One of the five core tenets or conditions of collective impact is “Continuous Communication,” which usually means meetings, lots of meetings. And let’s face it, most meetings suck. They don’t have to. There are some lessons we can apply to ensure that meetings are purposeful, engaging, and advance our work in ways that people anticipate with enthusiasm instead of dread.
I have worked with a few groups to improve meetings and have seen the results that arise from clear purpose, structure, and culture. I’ve also worked with groups where I did not emphasize this and wish I had. Often this happens where there is fear or skepticism among organizers that people with formal power will resist meetings that are perceived as inefficient, less controlled, or even “touchy feely” (we can’t ask the CEO of this foundation to sit through an icebreaker!). I have also seen staff hold on to legacy behaviors about “how we do things here” and resist moving outside their normal boxes, again with a fear often that they might offend their higher ups’ established ways. In every case where I haven’t pushed a group to do this work, we have regretted it later. And I’ve found those with formal authority often appreciate well designed, well facilitated, purposeful, and even fun meetings.
In this paper, I will share examples from two groups I worked with to stimulate more engagement, inclusion, and effectiveness in their meetings. My work blends lessons from my time at Public Allies, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Results Count framework (formerly Results-Based Leadership), and practices I have learned in visits and consultations with other groups. My caveat is that the examples I share are not intended as a recipe to copy, but samples of how to solve common problems that make meetings suck. Form should follow function, so groups should structure their groups and design their meetings and engagement based on the results they are pursuing and the collaborative they are organizing.
First, it is important to note that for any team or group, building trust is an essential first step. It often begins by developing shared values, ground-rules, and expectations for members. This also means people have to build relationships, getting to know each other’s backgrounds, experience, motivations, and the individual, organizational, and other assets they bring to the table.
The absence of conflict is not a positive measure of trust and collaboration. There are two kinds of conflict:
(a) constructive conflict: we debate ideas, discuss differences, work through competing interests, offer constructive feedback, and hold each other accountable; and
(b) destructive conflict: we go to the parking lot and complain about people in the meeting and what happened – nothing good comes of this.
A good way to measure trust is if the parking lot conversations start happening in the room. Difficult conversations are a practice important to a team taking on big challenges. Trust building is an ongoing process and relationships and transparency are the keys to make it work. There are many organizational development tools for building and repairing trust – it is work that should be taken on intentionally and not just assumed.
One way to improve trust and transparency is to surface and acknowledge interests at the table. A leader of an organization is hired by their board to advance the interests of the organization, and it is not wrong that they hold those interests. Those interests must be named, however, and possible conflicts with others’ interests or the group’s larger interest should be acknowledged. Furthermore, it is important to surface and name dynamics in the room. If one organization received a grant others were pursuing and is resented, talk about it. If there are two groups that are highly competitive, name that. Everyone knows that these elephants are in the room already, so surface them to create a culture of honesty, transparency, and greater trust rather than increasing tension and dysfunction.
Diagnosing the Problem
One group was having challenges with engagement, commitment, and accountability within their group. I conducted interviews with the members. I heard the following complaints:
- We are unclear on our roles and how decisions are made;
- We get too much information. We can’t tell what is most necessary or important;
- We are too siloed. Everyone sits with the same folks and people still think mostly about their turf instead of the whole;
- Lots of reporting, little engagement. Meetings are like church. We sit and listen. The brain power in our room is not engaged;
- Power dynamics are at play. Meetings are dominated by a few voices, often those with the most authority;
- There is no follow up. We need more accountability to ensure decisions and work we do is followed up on. We make decisions and they go away.
Based on the feedback, I thought that any design of their meetings should include:
- Clarity about roles and expectations of members;
- Attention to room design, composition of the committee, and seating;
- More effective facilitation;
- More effective meeting design: (a) clear purpose and results for each meeting; (b) curate what participants need to know, not what staff/chairs want participants to know; (c) engage the full brain power – perspectives, expertise, experience – of the room; (d) Manage time effectively and efficiently; and (e) ensure commitments are fulfilled and people are held and hold each other accountable;
- A clear process to prepare, debrief, evaluate, and follow up on each meeting.
1. Clear roles and expectations
It is helpful to have a Roles, Responsibilities, and Values document that members give input to and then literally sign their agreement on. This should be a living document referenced regularly and the items or at least the values should be posted at each meeting to remind people of their agreement and accountability.
The Roles, Responsibility, and Values document should first specify the purpose of the group, the membership (who can be members and how do they become members), the authority of the team (which decisions can they make; which require others’ approval), and how decisions are made within the group. Then it should specify the responsibilities of members and the values the group will strive to practice.
Some of the responsibilities agreed to by this client (this committee oversaw four strategy workgroups) included:
- Provide feedback, approve, operationalize, and prioritize strategies that emerge from strategy workgroups, ensuring rigorous results-based progress on goals;
- Connect dots and align strategies and programs among our four goals;
- Ensure that big strategic decisions are grounded in implementation realities and the actual lives of children and families;
- Capture, communicate, and harvest learning from stories of success and impact;
- Share the inevitable challenges, mistakes, and failures that will happen in pursuit of our goals we may continuous learn, improve, and adapt to advance our goals;
- Fulfill commitments to progress on agreed upon strategies, programs, and results, and hold networks, staff, and partners accountable for our commitments
There are a few ways to help groups develop their roles and responsibilities. Two activities I’ve found helpful are:
1) TRIZ from Liberating Structures. Have people work at their tables and give them these tasks in order (only reveal one step at a time):
- Make a list of the things you could do to create the worst collaboration possible, one that was miserable to participate in and will for sure fail;
- After gathering a sample of the lists at various tables, ask them if they have experienced any of the items on the list before? Be brutally honest.
- What are some values, ground-rules, and responsibilities you could put in place to prevent the things from the first list from happening in this group
2) Especially if people have had a jaded experience with the group, invite them to identify “what would have to be true to commit to meeting regularly with this group on this initiative?” This prompt allows people to define what they need and facilitators can use this input to propose back roles, responsibilities, and values.
The key point is that the group should be clear about its purpose and authority, and should define its own culture. Facilitators and leadership must ensure that these values, responsibilities, and ground-rules are abided by in the design, work, and accountability of the group. It helps when groups post their initiative results, meeting results, and groundrules in the front at each meeting. It shows that these are important and can be referred to during meetings to keep the group on task and on agreed upon behaviors and practices.
2. Attention to Room Design, Composition, and Seating
Long boardroom tables or large rectangles do not inspire active engagement; they inspire posturing, grandstanding, and wallflowering. They work best for meetings organized around reports with minimal time for questions and discussion, but not much else. They allow those with authority and the loudest voices to dominate. They take forever to get around conversations with lots of hands in the air, stress, and waiting. They silence introverts. They deny relationships and intimacy. They allow people to sit in cliques and hold side conversations. It focuses on formality, authority, and existing relationships, rather than intimacy, inclusion, and collaboration.
It is best to seat people in smaller tables of 4-6 so that they will connect with each other and see the space as a working, collaborative space instead of a formal board meeting type space. If you want engagement, even split a group of 10-15 people into 2 or 3 tables and you will get a different dynamic.
If power dynamics, cliques, or inclusion are issues in the group, assigning seats may be a solution. If you have a person with authority who talks too much, seat them with someone who can balance them and ensure others are heard. In fact, you can ask that other person to play that role if the leader with authority is not self-aware (if they are, tell them what you are doing). Keep people who are likely to hold side conversations at different tables. Make the tables diverse by race, gender, and role in the community, and allow people to engage with new voices. While some may resist being told where to sit – usually those who want to talk mainly to people they know and hold side conversations – the group will benefit by discussions among members with diverse backgrounds, experience, and roles. Relationships matter, create opportunities for different conversations and connections.
Facilitation needs to be planned and not performed casually. It is a servant leadership role – in service to the group members and the group goals. The formal leader of the group may be able to facilitate, but it may be better for them to act as host and participate (and watch for dynamics in the room). The facilitator’s role should be neutral and distinguished from the authority role with the following responsibilities:
- Be intentional and transparent so people know where you are taking them, inform them about why you are doing it this way, and share your intentions behind questions and design;
- Hold neutral – your job is to engage the group’s wisdom not push your own agenda;
- Hold appreciative openness – welcome ideas and thank people for contributions;
- Paraphrase back – make sure you are capturing the essence of what people are saying;
- Capture the paraphrased summaries on a flip chart or delegate recording. If someone else is recording, give them time to write down your paraphrases and hold on calling someone or slow down if they get behind;
- Name and address dynamics. If someone looks like they don’t agree, is not speaking, or may feel cut off, ask them. If someone is dominating, let them know. If there are micro-aggressions in the room, help people see and address them. If there are competing interests at play, name them since everyone knows. Then engage the group in solving them;
- Keep an eye on the clock and manage time and be direct and transparent when choosing to alter the schedule so it is a choice and not a slippery slope.
Time management is especially important to this role. I often design meetings with 10 minutes of give so that I have some flexibility to adapt, but try my best to stay on schedule. When I make changes in agenda time, I make the choice transparently or offer group a choice to change the agenda or not. If people know that the meeting starts on time, they will put more effort into showing up on time. If they know meetings are managed well and always end on time and achieve the intended results, they will leave early less often and feel their time is respected.
4. Agenda Design: purpose, curated reports, engaged brain power, time management, accountability
First and importantly, if the meeting does not have a clear purpose and results that will advance the initiative, don’t meet. The meeting is not important other than as a means to achieve relationship-building and results. It is better to cancel a regularly scheduled meeting that has weak goals than to host a meeting just because it is on the schedule. Every meeting should have clear goals and results that members will see logically advance the results of the initiative. Sometimes meetings can be longer and shorter rather than always the same amount of time. And sometimes meetings should be canceled if there are not clear results that will advance the initiative – people complain a lot more about a useless meeting than getting two hours back on their schedule. Form should always follow function (purpose and intended results).
This group met bi-monthly and oversaw 4 strategy workgroups and a evaluation/data council. In order to design meetings that had clear purpose, curated what people needed to know, engaged the full brain power, managed time effectively, and held people accountable, we established the following template:
- Welcome and Check-ins (20 Min): The leader will welcome people, review the results we are pursuing as an initiative, the results for the meeting itself, and the agenda for the meeting. Each are previously recorded on flip chart paper up on the wall. The facilitator will then begin by reviewing commitments made at the last meeting and reporting or inviting reports on how those commitments have been fulfilled or not. Facilitator then offers a check-in question and each member of the group stands, introduces themselves, and answers it. Icebreakers that are both fun and help people get to know each other better are ideal. It is also great if you can ask people how they are today (I often ask what their battery strength is: 0-4 bars) to capture if anyone is off their game so their participation dynamics will be noted. One thing I like to do is lead the whole room in saying hi to each person by first name as they introduce themselves – it is silly, but it brings up energy in room as people often laugh and helps make sure people are learning each others’ names.
- Team report outs (20 Min): This group had four strategy teams and past meetings were dominated by their reports. We decided going forward that two teams would report at each meeting. Really focus on delineating between “nice to know” and “need to know.” People often think everything they do is important and want all of their efforts acknowledged, but reporting should be about the group’s needs not the presenter’s needs. We gave presenters 5 powerpoint slides and 10 minutes. We made a template for the slides to limit the amount of words and font size. The five slides were: (a) their goals/strategies; (b) headlines on any progress they are making on goals/strategies; (c) challenges they are facing currently; (d) an image they can tell a success story about; and (e) a question they would like peer support on from the whole group. The goal leaders submit their slides to the facilitator and chairs a few days before meeting for feedback and to tighten their message and questions. If they have more info, they can send the group pre-reads or leave them with a handout.
- Peer consult (25 Min): Depending on the two groups’ request for peer support, we divide the questions among the teams. We did this three different ways in three meetings: (1) we assigned different questions to different tables; (2) we invited tables to choose a question to work on; and (3) we assigned the questions to tables and invited people to move to the table that has the question they want to work on. Each worked fine. The goal is to get deep engagement across siloes to support the workgroups. After 15 minutes in small groups, draw out the main feedback and capture it. Goal leaders then voice commitments to how they will follow up on the support they received, and those commitments are captured on the flip chart.
- Strategy/Alignment Conversations (45 Min): The staff and leadership with input from the group identify 1-2 major strategic conversations for each meeting that will advance the group’s work. Examples include: deciding funding allocation, approving a new evaluation framework, revisiting a strategy that is not meeting performance measures, and discussing legislative initiatives. Again, the framing should be 10 minutes or less and then small group discussion followed by the whole group. Pre-reads can also be helpful in setting the table, and other interpersonal or context setting preparation may be involved in fraught topics that require difficult or uncomfortable conversations.
- Commitments and Follow up (10 Min). All commitments from the discussions should be noted and clear: what by whom by when. There should be clarity about what was discussed today that needs to be shared with other groups or the collaborative generally. Finally the group should be asked if we accomplished the stated goals for the meeting with people putting their thumbs up, down, or sideways. We ask those who aren’t thumbs up what would have improved the meeting and our ability to achieve stated goals.
This is one example, and I repeat “form follows function.” And the group has evolved their meeting practice since then. The key is to design meetings that help the group advance its work and results. This design captured all of the things the group wanted to be able to do better – break down siloes, limit reports, engage brain power, manage time better, and improve accountability. The evaluations (see below) showed that members loved the new design and felt the meetings were substantially more effective and productive than in the past. Your design may seek to address other elements important to your group. The key is always designing to results.
5. Prepare, debrief, evaluate, follow up
Meeting Preparation and design should be thoughtful and specific, not just a quick agenda thrown together the day before. I suggest using an annotated agenda I learned from my colleague Marian Urquilla called a “wireframe” with three columns: Column 1 includes the topic, start time, duration, and result for each meeting item; Column 2 should specifically describe what will happen during that time; and Column 3 notes any support or needs for that time such as handouts, flipchart recording, etc. (Find an example listed here in the appendices document.)
Chairs and staff should all have this wireframe, and know the game plan in detail. Ideally you run through it with the team beforehand so everyone knows the run of show. Being well prepared will help you stay focused on results. This will also help you plan for and manage time effectively – watch your timings and adapt as necessary to ensure you accomplish meeting goals and end on time.
Evaluate the meeting. Especially if you are working to improve or change the way the group meets, invite group members to fill out a quick evaluation to gauge the meeting design’s effectiveness. I don’t think this should be done every meeting (the thumbs up, down, sideways can often be helpful enough), but perhaps every quarter, semi-annually, or annually after you evaluate the first few meetings of a new format. For the meetings we evaluated, we put the meeting results on top of the page, and then asked participants to answer each question with a 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) scale and leave comments:
- Did the meeting achieve stated goals?
- Did the meeting format work overall? Do you think it made better use of your time to advance our goals?
- Did the reports provide sufficient, relevant, and important information that helped you assess their progress and see where you can help?
- Did you find the peer consult a constructive use of your time?
- Were the strategic conversations productive?
- Any other feedback or ideas?
Debrief Meetings immediately afterward. The facilitator and other key staff should quickly review the evaluation feedback, discuss how the meeting went, and discuss any individual or group dynamics they noticed in the room. Specifically, who might need a follow up conversation? It is also helpful to discuss who was not at the meeting and whether any direct follow up is required with them.
It is also important to follow up from meetings so people are getting work done in between and know they will be accountable. Follow up also includes relationship building, working on dynamics in the group, and connecting with people who did not attend. As far as follow up on the work, another group I worked with has done this really well (See Appendix 2 in the appendices document here.). The backbone staff sends regular reminders to members between meetings listing commitments, and reaches out directly to individuals who’ve made commitments to offer support and make sure they are prepared for the next meeting. It makes it far more likely work gets done, and sets the standard that if you commit, you will be accountable. This helps build momentum between meetings so real progress is being made. I call it Normalizing Accountability in the Group or NAG.
If you have built a strong structure and culture for your meetings, it is important to orient new members to your process. New members should understand the roles, responsibilities, and values of the group, and sign the document as other members have after reviewing them with staff. They should understand the meeting format, and the importance of the meetings to the success of the collaborative. They should be oriented about who the other members are and any important dynamics in the group. And they should understand what decisions have been made to date and why, and what challenges and opportunities the group is currently facing in order to achieve its results. A clear, consistent meeting structure and culture will help new members catch up and join the group more quickly.
This is not an exact road map, but a set of examples that may help you design meetings that work. Every group should begin with clarity about their purpose, roles, and responsibilities. Meetings should be designed with specific results that make real progress on initiative goals, provide essential information, engage the diverse brain power and resources of the group, make efficient use of people’s time, and engage commitment (and accountability) to the tasks necessary to move goals forward. Developing and managing this kind of culture and process might feel unnatural or forced at first. There may be resistance. But in my experience, a well designed and facilitated process that gets real work done and moves results forward inspires more and deeper commitment.
What do you think? Have a best practice for effective meetings? Share your recommendations in the comments below.
Want to learn more from Paul about how to hold effective meetings? Watch the webinar Making Meetings Work.