The county’s new economic development director pulls out the last quarterly agenda as she prepares for her first economic development commission meeting. “How”, she wonders as she looks at the last agenda, “could the commission members possibly digest new unemployment data, discuss options for a new industrial park, and get public input on a plan for small business incentives all in one meeting?”
Before drafting an agenda, the new economic development director decides to call the commission members and asks about their goals for the upcoming meeting. She soon learns that commission members have several, and at time competing, meeting goals. “No wonder their meetings have been frustrating,” she mutters to herself. “People on this commission want to accomplish a lot but disagree on their priorities. I think it is time to clarify the purposes of our meetings.”
Not all meetings are equal. Some meetings feel like a waste of time while others create energy and promote action. Productive meetings begin with participants understanding the meeting’s purpose. If people come to a meeting expecting to engage in decision-making and the leader presents a final proposal there will be morale problems or worse. Those responsible for planning meetings can help themselves and those with whom they work by making sure everyone understands the reason(s) for meeting. Below I describe seven common meeting purposes and when it is best to use them
1. Information sharing. Whenever you need to make an announcement, report or presentation, your meeting goal is to share information. If people know the goal of the meeting is to share information, they usually ask clarification questions and make brief statements of opinion or suggest what to do next. When people do not know that the goal is to share information, they participate more actively, expecting to make progress or decide something. Be clear when the purpose of your meeting is just to share information.
2. Obtaining input. When you want feedback, advice and/or suggestions, but do not want a group decision, your meeting goal is to obtain input. When people understand that the goal is to obtain input rather than make decisions as a group, they typically spend less time trying to influence one another and, instead, focus on influencing the opinions of the person asking for input. If this goal is unclear, people will later complain “Why ask for my opinion if you don’t intend to use it?” Reduce frustrations of this type by letting people know the meeting goal is to obtain their input.
3. Advancing the group’s thinking. When the group needs to make progress on a topic, your meeting goal is to advance the thinking by engaging people in a task or activity that produces a tangible result. For example, setting goals, determining priorities, planning action steps or evaluating outcomes. Most complex projects involve several stages of work where different kinds of thinking are embedded in each stage. Groups make progress taking one step at a time. Advancing the thinking is a legitimate meeting goal and enables groups to accomplish significant objectives.
4. Decision making. When a group needs to address an issue and bring it to closure, the meeting goal is to make a decision. Whether an issue is simple or complex, a commitment to makes decisions means just that: the group is expected to decide. Difficult decisions are best made after issues have been well thought through. If the decision is important, assure members of the group understand the issue and are ready to make a decision. If they are not, it usually makes more sense to set a meeting goal to advance the thinking, not make decisions.
5. Improving communication. If members of the group are in conflict or are unable to work together effectively, you may need to help people strengthen relationships by dealing with interpersonal tensions. If this is the case, your meeting goal is to improve communication. People typically resist talking about their feelings in meetings, but failing to address communication problems can lead to bigger issues. Open communication helps people address misperceptions and misunderstandings and dysfunctional group processes can be identified and replaced by more desirable ones. People usually don’t have this type of discussion unless they are given explicit permission to do so. Be aware, it takes well-planned, well-structured process to create the safe, supportive environment for people to improve communication.
6. Building community. When you want to promote camaraderie, strengthen working climate, and boost morale, your meeting goal is to build community. Like improving communication, community building is rarely considered a legitimate reason to meet but it strengthens bonds among members of the group. Quick meetings can be used to build community. For instance, celebrating birthdays or congratulatory messages can happen in 5-10 minutes. Convening a group after a distressing event can be a profound way to build community. Building community does not always require a team-building activity—it can be part of regular meeting agendas just like other goals or be a stand up meeting around the coffee machine.
7. Building capacity. If people need to develop or apply new skills, your meeting goal is to build capacity. Most people think capacity building occurs in the training department, an external program or through vendors. When capacity building is an explicit meeting goal, you have a variety of options for increasing people’s skills. For example, people can use new approaches for problem-solving and decision-making; share knowledge on key topics; or apply a particular skill or best practice to real challenges. Build capacity during your meetings by giving people the opportunity to learn and incorporate new skills, knowledge or tools into their work.
To help clarify the goals for your next meeting consider the following questions.
- What am I (are we) shooting for?
- If I (we) had all the time and money I (we) needed, what would I (we) really want to happen?
- What does success look like?
- How will I (we) know when I’m (we’re) done?
- Why is this important to me (us)?
Vaughn Mamlin Upshaw is a Lecturer in Public Administration and Governance at the UNC School of Government.
For additional information, see:
Kaner, S. (2007) Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making, second edition, Community at Work, Jossey-Bass, Publishers: San Francisco, CA.
Running Effective Meetings: Establishing an Objective and Sticking to It. See http://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/RunningMeetings.htm. Accessed 06/26/2013.
Tips on planning and running meetings from the Meeting Guru on EffectiveMeetings.com, available online at http://www.effectivemeetings.com/guru/solution_index.asp
Eileen Youens Consulting, LLC. Three-part article series on “How to Run an Effective Meeting” available online at http://youensconsulting.com/articles/