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Avoiding “Risky” Meetings

2010/04/27

Research shows that staff get gloomier and more anxious about their work as they spend more time in ineffective meetings. (S. Rogelberger, researcher)

Leaders rely on meetings to build understanding, alignment, decisions and commitment to action.  Yet many meetings are ineffective and actually increase risks of poor alignment, bruised egos, lower productivity and greater misunderstanding.  The likelihood of such “risky” meetings increases when meeting participants hold different opinions, have different stakes in the outcomes, or differ in terms of power, generation, sex or race.

The challenges of holding effective meetings are widely recognized, but most prescriptions for improvement focus on changing behavior in meetings.  Unfortunately, most leaders find it hard to adopt and maintain different behaviors under the pressure of important discussions.  There is another approach, one that emphasizes changing the way meetings are structured to make them naturally more effective.  By improving meeting structure, leaders can change how people behave when meeting together to help them build new understandings and commitment to meeting decisions.

Knowing the answers to four questions can help you avoid risky meetings and run more effective meetings.

1. What is the maximum number of participants who can hold one sustained conversation – and what to do if you have more?
Eight people are the maximum number of people that can easily hold one conversation with one another.  Eight is small enough to allow each person to be heard and large enough to contain a variety of views on the subject.  When the number of people trying to hold one conversation gets larger than eight, it becomes difficult to keep the discussion focused and everyone involved.  Side conversations begin to develop.  Some people begin to dominate the discussion while others are quiet.

If you have more than eight, look for ways to employ small group discussions with reports back to the whole group.  This can be done right at the meeting table by asking people to turn to the person beside them and discuss their responses (to some question or proposal) and then ask each pair to summarize their conclusion.  In this way, everyone has a chance to share their views, at least in the small group.

2. What is the single most important thing you can do to create a productive discussion?
People talk together most effectively when the meeting’s intended outcome represents real work for the group, is something the group can influence, and is focused more on what can be done in the future than on resolving past problems. Have a clearly defined task or outcome for the discussion. Define the task, not just the agenda.  Examples:

An effective meeting task? Something less?
How can we improve our business with key customers? Review business by customer.
Plan how to achieve productivity improvements of 15% as we add the new
line.
Plan the purchase and installation of the new automated production line.
Define a vision to guide the town’s development over the next 10 years? Provide feedback on the town’s master plan.


3. What are the five ways you can arrive at decisions (and how do many leaders get this wrong)?
There are five basic ways in which to reach a decision in a meeting, only one of which involves voting.  You should be explicit about how a decision will be reached in your meeting.

  • Consensus: Here you set the expectation that the group will develop a common conclusion or decision which all will support.  If one person has an objection, then you don’t have consensus.  You can agree to disagree by separating areas of consensus agreement aside from and respecting areas identified as “not (yet) agreed.”
  • Consent: Participants accept a decision given that it does not pose any fundamental obstacle for their function or area. [i]
  • Compromise: Everyone gives up something they want to achieve a unified common outcome.  The decision is sufficiently good for everyone, although many may say that they wish it had been somewhat different.
  • Count:  This is majority rule.  The decision is reached by the alternative or proposal that receives the most votes.  Some win and some lose.
  • Decide with Input: Here you are asking for the group’s input to shape some decision you are about to make.  But the decision remains with the leader.

How do many leaders get this wrong in meetings?  First, most leaders don’t specify how they expect the group to participate in the decision; they simply assume that everyone knows how decisions are reached. If you wish to engage everyone in the discussion, it is important to be clear, up front, about how decisions will be reached as a result of the discussion.  A second common problem occurs when, after some discussion, a leader closes off further discussion by asking: “Does anyone have an objection?”  In this case the leader is presuming a majority of the people support the decision or that no one will challenge him/her – which leaves participants to share their real thoughts in the hallway afterwards.

Each approach to decision making comes with certain advantages and disadvantages.  For example, consensus may take more discussion time to achieve but it is likely to improve the likelihood that everyone will act to support the decision in the long run.  There are certain situations that presuppose a particular decision making approach: certain legislative or legal situations require a majority vote, for instance.  But in most situations the leader has much more discretion to choose an approach that matches the need to align and involve participants in the eventual outcome.)

4. What’s very helpful to do (whether or not you’re in charge) to change the structure of the discussion when it seems to be going in circles?

There is one simple step you can take in a meeting to help the group focus its discussion and make more progress: Begin to take visible notes of the group’s ongoing discussion. This builds the group’s memory of what it has discussed and how its decisions are evolving.  It also shows each participant that his or her comments were heard and recognized.  The notes can remind everyone of various agreements reached in the course of discussion, and can help to keep the group from rehashing points already covered. 

All you need to do is begin recording the notes on a surface (like a flip chart) that is visible to the whole group.  Maintain an ongoing record of comments using the speaker’s words as much as possible.  The intent is to record the conversation, not to summarize or process what has been said.  Some abbreviation of comments is fine as long as it is clear that you are capturing the essence.

No one seems to “like” meetings, but we all recognize the need to meet together to get things done. Since the dawn of civilization we have needed to talk with one another to build shared meaning and get things done.  Even the internet has yet to change our need to meet well together.

“Talk is work.  “Increasingly, the talk is the work.  Few decisions that lead to action are made unilaterally …thinking and learning together in fast changing interdependent business settings define successful organizations.”  (Peter Senge, consultant, author)

By making these four structural changes to your meetings, you can avoid the risks of ineffective meetings and improve the quality and the outcomes of the work you need to do in your meetings.

  • Plan to hold discussion in groups no larger than eight.
  • Have a clearly defined task for the meeting discussion.
  • Choose, and be explicit about, how the group will reach a decision
  • Use visual note taking to help the group keep track of its discussion.

Best wishes on your next meeting, and let me know how these ideas, or other ideas, help you get more done with less risk in meetings.


[i] See John Buck and Sharon Villines, “We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy” for more on how consent works in decision making.

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