Improve meetings (or don’t call them at all)

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How many meetings does it take for a group to get a project done? No, this isn’t the opener to a bad joke. Meetings can often feel like a reoccurring waste of time, with the only benefit being the occasional box of doughnuts. Martin Murphy, author of “No More Pointless Meetings: Breakthrough Sessions That Will Revolutionize the Way You Work,” sets out to re-organize the way meetings are run and break the cycle of unproductivity.

Murphy’s strategy to running better meetings focuses on two rules for every collaborative session: separate content from process and appoint a facilitator. His plan offers further steps to run a meeting in one of three different ways based on its goals, but his two rules for every collaborative session can show immediate results.

Rule #1: Separate content from process
The typical format of a meeting is to assemble a group of people to address an issue, work on a project, update a policy or break news. However, meetings can run over their allotted time or fail to meet their goals, simply because of a flawed format.

Murphy proposes separating the content of the meeting–what’s being discussed in that particular meeting–from the process, which he says “refers to virtually everything else, for instance:

  • How loudly are people speaking?
  • Who’s talking the most?
  • Who’s apparently not listening?
  • Who’s not participating?
  • How many are in the meeting?
  • Who are they?
  • How long is the meeting scheduled to run?
  • How’s the energy level in the room?
  • Is there a spirit of openness and teamwork?
  • Is the overall tone of the meeting positive?
  • Is the boss present?
  • Are things getting accomplished?

“As already mentioned,” Murphy says, “conventional meetings are characterized by the ranking manager both running the session and participating in content discussions. This is the main reason meetings are not as productive as they should be: You simply cannot do a decent job of facilitating a meeting and participate in the content of the meeting at the same time. Facilitating a meeting is a full-time job.

“As the facilitator of a workflow session, you’re responsible for coordinating a diversity of personalities and agendas. To say this requires full-time concentration is an understatement. However, when participants realize that you’re not going to take part in any content discussions, they’ll trust you with the welfare of the session and participate with enthusiasm.”

Rule #2: Appoint a facilitator
“Collaboration is transformed by the simple act of keeping content and process separate,” says Murphy. “Facilitators don’t participate in content discussions. Their job is to handle process only and to do so in a manner that motivates all participants to contribute to the maximum of their ability. At the beginning of every workflow management session the facilitator needs to get three agreements from the group:

  1. The facilitator accepts responsibility for meeting process.
  2. The group accepts responsibility for meeting content.
  3. Both the facilitator and the group commit to an outstanding workflow session outcome.”

Choosing a successful facilitator depends on a number of factors. “The most senior person in attendance definitely should not run a work session. As a matter of fact, if there’s more than one person in the room who knows how to facilitate, the task should go to the most junior. This frees up the greatest number of senior personnel to contribute to content.

“A Facilitator creates a level playing field, where input from everyone is encouraged and given the same consideration. Thus, a normally domineering boss is neutralized and prevented from unintentionally intimidating lesser souls so that they don’t contribute.”

Meetings then have the opportunity to actually solve problems, create ideas or inform a group, instead of a free-for-all in which any issues or ideas can be tackled or brought up. The facilitator brings efficiency and accountability to the group, two ingredients which are normally missing.

Consider not calling the meeting
Murphy’s vision of a meeting is ideal: “The fundamental purpose of meetings is to utilize the collective human capital of a group to get things accomplished. When that opportunity is properly presented, good things happen and even the most timid are motivated to contribute; the energy in the room sparkles; radical and breakthrough solutions (which in a normal meeting wouldn’t see the light of day) are solicited and suggested without fear of judgment.”

When executed properly, per Murphy’s instructions, a great amount of work can be accomplished. However, it’s important to consider if a meeting is even necessary. Sometimes meetings can overwhelm a worker’s schedule or workflow. Ask yourself if a group email can suffice or smaller, one-on-one conversations. What’s best for the group is often what’s best for the company.

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