Making Business Meetings Productive

Business meetings are often limited to 1 to 2 hours. They need to be tightly controlled to avoid overrunning and to make sure that you make effective use of everyone attending.

Contrary to some popular belief, meetings can be useful if run effectively.  Many organisations use meetings well to:

  • Have a dialogue to reach a decision of importance the organisation/project/team
  • Identify key themes for a future strategy or plan
  • Share challenges and explore options to address these

Last night was a significant achievement for the club. We made key decisions about important issues and were finished by 9.30. There were smiles and people are now looking forward to future meetings. Thanks for helping us to change the way we do things – Paul Luxton

To create a useful meeting a few simple steps can help you along the pathway to productivity.

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Clarify the Purpose

What is the meeting for? Too many meetings exist because historically they have always done so. In the days before electronic communication meetings were an effective way of getting a message out to everyone at one time but to just use a meeting as a one way information giving forum is a total waste of time. Using email, social media and discussion boards will achieve this end more effectively.

Once you are clear on the purpose of the meeting you can decide who needs to be involved and then get down to the business of setting the agenda about what needs to be discussed. Check out ABC of meetings

Manage the Agenda

Your agenda for your meeting is an essential planning tool. It should set out why each item is being discussed, what outcome you need from the meeting (eg a decision, a commitment for action) and should give an allocation of time based which is agreed with the item presenter.

We intervened with a community sports group who had a regular business meeting which started at 7.45 and often did not finish until 10.45. The team recognised that they had a problem and that “the kind of meetings we have now are neither enjoyable, productive or sustainable”.

We worked with the chair and secretary to analyse the last three meetings and to review the purpose of their face to face meetings. We used this to create a list of guidelines to club members setting out the criteria for bringing items to the committee and some other options that could be used to disseminate information.

The result was that the following committee meeting had a limited agenda and was over in 1.5 hours leaving the committee time to talk to each other and socialise, sharing their love of their sport.

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Reviewing agendas

Making Decisions

Most items discussed at a meeting will result in a decision. Be clear about whether that decision needs to be made by a majority vote or by reaching consensus. If aiming for consensus you need to provide more time to allow clarification of concerns to be raised and have a clear process to follow

A major engineering project was starting to fall behind schedule due to communication issues and conflict between the three project teams. We facilitated a process so the teams could outline their expectations of each other’s behaviour. It was important that everyone was involved in the decision about behavioural expectations so we used the colour consensus cards so people could flag green for agreement, red for disagreement and yellow for some concerns.

Items were only accepted if we could reach a mainly green/yellow consensus. If there were any red cards showing after the consensus discussion the item had to be put to one side.  Although this is not a quick process it does make sure that only items that have full commitment are agreed to.

Other methods to make decisions are to take a vote of members and make the decision based on the majority viewpoint.  In smaller groups it is better to ask each attendee to state their position by going round in turn. This can help the views of the minority be heard and also makes it harder to make a decision because the chair assumes everyone is in agreement.

We worked with a community gardening project who had reached stalemate on a decision, they just could not reach consensus. We guided a structured process to explore both the advantages and disadvantages of the two options and then did a final round to hear what everyone’s preference was for. It was clear that the majority preferred one option and it was helpful for this to be heard so that although consensus could not be reached the two members who opposed the option were able to accept that this was the overall preference for the whole group and they stepped back from their opposition.

“I know we did not reach a consensus and we are losing two people but this has happened in a moving forward and respectful manner” Roxanna Summers, Back to Front

Allocate Actions

A meeting with no action is pointless. You also want to avoid the actions all being allocated for one person (often the chair!) Two tips which often help are:

  • Prepare a wall chart with everyone’s name on it and then space for actions to be recorded against their name, this avoids some leaving the meeting with lots of actions and some with none. It makes it very visual and can help to prompt the chair to remind people to commit to a specific action.
  • The chair of the meeting can respond proactively to comments made during the meeting to convert these into action – “thanks for that x, can you follow that up with x and email out the outcome, we will record that in the action plan”

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Minutes

The minutes can be drafted in advance based on the purpose of each item so they use the agenda to shape an introduction to each item and the purpose of the discussion and then record the actions to be taken.

It is useful to summarise the planned actions in an action plan as well so that there is an easy document to track progress before the next meeting.

Part of the planning for the next meeting will involve the chair or secretary reviewing the agreed actions and checking on progress so this can be minuted in advance of the meeting and a very short verbal overview given.

Review what went well and how to improve

At the end of the meeting set aside 5-10 minutes to share what worked well and to give constructive tips for the next meeting. Read our blog on Agile Team Working – making time to talk

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If you would like one of our facilitators to talk to you about how to make your meetings more focused, engaging, productive and shorter then give us a call.

 

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Collaborative Venues

Very frequently, whilst we are starting to plan workshops / events with our clients, the discussion incorporates ‘where shall we hold this event?’
At one level there are the usual practical considerations, including cost, ease of access, capacity and facilities at the venue, cost etc! At another level, we consider the opportunity the location and environment provides to enhance the event itself. A few examples in the past couple of years illustrate the point

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• A Programme Manager needed a project group, composed of very technically competent specialists to understand the interrelationship between their disciplines and how the various parts of the project formed the whole mosaic. In this case a countryside location, remote, but accessible and modest, was chosen for their monthly two day project review workshops. The two days together in a remote location enabled the team to leave behind the shackles of the day-to-day workplace. It enabled collaborative working so that the specialists were able to deliver coherent and highly effective solutions.

• A team needed to develop their Customer Relationship Management capability so we held their workshop at a conference venue that shares space with an up-market repair centre for prestigious cars. The venue provided a great opportunity for participants to see first-hand how the repair centre went about its work – and particularly to see the attention to detail that really makes a difference and generates referrals and repeat business.

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• We worked with the Energy Strategy UK team to explore the future of transport energy. The workshop was held at a Transport Museum in Coventry. This venue provided an insight through a tangible record of transport energy in the past. In the workshop design we incorporated activities using these resources to ‘hover above’ today and look back and look forward. A great stimulate to innovative thinking.

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• Another client, passionately seeking for innovation in the Long Term Care of people, chose a location that enabled visits to be made to local venues to provoke thinking. For example, the visit to a local horticultural nursery, highlighted the motivation and dedication of the plant specialists, for many of them their work was much more than a means to earn money.
A well-chosen venue can support the overall theme of an event and can become part of the process. Seeking out interesting locations is a challenge but can often add real value to the event.

Nigel Chapman

Board meetings and facilitation; an unnatural partnership?

A luxurious board room, dominated by an imposing table with heavy chairs placed around it. A Chairman exuding authority, calmness and control. Apologies for absence taken and the minutes of the last meeting accepted. Each item of business carefully recorded by the secretary, with Board members subtly attracting the attention of the Chair when they wish to speak. The meeting creeps from item to item until each member is asked for “Any Other Business” and the date of the next meeting is agreed.
• Is this a tried and tested format which works well and shouldn’t be messed with?
 • Or an old fashioned way of doing business which doesn’t allow for true creativity and problem solving, and holds organisations back?
At the Centre for Facilitation, our experience shows that there are some occasions when flexibility may help a Board of Directors to do business more effectively. The critical point, of course, is “does it help them achieve their business objectives?” There is nothing worse than a facilitator entering a board room, asking members to jump out of their seats, moving people around, posting flipcharts on the walls, and generally putting participants well out of their comfort zone – unless these activities are clearly linked to the business of the day. However, even if the facilitator makes a link, this type of disruption to normal procedures may be the quickest way for them to be thrown out of the room and never asked back.
It is an obvious conclusion, but a facilitator must know the audience and how far they may or may not be prepared to move from their normal way of working.

  • Talking to and understanding the Chair’s requirements before the meeting.
  • Ensuring that the objectives of the meeting (or individual items) are clear
  • Finding an appropriate process for each item which achieves the stated objective,

are the essential skills of the facilitator. Only then can the Chair and the facilitator (together) agree a plan for running the meeting, which may or may not require some aspects of the meeting to divert from traditional practice.

One example might be if there is an item on “reviewing the performance of x / y / z and determining future investment of these areas”. The item may need to begin with a more traditional form of presentation or review of each area, but then the facilitator can help the Board reach a decision more effectively through – for example – asking each member to generate their own list of criteria for investment, displaying the joint list and then asking them to score each department objectively against the new criteria, either as individuals, in smaller groups, or (if time) as a whole group. The business benefit of the smaller group activity is that the whole Board can reach a decision more quickly, because every member can contribute to the scoring without having to wait for their turn.

With a skilled facilitator, Board meetings of the future could consist of something like… a luxurious board room, dominated by an imposing table with heavy chairs placed around it. A Chairman exuding authority, calmness and control. A facilitator helping the group to achieve their business objectives through the introduction of a range of methods. The approach always maintain the interest of members, may involve moving briefly to another room, retains the traditional approach when it is required for information exchange or voting, and above all, moves the business forward through a complete focus on business objectives.
Clare Howard
clarehoward@centreforfacilitation.co.uk