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Overcoming the 5 Most Troublesome Problems in Meetings

I recently came across research paper presenting findings on meetings and their effectiveness. What most caught my eye was the identification of the most ‘personally bothersome’ problems that take place in meetings. 

There are no major surprises in the top five. What is surprising, is how regularly people willingly endure them as if meetings can’t be different. Below, are some suggestions as to how to overcome these problems:


1.  Getting off the subject

At the start of any meeting, check you have a shared understanding of the purpose. Unless the meeting is very informal, have a short, one-sentence purpose statement displayed at all times. This will ensure all participants share the same purpose and will act as reminder if they wander off onto another irrelevant topic. If you notice the group going off on a tangent, you can remind them of the purpose of the session previously agreed and see whether it's a tangent worth exploring or not.

2.  No goals or agenda

Many people would accept that having an agenda for a meeting is good practice. Yet, many meetings are run without a participant agreed agenda. Again, make the agenda visible for everyone (write the agenda on a flipchart or a whiteboard). Check everyone is signed up to the agenda and make any changes necessary. Once you have agreed the agenda, be sure to mark off the items as you proceed. This will help the group see the progress being made. Listing the items on the agenda about what is needed for each item can also be useful. Is a discussion needed? Is a decision needed? Is it just information-sharing?  If an item is an information-giving item and the group starts to discuss, remind them of the purpose of the agenda item.

3.  Too lengthy

Practising the first two disciplines above should help keep meetings focused. There are also other measures you can take to prevent the meeting from becoming too lengthy. Before sending out an agenda, review it and honestly ask yourself which items could be tackled another way (for example by email, electronic survey, smaller groups). Only keep items on the agenda that must be covered by the particular participants attending the meeting.

Try reducing the size of the group meeting to essential participants only. Large groups tend to inhibit individual participation and slow the pace. Avoid inviting someone just so they feel included. If they are not really of benefit to achieving the purpose, it’s a waste of their time and is likely to slow the meeting down.

4. Poor or inadequate preparation

Ensure people know why they are meeting beforehand. Send an email with a clear purpose statement and agenda items to be addressed. Work through the agenda and be clear what outcome is needed for each item. Is it a decision? If yes, what is needed? If not, what does the group need to achieve before it moves on to the next item? This will help you when you are in the meeting to support the group to make the most of their time. If anyone is making a presentation or sharing information, ensure you have briefed them well beforehand, particularly on the time available and how their contribution fits with the rest of the meeting. Get in the room before the meeting starts and make sure the set-up (chairs, tables, flipcharts, lighting, refreshments etc.) are in the way that will best support the purpose of the meeting. Clear the needless clutter; cluttered rooms lead to cluttered minds.

The success of a meeting also depends on the preparation participants do. If you are a participant, review the agenda before the meeting. If you haven’t received one, then ask for one. Be clear what you want to get out of the meeting and what you have to give. The time you spend getting clear in your mind outside of the meeting means you can make the most of yours and others time in it.

5.  Inconclusive outcomes

There are two problems in supporting a group to make clear decisions. The first is fear of conflict. To come to a conclusive decision as a group, the group inevitably will face conflict because they can only choose one way of proceeding from the many possibilities. Often, a group will avoid the conflict by deferring a decision, making a very general decision, or sometimes making no decision at all. Anticipate these conflicts before the session and think of processes that could support the group to work through rather than around the conflict(s) towards a decision.

The second common problem is the lack of clear recording of decisions. A group can do all the hard work to reach a decision, but if it’s not recorded, the fruits of their labour are lost. Once a decision is made, have it recorded for the entire group to see. This will ensure the decision made is recorded accurately and to everyone’s satisfaction. Try doing this on a flipchart or for more complex decisions try using materials such as cards, large post-its etc.




1 Comment(s)

Hi Ronnie - good points well raised. Where were the Pinboards??? Ho Ho :-)

Keith W-P / 03-Dec-2012 12:10 PM

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