Have you ever turned off your sound and video during a Zoom meeting to take a break from a conversation that seems to be going nowhere? Or found your mind wandering when someone starts to bring up the same complaint again? Or scheduled a dentist appointment so you could avoid a staff meeting?
Boring, unproductive meetings are far too common and not only waste people’s time, they can harm a group’s productivity, engagement, effort, and culture. It is not that group leaders are intentionally setting out to facilitate boring meetings- I know for myself there have been many times where I realized upon reflection that I fell short in engaging my constituents in a productive gathering. As I considered the glazed eyes, slow responses to my questions, and quick departures at the end, I knew I could have done more to be a better facilitator. Group meetings are important for a variety of reasons such as developing shared understandings, considering new ideas, crafting solutions to problems, and building community and culture. Yet when organizational leaders plan regular meetings (staff meetings, board meetings, committee meetings, etc.) we tend to go on auto-pilot, focusing only on the content of the meeting without considering the process. We don’t devote the time necessary to consider and plan for the context and structure that will fully engage group members and enable our meeting to be truly productive.
We know a lot about how people learn: what helps improve the application of learning and what dynamics hinder learning. We know about group dynamics and how people can engage effectively with one another. We know about motivation: what conditions and circumstances increase motivation, and what can be demotivating. We know about decision-making and the factors that improve decision-making outcomes. And yet leaders who plan regular meetings rarely apply these sets of knowledge when they invite participants to their weekly or monthly gatherings. Often agendas are loosely put together and are carbon-copies of previous agendas. There are few if any prompts to prepare participants for the meeting and if there are required readings (i.e. reports) they are not sent enough in advance so that participants can fully digest them. There is often little attention paid to how the group engages with the meeting material during the meeting. Rather, topics are considered in a big group and those folks who are quick processors and comfortable, confident group speakers dominate the conversation. The end result can be that some participants are left out, discussions devolve into off-topic ramblings or arguments, too much time is spent on some topics and not enough on others, and meetings finish without deciding or accomplishing anything.
Yet, with a little bit of time and thought, regular meetings can be planned that will be more engaging for participants, result in achieving desired, articulated outcomes, and ultimately, create a team that is more cohesive and productive.
In Priya Parker’s beautifully written book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters (Penguin Business, 2018), she describes in detail the different phases of planning for meetings and how to consider the participants’ experiences at each step of the way. She begins: “The way we gather matters. Gatherings consume our days and help determine the kind of world we live in, in both our intimate and public realms. Gathering- the conscious bringing together of people for a reason- shapes the way we think, feel, and make sense of the world….And yet most of us spend very little time thinking about the actual ways in which we gather.” (pg ix).
In my work with small school leaders (heads of schools, boards, board chairs) I have found Ms. Parker’s last statement to be true. And I believe that if school leaders want to maximize the brainpower of their constituents (or said another way: if heads of schools and board chairs want to ensure that they are effectively using the skills and abilities of their board members), then they need to facilitate better, more effective meetings. They need to take themselves off auto-pilot and consider why they are facilitating a meeting, what their goals are, and how best to manage and utilize the strengths of the meeting participants to achieve their goals. Based on Parker’s thinking, and incorporating learning from education, psychology, and sociology, here are 5 places to “take yourself off auto-pilot.”
1: Meeting Planning- Why am I calling this meeting?
Consider your goals and motivation for calling this particular meeting. What do you expect and want to happen, to achieve, to feel at the end of the meeting? Consider if there are ways other than gathering a group together to achieve your goals and address your motivations.
2: Participant prep- How can I best prepare participants to be ready to engage in this meeting?
Consider how you can motivate participants to be engaged. Consider what materials they will need and provide prompts, activities, or readings to “prime the pump” for their thinking. Consider when and where you schedule the meeting to enable your participants to fully participate.
3: Transition to the gathering- How can I set the stage at the beginning to start a successful meeting?
Consider the climate of the group to ensure it is a positive, equitable, and inclusive one (i.e. feelings of being valued, included, and heard; emotional safety and trust; feelings that the meeting content is relevant and meaningful; etc.). Consider how to transition the group from what they were doing to focus them on the planned group work/goal. Consider if there are outside issues or contexts (national, regional, or within the school) that need to be acknowledged before you can address the planned group work/goal.
4: Engaging with the content- How can I maximize the group's participation?
Consider how to make desired outcomes explicit for each topic covered in the meeting. Consider how to utilize various meeting processes and techniques to ensure that everyone is engaged and all have the opportunity to participate (i.e. small group discussion, brainstorming, world café, scenarios, design-thinking, etc.). Consider how to facilitate decision-making processes that utilize effective strategies and protect against cognitive and social biases. Consider how you will respond when participants don’t behave and interact as you expect.
5: Transition from the gathering- How do I end the meeting?
Consider how to summarize what you have accomplished and how participants will know what their tasks or assignments will be following the meeting. Consider how to enable each member of the group to transition smoothly from this meeting. Consider how when you will assess the efficacy of this meeting and plan for future meeting success.
But wait!- you say. Thinking about all of those steps will take WAY too much time from my job! Planning like that is unrealistic- who can spend that much time?
My response is two-fold. First, this type of thinking and planning will become more streamlined the more you do it. As you understand your meeting’s participants, as you create culture and climate, and as you set boundaries and expectations, you will not have to spend as much time and thought on those aspects. However, they should not go back to being ignored and on auto-pilot. The second response is: what is the cost, in time, productivity, and revenue, of regularly unproductive meetings? Can you afford not to plan for effective meetings?
Writes about small school leadership and governance