Leaders invest a significant amount of time in meetings. Whether one-on-one or in larger groups, meetings offer a chance to discuss or launch a project, share ideas, consider solutions and reach consensus. Unfortunately, much of this time may be wasted without the use of a few basic management techniques.

Along with a well-designed agenda, it is important to address the mechanics, tools and concepts that ensure a smooth ride along the way. Otherwise, the meeting may go something like this:

  • The highest-ranking representatives dominate the discussion.
  • Issues seem to shift and/or grow from differing points of view.
  • The agenda begins to creep, stretching the meeting time and perhaps short-circuiting consensus-building on action items.
  • Poor participation creates a lack of trust and little commitment to any direction agreed to by the group.
  • In the end, the meeting becomes an undocumented or poorly interpreted discussion.

Ultimately, this may result in lack of accountability and the misuse of valuable human resources. Does an organization suffer from a perception of too many meetings, compounded by the fact that they are largely unproductive? Can meeting effectiveness be improved with basic facilitation techniques?

The answer is yes. The road to success is often paved with a focus on basic skills and techniques. Here are a few for Six Sigma project teams to consider:

Practicing the Seven-Second Rule

Ever noticed a leader in a meeting ask a question and then proceed almost immediately to a new train of thought or to a new subject? It is amazing how often this occurs. Waiting seven seconds after asking a question allows individuals to comprehend and respond. Given the chance to share, team members often present great ideas and valuable insights that might be missed by rushing this response time.

Icebreakers Can Be Worth the Time

An icebreaker is a short, effective exercise to engage a group. It may be chosen for its message or so members can learn something new about each other. It also can help to nudge “immovable” participants and improve the atmosphere of the meeting. For example, during introductions, the meeting leader might ask each team member to share their name, current role and length of time in healthcare. Write down the responses, then acknowledge not only the total time, but also the range tenure and variety of roles, revealing diverse backgrounds and opinions.

This activity is often dropped due to a perceived lack of time or interest. A five-minute icebreaker in an hour-long meeting, however, may be the difference between 55 minutes of productivity versus 60 minutes wasted.

Providing the Ground Rules First

Set guidelines for the way a meeting will be run and how team members will interact. Ground rules establish acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Using ground rules as team operating mechanisms:

  • Teams should reach consensus on rules they are willing to honor. Simply ask, “Can we all live with the ground rules on this list?” Discuss and be flexible.
  • Revisions may be made at the facilitator’s discretion with team consensus.
  • Ground rules should remain active over the course of a team’s life. Acknowledge the rules at the beginning of each meeting and address any need for revisions.

Establishing ground rules provides an opportunity to engage the group and helps shift ownership for the meeting’s success to participants. It should take five or ten minutes initially, and a couple minutes to acknowledge rules in subsequent meetings.

Using the Parking Lot Concept

As the discussion strays from the agenda, the concept of a parking lot helps to get the group back on track. Parking lot ideas and topics are written either on a flip chart or sheet of paper by the facilitator or designated scribe, whose role will be defined in the next set of roles. Revisit the parking lot at the end of each meeting to decide the most appropriate course of action for each item. It may be necessary to table the idea for a future agenda, or forward to other groups or another person in a leadership position for resolution.

Delegating Roles for Team Members

Delegating roles for team members at the beginning of each meeting helps to engage others and distributes important meeting responsibilities.

Leader/Facilitator: Subordinates often perceive organizational leaders as the source for the best ideas and solutions to issues and topics of interest. Team members may fail to recognize their own contributions as “process knowledge” experts. Team leaders efforts to elicit ideas and concerns are the key to uncovering valuable viewpoints and alternative solutions. The facilitator role is to:

  • Guide the group through various activities to achieve objectives.
  • Ensure all group members participate.
  • Focus attention on what needs to be done.
  • Promote discussion to help overcome differences and reach consensus.

Timekeeper: Someone who helps to watch the clock , while the facilitator helps direct the conversation. Facilitators often lose track of time and thus can fail to effectively manage the agenda.

Scribe: The traditional approach to recording ideas is to have a person keep minutes. There are several potential pitfalls to this method. Participants cannot see the record of their discussion and may miss important information. It is not until minutes are distributed that corrections may be made. If minutes are taken then they should be promptly distributed. However, do not miss the value of visually capturing the discussion points during the meeting on a flip chart for all to see in real time. The scribe should be responsible for:

  • Recording ideas accurately.
  • Writing large enough so all can read.
  • Making sure all flip charts are labeled and clear.

Process Checker: This may be one of the most important roles to help keep a meeting on track. Although one individual is initially assigned to play this role, everyone (including the facilitator) should pitch in and process check when needed. The process checker politely gives the timeout signal and asks the team if the discussion is veering out of scope. If so, the team can choose to record the importance of the discussion on the parking lot or simply move on. The added value of an effective process checker is to:

  • Maintain focus on agreed-upon processes being used.
  • Suggest techniques to help the group achieve goals, e.g., use of the parking lot or technique for reaching consensus (as described below).
  • Help the group apply tools correctly. For example, when the group is brainstorming, make sure ideas are being evaluated or judged.

Presenter: This role is typically used when the team has been split into smaller groups to address multiple topics. The presenter shares the smaller group’s work or ideas with the whole team or other groups. Presenters should be identified as small groups form. Thus they can pay special attention to the message they will have to deliver later. They may want to also play the role of scribe, so they can present from a written document.

Using a Fist-to-Five Consensus Check

No matter who the attendees at a meeting are – high ranking executives or project teams represented by those who are from a diagonal slice of the organization – they often find it necessary to try to find consensus. This does not mean everyone is going to agree to “the very best idea.” It does mean that everyone agrees to implement and actively support the decision and that this decision is the best one under the circumstances. They will personally live with the decision because they believe their reservations and concerns were heard and considered.

Simply speaking, consensus is agreeing to proceed with no hidden reservations.

The fist-to-five consensus check works like this:

  1. The leader asks for a show of hands on a fist-to-five basis if the team can agree on a particular discussion point or conclusion.
  2. All team members must participate in a display of hands.
  3. By using fingers or a fist, the team members indicate their views:
    Five fingers = best
    Four fingers = good
    Three fingers = okay
    Two fingers = needs more discussion
    One finger = not good
    Fist = totally against or broken
  4. The team should consider consensus if all hands show showing three or more fingers. Should any one individual or more individuals display a fist or less than three fingers, then a consensus has not been reached. A majority in agreement is not a consensus.
  5. The team needs to continue its discussion on the topic by first hearing from an individual with a fist or one or two fingers displayed, and then from a representative of the three fingers or more group. After the discussion, ask for a new show of hands.
  6. Continue the process until the team ultimately reaches consensus.
  7. If after a reasonable amount of repetitions and discussion the team cannot reach agreement, then there are two alternatives:
    • Either parking lot the topic for future attention, or
    • The leader or management representation in the team will then make a decision. The benefit of this decision taking place after the fist-to-five method is that all team member should at least feel as thought they had the opportunity to be heard.

It is important to observe the level of agreement and concerns of the team members. This will indicate the size of the gap in their positions requiring closure before consensus is met. Team leaders and their teams should fun with this method of building consensus. This simple tool has been applied at every level of many organizations, from the boardroom to small project teams.

WWW Action Plan – What? Who? When?

How many times have meetings ended without documented plans for next steps or actions for improvement? Individuals should be responsible for not only actions, but also to be accountable to a timeframe for completion. Meeting without closure on an action plan wastes time and leads to follow-up meetings to discuss the same issues and rehash old points of view. The WWW action plan can eliminate this tragic misuse of valuable resources. Here is how this plan should be filled out:

  • What is a description of the task or action step.
  • Who is the individual responsible for completing the task and present to accept the assignment.
  • When is the specific date – not a statement like two weeks, within the month, etc. (It is hard to hold people accountable unless there is a specific date. Also the date should be either set or confirmed as reasonable by the person identified as the who.)

Conclusion: Tools for Every Meeting

It is not rocket science. It is about getting back to the basics. Success will be determined by the leader’s ability to change expectations – and perhaps even the culture – around productively managing meetings. The tools should become the accepted norm and feel natural in their purpose of optimizing the vast amount of time spent by valuable human resources in discussions called meetings. It is not enough to have the executive or manager routinely use these concepts. It is only when everyone begins to expect and ask for their use in meetings that real behavior change will occur.

Driving the consistent use of these simple tools and concepts across the organization will foster real behavior change and lead to positive results from conducting routine meetings to planning major kick-off events.

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