Working together in mutual regard with one person is difficult enough, let alone working together with a group. How do teams manage their time and meetings to allow for agenda items to be discussed and effective decisions made? Regardless of what we do, time passes by at a predetermined rate (actually its 8,760 hours per year). Although we cannot control time, we can learn to manage ourselves within time. The key to time and meeting management includes good organizational and planning skills.
Designing Your Road Map - The Agenda
The first step toward managing time and meetings begins with a good agenda. The agenda serves as the meeting road map and is critical to the success of the meeting in three ways.
Another concern regarding agenda development is to prevent an overcrowded agenda. Crammed agendas usually undermine a group's ability to focus because members feel overwhelmed with the magnitude of the agenda. Other considerations include the placement of items. Place the most compelling or most time consuming items near the top of the agenda. People will be fresher and better able to give their full attention and it also encourages people to arrive on time.
Most effective meetings have a example product or report (a strawdog or stalking horse) to discuss, this is distributed before hand so that all team members can come prepared with their comments. Normally, development meetings get bogged down in detail unless there is a document or an example to base the discussion on. The strawdog or example should cover the subject area, be concise, be grammatically correct and be as complete as possible.
Creating a Shared Focus
The agenda should be reviewed before the meeting and before each topic is presented. This also includes reviewing the desired outcome. Reviewing the agenda at the beginning of the meeting allows members to get focused, develops shared expectations for the meeting, and it reaffirms the teams road-map for the next two hours. All meetings should have a predetermined timeframe; (e.g. 8:30 - 10:30 a.m.). Meetings should generally last about 2 hours unless there are unique circumstances and breaks are included. Meetings that run considerably longer than the 2-hour timeframe accomplish nothing but frustration and fatigue of team members.
Good agenda planning requires two critical components: 1) clarify the desired outcome for each topic and 2) design a process to reach each outcome. The outcome is what members will expect from the topic, and process is how the group will manage itself to reach the desired outcome. When discussion of a new topic begins, team members need to know what they are expected to achieve for that topic.
Additionally, many topics can be handled more effectively if a process is designed to assist the group in reaching their intended outcome regardless if the group is reaching consensus, taking a vote, or simply gathering opinions and concerns.
When a topic is introduced at a meeting, most groups automatically go into open discussion and continue the discussion until it's time to move on to the next topic. Conducting a meeting in this fashion typically leads to lengthy meetings, frustrated members, unclear outcomes, and group divisiveness. However, by dividing the thinking time into various participation formats (or designing a process) helps to maintain the group's attention and concentration, and typically leads to more productive meetings. For example, if the topic is Review ABC Architecture and the desired outcome is providing team comments to the Architects, it may be more effective to subdivide this topic. First brainstorm a list among the members of positive and negative aspects of the topic; record all comments on an easel pad so the team can view them; then review the items recorded and categorize or group similar items.
Categorizing items and sorting items into categories are two different tasks. Creating categories can be difficult for groups because people don't share common meanings for words. Although categorizing can become time consuming, it is important when a team wants to gain a deeper understanding of each other's values and goals.
Sorting items however can be a fairly easy task. By using pre-defined, simple categories such as cost, desirability, potential problems, time needed, and next steps, a team can reduce a large list of items into manageable ideas.
Remember that when brainstorming or categorizing you are not seeking to convince members your idea is right, nor are you there to argue another member's idea is wrong. The purpose is to quickly gather the breadth of team opinions regarding the topic and making sure all members are heard.
After ideas have been categorized or grouped, the final phase should allow for open discussion. During open discussion, members can examine each cluster or grouping of ideas and add any other points they feel may be missing. Once all of the ideas have been sorted, the team has quickly and concisely formulated their collective comments thus reaching their desired outcome: to provide team comments.
Additional Meeting Techniques
There are four other key items critical to time and meeting management:
A "bin" consists of blank sheets (one or two) torn from an easel pad and taped to the wall. Any idea that is unrelated to the current topic is written on the easel pad paper (i.e. placed in the bin). The bin serves two valuable purposes:
Using the bin is an effective way to keep discussion focused and it helps people to convey their thoughts and ideas without being disruptive to the meeting. During the meeting the board leader should record bin items as they come up. If you want to encourage individual involvement for meeting effectiveness, all members should share responsibility for moving unrelated items to the bin when they feel the discussion is getting off track.
Ground rules are explicit rules that the group agrees to follow to help them facilitate productive discussions. Whether the board leader presents the ground rules or the board formulates them collectively, all members should reach consensus on following the ground rules. The ground rules should be written down on an easel pad or recorded somewhere for everyone to see at each meeting. Ground rules lay out the expectations of "the way things should be done at meetings." Ground rules are used to facilitate group interaction, not to restrict it. The group can change the ground rules or add new ones based on group needs.
Ground Rule Examples
In order for a series of meetings to improve over time, a simple evaluation of the each meeting should take place before the termination of that meeting. A simple method is the Plus/Delta chart. This is a two column wall size chart with the first column labeled plus (+), the second delta (s ), the leader of the team should go around the room and post either positive things that occurred (in the Plus column), or negative things (in the s column). The leader may seed the chart with some of the things he saw during the meeting, for instance "lack of or good participation", good room, made good or bad progress. Each team member should be invited to make one or more comments.
To maintain a record of each meeting, minutes of that meeting should be distributed to each team member and become part of the historical record of the series of meetings. Progress on agenda items should be noted, any concerns raised during the meeting, and open points from the Bin charts, and a copy of the Plus/Delta chart should be included in the agenda.
In order for teams to manage group process (e.g., manage them selves to be effective teams) they should also foster facilitative leadership.
Facilitative leaders help to increase overall group effectiveness. A facilitative leader is who exercise and practice the values of collaboration and empowerment. A facilitative leader encourages their group to share in equal participation by making sure all members have a chance to express their thoughts and opinions on an issue.
Not only do facilitative leaders share their reasons for their statements or actions (explaining why) but they also share their feelings about a topic so others do not have to make assumptions. Untrue assumptions are typically the cause of group conflict. Collaboration ensures everyone on the team has a chance to express him or herself. A facilitative leader asks the team for their opinions or ideas regardless of whether members agree or disagree. If a member has a different view, the leader does not get defensive but rather explores the possibility of this added perspective. Approaching different opinions in this manner allows the "undiscussable" issues to be expressed - this also reduces potential conflict. Conflict management skills will be detailed in Team Development - No. 2.
When members recognize their input is important and different viewpoints are encouraged, they develop ownership in the team's decisions and actions. Facilitative leaders also strive for team empowerment, which means distributing power among the team. Empowerment occurs when members begin demonstrating the values of collaboration and sharing responsibility for the success of the meeting. This also includes sticking to the agenda, using a bin, and following the ground rules. Distributing power among team members typically leads to better decisions and trust among the group since members recognize the value of their input and develop a shared commitment to the board's success.
Time and meeting management skills include:
It is easy to get caught up in the pressure of the meeting and lose sight of perspectives. Working together in mutual regard takes time and practice. Explore your style for managing meetings while slowly incorporating new skills and techniques. Keep in mind that stress diminishes creativity and spontaneity and generally lowers the quality of results or input achieved by groups. The best board participation comes from people who are able to laugh together, discuss issues, and take pride in their efforts. So relax and explore your style with these ideas.
Lippincott, Sharon. 1994. Meetings: Do's Don'ts and Donuts. The Complete Handbook for Successful Meetings. Lighthouse Point Press. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 203 pp.
Kaner, Sam, Lenny Lind, Catherine Toldi, Sarah Fisk and Duane Berger. 1996. Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. New Society Publishers. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada. 255 pp.
Schwarz, Roger. 1994. The Skilled Facilitator: Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups. Jossey-Bass Publisher, San Francisco. 314pp.