Facilitating Effective Meetings

EVERY TEAM MEETING on planning starts with the best of intentions. Whoever convenes the meeting is convinced that getting everyone together will be time well spent, to cover significant ground and spark new ideas.

Preparations may include booking a venue, circulating a detailed agenda in advance and ensuring that key participants have their presentations ready. The big day arrives, and the team assembles with high enthusiasm and the feeling that they have a chance to make an impact on the development of the business.

What happens next? Perhaps the team leader starts with a few introductory comments and rattles off the main agenda. The sales manager then suggests adding another topic that came up two days ago – but is told there probably won’t be time to cover it.

Twenty minutes later, in the first brainstorming session, the team leader quickly dismisses several ideas as being either impractical, impossible or difficult to fit into next year’s budget and asks everyone to think harder.

Before long, the dynamics of the meeting have changed noticeably. The participants adopt a safety-first approach and revert to stereotypes: marketing says more money is needed for a new campaign, finance says the important thing is to increase revenue, and the sales department says it is not their fault because IT does not have the new customer relationship management system up and running.

What went wrong? In short, it was the leader’s failure to understand how to facilitate this kind of meeting. If you oversee a high-performing team, facilitation is an important skill. You must get others to engage actively in the process rather than letting them remain passive observers or contributing as if by obligation.

When a meeting requires the leader to act as a facilitator, not a chairman or director, break the session into clear sections – beginning, middle and end. Keep them distinct in terms of organisation.

Start with a welcoming statement. This should be a concise summary explaining what is to follow and how you intend to proceed. You need to establish authority immediately and let people know how the meeting will be managed. Then, as part of the set-up, remind everyone why you are all there and outline the expected benefits from different perspectives. Also, highlight the outcome you hope to achieve.

While explaining the agenda, don’t just list item headings, such as budget or recruitment. Add a few details to point out why the topic is relevant. For example, you might say that staffing plans are important because the company is looking to break into new markets and will need new recruits with specialist skills. This explanation gives those taking part a good idea of what is to come.

During the main part of the meeting, keep a few key group discussion concepts in mind: objectivity, group dynamics and ownership.

Objectivity is about retaining the necessary degree of detachment and letting the group assume more responsibility for driving the discussion. A good facilitator should speak for no more than 30 per cent of the time and focus on getting others to open up. An inexperienced facilitator keeps on talking and tries to impose opinions. If you give people the chance to talk and interact, they will come up with ideas.

The facilitator’s job is to direct the discussion towards the issues at hand, raise alternative possibilities and keep things on track. As the leader, you may be required to give an expert opinion or management insight on the topic, but you should aim to make this informative and not deliver it as a conclusion or final decision. A good facilitator helps the team to come up with bigger and better ideas. The role is not about imposing unnecessary restraints or exercising authority.

Group dynamics is a matter of eliciting high-quality information from all the participants and getting each person to contribute fully. Team meetings often fail to reach their goals not because there is a lack of technical knowledge or expertise, but because people don’t share them effectively. As the moderator, you are there to ensure everyone takes part in the meeting.

Ownership involves guiding members of the team to think for themselves and take responsibility for their ideas. In this way, they will have a sense of ownership and care more about the results. It may be necessary to clarify certain points, build agreement and avoid dissent. By going through the process, the feeling of group ownership of subsequent decisions will be stronger.

The final stage of the meeting should ensure there is no uncertainty about what comes next and who will take action. Therefore, when it is time to wrap up, thank the participants for their efforts and recap the key points and the outcome. Refer to the initial goals and, assuming things have gone well, point out where progress has been made.

Check if any items on the agenda were not covered and mention issues which were raised during the meeting and are to be dealt with separately. Most importantly, make sure everyone is clear about the action points. Assign follow-up duties to specific people, not departments, and give deadlines by which action must be completed or information distributed. Don't let these deadlines slide; otherwise, team members will soon believe that the deadlines can be ignored. Finally, suggest or fix a time for the next meeting.

Planning meetings should not be interrogation sessions, a series of prepared speeches by management or events where the coffee break is the main highlight. If your team is made up of people who are experienced, intelligent and have the desire to succeed, you can be sure they have opinions and ideas. That is probably one of the main reasons why they were hired in the first place.

Therefore, take advantage of these attributes by structuring your meetings properly and giving each person the chance to play a part. Remember that a leader does not have all the answers and a facilitator is not there to dominate proceedings.


Ground rules

Setting basic guidelines are important for establishing how people should interact during a meeting. Departmental teams probably get together regularly and know the form. But if the group is new, meets occasionally, or is made up participants from different divisions, then be ready to explain the ground rules early on. If necessary, confirm everyone has understood the rules. If needed, ask for comments or whether there are any problems. This is essential if things are to run smoothly. Otherwise, the chairman or facilitator may find it more difficult to control the group’s behaviour later. For example, if one of the ground rules was that there should be no side conversations, you can quickly curtail any such distraction, and everyone will immediately understand why.

Thinking it through

The agenda defines what a meeting will cover. It lets participants know what to expect, how to prepare, when the meeting will start and how long it will take. When putting an agenda together, state the objective you want to achieve and why. Specify the venue, date and time, and draw up a list of expected participants. If some items on the agenda are new or likely to be unfamiliar, briefly indicate why these are being included. For instance, if an item is an update report, make it clear that this will involve a five-minute presentation from each person on the status of projects. A well-planned agenda makes it easier for the chairman to stick to time and maintain control.

Questions to ask

When preparing for, and leading, a team meeting, it helps to remind yourself of various points so that you don't lose focus. These include the history of the team and how well people know each other; the goals and the rules that people usually follow; and the different personalities – some will dominate, others may sit quietly. You should also consider whether the participants generally listen to and support each other, and how the group handles conflict or makes important decisions. Think about what is needed to guarantee a positive outcome and how the group evaluates achievements. Finally, remember factors that lead to an unwillingness among people to contribute openly, and be ready to avoid sensitive areas.

Things to remember

  • Start on time, finish early

  • No mobile phone – keep it off or in silent mode

  • One person talks at a time

  • No side conversations

  • Build on others’ ideas

  • Use the parking lot for items to discuss later

  • The agenda is flexible