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Tips for Running Effective Meetings

In this video Craig reveals secret after secret for highly effective group dynamics. Applying his own philosophy and experience to a typical list of meeting ground rules, Craig helps us understand the rationale behind the ground rules and how to actually act them out.
Spontaneous and high energy, this 18-minute video is chock full of tips, tools, and inspiration for how to have effective meetings.

Here’s what Craig says in the video:

Hi everybody. Hey it’s Craig Freshley here. I was in a meeting a couple days ago. It was at a company. It was in their training room and on the wall they had this sign. I thought it might be fun to talk about this little bit. Now I am totally unrehearsed, but let’s just jump in.

It says here, “email an agenda 24 hours in advance.” Well first of all, to email an agenda in advance you got to make an agenda in advance! And I’m here to tell you just making an agenda — putting it in writing before your meeting — is going to help you have a better meeting. And if you can send it to people in advance, they know not only what to expect, but they know that somebody has put a little thought into this meeting and they can have more confidence that it is going to be a well run meeting. That’s a pretty good one. What else do we got here?

“Arrive five minutes early.” Well the most important thing is that we start and end on time. Now if that means that people should be asked to arrive five minutes early, so be it. Whatever it takes, but it is important to say the time to start, and start on time. Say a time it’s going to end, and end on time. People love that.

If you want to be part of the premeeting chit-chat — you want to grab a donut if there’s one available or whatever — then arrive five minutes early. What I don’t think is a good idea is to publish that the meeting is going to start at 10:00 but everybody just kind of understands that it’s really gonna start at 10:10. I don’t think that works well. It’s a waste of time for the people who don’t fully get that unwritten rule. It’s a setup for mismatched expectations. Say what time you’re gonna start. Arrive by that time, or a little early. Start on time and end on time.

Lets look at another one here. “No smart phones.” Yeah, this is an increasing challenge in meetings. Now there’s a lot of people that have a culture of using smart phones and using laptops in meetings and that might be fine if that’s your culture. I think it works well to agree: are we going to allow screens or not? If we are going to allow them, what are we going to allow them for? And at what times during the meeting? Just get yourself a shared agreement about that and if people are breaking the agreement call it out and decide to either change the agreement or change the behavior.

You know we use this analogy: we want to make sure everybody is on the same page. Well making sure everybody’s on the same page often means: don’t let people be looking at alternative pages, through their screens, during our meeting.

What else we got here? “No interrupting. Be brief and concise. Stay on topic.” Yeah these three are all about — I don’t know — are they related, these three? Let’s take them one at a time. “Be brief and concise.” Easier said than done. Some people just don’t have it in them to do that. But one thing you can do to be brief and concise is that if somebody else has said your idea — the idea that you were thinking of saying — you might not have to say that at all. You can say, “What she said,” or “I was gonna say what Ned said,” but leave it right there. What often happens is, you know, “I was going to say what Ned said….” and then the person says it again! That’s not being brief and concise.

“No interrupting.” Yeah isn’t it great when we can be in a meeting and know that I’m not going to be interrupted when talking? When we really listen to each other with respect? You know what that takes? It takes confidence in knowing that if I don’t interrupt and if I wait for my turn, I’ll get my turn. That often requires a neutral facilitator; somebody whose job it is to make sure that everybody is going to get a chance to speak and therefore nobody needs to interrupt in order to get their words in.

There was a third one here, “stay on topic.” Well a little bit like sending an agenda in advance, to stay on topic you got to have a topic! And everybody needs to know what it is. For everything that you discuss in a meeting it should have a topic. It really works well if you have a question to be answered or a problem to be solved; and that thing is written down. Then the facilitator or whoever is running the meeting can keep referring back to that. That’s a way to help everybody stay on topic.

A lot of good stuff here. “Silence equals agreement.” This can be really efficient in meetings if everybody understands and agrees to that; everybody knows what that means. And the idea is that you propose something: “Okay, how about we go with option A?” And if nobody says anything, we take that to mean everybody agrees to it. What also is important though, to this one, is that if you do disagree or have a concern with something, you have an obligation to speak up. It puts the burden on those who need to counter what is often the majority in the room. That is a difficult position for many people. So if you do have this as a ground rule, make sure that everybody buys into it because otherwise what’s going to happen is you walk away thinking that you have agreement because you had silence but in fact it’s not that you really had agreement, it’s just that some people were too shy to speak up in opposition. So it’s really efficient, works great, if everybody has really bought into that.

What else we got? “Follow up by email within 24 hours.” I believe that every meeting that’s worth having is worth having something in writing afterwards. What did you talk about? What did you agree to? Write it down. If there was nothing worth writing down, that was not worth having a meeting. And if you have a meeting that was worthwhile having, write something down. Send it around to the people who participated. And it really works well if you can ask them, “Does what I wrote down reflect your understanding of what we talked about, what we decided?” Let them offer suggestions for changes. When it has passed muster of those who were in that meeting then it can be circulated more widely.

“Share relevant data.” If we want true collaboration and creativity, we all want the best information available. Sometimes we withhold information, frankly as a source of power, as a way to have leverage over each other. But if I am part of a group that wants to make the very best group decision possible, I want to share all the information that I have about the topic and I want to receive from you all the available information.

“No side conversations or comments.” That can be a big distraction. When somebody leans over and talks to their neighbor, the rest of us are all wondering what you are saying. We’re all worried that they might be talking about us or saying something critical. Not only is it just kind of a sound distraction, it’s a deeper distraction. If you need to talk to somebody next to you, either leave the room and have that conversation in a separate space so you’re not distracting the rest of us, or you know, what I think works well, write it down. If you really need to send a message to the leader of the meeting, don’t go up and whisper in their ear. You are taking them away from the meeting. You are sending a message to everyone else in that room. It says, “I think that what I have to say is more important than what any of you have to say.” You are robbing that person of the group time for your own personal time when, in a meeting, you go up to somebody and whisper something very important in their ear. It may be that you have to tell the person something: write it down on a piece of paper, slide it to them, go back and take your seat. They can read it whenever they want. They’re not distracted. And the rest of the group is less distracted by that way of sending a message one on one in a group meeting.

What else do we have? This is a good one. “Challenge ideas rather than people.” It’s okay to criticize ideas. It’s not okay to criticize people. When we are trying to make creative, collaborative decisions, it works really well when people are willing to give their ideas to the group. And it works well if we are careful about how we talk about ideas and not talk about that as “John’s idea” or “Jane’s idea.” That idea about the bus stop, that idea about the sign next to the tree — when we call it “John’s idea” then when we criticize we tend to think that we’re criticizing John and similarly with criticizing Jane. We are not interested in criticizing John or Jane or anybody. Let’s assume that these are all good people with good intentions. But we need to be free to criticize their ideas and build on their ideas make them ideas owned by the group. That’s how ideas get to be really good; when we can separate them from the people who first thought of them, let them live and become even better, owned by the group as a whole.

“Bring paper and pen.” Well two reasons for that. One is — and maybe its not a paper and pen, maybe it’s a screen, although honestly screens are a lot more distracting than writing on a clipboard or any kind of paper and pen — but when I write stuff down, number one, I’ve got a record later for myself. But number two, and more importantly, it keeps me engaged. I am thinking about what to write down and that keeps me vested in the meeting. I am a note taker. I very rarely go to a meeting or a talk or anything without a paper and pencil. And I take a lot of notes; not so much so I have a written record later but because it helps me absorb the information so much better. I am challenging myself to think about what is most important, about what was being said, and writing that down.

“Disagree without being disagreeable.” I think what this means is that it’s okay to disagree with someone else on one particular issue and agree with them on another issue. It’s not okay to just be generally disagreeable, to disagree with that, that, that, and that as if I have made an advance decision that I’m just going to be disagreeable. No matter what you come up with I’m going to go against it because really, I’m against you. That does not work well for good group decisions. It’s very much related to what I was just talking about earlier, separating critique of people from critique of ideas.

Participants in high functioning groups are able to separate personalities from ideas and they give themselves permission to disagree with ideas without being disagreeable against people.

“Everyone participates.” Well it’s great if everyone participates, but we do have to be a little careful about this. In fact, I wouldn’t write ground rules exactly like that. I would say “everyone is encouraged to participate.” You know, what if I’m in a meeting and I honestly don’t have anything to add to the conversation? If by speaking up I would just, like, be slowing things down or getting in the way, then I shouldn’t speak up. And it doesn’t work well for a lot of people to be pointed at and and asked, “Bob what do you think?” If Bob is an introvert or just not fast on his feet, that can be hard for him and there’s no reason to put Bob in that hard place.

Now if “everyone participates” means that everyone at least is listening and fully engaged, I’m all for it. I do believe that everyone around that meeting table should be participating at least, at the very least, by listening; by listening to everything going on. But if “everyone participates” means everyone talks whether they want to or not, not sure I totally agree with that. I would rewrite it to say “everyone encouraged to participate” and give each person the choice as to how much they want to actually speak up.

I think we got like maybe just one more to do on here. “Come prepared.” Part of the preparation is reading the advance agenda, being prepared in terms of reading any advanced materials, knowing the issues etc. But I’m here to say there’s another kind of preparation. Call it emotional preparation. Call it attitude preparation. It’s pausing to hope for the best, to recognize that I don’t know what’s best for the group, that I’m willing to listen to my colleagues and just kind of chill out a little bit and be part of the group. Come with an open mind and a posture of listening in addition to wanting to say whatever it is I want to say. That is another way that I can prepare for being a good participant in a really good meeting.

Okay thanks for letting me run through this little sign that I found on the wall. Lots of good stuff here to talk about. There are so many different elements of what makes for a good meeting. Right here we heard a few of them.

If you want to hear more you can watch more of my videos or look at my Good Group Tips. I’ve written hundreds of those and I’ve made dozens of videos.

Our time together in meetings is so valuable. Let’s make the most of them. And if we are not prepared to have good meetings, let’s not have meetings at all.

Here’s hoping that you help your group make good group decisions.

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