Holding Better Meetings in the Whirl of Autumn
At last, we are in the full swing of autumn. The pace has quickened, and people (including me) are now scheduled tightly in back-to-back meetings.
Recently, I observed a leadership team working through a packed agenda. They started out with great focus and energy for the discussion, but as the discussion progressed, time got away from them. Soon, they had spent more than twice the allotted time on the first topic and still hadn’t arrived at the conclusions they needed. The group only managed to discuss one other item hurriedly in the last ten minutes of the session, and I could see the frustration on the faces of the leaders who had prepared important topics that would not be discussed that day. Has this ever happened to you?
As we race from one discussion to another, it seems timely to share a few ideas about how to convene meetings that are as positive as they are productive. Here are five tips to consider:
1. Open the meeting with conscious attention to setting the stage for a great meeting.
Prepare yourself to be a great convener by setting an intention for your own participation before the meeting begins. For example, you could commit to being an attentive listener. Or, perhaps your intention is to make sure that all voices are heard. By setting this intention ahead of time, your presence and participation will be more grounded and thoughtful. You also might welcome people as they come in. A good idea is to review the entire agenda for the meeting and give a quick overview of what you hope to get out of each topic’s discussion. While you are talking, people can settle down and begin to listen and tune in. Keep it brief, but not rushed, as you will bring a sense of calm and order into the room.
2. Study your agenda and strategize time needed for each topic.
Often, someone puts out a call for agenda items or one person compiles a set of topics that seem right, given the activities and priorities of the organization. If your job is to craft the agenda, step back and think it through. Ask yourself: what must be accomplished with this topic? Do we need to provide an update, have time for discussion of a key question, or get to a decision? Depending on the answer, budget enough time to allow the appropriate conversation. Decisions take longer than updates. Discussions are most useful if the group is guided to respond to a particular question rather than just comment on a presentation. Remember that most meetings begin approximately seven minutes late. With that in mind, plan a 50-minute agenda rather than a 60-minute one.
3. Establish a time-keeper at the meeting.
You can take turns with this responsibility, but someone should be assigned to give a “five-minute warning” and a “time’s up.” This person must have the support of the team and be willing to be a bit of a stickler about time. If conversations are running long, the topic facilitator should use the 5-minute warning to re-orient and can say: 1) Given that we only have five more minutes, what are our next steps to get to resolution on this? 2) Given that we have just five minutes, I’d like to summarize what we’ve discussed and suggest a next step.
4. Use mindfulness practices to bring everyone to centered attention.
Often, we arrive physically to our seats, but our minds are still elsewhere. Increasingly, great teams are using mindfulness techniques to help people fully “land” when they arrive for the meeting. You can simply ask for everyone to set aside technology, sit comfortably in their chairs and take a moment of silence. Or you might read a quote or a short poem, inviting others to just listen. Many companies are using brief, guided meditation with a focus on the breath, combined with a moment of silence, to begin meetings.
5. Leave five minutes at the end to invite appreciation.
As corny as it may sound, some of the best meetings that I’ve ever attended ended with the invitation to share gratitude or appreciation for something that happened in the meeting. This exercise has the surprising effect of training people to look for the good parts of the meeting. It also allows for warmth and connection before the team leaves the room. The key is not to require everyone to say something, but rather let it be more spontaneous and authentic. As the convener, you can model the way by going first or close the meeting with an appreciative thought.
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