Chapter 2: Groups In Organizations
Meetings in Organizations
Once I ran across something in a book that really agitated me. The volume presented lists of ideas for living a happy and fulfilled life. One of the lists was headed “Five Great Ways to Find a Friend.” Its first four ideas were to find a cause, find a church, find a class, and find a club. All those ideas seemed reasonable to me. Recommendation #5, however, was “find a committee.” When I saw this, I immediately asked myself, “What were the authors of this book eating, drinking, or smoking when they wrote this? Who with more sense than a pencil eraser would suggest actually LOOKING FOR A COMMITTEE TO JOIN for any reason whatsoever?” Phil Venditti
A college administrator we know overheard her seven-year-old daughter and another little girl talking about their parents. “What does your mother do?” asked the other child. “She goes to meetings,” replied the administrator’s child.
Whether in educational settings or business or elsewhere, meetings dominate the way many groups operate in American society. Estimates of the number of meetings that take place every day in our country range from 11 million to more than 30 million. One authority claims that the average chief executive officer spends 17 hours per week in meetings, whereas the average senior executive spends 23 hours per week (Amos 2002).
If the average number of people in each of these meetings is only five and the average meeting lasts only one hour, this means that between 55,000,000 and 150,000,000 person-hours each day are being consumed by meetings. Assuming a 50-week work year, then, the total time devoted to meetings each year amounts to at least fifteen billion person-hours. As for you, yourself, one estimate is that you’ll spend 35–50% of every workweek in meetings, for a total of more than 9,000 hours over the course of your lifetime (Doyle & Straus 1993).
If meetings are so central to what groups do, and so time-consuming, it makes sense to pay attention to how they’re conducted. Like any other course of action, the process of engaging in meetings has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In our first section we’ll consider the beginning—the planning part. Later we’ll look at techniques for facilitating a meeting, the use of Robert’s Rules of Order, and the best ways to follow up after a meeting.
Planning a Meeting
- “Aller Anfang ist schwer.” German saying (“All beginnings are difficult.”)
- “The beginning is half the job”. Korean saying
- “Meetings should be viewed skeptically from the outset, as risks to productivity.” Jeff Atwood
Whether and how carefully you plan any undertaking will determine in large part how well it turns out. Bad planning makes it harder to achieve your goals; good planning makes it easier. This certainly applies to meetings of groups, so it’s wise for us to examine how to plan those meetings effectively. Before we consider the ins and outs of that planning, however, let’s reflect on the proper role of meetings.
What Are Meetings for?
Office equipment and supplies constitute tools to support the work of most modern groups such as student teams in college classes, employees and executives in businesses, and collections of people in other organizations. None of those groups would say, however, that using copy machines and staplers is one of their goals. And none of them would visit a copy machine unless they had something they needed to reproduce. They wouldn’t grab a stapler, either, unless they had some papers to attach to each other.
Meetings resemble office supplies in at least one way: they can help a group accomplish its goals. But meetings are like office supplies in another way, too: they’re only a means toward reaching group goals, not an end in themselves. And sometimes they’re even antithetical to the efficient functioning of a group. One statistical analysis of workers’ reactions to meetings discovered a significant positive relationship between the number of meetings attended and both the level of fatigue and the sensation of being subjected to a heavy work load (Luong & Rogelber).
Remember these truths, therefore: If it is operating well, your group at some point probably adopted goals for itself. It may even have ranked those goals in order of importance. Members of a student team might, for example, decide that their joint goals are to earn a high grade on their group project, to have fun together, and to ensure that all of them can secure a positive recommendation from the instructor when they look for a job after graduation.
“To meet” is not one of the goals of any group, though, is it? No; your goals involve doing things, not meeting—not even meeting to decide what you’re going to do and whether you’re doing it. Therefore, you should not meet until and unless doing so will clearly contribute to a real goal of your group.
What this means in practical reality is that many, many regularly-scheduled meetings probably ought to be canceled, postponed, or at the very least substantially shortened. It means that meetings which aren’t part of an official, ongoing series should be conducted only if the people who would be participating agree that having the meetings is necessary to answer a question, solve a problem, make a decision, or ensure that people know what it is they are and should be doing. It means, in short, that a group’s “default position” should be never to meet.
If you’re in a position to decide whether and when a meeting will take place, you’re in control of what some might consider other people’s most valuable possession: their time. If you take this responsibility seriously and act on it wisely, your fellow group members will appreciate it—especially since many group leaders don’t do so.
To Meet or Not to Meet: Criteria for calling a meeting (or not)
In the twenty-first century, technology offers techniques for accomplishing many group goals without meeting face to face. A helpful website called “Lifehacker” suggests that you follow these steps before scheduling in-person meetings:
- Get done what you can by email. If email doesn’t accomplish your aims, use the telephone. Only if neither email nor the phone works should you meet face to face.
- Calculate the opportunity cost of a potential meeting. What task(s) that you could be engaged in at the time of the meeting will you have to postpone, or forgo entirely, because of the meeting? Is it worth it?
- Ask yourself what bad results, if any, will come to pass if you don’t meet. What about if you don’t meet this time, but later instead? If the bad things which you expect to arise if you don’t meet are minimal or can be dealt with easily, don’t meet, or at least not now.
- Ask if it’s essential for everyone in the group to be at the same physical location at the time of the meeting. Assess whether the chore of just moving people’s molecules from one place to another could render a face-to-face meeting undesirable.
If It’s “to Meet,” Then What?
Once you’ve decided that you should hold a meeting of some sort, you should do your best to make sure it will run well. Part of this undertaking is to ensure that all the members of your group understand the significance of the time they’ll be devoting to getting together. To this end, you may want to create a list of basic obligations you feel everyone should fulfill with respect to all meetings. These obligations might include the following items:
- If you can’t make it to a meeting, let the person who’s organizing it know in a timely fashion. If you were expected to make a report or complete a task of some sort by the time of the meeting, either submit the report through someone else who will be there or inform the organizer of when you’ll finish what you’re committed to be doing. If you can find someone to fill in for you at the meeting, do it.
- If you can attend the meeting, prepare for it. Read meeting announcements and agendas. Take necessary and appropriate information and tools with you to each meeting. Come to meetings with an open mind and with a mental picture of what you may contribute to the discussion.
- Pay attention. Avoid side conversations or other actions that might keep you from understanding what’s going on in a meeting.
- Be clear and concise. Seek parsimonious discourse. Don’t speak unless you’re sure you’ll improve over silence by doing so.
- Wait to express your own opinion until you’re sure you understand others’ views.
- Challenge assumptions, but stick to the topic and offer constructive rather than destructive criticism.
- Know when to give in on a matter of disagreement. Stick to your convictions, but consider carefully whether you need to have your way in any particular situation.
Guidelines for Planning a Meeting
Again, first of all: don’t meet at all unless you need to. Once you’ve determined that a meeting will promote rather than hinder productivity, preparing for it well will give you a head start on maximizing its effectiveness. Here are six guidelines to take into account as you plan a meeting:
Identify the specific goals.
Identify the specific goals you plan to achieve in the meeting and the methods you’ll use to decide if you’ve achieved them. Write the goals down. Reread them. Let them sit a while. Read them again to see if they’re still appropriate and necessary.
If the goals of the meeting still look as though they’re all valuable, remember Dwight Eisenhower’s dictum that “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” If you’re not sure you can get everything done that you hope to in the time you’ll have available, set priorities so that the most urgent items are taken care of quickly and you can postpone others without endangering what’s most important to get done.
1.Decide carefully who needs to attend.
At one point, Amazon Corporation implemented a “two-pizza guideline” whereby it limited the number of people who composed its teams to the quantity that could be fed with two pizzas. If you calculate that the people you plan to invite to your meeting constitute larger than a two-pizza group, ask yourself if all of them really, really, really need to be there.
2. Produce a clear, brief, thorough, informative agenda.
Don’t spring surprises on people. To give them a solid idea of what to expect, divide the meeting’s agenda into simple categories. For each item, name the individual in charge of it, indicate whether it will require action by the group, and provide a brief (1-2 sentence) explanation of the item, and an estimated length of time for the discussion. (You’ll need to confirm these estimates with the responsible parties, of course). If you expect some or all of the group’s members to complete a task before they arrive, such as reading a report or generating possible solutions to a problem, tell them so clearly. Here’s a link to a Google search for “meeting agenda”. As you can see, there are a wide variety of examples you can modify to include the information above.
Here’s a special note, too: Don’t plan to stretch the contents of a meeting to fit a preordained time. Strive to cut down on how long you spend to handle each item on your agenda as much as you can so that members of your group can get back to their other responsibilities as soon as possible. A shorter-than-expected meeting is usually a thing of joy.
3. Pick a good venue.
If you have a choice, plan to gather in a place with plenty of light, comfortable furniture, and a minimum of distracting sounds or sights. You should be able to adjust the temperature, too, if people get too hot or cold. Make sure that any technological tools you think will be available to you are actually going to be on hand when you meet and that they’re all functioning. Even if you expect to have access to a laptop computer and a projector, plan to bring a flip chart and markers so that people will be able to express and record ideas spontaneously during the meeting. And all other things being equal, find a place to meet regularly which is large enough and secure enough to allow your group members to store the “tools of their trade” there—flipcharts, writing supplies, reference books, etc.—between gatherings.
4. Make sure the participants receive the agenda.
Make sure people receive the agenda you’ve prepared in a timely fashion so they’ll know why, when, where, and for how long the group is expected to meet. Agendas can be sent via email, and/or in a shared folder.
One college president from a Southern state maintained that he’d gotten his board of trustees to act “like trained seals,” partly through thorough preparation for their meetings. In fact, the president actually ran practice meetings with the board to make sure there would be no surprises when the real meetings took place. You should practice, too, at gently, repeatedly, and clearly notifying other group members of the time and agenda of each meeting. For every person who thinks you’re being repetitive, two or three will thank you for keeping them from overlooking the meeting.
If you’re planning to meet in a place for the first time, or if you’re expecting someone to attend your meeting for the first time, be sure to provide clear and complete directions to the location. With online tools such as mapquest.com and google maps at your disposal, it should cost you very little time to locate such directions and send them to members of your group.
5. Arrive early.
Arrive early to size up and set up the place where you’re meeting. Rooms sometimes get double-booked, furniture sometimes gets rearranged, technological tools such as LCD projectors and laptop computers sometimes break down or get taken away to be repaired, and so on and on. If you’re the person in charge of leading the meeting, you need to know first if unexpected happenings like these have taken place.
Facilitating a Meeting
Most committees I’ve served on have been inefficient, superfluous, repetitive, sluggish, unproductive, erratic, rancorous, or boring—or all of the above. By and large, they’ve wasted my time and the time of many other people. Frequently, everyone in the group eagerly helped identify jobs that needed to accomplished, but just a few members ended up shouldering the burdens and completing the tasks. The rest did their best to avoid the group entirely and had to be cajoled or badgered to take part in meetings and work. Most of the meetings oscillated between tedium, dreariness, and fruitless conflict. In short, the meetings were cesspools of futility. – Phil Venditti
Preparing for group meetings well takes you a third of the way toward ensuring their productivity, and follow-up takes care of another third. The rest of the process is to run the meetings efficiently.
Make no mistake: facilitating a meeting well is difficult. It requires care, vigilance, flexibility, resilience, humility, and humor. In a way, in fact, to run a meeting effectively calls upon you to act the way a skilled athletic coach does, watching the action, calling plays, and encouraging good performance. Furthermore, you need to monitor the interaction of everyone around you and “call the plays” based on a game plan that you and your fellow group members have presumably agreed upon in advance. Finally, like a coach, you sometimes need to call timeouts—breaks—when people are weary or the action is starting to get raggedy or undisciplined.
Perils of Poor Facilitation
Unfortunately, many people lack effective meeting facilitation skills. As a result, a variety of negative results can take place as they fail to act capably as meeting facilitators. Here are some signs that there’s “Trouble in River City” in a meeting:
- An argument starts about an established fact.
- Opinions are introduced as if they were truths.
- People intimidate others with real or imaginary “knowledge.”
- People overwhelm each other with too many proposals for the time available to consider them.
- People become angry for no good reason.
- People promote their own visions at the expense of everyone else’s.
- People demand or offer much more information than is needed.
- Discussion becomes circular; people repeat themselves without making any progress toward conclusions.
If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms of a poorly-facilitated meeting, you realize how demoralizing they can be for a group.
Important Skills for Facilitating a Meeting
So how you you facilitate a productive meeting? Here are some important skills for an effective meeting facilitator.
- Start promptly…always.
Some time, calculate the cost to your group—even at minimum-wage rates—for the minutes its members sit around waiting for meetings to begin. You may occasionally be delayed for good reasons, but if you’re chronically late you’ll eventually aggravate folks who’ve arrived on time—the very ones whose professionalism you’d particularly like to reinforce and praise. Consistently starting on time may even boost morale: “Early in, early out” will probably appeal to most of a group’s members, since they are likely to have other things they need to do as soon as a meeting ends.
- Involve everyone in the conversation by using various question strategies.
One way to do this is by having members take turn sharing out (e.g., “Lets go around and update each other…”). Another way to get conversation flowing is by asking an overheard question (e.g., “What do people think about the marking proposal?”). If you notice a specific group member hasnt had a turn to talk, you might employ a “gatekeeping” technique of asking a direct question (e.g., “Alice, did you have anything you wanted to add before we move on?”). As the meeting facilitator, you want to be careful not to answer all the questions posed by others in the group, as they may begin to see you as the default decision-maker. To avoid this, you can use reverse questions (e.g., “That’s a great question, Jack, what do you think?”) or relay questions (e.g., Stacey raises a good questions. What do y’all think?”)
- Keep the discussion on track.
Conversations that wonder off topic for a few minutes can be ok (sometimes they are bonding moments for the group). You dont want to waste members’ time, however, by spending too much time talking about irrelevant topic. If you need get the discussion back on track you might remind the group of time pressures (e.g., “I see we have 10 minutes left today so we should probably get back to deciding on…”), summarizing and redirecting (e.g., “Sounds like folks had a nice weekend. Lets move on to the next agenda item, however.”), using relevance challenges (e.g., “I’m confused, you suggesting we are required to create a video to go along with our media campaing?”), and/or promise deal with good ideas later (e.g., “I love the idea of a shared Google drive for our documents. Lets talk more about that once we’ve settled on a project topic.”).
- Keep your eyes open for nonverbal communication.
As a meeting progresses, people’s physical and emotional states are likely to change. As the facilitator, you should do your best to identify such change and accommodate it within the structures and processes your group has established for itself. When people do something as simple as crossing their arms in front of them, for instance, they might be signaling that they’re closed to what others are saying—or they might just be trying to stay warm in a room that feels too cold to them. When one person in the meeting has the floor and is talking, it’s a good idea to watch how the rest of the group seems to be responding. You may notice clues indicating that people are pleased and receptive, or that they’re uninterested, skeptical, or even itching to respond negatively. You may want to do a perception check to see if you’re interpreting nonverbal cues accurately. For instance, you might say, “Terry, could we pause here a bit? I get the impression that people might have some questions for you.” As an alternative, you might address the whole group and ask “Does anyone have questions for Terry at this point?”
- Create a positive tone.
Since many people dread meetings, it is helpful to create a positive and collaborative tone in a meeting. One way to do this by demonstrating you’ve listened to a group member by paraphrasing what you heard them say (e.g., “So what I heard you suggest is that we…”). Alternatively, you can create a positive environment by praising their contributions(e.g., “That’s a great idea”, ” I’m so glad your brought that up because I was concerned about that too’). Finally, you can appeal to people’s tummies and funnybones. Provide something to eat or drink, even if it’s just coffee or peanuts in a bowl. Glenn Parker and George Hoffman’s book “Meeting excellence: 33 tools to lead meetings that get results” includes a chapter titled “Eating Well=Meeting Well,” and it also refers to the fact that the American Cancer Society offers a program to help groups organize meetings and other events with good health in mind.
Tips For Virtual Meetings
Meetings conducted via Skype, Zoom, Google Duo or other synchronous technologies can function as efficiently as face-to-face ones, but only if the distinctive challenges of the virtual environment are taken into account. It’s harder to develop empathy with other people, and easier to engage in unhelpful multitasking, when you’re not in the same physical space with them. To make it more likely that a virtual meeting will be both pleasant and productive, then, it makes sense to tell people up front what your expectations are of their behavior. If you want them to avoid reading email or playing computer solitaire on their computers while the meeting is underway, for example, say so.
A major goal of most meetings is to reach decisions based on maximum involvement, so it pays to keep in mind that people work best with other people whom they know and understand. With this in mind, you might choose to email a photo of each person scheduled to be in the meeting and include a quick biography for everyone to look over in advance. This communication could take place along with disseminating the meeting’s agenda and other supporting documentation.
Here are some further tips and suggestions for leading or participating in virtual meetings, each based on the unique features of such gatherings:
- Get all the participants in a meeting to say something brief at the start of the meeting to verify the sound is working.
- Remind people of the purpose of the meeting and the agenda.
- Listen/watch for people who aren’t participating and ask them periodically if they have thoughts or suggestions to add to the discussion.
- Summarize the status of the meeting from time to time.
- Encourage participants to mute their microphone when not speaking, to avoid distracting background noise.
In summary, sloppy minutes degrade the value of the work and time people invest together. They can also weaken a group’s morale. Professional minutes, on the other hand, may even make people who weren’t at a meeting wish they had been—although that’s perhaps asking a lot, unless you served pizza!—and can strengthen your group’s pride and solidarity.
- Identify a group of which you’re a member. What percentage of its meetings in the past year do you feel contributed significantly to its stated objectives? What role did pre-meeting planning play in producing that outcome?
- Think about a time when a group you were part of canceled or postponed a meeting. On what grounds did it reach that decision? Why do you approve or disapprove of the decision?
- What do you consider to be the pros and cons of limiting the number of people invited to a group meeting?
- Which instances of “Trouble in River City” have you experienced in group meetings? Describe two or three such instances. What action might the group leader have taken to prevent or resolve the episodes?
- Some cultures value exact punctuality differently from others. If you were leading a series of meetings comprising members of several cultural groups, what steps, if any, would you take to accommodate or modify people’s habits and expectations concerning the starting and ending times of the meetings?
- Imagine that you’re the new chairperson of a group which got seriously off track in the first of its meetings that you presided over. You tried gently redirecting people to discuss pertinent issues, but they first ignored and then resisted your attempts. What steps might you take to address the situation?
- If you’ve participate in a virtual meeting which reached a decision of some sort, what elements of the medium do you feel contributed positively to making the decision? What elements, if any, made it more challenging for you to achieve your aims?
- Think of a problem at your college that you and some of your fellow students feel needs to be addressed. Imagine that you’ve been told you have two weeks to present a proposal to the president of the college for remedying the problem. Draft an agenda for as many meetings as you feel would be necessary to involve the proper people in confronting the problem. Describe how the meetings would take place, including what rules you would follow, who would be invited, and what specific items would be dealt with in what sequence.
Books and Articles
Mosvick, R.K., & Nelson, R.B. (1996). A guide to successful meeting management. Indianapolis, IN: Park Avenue. Includes information about business meetings, along with suggestions on how to improve them.
Silberman, M. (1999). 101 ways to make your meetings active. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Provides fun activities and exercises to help prepare people to conduct meetings effectively.
Streibel, B.J. (2003). The manager’s guide to effective meetings. New York: McGraw-Hill. Includes advice on conducting virtual meetings, as well as useful examples and checklists related to meeting management.
Facilitation at a Glance; Ingred Bens
A wonderful pocket guide to facilitation, filled with tools and techniques useful to both novice and advanced facilitators. Great set of tools for problem solving.
Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making; Sam Kaner
An excellent resource for ideas on facilitation, with a focus on decision-making tools and techniques. The book includes excellent illustrations, which can be reproduced to help explain facilitation concepts to others.
Other Meeting Design and Facilitation Resources
The International Association of Facilitators (IAF)
The IAF promotes, supports and advances the art and practice of professional facilitation through methods exchange, professional growth, practical research, collegial networking and support services.
Interaction Associates is the creator and distributor of the Mastering Meetings: Tools for Collaborative Action and Essential Facilitation classes which MIT is licensed to teach. The Tips and Techniques section at their Web site is particularly useful.
- Material in this section adopted, in part, by Adler, R. B., Elmhorst, J. M. & Lucas, K. (2013). Communicating at work: Strategies for success in business and the professions. (11Th Ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill. ↵