Proper prior preparation prevents painful, pointless pow-wows

We've all been in them - meetings with no discernible beginning, middle or end. Or when behaviors and meeting patterns are so predictably unproductive it seems like - topic aside - you're in the same meeting over and over. When this is the norm, it's little wonder there's "the meeting after the meeting," otherwise progress might never occur.

A more troubling aspect of meetings can be the subsequent undermining of a session's agreements. Such behavior can be curbed through better meeting planning and leading, whether by an in-house resource or a professional facilitator.

Creating sustainable outcomes requires thoughtful preparation around purpose, process and closure. This needn't be overly time-consuming to work well, but without it, you lose about three quarters of a meeting's potential effectiveness and face increased risk of dreaded FTI: failure to implement.

PURPOSE

Meeting purposes are usually ill-defined, even with a prepared agenda. Preparation around purpose is three-pronged:

1. Document the desired outcome in a purpose statement. This is fairly straightforward. Examples are "To create a plan for ..." or "To decide about ..." Unfortunately, this and aligning calendars are where most meeting organizers conclude the planning process.

To avoid derailed meetings, it helps to define what the meeting is not. "We are meeting to determine specific experience requirements for all future accounting department hires. We are not going to discuss performance of past or current employees."

2. Define the outputs necessary for a successful session. Important considerations are made here, going deeper than the purpose statement. For example, in our accounting department scenario, we might state that at meeting's end, we should have separate listings for "must-have" skills, "would-be-nice" skills, and desired traits, as well as documented minimum education and prior experience levels.

A crucial part of the outputs is clarifying, by the beginning of the meeting, exactly how decisions will be made. A leading cause of meeting frustration is lack of clarity and transparency about the process. Surprisingly, many company leaders confess that even they don't really know how decisions come to be.

If there's a perception that the "real" decision is made elsewhere - before, during or after the meeting - participants believe that their involvement is spurious; their time wasted. If a meeting's purpose is merely to collect ideas from people, not to result in a decision or recommendation from them, make sure that context is clear so they don't feel ignored later.

3. Anticipate the needed inputs. Assess outputs to uncover which inputs may be helpful. When meeting participants convene to make a decision, knowledge required to fully understand and evaluate alternatives must be available. Are the right people present, such as representatives from every impacted area? Experts to answer "what if" or "how to" questions? People who can spot unintended consequences that might result from a given decision? On-hand or advance data requirements may include research, statistical or financial reports, and procedural or other document samples.

PROCESS

To approach meeting process design is to anticipate the most logical order of information accumulation and processing so that participants feel confident about the basis of their outcome. It is essential to plan a way for participants to air and work through underlying concerns and issues. Obviously, there is some psychology in this.

An approach that is easy to apply is one based on the DiSC Behavioral Profile model, which describes that each person's primary informational concern is one of the following: What, who, why or how? Within your process, seek to address all four aspects in order to meet peoples' differing needs relative to knowledge acquisition and digestion.

This is a complex art. Generally, when you start your meeting by clarifying purpose and invoking visualization of outcomes, you seek to open peoples' minds so they can set aside preconceived notions and biases, and clear their heads for fresh thinking. Then follows the active phase where short, successive activity bursts (i.e., brainstorms, listing, categorizing and prioritizing) build upon one another and tie together by the end.

CLOSURE

It's important to create satisfying closure for participants. If you're meeting to make any kind of decision, you probably hope to achieve group consensus.

The brilliant Margaret Thatcher asserted, "Consensus is the negation of leadership." We create pressure for ourselves by believing that "consensus" must mean unanimous agreement. This is extremely rare! A problem with "full" consensus is that results are diluted by compromise in order to be accepted by all.

If you want a high-quality decision, a more useful approach is "modified" consensus wherein agreement is: "I can live with that and support it."

A tool to measure this is Five-Finger Consensus. Vote by show of hands with the appropriate number of fingers extended to indicate: 5) strongly agree, 4) agree, 3) will go with group decision, 2) disagree, and 1) strongly disagree and cannot support. All threes or higher, you're done. Have ones and twos speak to why. Then strive for a modified recommendation and vote again.

Document your decision process at the beginning, and honor it. Document your meeting outcomes promptly on concluding.

Decision commitment - even by would-be underminers - is improved when people are heard, respected, and are on record with their specific level of support. It is more palatable than pretending everyone in the group is equally ecstatic. With concerns acknowledged and pretense removed, much of the undermining behavior ceases.

Preparation pays dividends. When a group's time is used wisely and its observations and concerns are heard, respected and recorded, you set the stage for a sustainable outcome and successful implementation.

Michelle Golden, CPF, is president of Golden Practices Inc. (www.goldenpractices.com), exclusive servicing professional service firms in strategy, operations, leadership and business development. She facilitates meetings, DiSC assessments and 360-degree performance evaluations.

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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