Techniques for Getting the Most From Your Meetings and Your Team
The meeting is over. You walk down the hall shaking your head. "What went wrong?" you wonder. "It should have been so easy. The ideas presented were great. All these people are bright. They all want to do the right thing. But all we did was waste time, upset half of the people, and frustrate the other half."
Unfortunately, this is a common reaction after many business meetings. When scientists become managers and administrators in laboratories, meetings can be particularly challenging because many have had limited experience as either meeting managers or attendees. Input from scientists, however, is crucial to the success of the organization. Therefore, it is vitally important that they actively participate in meetings and sometimes manage them. Also, when busy scientists forego what might have been research or teaching time to attend meetings, it is important that meetings be productive if participation is to continue.
The meeting manager has responsibilities beyond calling the meeting, i.e., keeping it moving and writing up the minutes. Equally important is increasing the effectiveness of a meeting. Almost everyone comes to a meeting with expectations. Each person has a different history with the group and different concerns. To be effective, a manager must understand these differences and set up the meeting so that they are accommodated. And scientists who are participants can have a very positive impact on the outcome of the meetings they attend.
Guidelines for Effective Meetings
Managing meetings is not easy and is not taught in universities. However, it is a skill that can be acquired. By following these guidelines, you can make your meetings interesting, productive, and time-efficient.
Publish and follow an agenda
The easiest way to get a meeting off to a productive start is to include timeframes for each agenda item. That way you can specify who needs to be at each part of the meeting. Nothing frustrates busy professionals more than sitting through parts of a meeting that do not concern them. Meetings take time to arrange, skill to manage, and the mature participation of everyone involved. Nevertheless, distribution of an agenda to attendees prior to the meeting reduces the problems of no shows and late starts and virtually eliminates disruptive group members.
Develop and post a set of norms for the behavior of meeting attendees
How is the meeting going to function? What will the attendees try to accomplish?
Start on time
Scientists often have interruptions and schedule changes that are beyond their control. Starting on time can be tough, but every attempt should be made to stay on the established schedule. Everyone suffers when members arrive late. The quality and effectiveness of the meeting declines precipitously. Conversely, when meetings start on time, cover scheduled topics efficiently, and end on time, people are more likely to arrive on time.
Give periodic summaries
During the meeting, occasionally review what has been covered by asking group members to summarize the discussion up to that point. Check frequently to be sure everyone understands which issue or agenda item is under discussion. This process lets people know the meeting has some chance of actually ending.
Assign tasks to participants
Good meeting managers often assign different tasks to group members. Usually these are formal assignments that take advantage of the participants' natural skills and abilities. There are numerous additional roles for members, such as facilitating, summarizing, consensus building, checking, and clarifying, which may never appear on the list of assignments, but are important to effectively managing a meeting.
Insist that vague statements be clarified
Dropping vague, unclear, and poorly thought out statements into the discussion is one way dissidents and attention grabbers "muddy the waters." Do not overreact, however. Many great thoughts begin as poorly developed ideas. Clarification can help nourish nascent thoughts into great ideas, gain support for the leader from the person whose ideas are being improved, and ferret out a disruptive person. Clarification is a task best performed by someone other than the leader; other group members should be encouraged to perform this function.
Test all generalizations
Whenever you hear comments such as "Everyone knows..." or "Of course, we all agree that..." your ears should perk up. Using generalizations is a technique that many of us used as children: "All the other kids are doing it." However, it is a technique that meeting managers should watch for, particularly during emotionally charged meetings.
When you check for understanding, agreement, and clarity, do not ask only your supporters and confidants. Develop the uncomfortable but productive habit of asking antagonists, those less talkative, and those most likely to be affected adversely by the group's decisions. Use open-ended questions if you want useful input from participants. Ask questions that cannot be answered with just a yes or no. When you ask for someone's opinion, listen carefully and acknowledge that you heard and understood what was said.
Protect and defend minority opinions
Many good ideas that emerge during meetings are contributed by individuals or small subgroups. By definition, these ideas are minority positions. If not encouraged, they are often abandoned out of frustration or intimidation.
Keep outside issues outside
Focus the meeting on the agenda. Try to keep outside issues and personality conflicts from intruding. For example, schedule another meeting to resolve issues that arise that are not on the current meeting's agenda. Schedule private conferences with members who are openly hostile toward one another or the group.
Know when to fold 'em
Keep a list of issues that are not resolved during the current meeting. At the end of the meeting, go over the list to assure attendees that these items will be dealt with later. Some topics seem to have eternal life. Many "successfully" resolved issues come back to haunt a meeting because no one asked, "Does that finish the discussion?" or "We're all in agreement in that, aren't we?" Put a stake through the hearts of these "vampire" issues by insisting that they not be brought up anymore once they are resolved.
Always debrief. Always!
After a good meeting it is important to acknowledge what went right, just as after a less-than-perfect meeting it is vital to identify what went wrong. The last item on your agenda should always be team analysis and group self-assessment. A "checkup" can encourage recalcitrant and resisting people to participate. Solicit input from those who are having a difficult time with the group decision on a particular item. This technique has helped turn around many nonproductive group members. Even if you must call someone or ask a couple of questions as you walk down the hall, get a sense of how the meeting was perceived by one or two of the participants. Ask: "What could I have done to make the meeting more successful?" or, "Here's what I saw happening. What did you see?"
Changing the state of meetings takes time, dedication, and focus. Begin by considering what is causing your meetings to be less efficient than you want, then review these techniques and select the ones that will help your meetings. If you try some of the techniques we have described, you may walk out of your next meeting shaking your head and thinking, "Hey, that went really well! We've got a great group of people! Everyone had something to contribute today!"
For additional resources, the author suggests the following sources:
4. Fisher, R., Urey, W.L., Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
5. Mosvick, R.K., Nelson, R.B., We've Got to Start Meeting Like This. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Co, 1987.
This is Part I of a two-part series on managing meetings. Part two of this series can be found at http://www.labmanager.com/leadership-and-staffing/2016/07/tips-for-combating-negative-behavior-in-meetings