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For law firms, January is a time for decision-making and planning. That means meetings — lots of meetings. Unfortunately, too many of these meetings are a frustrating waste of time. If it helps at all, law firms are not alone in that experience — the whole world suffers from “death by meeting.”
Consider these numbers:
So, if it’s your meeting, how can you make sure the time everyone is spending there is worthwhile?
While part of a start-up called GroupDecisions.com, Garret Sheldon and Dennis McDaniel taught me that meetings are for only one purpose: decision-making. That’s right. Information sharing is not the purpose — that should take place beforehand, via other media. Relationship building is not a meeting purpose — it’s a byproduct of a productive meeting that people are glad they attended. (Who wants to build a relationship with someone who wastes their time?)
Meeting facilitation is not an innate talent but a learned skill. Under Sheldon and McDaniel’s facilitation, our meetings were amazingly productive. Here’s how the meetings were structured:
1. Introductions. Briefly introduce all new participants or guests.
2. Expectations. Poll each participant on their expectations and ask what each expects to accomplish during this meeting (not overall).
It’s important to list each response publicly, using language very close to that expressed by the participant. This helps create ownership. For each expressed expectation, group members should ask, “Is that something that could be accomplished in an hour, or is it something that’s beyond the scope of this meeting?” If it’s the latter, capture it for later consideration as a larger goal.
3. Barrier Behaviors. Ask what behaviors could inhibit fulfilling those expectations during this meeting, for example, “telling long stories” and “going off the rails.” Then get the group’s permission to use a code word that alerts that they’re experiencing a barrier behavior. This helps the facilitator keep it from being personal. The group acknowledges at the outset that these are things we all expect to happen, but don’t want to happen. In other words, it’s not you screwing up the meeting, it’s simply the (predicted) occurrence of a known barrier behavior, and we’re calling a stop to it.
4. Issues. Ask participants to define the issues that must be decided or resolved. This is the core of the agenda. You’ll be surprised how differently people will perceive and define the same issue. Hearing each person’s perspective begins the process of increasing awareness, respecting views and enabling alignment.
5. Solution Options. Discuss which solution actions or responses are available for consideration relative to each issue.
6. Alignment, Decisions. Which response options will participants commit to? How will we measure success? To get to this point, we had participants create a weighted, ranked list — like MVP voting in sports. Option A got three number one votes, one number two vote, four number three votes, and so on. This made it easy to calculate the group’s decision.
7. Action Items. List what specific things must be done to implement that decision. By what deadline?
8. Accountability. Assign each action step an owner, with a completion deadline and defined direction as to what other stakeholders must be informed or will otherwise be affected, and how. What resources does the action item owner need to assure success?
8. Wrap-up and Next Steps. Poll all participants and have them assess how well the meeting fulfilled their expectations and avoided barriers, then establish continuity and a clear forward direction.
Even with a good structure, a meeting can quickly run off the rails if there isn’t clarity about the role of the meeting facilitator. In a perfect world, the facilitator will be an outsider, with no stake in the outcome other than its legitimacy and timeliness. He or she cannot simultaneously be a contributor. That creates a counterproductive (if unintentional) bully pulpit.
If the facilitator is also a topic expert who must contribute from time to time, have that person wear a “facilitator” hat while serving in that capacity, and replace that with a “contributor” hat when the role changes. In the absence of hats, I’ve actually changed seats, announcing, “I’m moving from my facilitator seat to my contributor seat.” Then I’d move back to my facilitator seat at the appropriate time.
The idea is to create a process that assures meetings will accomplish something specific and measurable. Start with a worthwhile purpose, then conduct your meetings in a way that causes participants to want to remain engaged.
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