Making Meetings Work

May 6, 2017

Updated 9/6/2017

The Problem

“For many people, meetings are a lot like the weather – everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. Poor meetings, like bad weather, are accepted.  Many have come to accept the ‘fact’ that they will be largely boring, unproductive, and generally a pain in the neck …. Like back pain, people think bad meetings just have to be endured.” (John E. Tropman, Making Meetings Work: Achieving High Quality Group Decisions, Sage Publications (2003)).

I first read Prof. Tropman’s book when I was a higher education administrator.  It was a life raft in an existence that rained a torrent of meetings, many of which were unproductive and painful to attend. This kind of meeting dysfunction has real consequences. Recent research on what makes volunteers quit volunteering, for example, shows that the top reason is having to work under leaders who don’t know how to lead, e.g., how to run a meeting.  This can be a death knell for small nonprofits, which typically rely heavily on volunteers to advance the work of an organization.  

making meetings work – in Theory

1. the role of your strategic plan

So what can be done to make meetings work? An organization’s regular meetings need to be principled.  By regular, I mean team meetings that happen on a regular schedule to advance the work of the organization.  Board, committee and staff meetings are examples. For these meetings to run according to the principles I describe below, two other things must be true.  First the organization must engage in strategic planning at least once a year, either to update an existing plan or create a new one.  The plan prioritizes what must get done to deliver on the mission and drives the work of everyone involved in the organization. Its impact on making meetings work is that it ensures we stay focused on the right things.

2. the importance of “check-in” opportunities

Second, staff and volunteers must have a forum outside of regular meetings for sharing updates and issues about current work.  Some of this discussion might be accomplished virtually, using email and tools like Evernote, Basecamp or Slack.  But there will still be a need for staff and volunteers to meet about these things, either via teleconference or in person.  For example, a nonprofit I currently head has a regular monthly board meeting with an agenda that follows the format described below; however, it also has a “check-in” teleconference two weeks before the board meeting.  (Did you know many nonprofits can qualify for an annual subscription to GoToMeeting, a teleconferencing and screen-sharing software product for under $50 annually?  Check it out on Tech Soup, accessible from my Resources page).  The “check-in” agenda has no more than five items, which are related to urgent business, e.g., planning special events or launching new projects. This meeting lasts no more than one hour. Its impact on making meetings work is that it minimizes the urge to dive into minutiae during the regular meeting.

3. tropman’s 7 principles for making meetings work

With these two preliminaries in place we can talk about what many dread – board, committee and team meetings that drag on and on ad nauseum.  Here is where Prof. Tropman shines.  He offers seven principles for making meetings work, which I have summarized as follows:

  1. The Orchestra Principle: Good meeting chairs are like good orchestra conductors, who ensure that the hall has been prepared, the pieces selected, and some rehearsal accomplished. Their job is to facilitate, to help, to conduct the orchestra.  Imagine an orchestral performance gone awry:  You enter the hall and pick up a program that is blank. The conductor asks the audience what they would like to hear. After many minutes, a list is developed; but some of the pieces require orchestra members who are not seated that day. When a final list of pieces is created, the oboist announces that she won’t be able to play owing to having to leave early for a doctor’s appointment, throwing the assembly into further chaos. Sound familiar?Making meetings work
  2.  The Three-Characters Principle:  Meetings should be organized according to the character (content and nature) of the items on the agenda and not on the basis of the people who attend (President, Committee Chair, etc.).  There are three types of content: (1) Announcing events and decisions (Information); (2) Deciding among options (Action); and (3) Brainstorming and exploration (Discussion).
  3. The Role Principle:  It’s easy to blame other people for bad meetings and to insist that, if they would just change, the meeting would go better. Tropman argues that the responsibility for changing behavior rests with the chair. If he or she is principled in running the meeting, others’ behavior will eventually follow suit.
  4. The No New Business Principle: Tropman states: “New business is one of the great enemies of the contemporary meeting, for a simple reason. Nobody knows anything about new business, so it gives the freest possible license for all manner of discussion.” Meanwhile, precious minutes of your life ebb like a receding tide.
  5. The No More Reports Principle: Oral newsletters (committee reports and updates) have no place on an agenda, unless they are in the form of something written.  A written update can be included in the information section of the agenda materials, which is typically not discussed during the meeting.Making Meetings Work
  6. The Proactivity Principle: Discussion items should include issues that relate to the future of the organization.  A good example here are committee proposals related to  priorities in your strategic plan. These items require a thoughtful, proactive response. Engagement around such items provides lasting motivation for people to arrive at and participate in meetings. Tropman argues it is the excitement of psychic income and the real reward of having an impact on important issues that keeps team members engaged.
  7. The High-Quality Decisions Principle: A variety of views are heard, disassembled, and reassembled in combination with the views of others to construct a decision that advances the interests of all of the stakeholders.

making meetings work – in Practice

How do we use Tropman’s principles in making meetings work as a practical matter? Here is an example of the agenda structure contemplated by Tropman, including explanations of the items and a couple of additions that I have made over the years:

  1. Setting the Agenda:  Before the meeting begins, I ask whether there are items that are a high priority for anyone present.  We typically discuss these first.
  2. Consent:  This section includes anything that needs action but is routine. Examples include things like meeting minutes, committee appointments, bank resolutions, and action taken by the Executive Commitee between meetings. Participants are expected to review the information in the agenda packet on these items and vote on them as a group. Participants can ask that items be removed from the consent agenda and moved to the regular agenda for discussion if they are so inclined.
  3. Action: This section includes committee proposals and plans that were discussed at a prior meeting and require a vote.  Examples of items in this section include things like the strategic plan, budget, contracts, and awards.
  4. Discussion: This section is where the real work of the team takes place.  Here, participants explore why key metrics are not being achieved and discuss proposals for moving the organization forward.  Examples of items in this section are as follows:
    • The organizational dashboard:  A graphic representation of how the organization is doing on key metrics typically derived from the strategic plan, e.g., fundraising goals
    • Committee proposals, which typically relate to items in the strategic plan or to activities essential to the running of the organization, e.g., board elections
    • Items that relate to the board’s fiduciary responsibilities, e.g., tax filings, financial reports
  5. Information:  This section is for written updates and reports. These are not discussed, although participants may ask that they be moved to discussion.  Examples of items in this section include:
    • Updates on committee initiatives that do not require discussion, e.g., minutes of committee meetings and committee reports.
    • Upcoming events on the organization’s calendar of key periodic events and deadlines, a tool to be discussed in a future post.
    • Other items of general interest, e.g., upcoming conferences, press coverage, relevant articles
  6. Parking Lot:  This category is for things we know will need to be addressed in the future but are not ripe for discussion now, e.g. a large line item for the next annual budget that implementation of a new proposal or program will require.  

In a related post, I discuss the concept of the “Running Agenda” as a tool for making sure people always have the items they need to be prepared for a meeting, something that is also key to making meetings work.  The Running Agenda has many other benefits, too, such as making it much easier to record minutes and recall decisions the team made previously. The outline suggested above can be used to structure any Running Agenda.

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