In the spirit of Hallowe’en, we’re poking fun at scary meetings. As an extra treat, we’re sharing some tricks of the trade on how to facilitate a meeting that drives greater value from the time you ask people to spend in meetings.  Here’s to hoping that the pointless meetings in your sphere of influence can finally rest in peace.

Here’s a question for you: what’s the value of a meeting?

As an innovation strategy and organizational development firm, we’re often engaged to help organizations improve innovation outcomes. The focus in these circumstances is on value creation and adaptive change. And when, as part of our work, we teach clients innovation skills, process and tools, one of the areas they immediately see the potential for value creation is to apply these tools and processes in their meetings so they can be more productive. So, in this blog, we’re focusing on how to facilitate a meeting that creates value for the people attending and for the organization.

The Scary Facts about Meetings

Much can be said about the typical meeting, and much of it isn’t good.

Meetings are meant to drive productivity in the workplace. There’s a lot of value in getting people together, focused on the same thing and thinking through issues to keep work moving forward and achieve the goals and objectives of the organization.

The challenge is, most meetings are scheduled without much thought. They become placeholders in your calendar with an assumed obligation to show up, often without clarity of what’s expected of you and what’s going to happen.

Doing a little research on the web, I came across some scary facts about unproductive meetings. Not surprisingly, they waste money and suck up time.  Unproductive meetings are estimated to cost more than $37M USD per year. While most people I know see time as a scarce resource, they keep agreeing to attend meetings that are clearly wasting their time.

These facts are positively ghoulish:

  • About 15% of an organization’s collective time is allocated to meetings
  • Middle managers spend 35% of their time in meetings
  • Senior managers spend 50% of their time in meetings and consider 69% of meetings to be failures
  • Generally, we spend 4 hours a week – that’s 10% of the average work week – preparing for status update meetings, which then aren’t necessarily productive!

What Makes Meetings Unproductive?

In our experience, there are three things that contribute to unproductive meetings:

  1. A lack of planning and structure to get the right people focused on the right things and making good use of time
  2. People showing up and not being present (i.e., multi-tasking and allowing distractions)
  3. Using meeting technologies and approaches that impede engagement and efficiency

In particular, many of our clients have an issue with the productivity of their weekly action review meetings. These are regular update meetings, usually 60-90 minutes in duration, held to keep everyone on track, build teams, communicate key information and nip brewing challenges in the bud. What happens in these meetings depends on the functional area in which you work. For example, an IT Service Desk might be looking at different things than an Internal Audit team.

Regardless of the context, there are still some basic things that need to be addressed in these meetings:

  1. Information sharing
  2. Creative discussions – i.e. creative problem solving, ideation, idea development etc. to address important issues around work the team is doing, and
  3. Decision-making

So, I’ll use the context of the weekly action review meeting to share some tricks of the trade.

How to Facilitate a Meeting for Weekly Action Reviews

The purpose of a weekly action review meeting is threefold:

  1. Hold each other accountable to commitments
  2. Identify and make decisions on how to resolve emerging work challenges
  3. Share experience and lessons learned on challenging situations team members have navigated.

What many people overlook when planning these meetings is who’s in the meeting. This isn’t about titles and hierarchy; it’s about the roles people play in the meeting.

There are three possible roles: meeting facilitator, “client,” and resource group:

The Meeting Facilitator’s role is to plan and support the process of meeting. The facilitator is content neutral, has no decision-making authority and focuses instead on creating a balance between participation and results, using fair, open and inclusive means to help the group accomplish their work.

The Client role is filled by the manager of the team or team lead. This role has decision-making authority and owns responsibility for the work of the team. The Client supports the team by providing background information and context for their work, along with support to resolve emerging challenges.

The Resource Group role falls to the members of the team, typically the people reporting to the manager. The resource group is responsible for contributing their thinking, ideas, insights, energy and fresh perspectives to get their work done.

In these weekly action review meetings, the manager or team lead often fills the role of meeting facilitator; however, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. As explained above, meeting facilitators are concerned about group interaction. A manager or team lead in the facilitator role could present some challenges because they likely also have decision-making authority and would need to engage in the content of the meeting.

Thus, one trick to creating more productive weekly action review meetings is to move responsibility for meeting facilitation to another team member or an outside resource.

Now let’s deal with what makes weekly action review meetings unproductive.

Rest in Peace a Lack of Meeting Planning and Structure

The assumption behind weekly action review meetings is that there is a team work plan and everyone understands their role and priorities for its success. This gives you a starting point for developing the meeting plan and structure.

A facilitator’s job is to assess the needs of the meeting with their “Client” and plan appropriate group processes to make it happen productively. The trick here is to assess the needs of your weekly action review meeting, design a structure or template for the meeting, and create a standard agenda.

An Agenda is a Key Part of How to Facilitate a Meeting

Whether for a weekly action review meeting or different kind of meeting, a meeting plan, structure and agenda create a value proposition to participants and answer four critical questions for participants:

  • Why are we meeting?
  • What will we be doing?
  • How will we be doing it?
  • And if I attend, what’s in it for me?

An agenda also helps you:

  • Home in on who needs to participate
  • Communicate how you’ll make good use of everyone’s time, how they can contribute, and what they need to do to prepare
  • Increase engagement
  • Give people the opportunity to opt in or out

A standard agenda should include:

  1. Title of the meeting
  2. Logistics: location, time and date
  3. Attendees
  4. Context / Background
  5. Purpose
  6. Outcomes
  7. Agenda items
    1. Information sharing
    2. Creative discussion
    3. Decision-making
  8. To Do / Prepare, including documentation for review, prework that must be done to participate in creative discussions or decision-making

Click here to download a sample agenda that you can use for your meetings.

The amount of time allocated to each activity is guided by the total duration of the meeting and the number of team members who need to participate in information sharing.  Below I describe what happens in each of the key activities listed above under “Agenda Items.”

Part 1 – Information Sharing

Information sharing is typically a one-way discussion:  questions for clarification are welcomed while discussion and debate are avoided. The objective here is to be short, to the point and to have everyone else actively listening.

Time is allocated for each team member to share three things:

  1. Since our last meeting, I accomplished …
  2. Until our next meeting, I’m working on …
  3. Here’s what’s getting in my way or keeping me from doing my job …

The meeting facilitator’s focus is on capturing key points from each person. Mind mapping on a flipchart is a great way to do this as it provides a visual record of what each person has said. This tool also helps to keep everyone engaged in the information shared.

We recommend to our clients that they treat the information sharing activity as a data gathering exercise using divergent thinking guidelines. While questions for clarification are welcome, the main focus is to take in the information, make a list of key points, and defer judgment or comment until everyone has shared.  Then, the manager or team lead, with the help of the facilitator, can decide which key points need to be addressed in a separate meeting and which can be addressed in the next part of the weekly action review meeting, the Creative Discussion.

Part 2 – Creative Discussion

This part of the meeting is much more interactive and requires creative thinking. It is about exploring challenges and opportunities, and solving the problems associated with getting important work done. Creative discussions need creative thinking and creative problem-solving.

Here the facilitator focuses the team on the challenges identified in the Information Sharing portion of the meeting and on generating, developing and implementing ideas to get them resolved. Alternatively, team members can share lessons learned on challenging situations and the facilitator can lead the group through a discussion on how to integrate ideas and insights derived from their experience.

When we teach clients innovation skills, process and tools, they find they are much better equipped to productively engage in the creative thinking and creative problem solving that this part of the weekly action review meeting needs.  Click here to learn about our courses.

Part 3 – Decision-making

During the decision-making portion of the meeting, time is allocated to decisions that need to be made to move work forward.

It’s important here to have clarity around who is the decision-maker and how decisions will be made. Will decisions be made by the manager or team lead? Or, will the team be invited to make decisions through consensus? Different situations may require different approaches to decision-making.

Decision-making is a privilege and carries responsibility. And making effective decisions relies on the availability of relevant information.  This means that if the meeting requires decision-making, there could be information participants need to review and preparatory work to do. Last Hallowe’en we poked fun at decision-making dressed up as consensus – click here to read that article.

Rest in Peace Participants Who Show Up and Aren’t Present

Here’s the trick. Participants share a responsibility for making meetings productive. Participants need to understand their reason for being at the meeting; at a minimum, it’s to contribute value and receive value. You can’t contribute or receive value if your head is in your device, if you’re thinking about your last or next meeting, or if you’re multi-tasking.

Make sure everyone understands their role and responsibilities to the meeting, and set ground rules for participation. If you’ve built a meeting plan and structure and communicated the agenda as suggested above, you’ve made great strides towards this. And, unless you’re working in a life-or-death environment, it’s likely that everyone can move away from their devices for 60-90 minutes.  It’s okay to ask people to put them away, place them on silent and give the meeting participants respectful attention.

Rest in Peace Meeting Technologies and Approaches that Impede Engagement

We’ve all been at them – dreadful meetings that use teleconferencing.

Here’s the trick: video conferencing.

It’s available to everyone with an internet connection and many options are free.  A recent Harvard Business Review article explains how video conferencing makes team meetings all the more productive.  If you’ve got team members who need to dial in, make sure it’s through a video conferencing tool. When you can see the whites of their eyes, remote participants engage more.

If you’re stuck with teleconferencing, as the meeting facilitator you need to actively be checking in with connected participants to make sure they are able to contribute to the meeting.  Here’s a trick I use: I make a list of everyone who’s on the call. At the start of the meeting, I tell everyone I will be circling through them for input at regular intervals. This keeps people on their toes and makes sure their voices get a place in the meeting.

Meetings that need input from remote participants need more than video conferencing. If your meeting includes creative discussion, new approaches are required to capture ideas and insights.

Here’s the trick. At BridgePoint Effect, we’ve integrated a digital facilitation tool called Stormz into many client meetings – both regularly scheduled ones like the weekly action review and special meetings for creative problem solving, community consultation and other meetings. A cloud-based application, Stormz allows everyone to contribute ideas and insights into specific topics without the need for Post-it® Notes.  The data collected is available in real-time to everyone in the meeting and can immediately be reported on after the meeting with the click of a button.

Meetings don’t need to be scary. Our clients tell us we help them make meetings a real treat.

We can help you do that too. So, if you:

  • Need help designing or facilitating a regular team meeting
  • Want to engage stakeholders in strategy planning, problem-solving, decision-making, project management, or work planning
  • Are looking for creative solutions to regional meetings where travelling is difficult

Book a free 30-minute consultation with me, using the form below. I’ll help you let scary meetings rest in peace.

By Janice Francisco, CEO, Principal Innovation Consultant, Facilitator and Coach, BridgePoint Effect, and Chair and Advisor to the Conference Board of Canada’s Council on Commercialization and Innovation.

Written with inspiration from:

Herold, C. (2016). Meetings suck. Turning one of the most loathed elements of your business into one of the most valuable.

Dockweiller, Scott. How Much Time Do We Spend in Meetings? Hint: It’s Scary. The Daily Muse, https://www.themuse.com/advice/how-much-time-do-we-spend-in-meetings-hint-its-scary

Book a free 30-minute consultation with Janice Francisco.

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