So many of us have experienced bad meetings ranging from mildly frustrating to intolerable! In fact, bad meetings are so common, it’s easy to assume they are an inevitable part of the status quo. If you have a worker cooperative, a small business, a nonprofit, board meetings, organizing meetings, or are interested in democratic workplaces, you likely have to participate in meetings that drive you nuts for a variety of reasons. If so, you are in the right place, we wrote this post for you!

To name just a few top examples of bad meeting culture from experience:

  • People getting offended and defensive.
  • People being accusatory and snide.
  • People disengaging during the meetings and at all times.
  • Updates that go on forever and are not helpful.
  • A few people that have too much responsibility.
  • Only a few people doing all the talking.
  • Well intentioned people delivering inconsistent accountability.
  • Agenda items that only reflect the needs of a few.
  • Agenda items that take way too long and don’t lead to meaningful outcomes that move things forward.
  • Meetings with no clear ending that drag on for hours.
  • And the list goes on!!!

Since bad meeting culture is so endemic it’s easy to think that it’s normal or unavoidable and I’m here to tell you that while it may be normal, meaning that it happens all the time in all kinds of organizations, it’s not healthy and it is entirely avoidable! The problem with accepting bad meeting culture is that it:

  • Saps organizational energy and focus. There’s nothing like an argument in the middle of a meeting for making everything worse.
  • Wastes time. Meetings are the most efficient way to sync up and align. When they are wasted with no clear decisions or next actions, people still have to obtain that information or risk doing bad or useless work. The work of obtaining that information outside of meetings represents a waste of time.
  • Sense of being stuck increases. It leaves people feeling powerless and frustrated leading to disengagement.
  • Underscores the sense of being overworked and underappreciated. When we don’t have good mechanisms for redistributing work because we can’t really see what other people are doing or not doing, it’s easy for people to feel unseen and unappreciated for their work.
  • Makes it harder to address important issues and get good work done. When meetings are wasted on conversations that go on way past any point of usefulness for the organization, the time we have to discuss and decide on important issues dwindles.

Getting to facilitating effective, collaborative meetings can be challenging but is well worth the effort. Imagine what it might be like for you to have a organization full of inspiring leaders, with tools that enable you to hack your meetings into flows and effective outcomes? Well, for one thing, improving your meetings will save you time and energy and open up the space for everyone on the team to be more of their full selves, which simply feels better, and frankly gets better results. With a generative meeting culture, here are a few things you can look forward to, including what some of our clients and students have shared about our work!

Engaging and efficient collaboratively-led meetings. The power of joy and fulfillment that comes from productive efficient meetings goes on to infuse all of the work we do with that same motivating force, bringing much more meaning and productivity to everything that we do.

Organizational conversations now happen significantly more efficiently, and in ways that are safe, well-held, and invite the participation of all involved. I have had many experiences of dysfunctional organizations having circular conversations. The decades of experience synthesized into Collab give me tools to short-circuit those loops and move a group towards high-functionality, collective alignment, and success.

Kevin Aderer

Level I CLCP Leader

Working together productively with flow and satisfaction. Collaborating with others can be profoundly frustrating, and that frustration is a drain on both the organization and the individual. Getting to flow and satisfaction produces a host of benefits including longevity, in other words, people sticking around to contribute to an organization’s success.

I now feel invigorated and excited to work with my business partners – and our work contributes to a meaningful practice of providing service to others while also caring for ourselves. Without this new framework and tools, I would not be in this position.

Wes Bascom

Worker-owner, Woodbelly Pizza

Not getting stuck on issues. The feeling of being stuck in one’s work with others is corrosive, especially if it’s a consistent feature of meetings. Being able to move forward even on difficult issues is like opening the windows in a stale room and letting the light and air in.

With your guidance you turned what could have been, at best, a jumbled waste of time or, perhaps worse, a clash of perspectives into a constructive reorientation of the focus of the group.  In my mind, that was a turning point for the productivity of our team and the success of our work.

Bryant Morgan

CFO, Marlboro College

Better innovation and problem solving. Working together is all about facing challenges and surmounting them with each other. Being equipped to do so efficiently, creatively,  and innovatively is critical to organizational success in the complex and constantly changing business environments that we all find ourselves in today.

We were exposed to a new process that allowed us to articulate and discuss our multiple perspectives on “tensions”, or problems on the job, without actually getting tense and with a refreshing objectivity. It allowed everyone to articulate and really hear one another’s perspective, take ownership of resolution, and identify areas of commonality. Discovering a new framework for problem solving that showed potential for effectiveness and efficiency was pretty exciting.

Nancy Scheemaker

General Manager, Northshire Bookstore

Mutual support & accountability. One of the biggest challenges of collaborative work environments where we are explicitly sharing power is accountability, both how we support each other in getting our work done, and how we hold each other accountable in the process.

Collab proved to be the exact prescription necessary to aid us in our problems of inefficiency, lack of accountability, unclear roles and management structure. This system has organic roots that speak to the basics of human organization, while simultaneously embracing technologies that allow us to prioritize and systematize in our daily lives. I found these techniques to be very straightforward and succinct, while allowing for necessary flexibility.

Solenne Thompson

Owner, Tulsi Tea Room

A real distribution of power and voice. This one is huge! If you really want to get innovating and feel some meaningful engagement from your team, try giving them real power. Here it is expressed from a manager in a 70+ person radio station that we trained.

I just wanted to say that adopting the tools you trained us with has really changed how my team operates. I know others here can say the same, but specifically for my team it has been invaluable. These tools give everyone on my team a mechanism to air any issue, tension, question, frustration or idea, and the open voting ensures that the most important topics get the most time. It also helps my team hold me (the director) accountable — I can’t simply ignore issues or questions even if I wanted to (I don’t) because they can keep adding it to the agenda and keep voting it up for discussion.

Meaningful, satisfying participation. And a quote from one of our own Charlotte Root, a Level II certified Collab facilitator says:

I can honestly say that my work with Round Sky has changed my life – I’ve learned the joy and power of shared leadership, greatly expanded my ability to stay organized and deliver on my goals, learned so much about myself and others and our differing perspectives and how to understand and work with that more effectively, and I continue to grow into an easeful relationship with facilitating organizations through decision-making processes.

Charlotte Root

Level II CLCP Leader, Round Sky Solutions

And the best part about learning all this is that you are going to be able to use these skills over and over again in all kinds of different contexts. It’s like you’ll have cracked the collaboration code and have super powers for enabling people to get along and do better work together.

We wanted to share with you four hacks out of the dozens that we’ve researched and synthesized into the collaborative operating system called Collab that we teach. These are the top four that we recommend getting started with and hope you give them a try. If you do, please let us know what you think in the comments.

Hack #1: the living agenda

One of the simplest, easiest places to start is what we call the ‘living agenda’. This is a simple google doc, shared with all members of the team, and used as a visual reference during the meetings by all team members. As the name suggests this document becomes a repository of meeting outcomes, with one date stacked upon the next, with the most recent at the top. As a google doc it is searchable and available to all team members in real time.

One of the benefits of a real time visual reference is that we all get to see the outcomes being recorded. This makes it much more clear that we are not moving on from one item to the next until we’ve recorded a clear decision or next action. Those decisions and next actions can be color coded for ease of reference. The use of this simple doc can keep your conversations focused and targeted on outcomes. It also means that one person can’t just derail a conversation that’s underway because the expectation is that we complete one item, including recording outcomes that everyone can see and consent on before we move on to the next.

We’ve developed a template for you to use that you can find here. Feel free to make a copy and use it in your next team meeting. We recommend you use the template for the meeting practice and copy and paste that down for each instance of a meeting, changing the title to reflect the date.

Hack #2: the standard meeting practice with facilitator and scribe

Another benefit of the Living Agenda is that it offers a template for your meeting practice that standardizes how meetings are held. There’s a LOT of information that goes into each of the steps of what we call the Standard Meeting Practice, which you can learn more about in our leadership training, but the key here is having a repeatable process for your meetings that is clear, fair and transparent. This streamlines people’s expectations for meetings making it much easier to participate in a generative way.

In addition, our research and testing has shown that meetings flow much more easily when there’s an elected facilitator whose job it is to take us through the steps of the meeting process, and an elected scribe. The scribe records the concrete outcomes of the agenda items in the Living Agenda where everyone can see them.

When you elect your facilitator, keep in mind that it’s much better not to have the manager or lead of your team be the facilitator and here’s why: the manager or team lead already usually has a lot of power. So does a facilitator. And combining the two centers of power in one person often results in meetings being skewed to represent that one person’s perspective and desires. This leads to disengagement and lack of incremental improvement outside of that one person’s ideas.

The scribe role is also vital because how information is recorded and therefore remembered is also a lot of power. Having one elected scribe means that we know whose job it is to write on the Living Agenda. Having many scribes in a meeting is an invitation to confusion, argument and frustration. Elect one person as scribe who is in charge of those details, and give them the power to step in and request a clear outcome of an agenda item before moving on to the next, if that’s needed.

Hack #3: rapid, effective collective decision making

The third hack that we want to share with you is the power of a clear, efficient and effective collaborative decision making process. So many issues can be solved when how we make decisions is clear to everyone, fair so all can participate, and efficient so we can make decisions together rapidly rather than have them drag on interminably. The other benefit to a clear collaborative decision making process is that it distributes power to all members of a team rather than having just one person, often the manager, making all decisions.

So we’d like to offer you the model for collaborative decision making that we use called Integrative Consent. Here’s a link to our resources page where you can sign up for a flowchart for Integrative Consent. We hope you give it a try! One of the secret ingredients in making Integrative Consent work well is what we’re going to share in our next hack.

Hack #4: one tension-holder per tension

In order to introduce you to this hack, I need to share what we mean by ‘tension’ in this context. We use the term ‘tension’ to indicate any difference between where we are as a team today and where we could be. This could be a better idea for how we do something or an issue that’s getting in the way of good work being done. So the term is not just negative, it’s also fundamentally positive because we’re inviting all teammates to sense what’s in the way of their doing better work, and bring that to the meeting agenda.

We recommend building your meeting agenda from the tensions of everyone present, not just the manager or the lead. When you allocate agenda building to one or a few, the opportunity to harness the collective intelligence of your team is lost, even if you, as the agenda builder go around to ask people before the meeting what’s on their mind. This subtle shift can be profound and can take a few weeks or months of practice to produce engagement, but it will do so. After building your agenda, invite team members to vote on those tensions according to which ones they feel are most important to this particular meeting.

In addition, as agenda items are placed on the agenda, have the person raising that tension put their initials on the item. This is critical because that person becomes the ‘tension-holder’ for that item which means they carry a special role during the processing of that agenda item to identify the outcomes which will incrementally move their tension forward. In other words, it’s not up to the manager or anyone else on the team to decide if the outcome has moved the tension-holder’s tension forward, that decision is made by the tension holder.

So for example, and to reference hack #3, when an agenda item requires a decision, the tension holder is responsible for crafting a proposal for the decision and making amendments to it prior to the objection round. This is a hugely streamlining and simplifying hack. If we don’t have a tension holder who has this kind of power in a team meeting, items will drag on for much longer than is necessary or helpful.

It’s rather straightforward to get effective and efficient collaborative meetings if you know what’s needs to go into them! 

This FREE webinar on 4 Hacks for Engaging Collaborative Meetings (that don’t suck!) was held on July 17th, 2017. This is such a valuable conversation that we’ve included it in our webinar archive.

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