In the quest for endless cost reductions and every-greater efficiency it’s easy to overlook something that seems as unimportant as facilitation.

It is after all just another soft skill isn’t it? Something those people in HR know about, but that the folks who worry about the bottom-line really don’t need to understand. Or do they?

Consider for a minute how many hours a day the average senior manager spends sitting in meetings. A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that the average was eight hours! That means that most of our corporate and government leaders are basically doing all their work in the minutes between meetings and after hours. And what if those eight hours are mind-numbingly boring or yield few tangible results?

It’s a fact that despite a multitude of books about meetings and endless workshops, most meetings are poor and remain a major drain of both time and money. One possible reason for this is that most leaders continue to run meetings without paying any attention to process.

They fail to understand how to use even the simplest tools to structure decision-making conversations. When people exhibit ineffective behaviors, they don’t know how to redirect them. When a conversation goes off on a tangent they fail to move the off-topic item into the parking lot. They don’t even do simple things like appoint a time-keeper to make sure that meetings end on time.

Another major issue is that most meeting leaders don’t post and enforce meeting guidelines. As a result people text while colleagues are talking and work on laptops to keep on top of their emails. Of course, who can blame them for doing this! With so many hours spent in meetings, you have to get your work done sometime! The result is that meeting are actually getting worse instead of better.

Since we seem to be stuck in a death-spiral about meetings, here are some really simple suggestions that all meeting managers can apply today:

  1. Send out a detailed agenda ahead of time that shows the expected outcome and timeframe for each topic. Specify any required homework.
  2. Post a set of meeting guidelines in clear site. Invite people to add any new rules they think would be helpful. Then enforce the rules by politely but firmly pointing out when any rules are being broken.
  3. Find a free timer app that counts down and display it in clear sight. Ask someone to call out major markers to prod people along.
  4. Tape a blank sheet of flip chart paper on a side wall with the words Parking Lot at the top. Point out digressions and park them for the next meeting, unless group members make a conscious decision to overturn the agenda.
  5. Manage participation. Call on quiet people. Politely redirect side-chatters and interrupters with simple-to-use intervention language.
  6. Make sure that all decision-making conversations are discussed in a structured manner. Learn to use simple tools like Forcefield Analysis, Root Cause Analysis, Gap Analysis, Affinity Diagrams, Decision-Grids and Multi-voting. Always let people know before any decision-making discussion if they’re making the final decision or just being asked for input to the eventual decision maker.
  7. Do a super fast Pluses and Deltas Exit Survey at the end of every meeting using sticky notes to collect improvement ideas. Keep doing the surveys until there are no more recommendations, which means that people feel the meetings are perfect!

The final and most important recommendation is that all meeting leaders should learn the basics of group facilitation. This can be done by taking a training course, getting a great book on the subject or taking an online course.

Leaders should approach this challenge with the goal of not only improving meeting quality, but cutting the overall time their people spend in meetings in half! When leaders start to use facilitate techniques to manage their meetings, they will soon discover that facilitation is actually not a “touchy-feely”, nice-to-have frill, but an essential tool for bringing much needed structure to their work with their people.

Meeting Guidelines

  • All meetings will start on time.
  • Cell phones will be on silent.
  • There will be one conversation at a time.
  • People will listen attentively.
  • Everyone will participate actively.
  • Participation will be balanced with no one dominating.
  • Anyone presenting will respect pre-set time limits.
  • We will stay on topic and not re-open issues or jump ahead.
  • All off topic items will be parked for future consideration.
  • Disruptions like side-chatting, texting , or walking in and out, will be avoided.