[IMGCAP(1)]We've all been in them - meetings with no discernible beginning, middleor end. Or when behaviors and meeting patterns are so predictablyunproductive it seems like - topic aside - you're in the same meetingover and over. When this is the norm, it's little wonder there's "themeeting after the meeting," otherwise progress might never occur.

A more troubling aspect of meetings can be the subsequentundermining of a session's agreements. Such behavior can be curbedthrough better meeting planning and leading, whether by an in-houseresource or a professional facilitator.

Creating sustainable outcomes requires thoughtfulpreparation around purpose, process and closure. This needn't be overlytime-consuming to work well, but without it, you lose about threequarters of a meeting's potential effectiveness and face increased riskof 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 arewhere most meeting organizers conclude the planning process.

To avoid derailed meetings, it helps to define what themeeting is not. "We are meeting to determine specific experiencerequirements for all future accounting department hires. We are notgoing 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 purposestatement. For example, in our accounting department scenario, we mightstate that at meeting's end, we should have separate listings for"must-have" skills, "would-be-nice" skills, and desired traits, as wellas documented minimum education and prior experience levels.

A crucial part of the outputs is clarifying, by thebeginning of the meeting, exactly how decisions will be made. A leadingcause of meeting frustration is lack of clarity and transparency aboutthe process. Surprisingly, many company leaders confess that even theydon't really know how decisions come to be.

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

3. Anticipate the needed inputs. Assess outputs to uncoverwhich inputs may be helpful. When meeting participants convene to makea decision, knowledge required to fully understand and evaluatealternatives must be available. Are the right people present, such asrepresentatives from every impacted area? Experts to answer "what if"or "how to" questions? People who can spot unintended consequences thatmight result from a given decision? On-hand or advance datarequirements may include research, statistical or financial reports,and procedural or other document samples.

PROCESS

To approach meeting process design is to anticipate themost logical order of information accumulation and processing so thatparticipants feel confident about the basis of their outcome. It isessential to plan a way for participants to air and work throughunderlying concerns and issues. Obviously, there is some psychology inthis.

An approach that is easy to apply is one based on the DiSCBehavioral Profile model, which describes that each person's primaryinformational concern is one of the following: What, who, why or how?Within your process, seek to address all four aspects in order to meetpeoples' differing needs relative to knowledge acquisition anddigestion.

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

CLOSURE

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

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

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

A tool to measure this is Five-Finger Consensus. Vote byshow of hands with the appropriate number of fingers extended toindicate: 5) strongly agree, 4) agree, 3) will go with group decision,2) disagree, and 1) strongly disagree and cannot support. All threes orhigher, you're done. Have ones and twos speak to why. Then strive for amodified 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 - isimproved when people are heard, respected, and are on record with theirspecific level of support. It is more palatable than pretendingeveryone in the group is equally ecstatic. With concerns acknowledgedand pretense removed, much of the undermining behavior ceases.

Preparation pays dividends. When a group's time is usedwisely and its observations and concerns are heard, respected andrecorded, you set the stage for a sustainable outcome and successfulimplementation.

Michelle Golden, CPF, is president of Golden PracticesInc. (www.goldenpractices.com), exclusive servicing professionalservice firms in strategy, operations, leadership and businessdevelopment. She facilitates meetings, DiSC assessments and 360-degreeperformance evaluations.

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

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