Meetings Are Excellent Places To Test Ideas, Reach Consensus And Make Decisions.
By Thomas J. Roach
Meetings are potentially our most effective means of communication. Regrettably, few know how to conduct them. Meetings are a sequential, participative process, and they should not be thought of as an opportunity to make people sit around a table and listen to the manager or chairperson talk.
The first step in the meeting process is identifying need. It could be a simple need to share information with one or more coworkers. If you find that you have exchanged a number of emails over a period of several days where you asked questions and filled in information, then you probably would have learned more and saved time if you had the discussion face to face. More importantly, meetings are excellent places to test ideas, reach consensus and make decisions.
The second step is inviting the right participants. Everyone with needed information should be on the list, and people who have nothing to contribute and nothing at stake should be left out, or at least given the opportunity to opt out. Those with nothing to contribute may attend if they need to be informed, but people who have no interest in the topics are wasting their time, and if they get involved in the discussion, they are wasting your time.
The third step is developing an agenda and sticking to it. This is one of the most common pitfalls. It is usually necessary for the chair to interrupt tangential conversations and remind everyone to stay on track.
The fourth step is appointing someone to take minutes. It is not important to note every argument that is made, although sometimes that is a requirement. It is more important to record agreements and action items. Often if there are no minutes, people ignore or forget about commitments they made in a meeting.
The fifth step is facilitating discussion. Chairs should talk as little as possible and use their authority over the agenda and pacing to get everyone else to involved. Meetings are not places for speeches. The best way to get the opinions of the group is to keep your opinions to yourself.
Soliciting the opinions of others doesn’t mean the manager is relinquishing authority. Later, if necessary, a manager can thank the participants for their input, address their concerns, and announce a contrary decision.
Another aspect of the fifth step is to not let overbearing participants dominate the discussion. Research shows that people will subjugate their own opinions to those of the group. That means that the person who speaks first or loudest could have the most influence at the meeting.
Also, the chair may need to call on others to speak first, and if need be, tell the outspoken person to hold back and then let him or her express their opinions after the others have finished speaking.
The sixth step is reaching a consensus. Managers may have sole authority over many decisions, but that doesn’t mean they are the most qualified people to make them. Often groups come to more reasoned and more effective decisions than individuals. Whenever possible, it is advantageous to let workgroups reach their own conclusions. In situations like this, the manager’s responsibility is facilitating the discussion and overseeing the execution of the group’s wishes.
The seventh step is sending out the minutes with action items clearly stated. Make sure it states what will be done and who will do it. At the next meeting these items should be listed first on the agenda.
If this process seems off-putting, try an experiment. Look through your email from last week. Find the emails where you and several others went back and forth discussing an issue.
How many emails were exchanged? Estimate the time the group spent reading, writing, and sending these emails, and note how many days it took before you reached a conclusion. Now imagine that on the day of the first email you were all sitting around a table. How long would it have taken you to reach the same conclusion? Probably minutes, not hours and certainly not days.