How to structure an effective meeting

January 26, 2018 ACSA Writer

Here’s how the typical staff meeting goes: Members trickle into the conference room, unsure what their role in the meeting is. With no advance written agenda, they’re all just winging it.

As a result, they spend as much as 25 percent of the time discussing irrelevant issues. The lack of focus makes it hard to get anything done, leaving them with just a 50 percent chance of accomplishing everything they’re supposed to.

If this sounds like your school or district staff meetings, you’re not alone. The majority of U.S. work meetings—as many as 6 out of 10—lack a clear structure or agenda. 

“The good news is that education leaders can boost meeting productivity by simply taking the time to consider how to structure them,” said Kathy Ohm, director for ACSA’s Meetings Master program. She offered the following steps for developing an effective meeting structure.
 
STEP 1: The Goal

When a quarter or more of meeting timegoes to waste, most professionals blame the absence of a strong 

purpose or agenda. Fuzzy objectives remain one of the top three time-wasters in meetings, according to a Microsoft survey. 
 

“If you’re not exactly sure what you’re trying to accomplish, you can be sure it won’t happen quickly,” says business author Victor Lipman.

A clear goal, on the other hand, gives educators an aspiration to rally around—and a sense of satisfaction when they leave the meeting feeling like they accomplished something, Ohm said.

“I don’t know of anything that is more energizing than an aspiration, whether it’s a problem to be solved, a future to be determined, or an initiative you’re thinking about,” she said. Hone your objective by asking questions such as:

  • Is there a problem to be solved?
  • Does a decision need to be made?
  • Are you looking to generate ideas?
  • Are you formulating a plan?
  • Do you have information to share?
  • Are you collecting status reports?

The meeting objective should also tie in with your school or district’s larger goals. “Which overall goal is the focus of this meeting?” Ohm said. “If your district has a meaningful mission, is that on every meeting agenda? You need to continually reinforce that ‘this is where we’re going.’ ”

STEP 2: The Process

Once you have a goal, plan what steps your group will take to reach it. Otherwise, much of the meeting time will be spent discussing the best way to arrive at the desired outcome, rather than actually getting there.

“Agreeing on a process significantly increases meeting effectiveness, yet leaders rarely do it,” says the Harvard Business 
review. “Unless the team has agreed on a process, members will, in good faith, participate based on their own process.” To sidestep the inevitable chaos that can ensue:

Divide the process into steps. For example, a problem-solving meeting might include several phases such as gathering information, identifying the problem, setting parameters for an effective solution, selecting a strategy, and planning for implementation and evaluation. A planning meeting might be structured around key aspects of the initiative or event you’re planning. Set a time limit for each step, and stick to it.

Set decision-making rules. Decision-making meetings are often derailed by differing views. Set a decision-making rule outlining how your group will arrive at a resolution—by consensus, vote or executive decision? For example, you might say, “I’d like us to reach a consensus on this. If we’re not able to after an hour of discussion, I’ll make the decision based on our conversation.” 

Break into discovery groups. If your goal is to solve a problem or reach a consensus, consider how you’ll bring forth diverse views “in ways you can use them to build a better solution rather than come to an agreement where somebody or some group loses,” Ohm said. For example, you might break a larger team into smaller discovery groups that will share their findings with the whole team. 

STEP 3: The Agenda

To effectively participate in a meeting, educators need to know two things: what the goal is, and what their role is in achieving it. Do you want them to give input, help make a decision or simply listen? Your agenda should answer those questions and clearly outline how they should prepare.

Your agenda is also an opportunity to set a collaborative tone for the meeting. Once you’ve outlined your goal and process, send it around and invite feedback. The more consensus you achieve at the outset, the more productive your meeting will be. 

Other tips to keep in mind when organizing your agenda:

Invite engagement. At the beginning of every meeting, allow some time for a brief welcoming exercise that lets all attendees know “they belong in the meeting and are valued for who they are,” Ohm said. “It raises their sense of safety and willingness to be engaged. When you begin that way, people are more willing and able to engage in a higher conversation.”

Recap and foreshadow. In a series of ongoing or regular meetings, it’s important to draw a connection between them to provide a sense of continuity, Ohm said. Leave some time at the beginning and end to check in on progress since the last meeting and foreshadow the next one.

Set priorities. Decide ahead of time which topics absolutely must be covered during the meeting to achieve your goal. List these items first to ensure they’re sufficiently covered. By using an inverted pyramid structure, with the most important agenda items at the top and the least important at the bottom, you’ll still get the critical items accomplished even if you run out of time.

How you structure your meeting can play a key role in achieving a successful outcome. Once you have a clear goal, a predetermined process, and a detailed agenda, you’ll be on your way toward leading an effective and engaging meeting.
 
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