Written by Melissa Raffoni fro Harvard Business Review
As a facilitator, I’m usually in control of meetings and rarely walk away feeling as if a meeting was a waste of time. Of course, I’m paid to make sure that’s the case. I have the luxury of lots of prep to ensure success. Most meeting facilitators are paid to do other things–like, run a business–and end up frustrated that at least some of their meetings are inefficient for the company and considered a waste of time by the participants.
So here comes the 10 tips for being a great meeting facilitator, right? No. This one is for the rest of you, the non-facilitators. Don’t wait for the facilitator to learn how to run a meeting. You can fix bad meetings in spite of them, and in the process demonstrate your leadership and management skill. If you’re stuck in a meeting from hell, here’s what to do.
Be brave. Play dumb. Even if you think you know what’s going on, you may not really get it or you may sense others don’t get it. Consider the power of the statement, “I’m sorry, I’m lost. Can somebody help me understand what problem we are trying to solve and what needs to happen to resolve it? Joe, can you help me out?” The key to the success of this tactic is not your question. It’s Joe. The person you appeal to should be one of the strongest communicators in the room. It forces the group to stop and hear what’s being muddled from one of the best communicators. It often helps get a group back on track. Playing dumb is pretty smart.
Be a helper. Create shared visuals. Use some technology. Another great question to ask: “Would it be helpful if I took some notes?” Flip open the laptop and take notes on a projected screen. This is much better than using marker and flip chart, which doesn’t allow for as good group editing and requires transcription. Taking and projecting notes serves a couple of purposes. First, it refocuses everyone on what they can see before them, which could be a list of questions, decisions to be made, individual commentary or whatever makes sense. Second, if you can actually sort it out, you can use the documentation to drive problem solving. Framing the discussion with a simple outline, such as “Problem, Objectives, Facts, Questions, Action Items, Next Steps,” can help move the team from A to B. Better yet, you keep the team from wandering off to Y and Z. One tip: Don’t neglect to wrap up the meeting without committing summaries and next steps to the document. Now, given your efforts, the group has a working document that serves as a reference for next time. Sounds simple but it works. What’s really happening is you’re volunteering to do the facilitating that the facilitator has failed to do.
Find the root cause of the meeting’s lack of focus and direction and suggest a solution. Nicely observe that “we seem to be spinning our wheels here” and ask what’s causing the endless cycles. Sometimes identifying the source of meetings from hell allows you to refocus the meeting, or call a new one to sort through the problem more productively. A word of caution. Identifying root causes of bad meetings is not always easy, but here are some common examples of barriers that may be making that meeting interminable:
- Lack of preparation. Often, meetings get stuck because not everyone (or no one) has prepared. Let’s face it, everyone’s busy. Whether that meeting prep document is sent out early, or 20 minutes before the meeting starts, people aren’t stopping to read it to prepare. Other times someone conducts the meeting off the cuff or tosses out issues for an open brainstorm. These approaches waste everybody’s time. To avoid this, I encourage one or two team members to write up briefs that are read aloud at the meeting. It sounds silly, but it’s effective. Make sure presenter(s) not only identify issues in their briefs but propose solutions for discussion, focusing the group. Throwing in issue in the air and hoping an open brainstorm can solve it is rarely effective.
- Who has the D? Just ask the question, “who’s responsible for this decision? ” Ask them if they are comfortable just making a decision, right now.
- The right people aren’t in the room. Save a meeting from droning on by identifying the people who are needed but absent. “We really can’t move forward on this without Jane.” Then, go get Jane, or schedule time with her.
- The decision maker isn’t ready to make a decision. If you happen to be the decision maker, be bold enough to let the team know your apprehension. It’s not a sign of weakness, but a sign of courage to say, “I’m not ready to make a decision on this, let me hear what you have to say and come back to you later.” Integrity is paramount, if you make a promise to come back later, let them know when you will do this and do it.
I know taking some of these steps and saying some of these things when you’re not in charge might seem professionally precocious, but they’re good leadership and management skills. And if you think you’re in the meeting from hell, it’s likely many of your colleagues do, too. They’ll appreciate your effort to get the meeting back on track.
Readers, I welcome your stories on meetings from hell and tips for saving them.
This content was adapted for inclusion in the HBR Guide to Making Every Meeting Matter.