Are your large meetings and conferences trapped in the middle ages?

Consider the language we use to name the elements of most large meetings:

  • Dignitaries on a podium (raised platform) in the front of an auditorium
  • Plenary sessions that everyone is expected to attend
  • Agendas packed with speakers

“Podium, ” “auditorium, ” “plenary,” and “agenda” are words with Latin roots that come to us from the European academic and religious institutions of the late Middle Ages.

Embedded in these ancient words and practices is a hierarchical, one-way communication model that no long serves the needs of contemporary organizations. In today´s world there is no justification for bringing people together, subjecting them to lectures from the front of the room and then expecting learning or change to take place.

Nevertheless, otherwise intelligent people, charged with the responsibility of organizing large face-to-face meetings, still default to the medieval model.

To transform today´s meetings and conferences we need to focus less attention on the podium in the front of the room and think seriously about the sea of people seated in the audience. In fact, we must stop thinking of them as “audience” (those who listen) and consider ways to convert them into active participants in the discussion.

We need to stop accepting a 10-minute question and answer session at the end of a long speech as a substitute for meaningful interaction with speakers and their ideas.

We must recognize that a standard panel discussion only engages the panelists, relegating everyone else to the category of passive listeners.

We need to question the usefulness of meeting in a space where the chairs are bolted to the floor, making it impossible to create small groups.

We should explore ways to integrate technologies such as keyboards and tablets into the proceedings, using them to generate ideas or document results.

We should look carefully at highly interactive methods such as World Café and Open Space as ways to stimulate meaningful conversations and dynamic interactions among those present.

With a deep bow of respect to the past, we need to bring our meeting practices into the 21st century.

Need help updating your large meeting or conference design? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Boredom: The tragic result of poor meeting planning

We believe that meetings should be meaningful, dynamic, interesting, engaging, productive – or cancelled. Too often, however, everyday business meetings are neither interesting nor cancelled, they are BORING.

Too many people have come to accept boredom in meetings as an inevitable fact of organizational life. For IIFAC facilitators, boredom is the business equivalent of a medical emergency. Immediate, effective action is called for! The group is suffering a life-threatening loss of time, energy and enthusiasm!

Hold yourself to a higher standard of performance

If you are the person convening the meeting,

  • Insist that each meeting have a clearly defined purpose.
  • Ensure that those invited understand what that purpose is and why you need them there.
  • Limit agenda items to issues directly related to the meeting purpose.
  • Define expected outcomes, responsibilities, and next steps.
  • End on time – or early!

Notice the verbs in the above list: Insist, ensure, limit, define, end. They are actions, not vague intentions. They show respect for the colleagues you are calling together and promise to use their time productively.

Break the mold

Other strategies for declaring an end to “business as usual” meetings:

  • Vary the time and place for the meetings.
  • Close the door at the announced starting time and do not allow latecomers to enter.
  • Eliminate chairs and tables in meetings billed as “quick check in”.
  • Use a countdown clock to measure elapsed time. Stop when it runs out.
  • Post the agenda on the wall and stick to it.
  • Do not allow anyone to speak twice on an issue until all have had the opportunity to speak once.
  • When arguments begin to recycle, stop the discussion and ask for proposed solutions.

Next month we will share more tips on how to make your meetings more productive. Meanwhile, tell us what bold measures you have taken to keep participants engaged.

IIFAC offers coaching to help you plan your meeting agendas. Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your needs.

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The art of closing a meeting

To conclude this cycle of articles that has been focused on the human factor in meetings, we want to reflect on a meeting moment that everyone eagerly awaits but often no one has planned for very well: the closing.

Closings can be formal, ceremonial, creative, extended or brief, but above all they must transmit a very clear signal that the event is over and the participants are free to leave.

Not planning the closing activities carefully and/or not respecting the specified time for ending are lost opportunities. The group loses the chance to pause and recognize the significance of what they have accomplished together. The meeting convener loses the opportunity to be warmly appreciated by the group. Instead, the participants feel trapped, frustrated and embarrassed as they try to slip away unnoticed. And the facilitator is silently wondering, “Where did I go wrong?”

Keys to creating satisfactory closings

  • Discuss the convener´s expectations about the closing when you begin planning the event.
  • Clarify the difference between closing activities and the moment when people can leave without apologizing.
  • Include “closing activities” and “closing time for the entire event” as part of the agenda.
  • Review the time set for closing at the beginning of the meeting.
  • If for any reason the closing time is modified, announce the change and mark it on the public, written agenda.
  • Respect the agreed-upon closing time.

How to conduct a simple, ceremonial closing

  • If you have run out of time with a with a group of 30 or fewer participants:
    • Invite everyone to stand in a circle and then, as the facilitator, look around the circle and simply say “thank you.”
    • Or form the circle and then make a silent gesture of thanks.
  • If you have a few minutes to spare:
    • Make a circle and ask each person to “check out” with one word that describes “How am I feeling now, as I leave?” or “What am I taking away from this meeting?
  • Avoid the temptation to enter into more discussion about what is said.

What about closing speeches?

In more formal events, the organizers often want to summarize the conclusions produced during the meeting or ask the authorities to “say a few words.” These situations easily lead to long, pointless speeches that cause participants to head for the door. To prevent this scenario, during the agenda-planning phase, propose ways to make the closing meaningful to all those present, not just those in the front of the room.

If you lose this argument, assign a time limit for the closing speakers and before the event, explain to each of them the importance of respecting these limits in order to close at the agreed-upon hour. Then politely but firmly enforce those time limits. The group will be grateful!

Remember, from the point of view of the participants, the closing is often one of the most eagerly awaited moments in the meeting. (Breaks are another.) If people do you the honor of attending, reciprocate by treating them and their time with respect, considering the human factor in every moment, from the opening to the closing.

Need help with making effective use of the opening or closing of your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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To gossip is human… to evaluate is divine – and requires facilitation

In the past few months, we have written articles on the importance of the “human factor” in the planning and facilitation of meetings. (See February, March and April issues of Coffee Break.) Now we would like to highlight another element that is often neglected when thinking of ways to engage, respect and treat people well: the evaluation at the end of the session.

We know that participants have opinions about the virtues and shortcomings of each meeting. If we do not ask for their comments before they leave the meeting room, these thoughts are expressed as hallway gossip, complaints in the cafeteria or —worst of all— the silent belief that there is no way to improve the group´s work sessions.

We recommend that you harvest these opinions when they are fresh – that is, before the end of the meeting. The challenge is to accomplish this when all people most want is to leave the room as soon as possible.

To overcome this resistance, the evaluation must be

  • Short
  • Dynamic
  • Participatory
  • Uncensored
  • Visible

10 specific tips

  1. Include “Evaluation” as an item in the agenda. If it is not in writing, it probably will not happen..
  2. Prepare in advance a large sheet of flip chart paper in this format:
  3. At the time shown on the agenda, make this announcement: “Before closing the meeting, we are going to conduct a short evaluation of today´s session. Your comments on what went well and what could be improved will help us in the planning and facilitation of future meetings.”
  4. Remind the group that comments can refer to any aspect of the meeting, including communications prior to the event, physical space, snacks, facilitation, participation, quality of the discussion, etc.”
  5. Take care to write down each comment, including those that seem like a joke. These “funny” observations usually contain some grain of truth and should not be ignored.
  6. Do not write down the name of who said what, only the comments.
  7. To make the process go faster, ask two people to scribe the comments, one on each side of the flip chart.
  8. If two people express opposing opinions about the same issue (for example, one says, “Attendance was good” and another that “Attendance could be improved”, write “attendance” in both columns.
  9. Do not permit the group to debate, discuss or give explanations about the comments. The idea is to end the meeting, not prolong it!
  10. At the beginning of the next meeting, review the sheet(s), pointing out which of the items mentioned have been modified. This reinforces the message that the group´s feedback matters and that evaluation is an instrument for positive change.
Need help integrating evaluations into your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Why your meetings need breaks.

Breaks are strategies to increase participation and satisfaction in meetings. Let´s reflect for a moment about the meaning of this statement from the point of view of the three principal actors in a typical meeting.

The conveners (group leaders), who are mostly worried about the topics to be discussed, sometimes believe that breaks are not necessary, that they steal time from the agenda and that it would be best to keep working. Why not just bring the coffee to the table and keep going?, they ask.

The truth is:

  • If breaks are not scheduled, people get up and leave the room anyway to attend to their physical and emotional needs.
  • Many meeting participants are genuinely busy people who need time to attend to other aspects of their lives. If breaks are not scheduled, they will distract others by making telephone calls, answering email, consulting with colleagues, etc. during the meeting.

The participants are interested in the issues under discussion but they are also concerned about the time and energy that the meeting requires, especially if the agenda is long and loaded with challenging topics. By including breaks in the work plan, the leader sends the message that “our intention is to generate and maintain the full participation of everyone, awakening our collective intelligence and co-creating solutions; therefore we will take periodic “time outs” to refresh both body and mind.”

The facilitators, whether they are members of the internal team or external consultants, should be advocates for both the quality of the participant´s experience and for the processes designed to achieve the meeting´s goals. Including breaks in the agenda of any meeting that lasts more than 90 minutes is part of their responsibilities.

Guidelines for scheduling breaks

  • For multi-hour sessions, schedule a break at least every 90 minutes.
  • Breaks should last 15-30 minutes, depending on the size of the group and the meeting context.
  • “Bio breaks” of 5-10 minutes allow participants time to go to the bathroom, drink water, and stretch their legs, but the leader must make it clear that this is not a long break and that the meeting will resume promptly,
  • When possible, serve refreshments outside the meeting room to give the participants a change of atmosphere,

What if some participants disappear during the breaks?

Sometimes people take advantage of a break to leave the meeting and not return. If this happens often in your meetings, it is probably because:

  • The meeting is too long, given the other responsibilities of the attendees;
  • Those who leave do not feel responsible for or interested in the topics to be discussed after the break;
  • They came primarily to “put in an appearance” and/or sign the attendance register, not to contribute to the expected outcomes established for the meeting.

In any case, the early departure of some does not justify omitting breaks from the agenda.

Need help integrating evaluations into your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Take a moment so that the soul can arrive

In last month´s Coffee Break we highlighted the importance of taking into account the group’s context and overall state of mind when planning a meeting. Now we want to share some ideas about how to apply the concept of the “human factor” at the start of a session.

Often groups do not take the time to do a personal “check in” when they sit down to meet. Typical rationalizations include “we already know each other”, “we are together all day” and, most commonly, “we do not have time to waste in idle chatter.” So they dive directly into the first item on the agenda, losing the opportunity to connect with each other as human beings before getting to work.

An indigenous community in South America believes that when a group meets the members must breathe and “take a few minutes in order for the soul to arrive.”

Remember that the participants are busy people. When they take their seat at the conference table they are often worried about many personal and professional issues that do not necessarily have anything to so with the purpose of the meeting. Investing a few minutes to help people “land” can make them more present for the discussions that follow.

A round of introductions does not have to take much time. Depending on the size of the group, 5-10 minutes is enough for each person to give a brief update and strengthen the human connection between colleagues as a first step to working effectively together.

Some examples for opening include:

  • Ask each person to share “something new and good that has happened in my life recently.”
  • In the case of a Monday morning meeting, ask each one to share “something fun (or enjoyable) that I did over the weekend.”
  • Ask everyone to share with the whole group or, if the group is large, with the person sitting beside them, any issue unrelated to the today´s agenda that is on their mind and that they need to set aside in order to focus on the meeting.
  • In a virtual meeting, ask each person to say their name, the local time and what the weather is like where they are.
  • If the group members do not know each other well and/or if they believe that “we are different”, ask them to work in pairs to identify “10 things we have in common”.

Additional advice

  • The tone of the opening round should be neither too playful nor too serious.
  • Choose a question or dynamic that respects each person´s dignity and individuality.
  • A human-centered beginning can contribute significantly to the meeting´s effectiveness.
Need help planning your meeting agendas? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Taking the human factor into account

In the previous edition of Coffee Break we suggested several ways to balance the contents of an agenda with the time available for the meeting. While these “structural” elements can go a long way toward improving the atmosphere and effectiveness of the meeting, we also need to consider the human factor in the planning of any agenda.

Each meeting is unique in the sense that the context of the group can change between one meeting and the next.

The spirit of the participants will be affected by factors in their personal lives as well as in their workplace. Any template that is used to plan an agenda (and it is highly recommended to do so – see the free download below) must be subject to modification according to the particular circumstances that surround each group encounter.

Here is a list of some of these “human” aspects to consider when designing an agenda.

Analysis of the group context

The group is
___ Meeting for the first time
___ Meeting again after a long period
___ About to dissolve (this is the last meeting)

The participants
____ All know each other
____ There are some new people
____ Have conflicts with each other
____ Are culturally diverse

The group is
____ In crisis
____ Stuck
____ Under stress, worried
____ Celebrating a victory or mourning a loss

Lately, meetings have been
____ Tedious
____ Not productive
____ Exceeding allotted time
____ Dynamic
____ Very productive
____ Finished on time (or earlier!)

The topics to discuss are
____ Routine
____ Complex
____ Controversial
____ Urgent
____ Important

Other factors to consider

Having analyzed the context, we must ask ourselves, to achieve the objective of this meeting

  • What do we have to keep doing or do more?
  • What do we need to change?
  • Who can help us?
  • Is this meeting really necessary?

In next month´s Coffee Break, we will share ideas about changes that you can make in the agenda design to respond to the “human factor”. Meanwhile, here is a free template for a “generic” agenda that you can download.

Need help analysing the “human factor” in your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Meetings and Innovation

In a world where innovation is discussed in relation to every organizational area, why do meetings remain stuck in the 19th century?

We know that meetings, whether face-to-face or virtual, are often necessary, but how can we justify those that fail to produce useful results, wasting the time of all involved?

Here is a specific example of the kind of complaints our clients bring to us:

“In our team meetings we almost never manage to discuss all the topics on the agenda. This situation is frustrating for all. What can we do?”

First of all, congratulations! At least you have an agenda! Now let´s see how you can adjust the contents to the available time.

Which of these strategies have you tried?

  • Prioritize agenda items. Give preference to those topics that require a decision.
  • Eliminate reports. Do not include topics that are merely informational such as reports, when no substantive discussion or decision is required. Find other ways to share that information.
  • Prepare supporting materials. Ensure that those who are going to present topics prepare and share the relevant information ahead of time. If the materials are not ready, postpone the topic until another meeting.
  • Define the expected result. Each agenda item should be linked to an outcome that justifies the time invested. Examples of expected results include: generate options, define criteria, make a decision, etc.
  • Time control. Assign time limits for each item (be a bit generous!) and then respect them.
  • Select participants with care. Convene only those who have a direct responsibility and/or knowledge relevant to the topics on the agenda.

If, despite having introduced all of these “innovations” into your meeting culture, the time is still not sufficient to discuss all the items on the agenda, consider the possibility of increasing the frequency or the duration of the meetings. Do not continue to put 10 kilos of potatoes in a 5-kilo bag!

Need help improving your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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[video] Three ways that consensus process forced me to grow

Consensus demands a lot from those who practice it. The process itself requires us to change some of the bad habits —vices really— that get in the way of reaching agreement with others.

In this short video I describe three personal challenges that I had to overcome in order to participate effectively in consensus decision-making processes.

To learn more about what consensus is and how to use it effectively, download IIFAC’s free Guide to Consensus Process.

Need help using the consensus process in your group? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching or training needs.

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Does every decision require consensus?

The short answer to the question “Does every decision require consensus?” is “No, of course not!

The even shorter answer is “It depends.”

Groups implementing consensus process for the first time tend to want everyone to decide everything. While understandable, this is an unsustainable expectation. It leads to too many meetings, long discussions about trivial details and, eventually, disenchantment with the whole process.

Here are two ways to avoid this common mistake:

  • Bundle all the routine, uncontroversial decisions (e.g., approval of minutes of previous meetings, proposals that have been previously vetted by a committee, etc.) into one item on the agenda (sometimes called the “consent agenda”) and approve them all together. If one of the issues turns out to be more controversial than expected, it is removed from the “bundle” and treated separately.
  • Delegate. Once the group has reached consensus on the broad concept and any constraints (such as budget, etc,) related to a proposed course of action, it can leave the decisions about how to “make it happen” to those empowered to implement it.
Need help clarifying the decision-making process in your group? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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