Meetings – and why they should be structured

Team-meeting-on-the-job-tips

Effective meetings are a critically essential activity in running a business. You need meetings to make decisions, reach agreements and develop solutions. They harness the combined wisdom of your staff to invent products, increase sales, improve productivity, plan strategies, and create success.

However, learning how to plan and conduct meetings is not something that comes naturally along with your promotion. Get people together round a table and something different happens due to the dynamics of communication and hierarchy. When a team uses ‘group process’ procedures this can lead to the team being more satisfied with its decisions and more committed to their implementation.

Type of meeting

Firstly, establish what kind of meeting it is. The type of meeting, combined with the subject matter, tells you who needs to participate, what kind of interaction is needed to accomplish the meeting purpose, and provides the context for selection of group process techniques.

Meeting types include: information briefings; project planning or review; trust building/team-building; decision-making; generating new ideas or approaches; dispute resolution; strategic planning; problem solving/crisis resolution; commitment-building and celebrations.

Many meetings also play multiple functions. The first item may be an informational briefing, while the second is a decision-making item, and agenda item three is a problem-solving item. Your agenda needs to clearly specify what kind of item it is so that each team member knows what you expect from them during each agenda item and ultimately the whole meeting itself.

Structure promotes spontaneity

You can achieve predictable results faster by applying structured activities which help keep control of the meeting and help people make methodical progress toward results.

Using the same, clearly-defined series of steps whenever the team makes decisions is helpful. What matters is that it is used frequently enough so that people develop a common language and common set of expectations for each step in the process.

Steps in the decision-making process usually follow this structure: Defining the problem or opportunity (may include defining criteria for acceptability or success); generating alternatives; evaluate alternatives; selection of a course of action; defining the implementation plan; establishing mechanisms for determining whether or not your approach is working.

At each step, different behaviour is required of participants. So it is imperative that the meeting planner specify where in the decision-making process this meeting (or this agenda item) is.

Steps to decisions

Reaching a decision usually requires a number of clear steps and most group process techniques are useful for only one of the steps in the decision making process.

A key example is the technique known as “brainstorming.” The key elements of brainstorming are to engage the group in generating a large quantity of alternatives, suspending judgment as to which ideas are workable. This is a very powerful technique – in fact, it often generates so many options that it overpowers the team’s ability to evaluate the alternatives in a reasonable period of time.

Define the problem or opportunity

Defining the problem is often overlooked. Groups have a capacity for skipping over problem definition and going straight to thinking about possible solutions. The problem with this is that you are likely to come up with a solution to the wrong problem, or you don’t think through the fundamental issues so you come up with something that is just a patch on top of prior patches. Here are a few techniques for helping groups define problems.

In what is known as the Force Field Analysis the team brainstorms two lists: (1) forces “driving” for change; (2) forces “restraining” change. Then they discuss strategies to eliminate the restraining forces and capitalize on the driving forces.

Relationship diagrams

Relationship Diagrams show cause-effect relationships. Write a short statement of an issue on a card and stick it on a blank wall. Give everyone cards and ask them to identify the factors that affect the issue or problem, writing one idea per card (big enough so that they are easy to read). Move the cards around so that the factors that are related to each other are located together. Analyze the relationships. Use coloured tape to show cause-effect relationship. Those cards that are most often seen as being a cause (have the most tape attached) are more likely to be the root cause of your problem.

Immersion in thinking about the problem from many different perspectives allows the team to then reach agreement on the problem definition. Hold the session in a location that permits the group to move around, break off into small groups, or even work alone. Before the team gathers, create a “high stimulus” environment containing anything that might be related to the issue: articles, books, pictures. Break into small groups and ask small groups to sift through any of the materials. Give them a time deadline to report back anything they’ve found that might apply to the problem. After the reports, agree on promising trends and give teams new assignments related to those trends.

Generate alternatives

People often need to be in a playful mood to be optimally creative. Some international research and design companies even provide water guns, have toys on all the meeting room tables, encourage food fights – anything to get people out of being too adult. Though such techniques might be considered as extreme. The real challenges during this step are to help people suspend judgmental ways of thinking; getting out of old ways of thinking about the problem, and separating ideas from personalities.

Here are some simpler techniques for generating alternatives. Ask the team to brainstorm lots of ideas and list them all on a flipchart or whiteboard. Don’t permit any evaluative comments. The creative ideas are likely to come after you’ve flushed out the old ideas, so push for quantity.

Get everyone to identify options by working through several analogies. Create fantasy solutions with no rules or “givens” including physical laws like gravity or market realities. After several fantasies, talk about ways you could solve the problem in a similar manner while addressing physical or market realities.

Evaluation time

The team will probably generate too many alternatives to evaluate them quickly and easily. Sometimes it is worthwhile to put off the evaluation for a follow-up meeting so you can have a work group do some analysis of the alternatives between meetings.

During the meeting itself, if you are evaluating a list of brainstormed ideas, one of the quickest ways to see which items justify group discussion time is straw-voting. Give every participant a fixed number of coloured dots (usually 5-10) and tell them to indicate which ideas they feel deserve further discussion by applying their coloured dots to the wall or flip chart sheets, next to the item. The voting should occur only after everybody understands what is meant by each item, and after similar ideas have been combined (so that votes aren’t split between the same idea worded two different ways).

You could also have everybody pick the five ideas they think are most significant or deserving discussion, and put them in rank order. Then they give 5 points to their highest ranked item, 4 points to the next highest, and so on. Record the scores alongside the items.

Screening out ideas can reduce the number of options, but it won’t make a decision for you. It is imperative to know who is making the decision. Sometimes it is “the boss”, sometimes it’s a consensus decision. In the final analysis you will need to formulate the best solution, often drawing from pieces of the earlier ideas.

Decision analysis

There are a number of decision analysis techniques. The fundamental concept is to evaluate each alternative based on all critical attributes, e.g. cost, aesthetics, performance; have all key decision makers identify the relative value of each attribute and analyse which alternatives best satisfy the weights that have been identified. The answer could be different for each decision maker, because each decision maker assigned a different relative weight to the attributes. Use this analysis to identify areas of agreement and key areas of disagreement.

Select a course of action

The Implementation Plan is the stage at which the group thinks through all the tasks to implement your solution, and assigns responsibilities and deadlines for completing them. Flip charting techniques help groups visualize all the components of a successful plan. This means that the group needs to work on a large white board, to be able to visualize all the parts. With a board and digital projector, you can use a flow-chart or project management software application and project it on the whiteboard. You can download all your conclusions into a laptop, then send everybody their assignment lists including deadlines by e-mail. Team members will then follow through on agreed actions.

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