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.

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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...

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