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Towards A More Effective Way of Meeting

2010/07/26

Over the past several posts I have presented a new way of thinking about more effective meetings along with practices to apply in order to create such meetings. In summary, I argued that traditional approaches to meetings have focused on improvement through controlling time, input, contributions, and decision-making. While control can be seen as supporting efficiency, what often happens is that such meetings are very ineffective in using the talents of those at the meeting and building commitment to group decisions.  By contrast, there is a different way of meeting that begins from a perspective that emphasizes building engagement through involvement, dialogue, and different ways of working with both agreements and disagreements.  I call this the Engagement Way of meeting to contrast it with the traditional control-based way of meeting.

In my last post, I promised to share some examples of this approach to more effective meetings.

The first example is more hypothetical so I can draw a comparison of the same meeting as if it were conducted under traditional assumptions and then under the assumptions of a high engagement approach. In this “traditional” meeting, as people arrive, you see them sit around a long table beside the people they know the best and with whom they feel most comfortable. There is a general list of topics as an agenda.  During the meeting, additional subjects are identified and tackled as they come up.  At times, the discussion is driven by the more outspoken members of the group. People take different sides on some issues. Others seem to withdraw from the debate.  Finally, the boss or another person with authority decides which way to go.  As the meeting ends, some appear to agree with the decision and are ready to move forward.  Others appear disconnected from the group’s decision and perhaps frustrated for participating in what they may feel was an unproductive use of their time.

Sound familiar?  I think most of us have spent too much time in meetings that looked like this.

Now picture this same meeting as planned and conducted from an engagement perspective.  The first thing you notice are different participants — in addition to the usual group, there are people from elsewhere in the organization with information on the main issue under discussion.   Then you notice the seating arrangements – people are sitting in small groups with a mix of perspectives in each.  The table has been changed too so that now everyone can see each other and there is less of a sense of a “head” of the table..  The meeting begins with a clarification of the meeting’s intended outcome and the work this group needs to accomplish.  During the meeting, you notice that each person has an opportunity to share his/her own point of view.  Sometimes they talk in small groups to discuss ideas in parallel before sharing them in the larger group. People are referring to each other’s comments and working to find common agreements that bridge differences in views.   The attention of the group seems focused more on desired achievements rather than on resolving past problems. After reaching a decision, there is an opportunity to begin planning subsequent actions.  As the meeting ends, people appear energized and ready to move forward.

This second example may not be so familiar.  Some people tell me this “high engagement” approach is unrealistic in their organization.  While I can’t say what is true in their (or your) setting, I can say that what I call the Engagement Way of meeting has worked in the many varied settings in which I have helped leaders apply it.  Let me offer three brief, very different and very real examples of high engagement meetings in practice:

  • A difficult leadership transition resulted in a fractured, dispirited management team that now had to take on greater responsibility for achieving the business goals.  The leader planned a half-day meeting in which participants first shared personal stories of best practice and views of the current state before confirming their shared vision for their performance at its best.  They then made action plans for achieving specific aspects of the vision and built a base for frank exchange of progress and learning.  Within three months they achieved important improvements as a business and in their work as a team.
  • A church board wanted to gain the congregation’s support for a controversial reorganization of staff roles and responsibilities.  In a one-hour meeting, the board presented their proposal and then engaged the congregation in small, mixed groups to discuss their reactions.  The groups reported their feedback as the board listened and took notes. The board adjourned to reconvene with the congregation a week later.  Here, they summarized what they heard and how they had incorporated the feedback into the final proposal.  The proposal was put to a vote and received nearly unanimous support.
  • A merger of two pharmaceutical firms with very different cultures and histories made it imperative that the scientists collaborate efficiently on new drug development efforts.  A broad cross section of the two organizations came together in a day-long meeting to explore the steps in each other’s development processes.  Several rounds of small and large group discussion built a widely shared recognition of the benefits associated with greater understanding and collaboration across disciplines and steps in the process.   Over the next several months, activities were initiated with broad support to improve communication, collaboration, and overall efficiency.

Each of these meetings was conducted using the practices outlined in my last post.  None of them required the leader or the participants to follow specific “rules” of meeting behavior.  Instead the practices of the Engagement Way of meeting provides a structure that naturally leads to different, more effective engagement in the meeting.

In my next post I will provide a more detailed example of one, highly charged situation in which the practices of high engagement enabled a whole town to resolve a highly contentious school planning decision across a series of open town meetings.

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