Running Effective Meetings, a Q&A

There are many misconceptions about how to run effective meetings. This Q & A should help clarify some of the key factors involved in running effective meetings.


Q: What is meeting facilitation?
A: I once went to a meeting where the person “facilitating” told person A that it was their turn to speak and considered that facilitating. However, that is only a small aspect. Sometimes, individuals think using Robert’s rules of order is facilitating. Facilitating for me is about clarification of important points, combining ideas, and helping the group make choices and set priorities. It is about creativity, and problem-solving, not reporting what happened last week and nodding heads. It is also about making sure that everyone gets heard.


Q: Do I always need an agenda?
A: Not always. If this is the first meeting for an issue and the issue has not been explored, then chances are the only item on the agenda is exploring the problem and defining the issue. I have run into folks that assume that there has to be an agenda, even if this is an exploratory meeting. To satisfy them, I put on the flip chart “define the problem” as the agenda.


Q: How do you decide on the number of agenda items?
A: My rule is that for every 2.5 hrs, you should have not more than 10 small issue equivalents; A small issue=1 small issue equivalent, a medium issue=2, and a big issue=3. So no more than 3 big issues, or 5 medium issues. Of course, one can mix and match. For example, 1 medium issue, 1 big issue, and 5 small issues. Alternatively, 2 medium issues, 1 big issue, and 3 small issues.


Q: Is it always bad not to go through all agenda items?
A: No, not always. For me, important discussions around fundamental issues trump agenda items every time. I also do not feel bad if the agenda was stuffed to the brim with items and sufficient time was not allotted in the first place.


Q: How much time do you think is sufficient for defining a problem?
A: Einstein suggested that if he had a whole hour to solve a problem, he would devote the first 55 minutes to defining the problem and only the last 5 minutes to finding the solution. While this is unrealistic, he probably said this to underscore his point. What I found in practice is that less than 5 minutes are devoted to defining the problem and people almost immediately jump into creating a solution. A realistic ratio is around 20-25% of the meetings should be devoted to problem definition. So in a 12-meeting series, 2-3 meetings are devoted to defining the problem.


Q: What do you do if someone goes on tangents?
A: In my experience, 1 in 5 people has the tendency to go on tangents. I usually, ask the person how what they said is related to the discussion, or I point out that this is off topic and that this could be discussed in another meeting. Finally, I point to the time and where we are in the agenda and ask the rest of the group if they want to move to the next agenda item or have the person continue their tangent.


Q: What if the group is having a hard time making a decision?
A: I say: “What is most important here?” or “You can only have one primary goal (or client, etc), they can’t all be primary.” This usually “forces” the group to make a choice. I also suggest that the group prioritizes the items. Once the priorities are set, it is fairly easy to make a decision. Finally, if they have many options I ask them to start eliminating the ones they like the least or find least important.


Q: Do you bring your own ground rules?
A: I usually do. At the same time, I ask the group if they want to add anything to it. In my experience, unless the client has worked with a facilitator previously, they have a hard time coming up with ground rules or adding anything to my list.


Q: How many ground rules do you use?
A: I go with 6-7 as this is the maximum a typical person can remember.


Q: Why do you use “ground rules” instead of “working agreements”?
A: It is a personal preference. Sometimes, however, the clients are not comfortable with the terminology. However, I think that “rules” are more conducive to accountability.


Q: Do you always do a check-in at the start of each meeting?
A: Not always, usually during the first few meetings, and when meetings are apart in time. Nonetheless, in my most recent engagement, after I introduced check-in, the client wants to do it every time, even though I was ready to abandon it.


Q: Facilitation resources recommend having the group select a timekeeper and a note-taker, what do you think?
A: It depends on the group, I have very high awareness with regard to time. So I personally have not found it beneficial to have a timekeeper when I am facilitating. As for note-taking, it depends on the purpose for the note-taking. In some cases, if someone takes notes, it takes away from their ability to participate. Thus, I do note-taking myself.


What I have seen in many places, is that people seldom read the notes after they were sent out. I think this stems from the fact that people have too many meetings back-to-back, and are mostly overworked.


Q: What is the best time to have a meeting?
A: Ask the attendees in advance. I tend to have the most intellectual energy from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, For me that is not when I want to have a meeting. Others might have a different peak period. It is most beneficial to ask everyone when is the best time to have a meeting and not just assume 8:00 or 9:00 am works for everyone, Try to find a time that works for almost everyone.


In any case, I do not recommend meetings at the end of the day as people are tired and might not be thinking clearly. If a meeting late in the day cannot be helped, then perhaps it should deal with “medium” and “small” issues and avoid “big” issues altogether. “Big” issues might have to be relegated to retreats unless they are urgent.


© 2015 Mohammed Raei