Meetings that Make a Difference
See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
Ephesians 5:15,16 (New King James Bible, hereafter NKJB)
Many people in organizational life have a love/hate relationship with meetings. Actually that may not be quite true. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that many people in organizations have a hate/hate relationship with meetings! But it truly doesn’t have to be this way. Meetings can be facilitated in such a way that they are truly effective and even enjoyable.
In Meeting We Work in Team
We meet because we are convinced that we are smarter when working together than when working alone. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, “Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (4:12, NKJB). There is strength in numbers.
And we meet because we truly need each other. In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul uses the metaphor of the physical body to describe the church. He says, “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:4,5, the New International Version, hereafter NIV). Paul continues a similar thought in his first letter to the church at Corinth. He says that the manifestation of spiritual gifts to each individual “are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:11,12, NIV). God created the church to work together as a team. When we meet, we are seeking each individual’s unique contribution to accomplish the goals of the team.
Humility a Prerequisite for Successful Meetings
The nature of team requires that we balance our own unique insights and capabilities with that of others on the team. We cannot do this without humility. The apostle Paul wrote, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interest of others” (Philippians 2:3,4, NIV). In meeting, we consider others interests while planning how to attain the goals that have brought us together. In the very same letter to the church at Philippi just quoted, Paul goes on to say, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (4:5-8, NIV). Paul enjoins his readers to emulate the same humility that led God’s Son to serve humanity in such a dramatic way. This humility enables teamwork as expressed in effective meetings.
Balancing Advocacy with Inquiry
Peter Senge, in his The Fifth Discipline, uses a phrase that expresses how this humility is manifested in meeting: balancing advocacy with inquiry. This phrase helpfully balances the naturally competing impulses of arguing – or advocating – your position on a topic and asking others why they hold their position – or inquiring. In other words, in any controversy, wisdom and humility combine when we provide others with the reasons for our position while at the same time holding complete certainty in abeyance while we genuinely consider the merits of others’ arguments. Expressing both our unique perspective and our humble realization that others might have insight or information we lack enables us to participate in discussions in a way that maximizes the meeting’s chances for success.
When we’ve realized that there are things that we cannot accomplish as individuals – that there are goals that can only be attained when we work together in team – and when we understand that humility is the premier character trait that empowers work teams to execute at peak performance, then there are a number of practical steps that can be taken which make meetings more profitable for all participants.
Practical Guidelines for Effective Meetings
#1 - The facilitator polls participants for possible agenda items at least one week before the meeting.
This facilitates a collaborative style of leadership by giving everyone the opportunity to have a say in what matters are discussed at the meeting. But collaborative leadership does not have to be leadership by vote; the facilitator prioritizes the suggested agenda items along with his own; decides how many of the suggested items can be discussed in the time allowed; and decides which items are within the scope of both the group and the meeting.
#2 - The facilitator pre-publishes an agenda at least 2 days before a meeting. Items not used but submitted by meeting participants go into the parking lot of the notes for inclusion in future agendas (more on “parking lot” below).
This step gives participants the opportunity to gather their thoughts on the agenda items before the meeting and consider how they might contribute in the meeting. There are three sources for agenda items: 1) the suggestions of the participants; 2) the facilitator’s understanding of the groups purpose for meeting; and 3) parking lot items from the previous meetings.
3 - The facilitator requests before the meeting that someone take notes using the format.
Under this section are listed matters discussed at the meeting and some of the most relevant comments.
What decisions did the group make?
What specific tasks did individuals agree to do? By when did they agree to do them?
Here are new or existing agenda items that came up during the meeting that are deferred for discussion at a future gathering. They also might be items on this meeting’s agenda that the group was not able to get to.
#4 – The facilitator asks the person taking notes to publish them to all participants within one business day of the meeting.
The participants needs these notes as a reminder to execute their action items by the agreed due dates.
#5 - The facilitator will always begin the next meeting by reviewing the action items from the previous meeting’s notes for items that have been completed and which are still pending. This helps the team participants to hold themselves accountable for their commitments and enables the participants to monitor the team’s progress.
#6 – Very Important: During the meeting, the facilitator will not allow topics of discussion to be changed without the discussion of the current topic generating either 1) a team decision or decisions; 2) individual’s action item or items; or 3) a decision to place the current topic in the parking lot for discussion at the next meeting. One of the great killer’s of meeting effectiveness is arbitrary subject drift resulting in no decisions or action items. Everyone who participates in such a meeting generally perceives it as a waste of time.
#7 – At the end of the meeting, the facilitator summarizes the group’s decisions and the action items, who agreed to do them, and by when they agreed to do them. The facilitator also reminds everyone of when and where the next meeting will occur.
#8 – Other helpful habits some work teams adopt.
a. Use of a scribe.
In addition to having someone take notes, some teams have a person designated during the meeting to scribe notes on a flipchart, overhead, chalk board, or some other public presentation device for all to see.
b. Use of a timekeeper. Some facilitators like to assign time duration to their agenda items and request for a meeting participant to advice him when time has elapsed on specific items.
Copyright © 2001 by Stephen Shields
 There are many different effective styles of meetings. This is one type of meeting discipline that has proven effective.
 I use the masculine personal pronoun in the absence of an appropriate non-gender specific personal pronoun!
 This meeting discipline is based in part on principles given by the Joiner Associates, now called Oriel.