It’s not discipline that makes Muddled Meetings successful but the way the chair controls the indiscipline plus the amount of successful disruption s/he encourages. I always have a well prepared agenda but seldom stick to it – certainly never rigidly. The ritual of meetings has become a kind of religious service often with only one of two consequences – jubilation and self-congratulations all round or despair and a ritual hanging at the end.
What are your meetings for? To gather a consensus of those present? To demonstrate your leadership skills? To communicate a message of specific importance? To rally the troops to even greater effort? There will be elements of all of these. How to mix them up in one session? Is confession best kept separate from celebration? My experience is that these can often be combined very effectively.
The issues facing a meeting convenor are:
As Chair / Convenor of the meeting you will have your own purpose(s). You must tell those attending what these are before the meeting and you must ask those attending if they want to raise any matter themselves. You decide what will be on the final agenda, of course. Try not to make it formal or ritualistic. Planning a meeting is the most important part of it.
Give everyone an agenda before the meeting, setting out the purpose(s) of the meeting at the top of the agenda. Give the agenda to those attending a reasonable time before the meeting. Surprises, both good and bad, do not demonstrate competent management.
Hold the meeting more for the benefit of those attending than for the person chairing it. Tell those present, at the start of the meeting, that it is being held for their benefit and that they can openly say what they like. Diplomatic meetings in business are a waste of time.
Be strict but not dogmatic about time. Any meeting that runs for longer than 40 minutes loses the attention of most of those present. The best way to ensure meaningful, short meetings is to remove the chairs from the conference room. Standing meetings are short. You can make the chairs less comfortable and achieve much the same result.
Bring the quiet or shy attendees into the discussion. Do this gently not punitively. Ask them intelligent, searching questions, don’t just say “What’s your view, Fred?“ Engaging the reluctant is a key skill for anyone who runs meetings.
When the meeting is to discuss a disaster, turn the downside of whatever has happened into a useful lesson for all those who might have made the same mistake or who have been hit by the consequences if it. Get the person who screwed up to explain the pitfall so that those attending the meeting can avoid it. I used to congratulate people who made genuine but serious mistakes with a thimbleful of champagne at 10 in the morning. It worked.
If the Chair demonstrates creative thinking some of the participants will as well. Use a part of the meeting to brainstorm with only positive contributions – no negatives allowed. Make the brainstorming fun not misery. If someone says something patently silly don’t chide them. Encourage them to turn their wild thoughts into a practical action or product. The problem of horses being unable to trot faster was solved by imagining cars.
Develop a culture of casual, impromptu meetings as well. They should be spontaneous, triggered by a problem or a potential. This kind of meeting, run well, gets to the heart of the matter faster than formal meetings so you can have it sitting down!
There will always be competitive, adversarial points of view and these can be fruitful but the best meetings are collegial not adversarial. The secret of making them collegial is having the purpose clear.
It’s a bit like life itself, isn’t it?