Notes on Making Meetings Work


By John Tropman




     Excellent meetings almost always contain four features:


1)     Decisions got made – things are accomplished.

2)     Little decision rework.

3)     Decisions are thoughtful and reasoned – not just decisions made “to get something done.”

4)     Members feel their time was well spent.


Key Meeting Principles


·        Tropman recommends the use of the orchestra metaphor for meetings, for it suggests the interaction, the preparation, and the ongoing contribution that all members make, even those who play only a few notes.


·        Three Characters Principle:  there are only three things you can do in a meeting, and you should be crystal clear in your agenda about which you are doing:

n     Announce things

n     Decide things

n     Discuss things


·        The Role Principle:  everyone has a role to play in a meeting, whether as a leader or follower, and they periodically change.  If a meeting fails, it is because those in attendance did not properly fulfill their roles – it’s not just the chair’s fault.


·        No New Business Principle:  new business is one of the great enemies of the contemporary meeting – it has no place in a meeting because nobody knows anything about it and is not prepared to intelligently discuss it or make a decision about it.


·        No More Reports Principle:  meetings should not be oral newsletters – if important news needs to be shared, then these should be included under announcements.  But the typical practice of “let’s go around the room and report” is a time waster because it’s simply an exercise in making yourself or your department look good.


·        High Quality Decision Process: one has a sense that a variety of views are heard, disassembled, and reassembled in combination with the views of others – to actually construct a decision that advanced the interests of all the stakeholders.  In other words, because of the meeting, there is a sense that the organization is ahead of where it was before the meeting.


Managing Agenda Organization and Design


·        The Rule of Halves:  the meeting organizer has from the end of the previous meeting until halfway to the next meeting to build the meeting agenda, by culling the environment and soliciting input from organizational members.


·        The Three Fourths Rule: participants should get relevant materials ahead of time – about three fourths of the way to the next meeting – materials should include the agenda, minutes, and any reports that will be discussed (properly condensed with an executive summary).


·        The Rule of Two Thirds:  all meetings are divided into three parts – the “get-go”, the heavy work and the decompression.  The first third contains announcement items and easy decision items, the middle third contains harder decision items, and the last third contains items that are up for discussion but not for decision.  The bottom line is that the energy of the meeting is focused in the first two thirds.


·        The Agenda Bell: following the two thirds rule, a meeting can be visualized as a bell curve, with the beginning third of the meeting designed for announcements and easier decisions to build a positive atmosphere and momentum, the middle third where the quality of mental and physical alertness is highest for the hard items, and the last third for easier discussions and decompression.


Managing Meeting Text


     See the appendix in Tropman for excellent samples of an agenda, report, and minutes.


·        Agenda:  each item on the agenda should have a title that is understandable, a longer description in a sentence underneath it, the name of the person responsible for it, the character of the activity (announcement, decision, discussion item), and the time allotted.

·        Minutes:  take content minutes rather than court reporter minutes  -- that is, under each heading in the minutes (corresponding to the agenda headings), a summary of the item is provided, followed by the decision or action in capital letters separated in a box.  This technique makes the minutes easier to read.  Interestingly, a number of meeting masters take their own minutes, because it gives them control of the process by allowing them to do an oral summative reflection of what has been said.

·        Reports:  sending out fat packets full of long reports should be avoided – people don’t have time to wade through them and/or they don’t know what they are supposed to do with them.  Two techniques are helpful – the Executive Summary and the Options Memo.  An executive summary is a one or two page outline of the crucial elements in a report, while the options memo lays out the problem or issue, the alternative responses, and a recommendation.


Managing Participant Trust


      Developing meeting trust is easy to talk about but sometimes hard to do – but the essential idea is that you stick to what you say you are going to do, do it on time, and don’t surprise people.


·        Rule of Agenda Integrity:  1) deal with all the items on the agenda, and 2) do not deal with any items not on the agenda.

·        Rule of Temporal Integrity:  start on time, hold to the times allotted to items in the agenda, and finish on time.  Never wait for people who are late – start on time.  When they come in, acknowledge them, point out where you are in the agenda (or ask someone near the person to do it, and offer to fill them in on the break or after).  However, do not disrupt the meeting to bring latecomers up to speed – you are rewarding their behavior and punishing (or insulting) those who came on time.


Managing Premeeting and Postmeeting Tasks


·        Always provide participants an opportunity to add to and review a draft agenda in advance – they feel included and the agenda becomes the group’s agenda, not the chair’s.


·        If you are not sure about people’s preferences or disposition toward and agenda item, or suspect that someone may have strong feelings about an item, take the time to chat with people in advance in a neutral, nonpublic setting.  This can help people vent, clear the air, and then be ready for a productive discussion.  It also prevents surprises.


·        Building on the trust theme, always follow up on items you commit to taking action on and those items that stem from the meeting that loop back to the next meeting.  Also, if things go poorly, engage in a debriefing to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the meeting.


Managing Emotional Elements of Meetings


·        Need to first be aware of emotions in the room – get in the habit of periodically scanning the room (like a drive uses rear and side view mirrors) to pick up on body language as well as the tone and expression in words.


·        Don’t be afraid to set and enforce ground rules regarding personal attacks – the focus of a discussion should be on ideas not people.


·        Deal with excessive negativism or hostility to an idea by balancing with your own positive comments or inviting the comments of others.  However, realize that underneath a hostile or negative comment may be a good point – so a meeting manager needs to unpack the affect from the idea.  Indeed, one can skillfully validate the person for having a good idea while at the same time noting that the way it was presented could have been better!


·        Be aware of the need for people to ventilate, and the importance of recognizing when people have strong feelings about an issue.  Even if they lose on the issue, people will appreciate having their strong feelings at least validated, as opposed to discounted or ignored.


·        A meeting master needs to be careful to recognize everyone in the room, and foster the idea of empowerment for all participants.  This may mean prompting people who don’t usually participate – don’t assume lack of interest or ideas – the book suggests the guideline equality for persons, equity for ideas.  This means everyone should be treated equally, and an idea should be judged on it merits rather than the source.


Managing the Flow of Ideas and Proposals


     Meetings are ultimately about making decisions (unless you are meeting to simply make an announcement or discuss).  Keep in mind that decsionmaking in a meeting (or in any setting) will be more effective if certain elements are present.  Follow a problem-solving model that has the following elements:


·        Problem Specification

·        Option Generation

·        Option Reduction

·        Decision

·        Implementation

·        Evaluation and Recycle


   Perhaps the first two elements are the most fundamental – not being clear about what the problem is and cutting off brainstorming on options.  If the problem is not clearly stated, people will first be confused and not very motivated to address the issue, and secondly they are likely to offer solutions that don’t fit the problem.  Inadequate brainstorming, of course, cuts off creativity and results in missed opportunities.


Managing Bases for Decisions in Meetings


     Decisions can be tough and are therefore avoided by groups.  One reason is that they allocate goods and values in the system, therefore somebody may win and somebody may lose.  Another element is the interpersonal – we avoid conflict.  Finally, finding ideas and solutions is hard work.  However, understanding decision rules can help, because they can reveal different bases for making decisions and moving forward.  There are six:


1)     Extensive Decision Rule:  based on one person-one vote or majority rule

2)     Intensive Decision Rule: based on who feels the most strongly or intensely.

3)     Involvement Rule:  based on those who have or are likely to have responsibility for implementation.

4)     Expert Rule:  based on expert opinion.

5)     Power Rule:  based on the positions of the people with influence.

6)     Negative Decision Rule:  based on conservatism – the costs of change outweigh the benefits, not worth the time and effort.


·        Decision rulelock occurs when the results of one rule are neutralized by the application of another rule (e.g., extensive or majority rule is offset by the power rule).


·        Confluence of Rules:  a meeting manager is looking for decisions that achieve a confluence of rules – as a guideline, when a candidate decision can be shown to meet three or more rule, the likelihood of a “go” is high.  If it is under three, the likelihood of “stall” is high.  There has to be a gut level sense that enough of the rules are satisfied to make the action defensible or legitimate – but sometimes these decision rules need to be articulated for them to be seen as relevant by all parties.


Managing Positions and Roles in Meetings


     A key concept is the relationship between positions and roles.  As the chair or member of a meeting, there are certain expectations.  However, during the course of a meeting, people in these different positions will take on the role of leader or follower.


·        Chair Position:  never assume that you or anyone in the group knows what a chair is supposed to do – check out the expectations and the resources at your disposal.  For example, some groups may expect the chair to be very directive, others may want the chair to be more collaborative.  A chair needs to negotiate appropriate expectations.  Other suggestions for a chair is to provide a written mandate for the meeting, be a statesperson not a partisan, follow the rules that are set, and make heavy use of the interrogative technique (i.e., raising questions rather than offering answers keeps the dialgue open).


·        Member Position:  above all, as a member you need to take responsibility for the success of the meeting as much as the chair.  You need to participate appropriately, help the chair keep order in the meeting, support other members, and avoid dumping on the group (i.e., expressing feelings such as frustration without offering any solutions).


·        Leader/Follower Roles:  everyone in the group needs to play leader or follower depending on the situation.  Regardless of your position, an effective meeting requires leaders who are not afraid to take risks and allow others to do the same, articulate a vision, and be selfless enough to let others have the limelight.  Followership involves stepping back and letting someone else move into the leadership role for a period.  It also means responding to leadership; that is, a willingness to do what is asked when the ideas are the product of a quality process.


Managing Tasks and Functions in Meetings


     It is always important to remember that a meeting has both tasks to be done as well as functions that must be considered.


·        Goal and Process Task Management:  goals must be established and met, but the headlong rush to goal attainment cannot sacrifice a quality process.  The two-meeting rule is useful here, which says an item is scheduled first foe discussion, but not decision, and then for decision.  Remember that cutting off discussion is a poor problem solving approach.


·        Intellectual and Interpersonal Functions:  every meeting has an intellectual aspect to it that involves fostering ideas.  Ideas are generated by idea champions and the roles of devil’s and angel’s advocate.  At the same time, the interpersonal must be attended to, because unless feelings are ventilated, shared, and validated, any kind of idea or evidence will be useless.  


Managing Conflicting Values in Meetings


     To address conflict in meetings, it is important to understand that it is often the product of conflicting values that must be validated and addressed for the group to move on.  These conflicting values are:


·        Multipurpose vs. Unipurpose

·        Pragmatism vs. Excellence

·        Status vs. Class

·        Personal vs. Organizational Purpose

·        Empirical vs. Qualitative Decision-Making Bases

·        Disposable Labor vs. Intimate Concern


Implementing Total Quality Meetings


     On a final note, managing quality meetings takes practice and time.  As you try to improve meetings, use the following phases:


Phase One:  Get a Friend (find allies to bounce things off and get support)

Phase Two:  Establish a Meeting Target (choose a meeting that you can impact)

Phase Three:  Employ Patience (think of success through small wins)

Phase Four:  Periodic Evaluation (use KSS system – what in the meeting went well and should be KEPT?, what in the meeting did not go so well and should be STOPPED?, and what did not happen at this meeting that should be STARTED?)

Phase Five:  Contagion (trust the process – nothing motivates people like participating in and contributing to excellence, i.e., accomplishing something positive).