Leadership

Help clients make efficient use of meeting time

If your clients get little accomplished during meetings because of unproductive arguments and miscommunication, they need a facilitator.
 Editor's note: Although this TechRepublic article originally published on December 12, 2000, the advice still holds true today.

I think it can be said that most people dislike meetings. They often consider them boring, pointless, tedious -- or any number of other negative descriptors. Perhaps all this disdain stems from the wasted time many of us have spent in unproductive -- and even sometimes downright combative -- meetings where our voices are not heard, and nothing ever gets accomplished. But it doesn't have to be that way.

In a previous column, I explained why meeting facilitation is a valuable part of an IT consultant's repertoire and reviewed the techniques that facilitators use to set clear goals and objectives for every meeting. Now I'll talk about the preparation for the facilitated meeting and the methods we can use to help teams make the best use of the time at hand.

When does a client need a facilitator?

I recently attended a client's IT cross-functional meeting that addressed a serious problem: IT was missing its corporate performance goals and alienating the user base. The department head began the meeting by telling members of the network-, application-, and user-support teams that only they could solve the problem, as they were the ones who truly understood users' needs and frustrations.

As team members began discussing the problem, however, the department head kept interrupting, asserting her conclusion about what was wrong and how to fix it, and assigning tasks to team members before they had a chance to work through any issues. As they walked out of the room, frustrated and angry, the team members looked at each other with a resigned expression that said, "We've been here before."

This is just one example of a situation that cries out for a facilitator -- an individual who can lead teams into fruitful areas of discussion, assist in clarifying proposals and ideas, diplomatically move past controversial and unproductive arguments, and apply a structured process to get results.

Setting ground rules

Facilitators structure discussions in a group setting and guide the conversation. They set ground rules that govern meeting behavior regarding things like schedule, breaks, meals, and handling interruptions. They also set ground rules, such as:

  • All ideas will be considered fairly.
  • Everyone will make an effort to participate.
  • Conversation will be directed toward the goals and objectives of the meeting.
  • Constructive disagreement is okay, but personal conflict is not.
  • Everything that happens in the meeting is confidential.
  • Anyone can request a "time out" for clarification, to defuse a conflict, or to redirect a conversation.
  • All "next steps" are assigned an owner and a due date.

Most facilitation is based on common courtesy and common sense. While facilitators need to have a toolbag of techniques ready for guiding and structuring conversations, these techniques can be learned, and the best facilitators help teams by applying some simple rules of human interaction.

Prep work

It's a commonly accepted rule of thumb that each day of facilitation requires a day of preparation. I prepare my facilitation design at least a week before the event and arrange a pre-session meeting with the client sponsor to review my understanding of the goals and objectives, as well as all the elements I described above, to make sure that we're in agreement.

To help the client set proper goals and objectives for the meeting, which we reviewed last time, skilled facilitators should understand:

  • The business context of the facilitation. Is this meeting in response to some external threat, like a new competitive situation, or some internal need, like a new organizational structure?
  • The time constraints of the meeting. Are there deadlines set on the proceedings, or is there some flexibility in the time allotted? Many meetings fail to achieve the desired results because they don't allow sufficient time for discussion and consensus, so it is important that the meeting's objectives correlate with the time allowed for the meeting.
  • The setting of the meeting. Will this meeting be held at the corporate headquarters, where individuals may be called out of the room or be tempted to run to their desks to "take care of one thing," or will the meeting be held at an off-site location where the team can be totally focused on the task at hand? The cost of travel and facilities for an off-site meeting must be weighed against the expected benefits of a focused result. It's also critical to take care of the mundane details of the meeting-many a facilitation has been derailed for want of a marker or an extra flip-chart.
  • The background materials required for an effective meeting. In most of my facilitations, I present a handout that may include a slide show, a draft of a document or design, a list of attendees and their roles, an agenda, a case study or article for review, or other related materials. A complete and professional-looking handout or visual sets the stage for an organized, focused gathering.
  • The processes to be used. The skilled facilitator knows to select which techniques he will use based on each meeting's requirements. If the goal is an innovative system design, then creative processes such as brainstorming and visioning are appropriate. If reaching consensus is key, then group voting or a decision grid might be more suitable.

Time is of the essence

Because most facilitated meetings are held during work hours, the tension employees feel between sitting in the meeting and "taking care of business" can create stress in meetings. To combat this, facilitators must be conscious of the meeting schedule and use the time allotted wisely to achieve the desired goals. For this, I use a "time contract." The team and I agree that I will guide the discussion to make the most of our time and that we will table sidetrack issues so we can stay focused on the session objectives.

In the next installment in this series, I'll outline the methods used in the actual facilitated session.

Get weekly consulting tips in your inbox TechRepublic's IT Consultant newsletter, delivered each Monday, offers tips on how to attract customers, build your business, and increase your technical skills in order to get the job done. Automatically sign up today!

About

Rick Freedman is the author of three books on IT consulting, including "The IT Consultant." Rick is an independent consultant and trainer, working, through his company Consulting Strategies Inc., to help agile teams and organizations understand agile...

6 comments
lerchertrain
lerchertrain

What Rick descries here is more like a workshop not a meeting. Maybe we have different meanings for the word meeting in USA and Europe. For me a meeting is a short conference, more like a gathering, where the important persons for a task get together and decide for the next steps. I call this a 'nano project' In a meeting everybody should know about the content and have his questions prepared. At the end of the meeting every questions should be asked and new question for the next steps should be set. After them all the team members are able to work on their task. What Rick describes is much more like a workshop where you have the chance to create new ideas and projects. During projects you need short an efficient meetings the set the status quo and go on. Regards from Austria Andreas Lercher www.mindmap.at

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

In the prep work section, Rick mentions a number of items that a skilled (trained) facilitator needs to understand. However, there is one thing that he omits. A trained facilitator will maintain a plethora of behavioural models. After all, a meeting without people is not going to be much of a meeting. By understanding how people react emotionally to the ideas which are to be presented, a trained facilitator can plan a meeting that will go as smoothly as it can under the circumstances. Sometimes, that involves events that may seem "airy, fairy" or "touchy, feely" (e.g. a round asking "How do you FEEL about the subject" with no comments allowed). However, they are important to getting the participants to move past resistance. In addition, a trained facilitator will bring to the table a process to plan meetings. Planning meetings is a process and should have a "formal", maintainable design process associated with it. A trained facilitator brings the process and saves others the need to learn and maintain the process. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.trainingNOW.ca http://www.LearningCreators.com/blog

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... however, I see more companies having meetings on shorter notice. It's part of the need to be more responsive to business changes these days. The principles that Rick outlines still apply, you just have less time to prepare.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Meeting is a generic term meaning a gathering of people for a specific purpose (although I personally like the alternative meaning of a hostile encounter; duel). A workshop, technically, refers to the room where work (especially mechanical, manufacturing or hand crafting) takes place. Meeting parlance takes it's definition from this so a workshop meeting is a meeting designed for hands-on practice. Having said all that, facilitation applies to all types of meetings including seminars, workshops, exploratory and informational. Any meeting where opinions are shared between the chair and the audience. That means lecture style meetings are about the only exception. Does that help? Glen Ford, PMP http://www.TrainingNOW.ca http://www.LearningCreators.com/blog

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

They shape the meeting far more than any agenda, whether you want them to or not.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Unfortunately it takes time to plan a meeting properly. Although I admit one week to plan and prep a meeting seems longer than I usually get, in fact, many meetings are scheduled well in advance. Generally, a meeting can be planned in approximately the length of time it will take (preparing materials may take longer). So the rush 1 hour meeting only takes 1 hour to plan. We create much of the rush meeting mentality ourselves. Many of these rush meetings either aren't needed at all or don't need a full formal meeting or don't need to be rushed. Being responsive to change doesn't mean being out of control. Rushing is a symptom of being out of control. Very few business changes really need to have a meeting right this second. In fact, giving a change a "cooling off" period often results in the change disappearing. (Go back to your quality management theory for an explanation - see control limits). Glen Ford, PMP http://www.TrainingNOW.ca http://www.LearningCreators.com/blog