Every meeting has the potential to veer into a tangent, to carry its attendees into a deep forest so far from the original path that it’s nearly impossible to find the route home.
It’s easy to blame this on others – those who arrange the agenda, those whose comments lead us astray. But whether we like it or not, we are all accountable for keeping meetings effective. If you’re in charge, the steps you need to take are more obvious. If you’re not officially in charge, there are still things you can do to keep everyone on track.
But wait, you say. I’m not the meeting leader. What can I do? A lot, it turns out.
It can be uncomfortable to step in and say something. But if you don’t deploy some guerilla tactics, you’re actually rewarding bad meeting behavior. An easy way to bring people back to the meeting at hand is to use the power of curiosity: Ask questions instead of launching accusations.
Here are some specific ways to address some major meeting derailers. Keep these ideas in mind and you will move from a passive observer to problem solver – all while making your meetings better.
Problem: Meeting starts without a purpose.
Solution: When a meeting starts without a purpose, outcomes or products simply ask: “Can you take a second to go over the overall purpose of this meeting and what we need to have when we’re done? That information will help me stay focused.”
Recognize we are all doing our best. Sometimes that best doesn’t come with a clear purpose. The meeting organizer may not know that meetings need purpose. They may not have had an opportunity to learn. Don’t be snarky, rude, or mean – ask the questions honestly and kindly.
Problem: Discussion goes off track.
Solution: This happens often in meetings, right? It usually goes something like this: Todd (and we all know Todd, we may have even been him!) has this great idea for new bedroom footwear, and he must share every single detail now. Great, except the meeting is about brainstorming nightwear for cats.
When Todd goes off on his random tangent, speak up and say: “These are excellent ideas for slippers. I know we need to get back to our main topic, but your ideas may be important for a future meeting. I will write them down for future discussion. Can we get back to discussing number four on the agenda: cat pajamas?”
Or use PAL (purpose, agenda, limit) to remind the group of the meeting’s purpose, the agenda items being addressed, and a time limit for discussion.
Problem: One person dominates discussion.
Solution: This situation can get sticky. If the person dominating the conversation is the official meeting leader, you might not be able to use the following technique. But if it’s a peer, chime in with a suggestion. Say something like: “This is an important point. Todd has shared his views, and it would be great to hear from everyone else. Can we go around the room?”
Problem: Decisions and actions not documented
Solution: It’s important to have somebody jotting down decisions and action points throughout the meeting. Even if these notes don’t turn into formal meeting minutes, they keep a group from spinning and having the same discussion every single time they meet.
If the meeting leader isn’t capturing decisions, suggest that somebody serve as a Monkey Minder who takes notes. But if it’s too late for that, ask a question: “There have been decisions made here. Can we make sure someone is capturing those?” Or, step in and assign yourself the role: “There have been decisions made here. Is anyone officially writing these down? If not, I’d be willing to share my notes with the group.”
Consider your tone and remember that we don’t share the same brain, urgencies, or priorities. The rambler, the dominator, and the wayward meeting leader are often doing what’s easy or natural. Take personal responsibility for your attention and actions in a meeting.
Problem: Not paying attention in the meeting.
Solution: Check in with yourself. Are you carrying emotions from another conversation or are you worried about something you’re missing? Are you present and taking responsibility for listening and contributing? Are you engaged, asking questions, and taking your own notes?
Sadly, 98% of us can’t actually multitask. (Take this fun test to see how you do.) So if you’re texting, reading an article, or browsing the Internet during a meeting, you are not paying attention. Take a deep breath, put down your phone/laptop/tablet, grab a pen and take your own notes. The act of writing will help you pay attention to the meeting at hand.
Keeping meetings on track isn’t easy, but it’s something anybody and everybody can help to do. Keep these guerilla tactics in mind during your next gathering, and you’ll have some control over keeping things efficient and on point.
With a 150th anniversary approaching, leaders in Otter Tail County knew they had a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to celebrate the region’s history and culture. People were excited and passionate about getting involved in the milestone event, but that enthusiasm came with a price tag.
“The more ideas there were, the more opportunities there were for things to get chaotic,” says Nick Leonard, communications and external relations director for the county.
Key stakeholders including the Otter Tail County Historical Society and the Otter Tail Lakes County Association established a planning committee for the sesquicentennial, but the group needed someone to serve as a single point person for communication and project management.
Reach Partners stepped in, helping with event strategy and support.
The committee established a budget and goals for the celebration. Anita from Reach Partners helped to keep these things on track.
“She knew when to dig deeper and ask questions, and when to challenge the group,” Leonard says. “Thanks to her, we stayed hyper-focused on our plans.”
While the committee wanted to promote the region, it decided the 150th was an opportunity to celebrate all who live, work and play in the county. The committee met monthly to identify and plan events. Major events for the celebration included a musical production written for the anniversary, an ice-themed winter gathering, and a historical reenactment of the first county commission meeting. Other events included community walking tours and historical displays.
Events were held over the span of a year and throughout the geographically expansive county, but planning started months earlier.
“There were a lot of moving parts,” Anita says. “These are people who love their county and they wanted to celebrate.”
To help the group stay on task, Anita created agendas for each meetings. She identified logistics that needed to be addressed for the major events. She also managed a micro-grant program that offered support for community projects that promoted Otter Tail County and its history.
Planning and coordinating numerous events can be stressful and time intensive, especially for staff who don’t do this regularly. Asking Reach Partners, which has the expertise and experience, to take on this role was an easy choice, Leonard says.
“Planning a big event is one of the most visible things you do as an organization. It leaves a lasting impression on people. You want to make sure it’s done well,” Leonard says.
PHOTO CREDITS: Dan Broten. All photos were taken at Otter Tail County's 150th anniversary kick-off event.
It’s relatively easy to think about ways that rituals unite, connect and motivate us. Imagine the ways your family celebrates and recognizes holidays. Picture how a sports team carries out a certain behavior or chant before competition starts.
When done right, rituals are mindful actions that help us build community or identity. They create strong and long-lasting connections.
As such, rituals have a place in supporting a healthy work environment among both teams and at the organizational level. Fun rituals that solve problems and do no harm can help to build effective teams and make the meetings they hold more productive.
Every team has rituals, even if you don’t recognize them as such. We have rituals around hiring, recognition, production, innovation, quality, promotions, family, customer service, community service, learning, etc.
Being intentional about those rituals can reinforce a business need or a team’s need for connection. Effective rituals fit your leadership style and the personality of your team – they feel natural. What works for one organization or team won’t necessarily build trust among another.
Think about the Kiwanis Club. Can you imagine a meeting without music? This service club has a ritual of spontaneous singing, which leads to a spirit of cooperation. (And, let’s be honest: it may be the difference between a boring club and a lively one!)
Rituals do not need to be complex or serious. They can be short and silly. The important thing to remember is that rituals should do no harm. If an activity introduces shame or humiliation, it will promote disconnection instead of unity.
Here are some ideas for meeting rituals that can build up teams:
Have you ever stepped into a meeting and experienced that “walking on eggshells” feeling? Like you’ve missed the joke, and no one is going to share it with you? Have you been in a meeting where you were afraid to tell the truth, bring up the hard facts, or provide constructive feedback?
The fact is, good meetings are a symptom of great teams.
Amy Edmondson was a part of Google’s Project Aristotle, where the tech company investigated what makes a team productive, innovative, or effective. In essence, what makes a team great? Through her research, she coined the term “psychological safety.” Psychological safety is a belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It describes a healthy way people relate to each other as a team.
You can’t have better meetings (collaborations, decisions) without psychological safety. It’s good for the mental health of your team and decreases employee turnover. If that’s not enough for you, consider improved employee engagement.
Teams with psychological safety share accountability; they hold themselves and others accountable, which makes working together both demanding and inviting. There is a shared believe that each person on the team is capable and has the skills and knowledge to do their work that contributes to the whole.
On teams with psychological safety, there is an attitude of “we are better together.” Employees feel fulfilled because the team respects and needs their perspective, input, and ideas. There is satisfaction in the work when each person contributes meaningfully in the way they were hired, called, or volunteered to do.
Psychological safety means team members can show up to a meeting as their authentic selves, share ideas, take risks, and ask for help in front of the group. Curiosity replaces blame. Imagine being asked “what needs to happen?” instead of being asked “how could you?”
Meetings are where we solve problems, make decisions, share ideas. To do our best work, we need to be able to say what we are thinking. We can’t avoid or skirt around problems.
So, how can we encourage and build psychological safety?
Once your team starts to express psychological safety, you’ll see relationships grow, ideas expand, productivity increase. When we bring out true selves to work and to our meetings – everyone benefits.
If you’ve ever planned a large event, you know how hard it is to determine how many volunteers or staff you’ll need to make the event run smoothly. So, you turn to your good friend Google and find out that the general recommendation is one (1) staff member per 50 to 100 attendees.
Great. But, that’s a broad generalization, and it’s critical that you get the number right. After all, if you understaff an event, your attendees will suffer. And if you over-staff, it will cost you money or sour a valuable relationship. You don’t want your volunteers feeling unappreciated because they’re standing around doing nothing.
To figure out the appropriate number of staff – either paid or volunteer -- you need to start by being clear on what needs to be covered and for how long.
For example, a registration desk is usually a busy place at the start of a conference or event. You may need several people to help when everyone arrives during the same half hour. But once the rush is over, you may only need one individual to handle late-comers or to serve as an information desk where attendees can get their questions answered. The other volunteers or staff can be assigned a new task.
Take time to identify every job that needs to be covered and for how long. Here’s one way to do it:
Where: The lobby
What time: Arrive at 7:00 a.m. and be ready to start at 7:15 a.m. Finish at 9:30 a.m.
Role or duties: Welcome attendees, capture attendee data for onsite registration, assist attendees at iPad kiosks, provide event information to attendees, distribute agendas and notebooks, encourage attendees to register for post-event training.
Some common roles at events:
Now, determine who can fill those roles. If you’re hosting a company-sponsored event, you may rely on employees to serve in familiar roles. For example, you may ask your communications director to serve as a liaison to media and to oversee social media for the day.
You might ask an employee to do something different than what they normally do. For example, your payroll specialist may be asked to host one of your speakers. Don’t get too caught up on titles as long as it’s clear what needs to be done. And don’t be afraid to ask someone to serve in one area while it’s busy, and then do something else once the rush is over.
Assign one-point person for every event area. An area can be a geographical space or a category, such as event program, refreshments, vendors. That point person might have an assistant or even an assistant to the assistant (as one client, who was having a bit of fun, once recommended). This point person is important so that volunteers and other staff know whom to contact if there are issues.
In addition, map out a clear chain of command among everyone onsite. Collect names and cell phone numbers so you know how to reach people.
One helpful hint: walkie-talkies can be valuable communications tools for staff and/or point people when an event is large (either by space or number of attendees). Cell phones are great, but may not always work well in situations where people may have their ringers off or where coverage is spotty.
By defining roles and identifying the right people, you’re well on your way to making sure everything runs as smoothly as possible.
If it seems like you’re spending a good chunk of your work week in meetings, you’re not alone.
Meetings have increased in both length and frequency over the past 50 years, according to an article published in the Harvard Business Review. One example: on average, executives spend nearly 23 hours a week in meetings, up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s.
And yet, as we spend more of our work time in meetings, we don’t necessarily feel more connected or better prepared to do our work. The same Harvard Business Review article found that 54 percent of people surveyed by the authors said that meetings resulted in losses in productivity, collaboration and well-being.
We’ve all been there.
When meetings are too frequent and badly run, it may seem like we’re in a never-ending, awkward episode of The Office. We’ve all sat through gatherings where Co-worker Eddy kept going on irrelevant tangents and shared bad jokes. We left the conference room wishing we had the last 60 minutes of our life back.
If we’re honest, sometimes the fault is our own. We can all think of times when we weren’t prepared or forgot to bring needed materials that were critical to the discussion at hand. Or maybe we showed up late, again and again. Or we invited the wrong person to attend a meeting. Repeatedly.
The deal is this, we’re going to waste time in meetings. It’s life. There are kids, parents, snow days, health concerns, and technology fails that are always going to affect the cost of meetings.
But we can do something to curb the other stuff: the poor behavior, the lack of planning, no semblance of purpose, unprepared people.
We can help the teams that are so disengaged, they sabotage themselves. We can build trust. We can help make a team feel like a team. We can work really hard. We can learn and grow. We can connect. We can celebrate.
After all, meetings are at the intersection of work and people. Meetings are where individuals come together and form a team or group that gets things done.
It makes sense that if we want to do better work together, we need better ways to meet.
On March 13, I’ll be presenting “The Culture of Meeting,” as part of our local chamber’s Business Training series. I’ll be sharing observations and techniques for how to conduct better meetings and, in the process, improve your work culture and productivity.
I hope you’ll join me in person. (You can get your tickets here.)
But, if you can’t, stay tuned. I’ll be sharing some of what I’ve discovered and experienced right here on the Reach Partners blog and newsletter.
#BetterMeetings are possible. Trust me.
Sometimes it’s hard to focus in a meeting. We’re distracted, tired, hangry, concerned about other things. It may be tempting to power through, but there are simple practices that can help us bring energy into the meeting and enhance our productivity. When we adapt to people’s needs – whether physical, social or psychological – we can get more accomplished during a meeting.
Wiggle It, Just a Little Bit
About a decade ago, researchers observed that children actually fidget to focus and learn. The more complicated the mental task, the more they needed to move.
Like those kiddos, adults appreciate fidgets too. Have a few quiet toys to occupy an active sub-conscious (and maybe prevent Dave from clicking his pen). Bring bit of nature into deep meetings by offering pine cones, shells, sticks, or switches of grass to play with or sacred items like a rosary, prayer beads, or a Hindu mala. There is evidence that adults playing with these items eases anxiety and expands their thoughts on a problem. It even works for right-brained engineers!
Stand Up, Sit Down
Kids have a lot of energy, and let’s face it: adults aren’t any different. Movement helps focus ideas. We are made to move and our work lives spent sitting on a chair and at a computer station don’t help us do our best thinking. Allow and encourage your meeting goers to stand up during a long meeting, gathering. Offer a mid-agenda stretch to wake up fatigued attendees.
Next time you have a meeting with three or fewer people and a simple agenda, try a walking meeting. Take a lap around the building or, better yet, head outside. Dedicate a lap to a topic, pause to write the next step or decision, then move along to the next agenda item.
Or gather a group to stand around a white board or an easel pad. Standing meetings typically have a short, focused agenda (think 15 minutes), but they are extremely effective.
At larger events like conferences, people are usually expected to sit for long periods of time. Place high-top tables in the back of the room to encourage movement and standing. (These have the added benefit of helping participants connect with others.) Create a schedule that allows people to move between sessions. Consider the distance between meeting room locations so that people are encouraged to move and stand.
People always bring mental baggage when they join a meeting. Unless they prepared or are leading the meeting, they are probably thinking everything except what’s on the agenda: who do they need to talk to; what groceries are needed for this weekend’s gathering; who fed the cat?
Bring the group together by pausing at the beginning of every meeting. A brief centering meditation can help everyone get focused on the work that needs to be done together.
When people show up to work as their authentic selves, they feel safe to share ideas and take risks in a group. When people feel safe, they don’t fear humiliation (because of age, gender, education, class, etc.). They’re more willing to discuss tough issues and ask for help. They feel valued and don’t worry about repercussions for misspeaking or a failure.
If you want to have a successful, focused meeting, your team members need to feel connected to each other.
In meetings were team members feel connected to each other demonstrate a higher level of dependability, innovation, executive function and overall impact.
As a leader, examine how your business culture is at work: do you feel comfortable showing up as your true self? You might feel free to be you, but do others?
Have your team take a quiz, and learn how to foster psychological safety.
It sounds simple, but snacks help to elevate the mood while building a sense of camaraderie. Don’t worry. Not every snack needs to be a high-sugar, high-fat item. Set out fresh or dried fruit, or nuts. Make sure there’s a good selection of teas and flavored waters. And, of course, set out donuts, cookies, and cake when the occasion calls for it.
Breaking bread has long been a part of holy occasions. Food is often a centerpiece of our holidays and celebrations. (Can you imagine Thanksgiving without turkey or mashed potatoes?) By incorporating snacks or a meal (lunch meetings, anyone?) into your gathering, you give people an opportunity to build relationships. Even at larger meetings or conferences, a meal or snack gives people time to converse and connect.
Next time you schedule a meeting, give one of these practices a try. Tell us how it went!
Last year we started a new tradition at Reach Partners. Every week we set aside time to read during work hours.
At first, this felt a bit indulgent. We enjoy reading but – like many others – we typically crack open our books outside traditional work hours so that we can “do” things at work. And yet, reading is one important way that we learn and grow professionally. We decided our work calendar should reflect that.
With that in mind, we’d like to share a few of the titles that we’ve read recently – and a few that we’ll be tackling soon. Drop us a line if you have any additional suggestions. Happy reading!
The Overstory by Richard Powers
Anita’s Mastermind group recently read this novel about trees and the people who love them. If you think fiction doesn’t have a place in professional development, think again. This novel gave the group plenty of opportunities to reflect on themes and lessons that are applicable to work and life. The writing is also incredibly beautiful, making it a joy to read. One sample: “A great truth comes over him: Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planning is silent and growth is invisible.” (Uh … true for people and project management, too, right?)
Where the Action Is by J. Elise Keith
Rachel has been digging into resources about meetings in preparation for an upcoming presentation. This book is golden. It’s deep, well-researched, and a joy to read. Keith breaks down every business meeting into a taxonomy that provides specific tips – not generic best practices – on formats, timing, and framing. You still may not love every (or any) meeting, but you will find value in the engagement and team performance in the meetings you do have.
Dare to Lead by Brené Brown
We both can't wait to dive into Brown’s new book, Dare to Lead. We’re big fans of Brown’s research into courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. Her books remind us how we want to show up at work, at home, in our volunteer roles, and with our families. We’re looking forward to gleaming her insights about how we can be even better at work. After all, as Brown says, “The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.”
yesterday I was the moon by Noor Unnahar
Anita’s teenage niece recommended this title, and when someone recommends you read poetry – you do it! Unnahar is a young woman from Pakistan. Her imagery and art journaling reflect both her age and the deep insights she has into human nature. We find that our minds expand when we explore new genres. Reading something unexpected or different challenges us to see the world – and our work – in a new light.
Meetings Suck by Cameron Herold
If you’ve ever rolled your eye at the idea of attending a meeting, don’t read this book. The good part is Herold includes a paragraph or two about attitude: go into every meeting prepared like it’s a job interview.
The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker
We were so inspired by this book that we traveled to Minneapolis last year to hear Parker speak in person. “The Art of Gathering” shares a human-centered approach to planning gatherings. Learn how to create meaningful, memorable experiences at work, or with family and friends. (One of her great observations: “Hosting is not democratic, just like design isn’t. Structure helps good parties, like restrictions help good design.”) Parker stresses that the most powerful gatherings begin with purpose and that every event is an opportunity to connect with others.
Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott
We’ve both read this book before (here’s Anita’s review) but Scott’s work is always worth revisiting. Her seven principles for transforming critical conversations into ones of passion, integrity, authenticity, and collaboration are extremely valuable. After all, as Scott says: “the conversation is not about the relationship, the conversation is the relationship.”
Later this month, Anita will be attending an event featuring Rachel Hollis, author of the best-selling book “Girl, Wash Your Face.”
Hollis has been a hot ticket for our local chamber’s Women Connect anniversary. So big, that the event quickly sold out. Anita, and many others, were placed on a waiting list.
To accommodate growing demand for tickets, the Chamber of Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo quickly decided to move the event to a larger venue. More people could hear the author AND celebrate Women Connect. Woo-hoo!
A sold-out event is every event planner’s dream, right? If all the tickets are gone, you’ve planned an event that people want to attend. If all the tickets are gone, you’ve likely covered your costs.
But sell-outs come with their own set of challenges.
When you sell out a day or two before an event you have one option: congratulate yourself on good budgeting as you keep plugging away at the last minute details you need to complete to pull it off.
But when sell-outs happen with time to spare, you – like the Chamber – have some decisions to make.
To our extreme pleasure, we have sold out an event, twice. The first time, it happened three weeks before the event. The second time, 11 days before.
Both times we were faced with two options: 1. Open a bottle of champagne and celebrate the fact that we had a strong plan of action and our event would go on as planned; or 2. Pour a cup of coffee, grab a pencil, and consider how to accommodate more people.
Adjustments can mean a variety of considerations from the extreme – secure a new venue or add another day – to the less drastic change of furniture or room layout. Each carries additional questions that relate to settings, seating, menu, budget, staffing, and materials.
Here are some things to keep in mind as you make those decisions:
Don’t sell out strategy. Before changing an event, circle back to your strategy. Why did you want to host the event in the first place? To make money? Connect people? Educate? Go through your strategy and think through how all, not just the additional, people will be served.
Do the math. All of it. How many additional tickets do you need to sell to make financial sense of the added work it takes to reconfigure the setting for new seating and additional menu items, the material and staff time? Will everyone get what they paid for?
Consider the time. Do you have enough time and energy to pull it off? Do you have enough staff to manage the day with additional people? Can you order and ship more give-aways for the swag bag? Can you print more materials for the packet? Do you have time to construct additional custom birch-bark name badges?
Consider the place. Sure, maybe you CAN fit 75 more people in the back of the room, but really, SHOULD you make them stand?
Carry the torch. Don’t forget about messages! Can you quickly create a new plan to clearly communicate the new order? Do you need to create additional signs or activities to maximize your space or guide people to the new meeting place?
Congratulations, you’ve sold out! Take a moment to enjoy the success and then make your next move strategic.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This blog is adapted from one that originally ran in March 2015.
We believe we can do better together; it’s one of our values. But we also know that teams can struggle to get work done together.
Teamwork sounds good in theory. The more, the merrier, right? And yet, when it comes to accomplishing tasks, it often seems easier to do it alone.
The problem is that teams often neglect to clarify and define roles, ensuring that their work is an uphill (or circular!) battle. Without clear roles and communication, a project slows. A lack of clarity creates redundancies and conflict; it encourages passive-aggressive behavior and wastes time.
To set the stage for a successful project, you first need to be clear on roles. To do this, answer two basic questions: what and who. A team needs to understand what skills are needed and who brings them: Who needs to provide input or make recommendations? Who is authorized to make decisions? Who is responsible for carrying those decisions out?
Understanding the answers to these questions will eliminate unnecessary frustration, friction, and unproductive competition between members of a team. If your role or somebody else’s role isn’t clear to you, it’s not clear to others.
As global business consultant Tamara Erikson wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “Collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood.”
Here’s how to do it:
What Is a Role?
A role is the part or position a team member plays in a particular operation or process. Some roles are formal; many are not. Formal roles include those whose name or title describes “what” they’re responsible for. For example, a project manager or a writer may fall into this category.
Teams often have people who do not have formal titles but have skills, experience, or knowledge that contribute to the outcome of our projects. Naming these roles can become complex and yet, it’s necessary or people will fill default roles.
Unless they’re told otherwise, people will assume a role because of interests, skills, personality type, motivations, or attitude. An extrovert may become the team’s catalyst to propel a team with energy and positivity, while someone with high analytical skill will provide insights and check possibilities against realities.
These are the realities that make teams valuable. But be sure everyone understands “who” needs to do and know “what.”
Tools for Defining Roles
Our top tool for defining roles is a RACI chart.
While organizational charts show hierarchies and decision-makers, a RACI chart shows roles so much better. It’s a valuable tool when working with clients, vendors, in coalitions, or when volunteering on a board.
A RACI chart is a matrix that assigns roles and responsibilities in categories of tasks. This sets expectations for people working together.
To make a RACI chart, begin by creating a row of team members across the top. List all needed tasks, milestones, or decisions on the left side.
Now indicate who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed in the intersecting cells.
Many examples of this tool exist online. One of my favorites is this Lord of the Rings example (the article on RACI charts is great, too).
If you are striving to empower others to get their work done, it may be a very helpful tool to use at the beginning of a project at work or as a volunteer.
We find the best use is to create a RACI chart with the team. This allows the group to grow a deeper understanding of the project tasks. The more clearly understand who needs to complete a task, whose expertise is needed, and who has the final say on decisions.
Like any tool, use it, manipulate, or modify in the way that works for your team.