Alumni Column – Some Fundamentals of Meeting Facilitation

One reason that lists of “time wasters” developed in time management seminars always include “meetings” is that people too often sit through long, unfocused discussions. It does not have to be that way.

I have been leading strategic planning sessions for a living in a wide range of organizations for nearly 27 years. Most of you will not do this as a profession, but all of you will be called upon to lead other types of meetings. While the subtleties of formal strategic planning are distinctive, the fundamentals of effective facilitation are transferable to other settings and, in my experience, if you get the fundamentals right, everything else works itself out.

There never are many fundamentals, but all are inviolate and deceptive. If you violate one, you are in trouble every time and they always seem simple, but are difficult to get right. Here are four fundamentals for leading or facilitating meetings.

1. Make sure that everyone knows why you are holding the meeting. Ask any executive (and maybe even a Colgate faculty member or two) and they can tell you about times when they have endured meetings that have an indecipherable purpose. If you are in charge, ensure that all know upfront the reason(s) for the meeting. If you cannot determine a good reason to have people together, cancel or adjourn.

2. Define the topics, plus expectations, and timeframes for each topic. Everyone knows that there should always be a written agenda (though far too many meetings fail even on this fundamental), but that alone is not sufficient. For every agenda item, you should indicate why it is there: e.g. for “information only” (code it “I”), for “discussion to ensure clarification though no decision is necessary” (code “Dis”), or for “discussion leading to a decision” (code “Dec”). You will discover that by indicating expectations, you will reduce, even eliminate, unnecessary discussion on certain items and have more time for the most important topics as the team members monitor themselves.

Another related tool is to indicate projected timeframes for each topic. By doing this, again, team members tend to police themselves and stay within the target allotments.

3. Establish “ground rules.” Behavior expectations for meetings should be established and displayed on a wall. Indeed, many of our clients have had company meeting “ground rules” printed as signs for every conference room. As with the previous fundamental, this helps a group to police itself. While some “ground rules” fit any setting, many are particular to individual organizations, so you should develop your own list. A few that I like are “get visual” (write every topic and major point on a flip chart or white board so everyone knows what is happening at all times – people do drift off!), “always start and end on-time” (this can save hours of collective time every week), “silence is consent,” (to eliminate passive resistance, public enemy #1 to a positive organizational culture). However, there are many other options to consider as you develop your list.

4. Always summarize agreements before adjournment, another “ground rule” and one that is critical to any session’s effectiveness. Too often meetings end with individuals having multiple interpretations of what they agreed to, what are the next steps, and who is responsible to ensure that each step is completed.

The remedy in this case is to take a few minutes to review agreements and confirm that everyone understands all conclusions of the meeting in the same way. If this is not the case, it generally is a quick fix, and one vital to effective implementation.

Leading meetings effectively is a skill that comes through reading about techniques, talking with others, and practice. Be prepared to make mistakes, as you will make some. I remember asking for advice from an experienced facilitator before going off to lead my first strategic planning session in 1981. He gave me some tips similar to the above, but I remember most these words:

“When you finish the process, you will feel great. But understand that after facilitating a few more meetings, you will look back on this effort and grimace. That’s okay. It has happened to all of us.”