How to Facilitate Productive Meetings

Photo credit: Idaho Department of Fish and Game

We’ve all sat through meetings that lasted too long, and didn’t accomplish very much. Often, these meetings started out promising, but didn’t actually achieve the intended results. What went wrong, and what are the criteria for a successful meeting?

According to Michael Fraidenburg, owner of The Cooperation Company, it’s important to think about meetings differently and apply the same skills used for project management.

“A meeting is not a meeting, it is a project,” explains Fraidenburg, who has facilitated thousands of meetings over the years. “Don’t just create an agenda, set up a time and place, and start talking. Instead, treat a meeting as a stand-alone project; one that deserves your best project management skills to design and then execute the project.”

Valuable Meeting Checklist

Fraidenburg urges OWP members to remember OWP’s own planning questions before, during and after any meeting: “In every meeting, give it all you’ve got,” says Fraidenburg. “Make it their meeting, not yours. And make it a project, not a meeting.”

Be a Fearless Facilitator

Why do some meetings run off course? According to Tamara Christensen of The Idea Farm, it’s often because the agenda isn’t followed, and the discussion has moved beyond the scope of the meeting.

“This commonly happens,” says Christensen, “when the topic is complex, the stakes are high, people have divergent opinions and/ or the emotions are high. It’s easy to prevent meeting meltdown when you set clear expectations and solicit agreement from all participants. Always have someone dedicated to holding people to these agreements.”

An essential element of a successful meeting is having a fearless facilitator to manage the process (not the content) of a meeting. A fearless facilitator is “someone who focuses exclusively on how people in a meeting are using a process to progress towards the purpose,” says Christensen. If someone needs to play double duty, they need to be very clear about which hat they are wearing.”

The Facilitator’s Roles

Christensen recommends facilitators become responsible for these key responsibilities:

  1. Introduction (setting expectations for meeting purpose, desired outcomes, format/agenda, behavioral guidelines, roles- why we are all here, clarifying questions)
  2. Prevention (explicitly describing desired behaviors and getting everyone in the meeting to agree to them, ideally these are written or posted somewhere)
  3. Promotion (gently guiding the process of the meeting and modeling the desired behaviors)
  4. Intervention (assessing when content creeps beyond meeting purpose, holding people accountable for maintaining meeting focus, redirecting undesirable behaviors, reinforcing agreements)
  5. Celebration (synthesizing meeting outcomes and next steps, acknowledging the work of the group and expressing gratitude for contributions)

Faucet Versus Funnel Thinking

Regardless of your meeting’s topic or objective, two types of thinking are evident when groups of people gather to have a conversation and make things happen. These two thinking processes are called faucet (divergent) thinking and funnel (convergent) thinking.

“Both faucet and funnel thinking are valuable components of creativity and collaboration,” says Christensen. “But most people have Faucet Thinking: Right brain creative types lead meetings with faucet thinking and generate many different options for moving forward. These participants are more comfortable with ambiguity, enjoy imagination and like to play with possibilities before committing to decisions,” she says.

Funnel Thinking: Left brain logical thinkers, such as engineers, scientists, project managers or accountants, tend to prefer funnel thinking. “They want to figure out the best right answer, analyze it and implement it,” adds Christensen. “Their focus is on quality and deliberate decision making.”

Leverage Them Both

In meetings, allow time to include both types of thinking, but always keep faucet and funnel thinking separate. Typically, faucet thinking happens first, as in “let’s hear everyone’s ideas on this, no judging allowed.” Then funnel thinking allows the group to “assess what we’ve heard and prioritize opportunities.”

“Be very explicit with participants about the type of thinking acceptable at that moment,” advises Christensen. “Implementing this simple tip will help you better direct the flow of conversation and manage tangents, distractions and those pesky people who hijack meetings and prevent productivity.”

Parking Lots or Gardens

What about all those great ideas that pop up in a meeting, but aren’t immediately relevant? How can you save these good ideas and prevent them from derailing the conversation?

Some meeting facilitators like to park those comments or topics in a “parking lot” until a later time. Christensen prefers to set up a meeting “garden.” This can be a flip chart or even a piece of paper on a conference table. When an irrelevant idea to the current topic comes up it is “planted in the garden” for discussion later.

“This helps the facilitator keep the meeting on track,” she explains. “Allow a few minutes at the end of a meeting to review the seeds planted in the garden. Find out if anyone wants to tend that item. If not, then it probably was not as important as it originally seemed.”

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