said: “This is brand new and I can’t wait. Has anyone heard of it?” Well, I would say 80%, maybe 85% of the room put their hand up.
I’ll stop my story there just for a moment. What are you thinking already? Give me something that just went through your head when you heard me say that. The new thing is not new to the crowd. Unfortunately, Mr. Oblivious Facilitator went right ahead and pretended it was new. When it was only new to him. He also said, “Oh, sorry, I did my slides at 11:30 last night. Please excuse any typos.” When you’re going to ask people what they think or ask them to give you some input. Adjust and adapt to the input. Don’t pretend that you didn’t notice that people are asleep or on their phone, or that 85% of the room said to you that this is not new to them. You need to then respond. What you’ve planned in your script doesn’t need to get pitched out the window. You need to hold it loosely and adjust. You need to be nimble and agile.
You will notice that your resource number four on your list is a book called Nimble. It’s coming. It went to the typesetter today. It’s being released in Australia when I’m there on the 21st of February and will be available in this area in March. The book is really about when things go off script, but keeping it on track. It’s my new book and that’s actually the door prize today.
Be nimble as a facilitator and hold your script loosely. That doesn’t mean winging it. It means being well prepared and then holding your script loosely. How do we do that? We plan for multiple scenarios. Again, you can look on my website and see this in the resource section. Basically what I do when I’m planning a session is to say: “Okay, I’m going to try this tactic, this approach, this methodology, and then we’re going to do this.” I also say: “But if that doesn’t work, here’s my plan B.” And sometimes, for something really big or unpredictable, I also plan a plan C. It doesn’t mean that plan A, plan B, or even plan C is what happens in the room.
By planning those multiple scenarios out, I’ve let my brain consider the possibility that things won’t go the way I thought. When I have to do plan D in the room, my brain is more ready for plan D than it would’ve been if I had only planned plan A. I’ve allowed, neurologically, some space to say: “Here’s one way of doing it. Here’s another way.” When the third way comes up, I go: “Okay, I’m ready for that.”
A terrific resource is astronaut Chris Hadfield’s TED Talk on going blind in space. It’s amazing for two reasons at least. One of them is this one. He says: “Look, I didn’t plan to get soap in my eyes on a spacewalk and go blind in space. Didn’t know that was going to happen to me.” He tells the story way better than I did and with much more detail. But he says: “Because I had planned for a whole bunch of other unexpected crazy scenarios in space, in the space station, I did not panic because I had trained my body and my brain not to be scared in a situation where most people would be scared.” Plan for multiple scenarios is the tip that allows you to hold your script loosely.
Idea #5: Use strong process to offset poor behaviour
The last idea is also related to Commander Hadfield. Use strong process to offset poor behavior. When I train facilitation skills, which I do all the time, I say to people: “What are you most afraid of as a facilitator?” Can someone guess what many people say is the most common fear of being a meeting leader? A heckler. Some variation of someone behaving badly, nasty, taking over and won’t shut up. He or she is belligerent, thus heckling.
In his TED Talk, Commander Hadfield talks about the fear of spiders. Do you know how many people are afraid of spiders? Well, let me put it this way. How many of you would say: “Yeah, I don’t love them.” Do you know how many poisonous spiders there are in Canada? One, the black widow spider in BC. So, as long as you are not in BC, the likelihood of you getting bitten by a poisonous spider is fairly low, in fact, zero. Hadfield’s point is that what we are afraid of and the danger of something don’t always line up.
Similarly, in facilitation, fear of hecklers or difficult participants is high. The actual likelihood, in my experience, of this happening is fairly low. Why? Because Canadians are mostly polite. I think that’s actually why. People generally behave decently in meetings. Your fear might be a little bit unfounded. However, I’m going to give you a tip for addressing it if your fear ends up coming true, and you have difficult people or potentially difficult people in the room.
Good process in a meeting means that most of the time difficult people have no need to be difficult. You are giving them clear purpose, you’ve got really clear methodology mapped out, and responding to what they tell you. If you’re writing on a flip chart, write what they said so they feel heard and see their stuff visibly. They’re allowed to participate. And then there’s no need for them to be: “Well, I want to say this.” They don’t get upset because they see that they’re being heard. And really what most of us want is to know for sure we’re being heard. Things like making it visible, or using their words allow people to see that they are being heard.
Also, you can use process to democratize power in a room. When you have really strong hierarchy happening to the point that some people are silenced in a room because there are others of really significantly higher power than them in the room, if you just resort to only talking, often the higher powered people will do the talking, and/or the people of relative lower power will do less talking. But if I had the same question, and instead of saying, “So, what do you all think?” If I gave everybody three orange post-it notes and said: “Please write one idea per post-it note and put those ideas on the wall.”
All of a sudden everybody gets three. The quiet people have to come out of themselves and write three. And the loud people, they don’t get to bargain and ask for more than three. Everybody gets three. We’ve equalized things. Now, all of the feedback are on the wall. It makes it anonymous. Unless you’re going to be a sleuth of handwriting, you don’t need to care whose feedback is on the wall.
Now we’re not dealing with power, we’re dealing with post-its on a wall. It has democratized that feedback, and it becomes about all the feedback on the wall and not so much about who said it. There are ways that you can use process to democratize what goes on in a room and also to offset the likelihood that you’re going to get bad behavior.
Meetings are necessary because collaboration is necessary. Our world is complex and we don’t all have the full perspective or skills necessary to tackle that complexity. Meetings don’t have to be just a necessary evil. With some planning and some creativity, they can actually be the best part of your week, the best part of your work, rather than distraction from it. Thanks very much.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.