Help me manage my meetings better. Please!
November 3, 2013 3:46 AM   Subscribe

I run an artists’ group which meets monthly. The group is made up of some very talented and creative people and has gone from strength to strength over the two years it’s been running; so much so that we are now working on collaborative projects that take quite some organising and involve finance, tax, insurance etc. Obviously, this is exciting and we want to continue to expand. However, this means that we have to have ‘business’ meetings on a regular basis and it’s become woefully evident to me that I can’t chair / facilitate these meetings for toffee.

What I’m struggling with is managing a handful of people in the group who, although really nice people, very motivated and prepared to work hard, are really difficult to get to focus during the meetings. They have conversations amongst themselves whilst I’m trying to talk to the whole group, derail the agenda, interrupt, talk over each other, and talk too long when they have the floor. I sometimes have to repeat things because they weren’t listening. I know all these are common behaviours that any chair / facilitator has to deal with but I’m not sure how to manage this given that the group is voluntary, supposed to be enjoyable and most of those who I’m having difficulty with are a lot older than me. I don’t feel I can be too assertive because of this. Please, please, please give me some suggestions on how I can gently bring a bit more order to the meetings before I explode with frustration. Thanks!
posted by Intaglio a go-go to Human Relations (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you are an organized person trying to do a good job running these meetings, but the group is kind of loosey-gooey. Perhaps your own style and this group's style are not a good match, and you should just resign the chair and let someone else run the meeting. Before you do that, why not open the next meeting, or send around a memo in advance, by explaining to them what your frustrations are, just as you have done for us, and then asking them how this might be addressed. (That part is important -- ask them, don't tell them how you think they should behave.) Work with whatever emerges, but steer the discussion toward things like putting target times on the agenda and a set time limit on the length of the meeting, which will help focus attention on getting the work done. Also, volunteers or not, the chair has prerogatives. Get a gavel and use it to maintain order.
posted by beagle at 4:07 AM on November 3, 2013

nthng beagle. There may be a mismatch between you and the group.

Read Roberts Rules of Order just for yourself. When you send out an e-mail reminder of your next meeting, ask recipients to send you any matters they would like you to include on the agenda. On the meeting day, e-mail the agenda of a one-hour maximum meeting, with a time breakdown of old business, new business, etc.

Print out copies of the agenda to hand out at the meeting, then follow the schedule no matter what. Start and end exactly on time. When you see a chunk of designated time start to evaporate, use a gavel, timer, friendly raised voice, say: "We've got another five minutes to tie up such and such." Then move on to the next agenda item in the next chunk of time. Find someone who can take notes so that if an issue doesn't get tied up during the allotted time slot, it goes on the next month's old business.

When people go off-topic during a specified chunk of time, pull them back to the agenda firmly and smoothly, telling them you'll add their topic to the next meeting. "Great idea. I'll add that to the agenda next month." Stick to the agenda and end the meeting on time.
posted by Elsie at 5:03 AM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

It sounds like they are acting childish and that isn't fair to you when you all share in the spoils of success, regardless of their talent or creativity.

1. They need to see the value in a productive meeting for everyone. Perhaps you can outline what is the purpose of your meeting, and what they will gain by it working as it should, in a short email beforehand.
2. They have to take it and you seriously. Your age shouldn't matter, you are the boss and need fixed rules e.g how long each speaker has the floor for, there is no talking other than who has the floor, etc.
3. Get rid of energy beforehand. Some kind of burst of exercise/ talking shop 15 minutes before the meeting should focus them when it begins 'that was a free for all, now down to business'.
4. Don't be afraid of exercising control. That is your job here and the members should respect that if they want to achieve the meeting's goals and profit from it (return to point 1).

tldr; don't be afraid to get a little tougher but show them why that is required.
posted by 0 answers at 5:12 AM on November 3, 2013

At the risk of sounding full of "woo" - I think you should take a Myers-Briggs test (they are everywhere) and then pick up this book, Work Types, at least the chapter on meetings.

You are not the "wrong" person to lead this meeting, but you are leading it according to your personal preferences (and mine, I might add), and also those that are typical in a corporate setting. You are leading what sounds like a non-work (?) group meeting for artists, and while it's important that it be productive, it's also possible and quite likely from your description that people there are trying to meet other needs with this meeting as well.

On to actual recommendations -
Sounds like people are socializing during what should be "work time." Is it possible to add something like a 30 minute coffee "hour" before the meeting for the chatting to occur? Is it possible to carve off some portion of the meeting specifically for this sort of thing to happen?

It also just sounds like some of these guys don't view "talking over each other" as bad - they view it as, probably, talking. I am on a board of people who are that way - we are ALL LITERALLY THIS WAY - and outsiders think we are insane. Probably there needs to be some emphasis on people taking turns. (I actually have a meeting w/ these people today and I'm frustrated w/ myself that I didn't review the meetings chapter I pointed out to you above - we get things done, but getting outsiders into our meeting is a chore. They have to be willing to throw down with us and that's weird.)

Good luck! I'd offer to mail you my copy but it's only $10 on Amazon and we'd pay that in shipping! You can do this!
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:52 AM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

IAASPMF (I am a sometimes professional meeting facilitator). I've done some meeting facilitation professionally, read some books, and taken some courses.

A critical thing, I think, is Beagle's point that the solutions will work best if they come from the group, rather than being handed down from you. This process is know in the facilitation world as "establishing group norms" or "setting ground rules" for a meeting. The idea is that if you can get the whole group to own the rules, you are much more likely to get compliance than if you make up a bunch of rules yourself and try to enforce them. If you google those phrases, you can find more information about group norms and ground rules.

See if you can have a conversation with the group about this. You can say: "How are these meetings going? What works well? Are there problems we can fix? What can we do to make these meetings most effective?"

Get the group to generate a list of rules together. Most groups, however they seem to behave, ultimately want meetings to run on time, to stay on track, to no devolve into side-talk, etc. Get the group to generate some ground rules. Eg: No side-talk, follow a timed agenda, everyone should show up on time and give the meeting their full attention, etc...

Then ask them "As facilitator, would you like me to help make sure these rules are followed? I can point it out if people interrupt, go off topic, etc. Would you like me to do that?" If they say yes (as is most likely), you now have the authority that you are hoping to have. (If ,as is much less likely, they say no, then you probably never had a chance to begin with.) Post the list of rules on the wall at every meeting. (and re-visit it periodically to make sure it still works)

A couple of general tips:

- Is the group more than 8 or so people? If so - when you have these conversations about norms, rather than talking in one big group, you might want to break into smaller subgroups: Have them talk for five minutes in groups of 3 or 4, then have each group report back to the larger group. This is, in general, a really good strategy for any discussion in a larger group. Trying to get fifteen people to consistently remain engaged in one large-group conversation is very hard.

- When you have the conversation about norms, use a flipchart or whiteboard to capture what people are saying, in a way everyone can see. This, too, is a great strategy not just for this conversations, but for all meetings, to keep the conversation on track.

There are lots of good books on how to facilitate meetings. A couple that I like are " Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making" by Sam Kaner et al, and Facilitating with Ease by Ingrid Bens.

Finally - as Beagle and Elsie suggest: It may be the case that you do not have to be the person who runs the meeting. The fact that you run the group does not necessarily mean that you have to be the person who facilitates the meetings. There might be someone else in the group who's more excited to do it, or has a better skill match than you, and that might be okay.

Good luck!
posted by ManInSuit at 6:06 AM on November 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

Agenda Item #1 for your next meeting: Form Search Committee to Find Business Manager.
Agenda Item #2 for your next meeting: Board Formation and First Election

Everybody starting up a co-op type group like what you've described imagines that the group will coalesce around shared goals and values, and things will go swimmingly, and be a joy to all involved as the Only Working Purely Democratic Arts Group in the History of the World. Most such groups fail to smoothly hand off the business side of things to capable people early enough, and seem to want to wait to do so until forced to it by circumstance and some degree of failure.

Be wise enough to start the group towards getting a Board structure in place, to handle the majority of day to day decision making, including oversight of a Business Manager, and then proceed to find a competent Business Manager, now, while your group is growing and succeeding, and interest and opportunities are on the upswing. For a growing group, this need not be a full time position, at the outset. A lot of good people serve as Business Managers for more than one arts group, or non-profit, and do so because they find that their clout in the fund-raising sector of the community is enhanced by their affiliation with successful new groups creating high visibility projects.

And then give your new Business Manager the tasks of setting up and running the business of your group, and let them pick and choose and use your member resources as needed, or find and recruit/hire non-members from the larger community for specialized functions, if they feel that is the better route.

You'll be surprised how well this works in place of Mythical Participatory Egalitarian Community, and you can then happily schmooze with all the other artistic types, when you do get together, after hearing the quarterly Board Report and/or the regular Business Manager's Report.
posted by paulsc at 6:30 AM on November 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

Having long-ago wrangled rooms of artists as a graduate student body president and uh... been in more than one art group, start-up arts venue, band, etc, nothing you're saying seems out of place in the epic narrative of the rogue genius fighting for recognition.

I think that successful art collectives are composed of one or two or sometimes three strong individuals at an organization's core. Typically, one of the artists in any given collective (see: The Royal Art Lodge) tends to blow up and this shakes things up. This is weirdly sort of also true for bands (see: The Police). This is what the market wants (my most favorite example of this involves a very prominent collector asking an artist whether he could take his collaborators names off a work of art because it would make the piece more valuable to the collection). We've been weirdly hypnotized into also believing that, as artists, we need to individuate our practices and that we are rogue geniuses fighting to have the brilliance of our vision recognized and... this tends to produce discord in any group. I could go on for pages talking about the sociology of the art world, but I really am just trying to say "what you're experiencing is totally normal, you are herding cats".

There is a huge world eating gap between nomadic artists forging in the wild together and an organization of complicity functioning individuals being regulated by a board of directors under a 501c (not-for-profit) umbrella. It doesn't sound to me like your group is looking for more "order", and after reading the advice from MeFi above I want to suggest (if you're in the states) that you consider incorporating as a for-profit entity. It just doesn't sound like you have a group of people who want rank and file, but it does sound like you have people who would be willing to be members and that you're taking on some big projects you possibly need protection from. A corporate entity will protect you guys from stuff like law suits, give you a way to take in money that doesn't effect your tax status, and give you an agency that could take out it's own insurance policies if need be. You'll probably want a lawyer and an accountant for this step, and this takes some money, not toffee.

Regardless, I would encourage you to elect a small business dictatorship within your group so that monthly meetings can retain a creative and social focus, instead of an administrative one. If I can make one more sociological observation about the art world it would be that artists are encouraged to feel as though their creative status entitles them to ignore administrative concerns.

Non-profits are a whole ton of work - but if you're already grant writing and nestled with fiscal sponsorship from an umbrella arts organization - never mind anything I've already said, go lasso yourself a board of directors!
posted by armisme at 8:52 AM on November 3, 2013

Get a whiteboard and write up the agenda at the beginning of the meeting in front of everyone. That is their 5 minutes to chime in and bring up anything they would like to discuss that you have missed. Even write up the time you want to spend on each issue so you don't overdiscuss things.

As each issue is being addressed, write the resolution or next steps and move on. A resolution can be as simple as marking down the people who are particularly vocal about it and giving them the duty to figure out what to do.

I've found this strategy makes people feel more heard than just running through a completely structured agenda and also shows people how their side convos are derailing things.
posted by thirdletter at 9:20 AM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm the chairperson of our local hackerspace, and so I'm expected to chair the meetings we have every two weeks. We have similar issues, since this, too, is a loosely connected group of smart, enthousiastic, creative volunteers, who are unruly and go off on tangents like whoa. Our meetings used to be three hour affairs, now they are an hour at most and a lot more gets done. This is how we made this change:

- First of all, we decided together that the meetings were too long, and the participants basically gave me carte blanche to do whatever was needed to make them shorter. This is vital, because that decision did not come from me, it came from the group.

- I got an egg timer. Whenever a subject came up that sounded like it could get long, I set the timer for five minutes. It's sort of a joke or gimmick, keep it light and joke around when you use the timer, but use it all the same. Nowadays, I don't actually set it anymore; I just make it ring when something is starting to get too long and detailed, or off-topic.

- Because we all agreed that meetings needed to get shorter, no one objects when I say 'Okay, you two (three, four, whatever) please discuss the details together after the meeting.' Many subjects don't need to be talked about by the whole group. I'm always on the lookout for discussions that can be had in a smaller group afterwards. I don't chair those discussions.

- I made myself a gavel with leds that light up when you hit the table with it. It's a fun gimmick but also serves to clearly indicate the beginning and end of the meeting. I very rarely need to use it to end tangents, but if I need to, I can.

- We make a list of topics beforehand (on our wiki, so everyone can edit the list) and I stick to that. There are items that return every time, some of them are not very serious, a bit like a running gag. For example: 'What has So-And-So Participant managed to dig up on Ebay / in the second-hand shop / on a flea market this time?' It's always something surprising and often funny.

- At the end of the meeting, I ask everyone in turn if they have a question or remark for the group. That way, everyone has a chance to get heard. This also serves as a way to help new participants (which we have often) to remember all the names.

Nothing spectacular or new here, but it works for us.
posted by Too-Ticky at 9:26 AM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Half an hour of social time before the meeting starts, with cookies, in the hopes people's mouths stay full; after the meeting, collaborative art time or barhopping. "C'mon, guys, the quicker we get through this agenda, the sooner we can get to the fun part!"

Speak with the particularly derailing individuals privately, say you love talking to them and hearing their ideas, but you want to tighten up the business meetings so you can all spend more time focusing on art.

Also when people go off on a tangent I often say, "That's really interesting, although not one of the topics we're addressing tonight -- would you might writing that up and e-mailing the group so we can all give it the time and thought it deserves? Thanks." People who just like to listen to themselves talk don't bother; people with good ideas going in odd directions do, and then you can actually give it some time and attention.

You also may want to elect a committee or board to deal with the "business" aspects -- "I know not all of you are interested in these meetings ..."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:26 AM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do you guys absolutely have to have business meetings? Or can the management of the business aspects be outsourced to a Business Committee of interested folks or to a Point Person (such as yourself) -- to meet separately and report back to the group from time to time? (i.e. on preview what the commenter above me just said!)

I say this as someone who is skeptical of the value of meetings, and prefers to get an email with the relevant points versus sitting through a meeting where people are talking over one another and clearly are not engaged.
posted by hush at 10:42 AM on November 3, 2013

Style of meeting depends on the vision of the group, and the type of structure you have. Some groups want to have everyone participate in all decisions, and this is workable if you are small enough. Others want to delegate to committee--it is important to decide what authority any committee has, and who has the ultimate decision making authority on which decisions.

If you are structured as a co-op there are lots of resources for you through co-operatives uk. By joining, your board members could attend training and congresses. They have lots of tools for deciding on structure, and checking in on governance.

Joining would also mean your members have the opportunity to attend their congress. Meeting with other co-operatives through a congress/training workshops could invigorate the group and help them connect to a concrete vision that makes the meetings more meaningful to them.
posted by chapps at 11:19 AM on November 3, 2013

I don't have anything to add to the excellent advice upthread about setting a clear agenda and collectively establishing group norms. However, I would caution you about accepting that people derailing the meetings = your personality defect. As far as you know, these attempts might be deliberate efforts to undermine you, and some of the members might be well aware that they can use the age difference to intimidate you.

Please be careful about taking responsibility for things that may not be your fault. Perhaps it simply needs to be reconfirmed that you all have the same fundamental goal of having successful meetings. Some of the participants may be attending for other possibly conflicting reasons and it might not be clear to everyone how you all define "success".
posted by fuse theorem at 1:11 PM on November 3, 2013

One thing to add to the good advice above: focus on what people NEED to be involved in. If there's a topic that you basically already have figured out, don't be afraid to just write a two page memo. You can flag the major judgment calls you made to check for any objections, then direct the conversation to the questions you have.

"I assume you all read the memo. First, does everyone agree with this approach to planning our annual fair -- that we hire an event planner and pay for it via a 10% tax on sales? I wish it could've been a 5% tax, but you see the math I included. As I wrote, we can refund a portion if we overshoot our expenses. Sound okay? Okay, great. At the end of the memo, I wrote the two questions I wanted us to discuss: what should our theme be, and who can do outreach to potential participants? Let's start with the theme. How about we spend five minutes brainstorming, then narrow it down to the top 3 ideas, then vote. Sound fair? Okay then, brainstorming. Who has ideas?"
posted by salvia at 2:08 PM on November 3, 2013

"... then narrow it down to the top 3 ideas, ..."
posted by salvia at 5:08 PM on November 3

Boy oh boy. In my experience, you never use that phrase in a roomful of rowdy creatives, unless you're prepared for "Fight Club, The Battle Royal Ediiton."
posted by paulsc at 4:28 PM on November 3, 2013

Intaglio a go-go, my first thought was - how challenging! But my second thought was - how wonderful. A group of talented, motivated hard-working people that you love? An opportunity to figure out how to facilitate magic? Yes. You can do this. I started a cabaret with some fellow artist friends about 6 months ago. It was a nightmare at first. I come from the world of business first and my art is an "extracurricular;" the performers I work with are primarily artists and only do businessy things when needed. It was hard. It's gotten better. Here are a couple of things to think about:

1) ManInSuit has it: you can do this in different ways, but everyone will be more invested if they can own a bit of the agenda and decision-making. This also means different individuals owning different things. Feel good about discussion and different points of view. Feel just as good about being very clear on who the ultimate decision-maker is for each thing, and who will make the final call. Clarity on this will put people at ease and save mountains of time.

2) The goal of a meeting is to: make decisions, and decide what the next actions are. Be clear about this to everyone. It's an easy way to get things back on track. "Okay, so we've heard X and Y, does that mean we are moving forward with Z? Confirmed: we will do Z! As a next step, Person XYZ will charm the shit out of their accountant and score some free tax advice for us! Applause please!" Start every meeting reviewing whatever last month's actions were. End every meeting by reviewing (verbally, and w/ a follow-up note if possible): 1) decisions made 2) actions needed.

3) Keep it light and fun. In my businessy world I'm in marketing, where everyone understands the importance of charming your audience and telling a good story. My meetings at work are enjoyable. We are there to get shit done, as enjoyably as possible. Even if it's a celebratory "fuck yeah" thrown in here and there, it's a reminder that you love this, that you're a team, that you are getting things done. My artist friends - joyful, silly, creative people, clowns, even! - would often put on their "business" hat and be unnaturally serious in our meetings. If you think your only option is to drudge through a very serious meeting, you may take a deep breath and try, but then quickly give up. This is no good for anyone. Jokes help. A lot. It's permission for everyone to enjoy themselves, even if it's just for 5 or 10 seconds, and get back to business. Jokes are also rewards for paying attention. If you are having a private conversation when you should be paying attention and everyone starts laughing uproariously but you, you will start paying attention. Ensure that whoever is going to be timekeeper can politely, firmly keep folks on track in a non dickish way. Friendliness is essential whilst getting things done. No stressful vibes needed.

4) Creative people love being creative! Some of us are wild and talkative and that is why we are gifted artists and performers and the rest. We want our ideas heard. When you do free-form open discussion/brainstormy things, include a super clear time limit and gently cut off the rambly one with a "only 3 mins left so I will interrupt for a moment - has everyone had a chance to speak up who wanted to?" It's also great to throw up a "parking lot" easel/whiteboard for the good ideas that aren't relevant to this particular topic...but that we may want to consider later.

4) Lead by empowering your group and encouraging their participation. Give them the WHAT and the WHY. Let them figure out the HOW. Perhaps right there in the meeting for everyone to discuss, perhaps as a task for certain individuals after the meeting. These motivated, talented hard-working people want a challenge. Give it to them. Then celebrate the solution!

You can do it!
posted by red_rabbit at 8:02 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here is a very useful book:

The Empowerment Manual by Starhawk.

Don't be put off by the spiritual angle of some of it. It is a very practical guide to meeting facilitation, decision-making, conflict resolution, etc. I read it in about three days.

Can you find a local group with good meeting process and ask to attend one of their meetings, then ask for their advice?

Third piece of advice: the facilitator can only facilitate if they are really empowered by the group to do so. So you need to have a discussion with the group at the beginning of the meeting about meeting process itself - make sure everyone is on board with some ground rule/ community agreements and that they feel comfortable if you as a facilitator enforce those agreements.

Here are some sample agreements:

"One diva, one mic," meaning don't interrupt or have side conversations. If someone does talk out of turn, say "such and such person has the floor, let's listen to him/her."

"Move up, move up," meaning if you are a quiet person, you are challenged and invited to speak up more, if you have been talking a lot, you are asked to move up your active listening and give others a chance to speak.

"Take it offline" meaning if people are getting into an off-topic conversation, you as a facilitator ask them to talk about it after the meeting.

Lastly, here is a good blog article:
It's Not Just Standing Up
posted by mai at 8:53 PM on November 3, 2013

Ok yeah, I can see in certain artists circles, a really formalised business-suited meeting style going down like a brick balloon. Not sure what your crowd is like?

On the other end of the scale, there's a talking 'stick'/object to make sure no one talks over each other. Although you have artists, if get someone to bring something cool, they actually might like that, and respect it better.

Closer to the hippy end of the scale, try something like Five Fold Path of Productive Meetings - Starhawk (free PDF)

(On preview - Jinx! Oh man. Didn't think that'd be a common recommendation)
posted by Elysum at 2:29 PM on November 4, 2013

Response by poster: Wow, so many good suggestions! Thanks so much everyone, plenty here I can work with. I have hope again!
posted by Intaglio a go-go at 7:29 AM on November 5, 2013

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