There is a reason that this e-card and phrase are omnipresent across any industry.
Meetings get a bad rap for good reason; many of them are poorly run! I’ve lived through countless examples of this, most recently in my HOA. I stopped attending meetings for the HOA two years ago because I have better things to do than spend three hours at what was supposed to be a 90 minute meeting, only to cover half of the topics on the agenda and have the meeting completely railroaded by opinionated attendees the meeting leader didn’t control.
So often in group meeting settings, the leader of the meeting is chosen by default. Sometimes it’s the leader of the organization in question. Sometimes it’s the SME of the particular project. Sometimes it’s whoever draws the short straw in the pre-meeting huddle. But successful meeting facilitation has a very particular skill set, and if the leader doesn’t have those skills, the meetings will be unproductive time wasters gauranteed only to serve as a source of frustration and anxiety for all involved.
If you are a meeting facilitator, it is important that you lead your meeting. Because if you don’t, someone else will.
One of the biggest dangers to meeting facilitators failing to lead their own meetings is the stifling of dissent. This is particularly true if the meeting is over a controversial topic or project. One opinion held strongly by an overbearing stakeholder will often cause those who have differing opinions to keep quiet. This dynamic is what causes disastrous projects to get the green light, and it’s toxic to the culture of the group or organization because people don’t feel their opinions are being heard.
As a volunteer I’ve attended hundreds of meetings, some of them good and some of them horrendous. As a Project Manager, I’ve led hundreds of meetings in my career for projects ranging from simple process improvement to intricate technical conversion projects. I can tell you from experience that as a Project Manager or Project Leader, you want to hear that dissent!
I want to know if my SME’s have different opinions on whether a change should be a programming change or handled as an internal process change. I want to know up front if my stakeholders think that something they would like to add to a project during the scope meetings would be best left out until after the initial conversion project is complete. I want to know these things because I don’t want to find out when we’re eyeballs deep into a conversion that something we thought would be simple is now a gigantic lift, and our project is now at risk.
Here are some tips to help you keep meetings productive and ensure that you can hear the dissent:
Set Ground Rules at the Start –You have an Agenda for a reason. At the outset of the meeting, review the Agenda and the topics to be covered. If you have participants who are prone to jumping down rabbit holes, emphasize that only topics on the Agenda will be covered.
Consider Listing Time Constraints – If you have participants who are prone to rambling, sometimes it can help you keep meetings on focus if you set time limits for each subject to be covered. I’ve even listed them on the Agenda next to the item for discussion, showing that we will be discussing Item A for exactly 15 minutes for example. A Caveat for this: If you are going to do this, you must enforce those limits strictly!
Use a Parking Lot – When discussion starts to veer to topics that aren’t related to the agenda, send those ideas to the Parking Lot. Assign someone to list ideas that should be discussed at a later date on a separate piece of paper or white board called The Parking Lot. These items can be added to agendas for a later meeting.
Create a Fertile Environment for Ideas to Flow – As the Leader of the meeting, your job is to make sure all ideas can be heard. That means you need take care that even those who may be less comfortable speaking up can speak. Try inviting to hear from those who are less participatory, but be aware that people who are truly shy may need to be approached one-on-one. Take care to strictly control those who try to dominate the meeting; try inviting them to participate in other ways (like putting them in charge of The Parking Lot).