This should have been an email.
November 2, 2015 3:16 PM   Subscribe

Aside from KEEP IT SHORT, NO, EVEN SHORTER THAN THAT, what makes a good meeting?

I'm staging a hostile takeover going to probably be stepping into a leadership role with my currently disfunctional volunteer group* soon and would like to make our meetings suck less. And actually be useful.

*Context: it's a Girl Scout service unit, I would be the SU manager for adult leaders. Leading leaders, not girls. I even don't know how many people are in this group because only a few of us are trying to hold things together. I suspect in the ballpark of 8-15 women.

Currently we have a lot of problems, mostly I think due to lackluster leadership. One of the problems is that nobody comes to meetings because there's the general assumption that they're useless. They're not wrong. "We'll organize everything over email/facebook!" they say. Let's just say that has not been working to an almost hilariously bad degree. I think if I step up and make the meetings useful things can turn around.

Things that need to happen at the meetings:

-plan cross-troop events for girls
-assign tasks
-distribute information, forms, and flyers from Council
-distribute/collect any fundraising materials
-address any individual troop issues
-plan at least one service project over the course of a year
-holding people accountable for things they're supposed to do
-holding people accountable for meeting attendance

Things that need to not happen at meetings:

-wasting time (especially by chatting)
-waiting to make decisions because so-and-so isn't here
-incentivizing people to come by bribing them with food (no budget for it)
-wasting time (we are all volunteers and are doing this in our free time)

Assuming I'm all in on being able to provide the decisive leadership the group needs, what else can I do? Have you ever left a meeting thinking oh man, that was super useful? What happened in that meeting? What are some traps to avoid?

posted by phunniemee to Grab Bag (26 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
One of my keys is: don't invite people who don't absolutely need to be there. The effectiveness of a meeting scales inversely with the number of people who are in the room. For a group like this you do probably need meetings of the entire group, but then if there are specific projects or initiaitives that need meetings, pare down the invite list to the bare minimum needed to get the job done.

The other piece is just having a single specific person who is in charge of running the meeting, who everyone KNOWS is in charge of running the meeting, and who is shameless about keeping it on track. My experience is that people are usually pretty receptive to someone who firmly (but nicely, of course) nips sidetracks in the bud, makes sure the agenda items are covered, and sets a professional tone for the meeting.
posted by primethyme at 3:23 PM on November 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: 1) An Agenda. Figure out what is going to be discussed ahead of time. Write it down. You don't necessarily have to distribute it ahead of time but that can be useful, especially in regards to the "waiting to make decisions because so-and-so isn't here" part - if it's on the agenda it's going to happen at that meeting. This is also a good time to get feedback about things that people want to discuss.

1a) outcomes. A written down list of what you want to come out of the meeting having done.

2) Someone (you, probably), whose job it is to keep to that agenda. That means if things go off topic, you bring them back. If there is something that only involves a couple people, write that down and loop in with them later. If it's something that should be discussed with the group but wasn't on the agenda, write it down and come back to it either at the end (not ideal) or, ideally, by adding it to the next agenda. If nobody remembered it before the meeting, it isn't important enough to discuss at the meeting.

3) A consistent start and end time. If the meeting is supposed to start at 3, start it at 3. People who aren't there miss the beginning of the meeting. Sucks to be them. This will happen less once you do it a couple times. You can even schedule like "catch up time starts at 2:45, meeting starts at 3pm" if people definitely need to chat beforehand. If you are out of time and not done, then you don't discuss everything. It's part of the moderator's job to limit discussion times of each topic so that this doesn't happen, and be realistic in writing the agenda in the first place.
posted by brainmouse at 3:26 PM on November 2, 2015 [14 favorites]

Best answer: I assume that you will be running these meetings, so it'll be up to you to steer the ship.

Create and distribute an agenda prior to the meeting with time allotment for each item. Run through the agenda in that order and steer conversations back to either closing out the agenda item or moving on to the next item. For closing decisions, figure out if there's part of it that CAN be closed without a certain person there, and have a follow-up item to check with them via phone/email/etc giving them a deadline to weigh in.

Agenda items can include updates from individual people for things they were supposed to do. If they get this prior to your meeting and see that an update is needed that should help get things moving :)

Only invite the people who need to be there. After your meeting, distribute follow-up items to directly responsible individuals, and when they are expected to be completed or reported on.
posted by raw sugar at 3:26 PM on November 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Having a printed agenda and sticking to it--very traditional with old business, updates and new business. I also prefer an agenda this is circulated ahead of time and shared with the group. If people know what is being discussed and they care, they'll show up!

What is your decision making structure? Is it written down somewhere? Basically anything you can do to avoid needing to make decisions by consensus ("8 is a quorum, so this meeting is called to order. Can I get a motion to X? Second? We have 5 votes so the motion passes.")

Meeting minutes where the action items assigned to people are called out in bold type. (Aimee will gather options for our service project for presentation at the next meeting.) The minutes should be distributed to everyone by the next day. You can use these to build out your agenda for the next meeting. ("Item: Aimee's presentation on possible service projects.")

I also like Robert's Rules of Order for some of this stuff. It was invented for a reason!

I agree about starting and ending the meeting on time. Be brutal about it and people will shape up and show up.

posted by purple_bird at 3:31 PM on November 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

At my new place, everyone's just been on a training course on a programme called Effective Meetings. Not me, I'm too new. There seems, how to say... some variation... in people's understanding of what an Effective Meeting should be. But there are some good points in there that I like:

Don't have a meeting if you're just passing on information - use email.

Ask at the start for AOB and work it into the agenda, combine with existing items if appropriate.

Don't get sidetracked, stick to times - if needs be organise another meeting/email etc

On another note, how much ability do you have to switch it up completely - like change the venue, organise sub groups, combine the meeting with something sociable - hold it a coffee shop/pub? Or combine it with something useful for their volunteering? When I was a Guide Leader, we'd have things like bring and share sessions at our meetings - where we'd all share one good activity that had gone well that term. So meeting, then sharing session. It gave us other reasons to turn up.
posted by Helga-woo at 3:31 PM on November 2, 2015

One of my keys is: don't invite people who don't absolutely need to be there

Yeah, this.

During my time at Intuit, we were hammered with the concept of D.A.C.I. when it came to meetings/projects.

D is for driver, which is the person driving the meeting, so you. This is always one person.

A is for approver(s). These are the persons who have the ability to approve any courses of action. These people are named upfront and new names cannot be added. That stops the "I ran this by Jill and she has opinions".

C is contributors. Contributors can contribute options and information, but they absolutely no decision making power.

I is for informed. This groups gets to hear about what happened at the meetings, usually after the fact via an email or something.

If you can group all the people into those categories, you'll be on your way to having successful meetings. Especially if you shove almost everyone into the last couple groups.
posted by sideshow at 3:35 PM on November 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

1. Have an agenda and follow it, but keep only a few achievable goals on each meeting's agenda. If new things get brought up, add them to the agenda for next meeting - stick to the goals for this meeting!
2. Work towards empowering the group to make decisions, even if that means cutting someone who isn't there out of the decision-making loop.
3. Follow up with brief meeting minutes, so that the people who didn't get to make decisions knows why/how you arrived at a decision (which usually helps ameliorate their "why wasn't I consulted!" -itis), as well as helps reinforce whose responsibility it is to get a certain task done.
4. Like brainmouse said, start the meeting on time, and end it on time if at all possible. Nothing worse than endless meetings.
5. In my experience, the one key to good meetings is the (one!) person in charge. You can have the same group with a good and a bad meeting runner, and it will be a completely different meeting. Just the fact that you are asking this question puts you on track towards the "good" spectrum!

It might take a while to change the culture around the meetings, even if you have a clear mandate to do so. You may have to take it a few steps at a time, in order to not rock the boat too much all at once. Good luck!
posted by gemmy at 3:36 PM on November 2, 2015

Best answer: I have been forced to attend many, many useless meetings in my lifetime. They are useless mostly because of one of two reasons:

1) They exist purely so the manager can feel like they are working. The higher up the food chain you get, the less actual work you have to do. Managers, whose job is to oversee the real work that other people do, schedule meetings so they can know what people are working on and feel engaged. These meetings are not useful for the non-managers in the room.

2) Everyone just gives updates. These are the worst meetings and are often caused by #1 one this list, but not exclusively. Good meetings involve brainstorming, working out problems, asking questions, making decisions and assigning work to do. When everyone just gives an update to prove they are working, it doesn't help anyone. A lot of times, people in meetings purposely want to avoid showing if they have questions or are running into roadblocks because the meeting is used as proof to show they are doing their job. People will actively avoid working out problems in meetings because their boss is there. I think meetings should be treated like brainstorming sessions and problem-solving workshops. Everyone should leave with a better idea of what they need to do before the next meeting.
posted by AppleTurnover at 3:47 PM on November 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: One thing that I always feel helps keep things moving forward is to make it absolutely clear who a particular task belongs to--make assignments for outside work during the meetings, send out minutes reiterating that, specify a date by which you expect to have a result (or at least check back in) and then either remind those people ahead of time or send out an agenda where it's clear that they'll be responsible for having produced something ("Cross-troop event plan: Janice and Marlys")

And yeah, get comfortable with just starting a meeting when it's time to start, and think of ways to redirect people who have a tendency to go off on unproductive tangents.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 3:47 PM on November 2, 2015

The things on your "need to happen" list: are they all things the attendees care about happening? If yes, then that helps a lot. If no, then find out what they DO care about and include them in the meeting. For some, socializing might be the reason to go! Are these the sorts of people who would enjoy doing this over beers?

Also, do most of them have kids? If so, going to meetings they need to work out child care, etc. for could be one of the barriers. Can you get someone's teen or spouse to occupy children (possibly at a school playground while you meet in the school, for example?)

Would a conference call, webinar, or real-time online chat be less onerous?

I go to a lot of meetings at work, and eventually ended all of my volunteer/ activism activities that involved meetings because I had spent all day at them and couldn't subject myself to more. Keep in mind that may be the case for some in your group.
posted by metasarah at 4:04 PM on November 2, 2015

Best answer: You MUST keep people on task, whether your style is to rudely cut them off or to politely steer them back to the topic -- either works, but you've got to be strict about sticking to the agenda. Relatedly, once discussion has started to repeat itself, cut it off -- often by summarizing the several conflicting viewpoints and asking if anyone has something that hasn't been covered yet, and then calling for a vote/action/whatever happens.

My #1 meeting pet peeve is DISCUSSING HOW WE'RE GOING TO DISCUSS SOMETHING, and meetings can get bogged down for forty-five minutes deciding whether discussing something now is okay or whether we all need to do more preparation or come up with an equitable framework or a process or ... drives me NUTS and it happens all the time. I would divorce my husband and marry you if you got in the habit of cutting this off quickly, by either saying, "Let's stick to the substantive issue right now" or "Great, Mary and Ellen, since you have strong opinions on how we should proceed with discussion on this topic, why don't you draw up a framework for us to discuss this, e-mail it to everyone within the next week, and next meeting we'll come back to the substantive issue." Most of the time ONLY MARY AND ELLEN WILL CARE that we discuss the issue in their particular way or using their particular frame, but they will grind the meeting to a halt arguing about how to argue about it.

(My constant refrain is, "I don't want to talk about HOW we're going to talk about it -- let's either talk about it, or table it, and Joe can send us a memo on HOW we're going to talk about it next time." Talking about talking about things is MADDENING.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:07 PM on November 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

AppleTurnover: "2) Everyone just gives updates."

Yeah, relatedly -- people just listing a bunch of facts over and over again because they disagree with a decision is NOT ACTUALLY AN ARGUMENT, it is just tedious. There's always the one guy in the meeting who, after full discussion of a decision, decides to undermine it by reciting 20 years of institutional history that has already been gone over as if it's an argument. Really try to force people to give factual summaries in pre-meeting memos or to summarize relevant facts at the start of the discussion -- don't let people derail meetings by re-enacting factual summaries as if they're arguments late in the discussion.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:10 PM on November 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Lots of good things to think about here, thanks!

Just to give you folks an idea of the time commitment here, meetings are monthly and don't happen during the summer, so we're talking like 10 meetings at an hour each over the course of a year, which seems reasonable to me. (Yes? No?)

I think this is reasonable to everyone else as well but they switched to "as needed" meetings this year, which means that we have no meetings until the current leader gets a packet of flyers from Council so says "we're having a meeting Tuesday night at 6:30" which is too late notice, and of the people who can come, many don't because a 6:30pm meeting doesn't actually start until 7 because "someone else might show up" and then runs until they are literally kicking us out of the park we meet at because the employees want to go home. Which is obviously unworkable nonsense.

Unfortunately these are the sorts of meetings that really do need every person there in order for things to work right, but at 10 meetings in a whole year I don't think it's asking too much.
posted by phunniemee at 4:26 PM on November 2, 2015

Best answer: Things I have done at SU meetings and liked:

- heard about a lot of activities that Council hadn't done a good job promoting
- learned how to make a box oven and then baked and eaten cookies
- learned some Dutch oven stuff
- learned an easy SWAP and done it during the meeting (I don't usually like SWAPS but this one was kinda neat)
- junk exchange, as in bring your old Brownie stuff when your troop bridges, and pick up someone else's no-longer-necessary Juniors stuff, or crafts
- gotten advice on how to deal with a tricky situation
- learned about some GS traditions like ashes

None of those are the main reason for the meeting, but they're what gets me to come and sit through "cookies cookies cookies fall sales cookies" bullcrap.

"As needed" is a terrible idea. We have ours at the same time every month and it's still tough in terms of childcare. Can you override it?
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:48 PM on November 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I got lots of great meeting-running advice in a previous question. I think a lot could apply to your situation.
posted by Liesl at 4:52 PM on November 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: At our SU meetings, we meet once a month. They begin at 6:30 and end no later than 8. The first 45 minutes is running through business (registration, cookies, fall product, what it takes to be a leader - like trainings), talking about upcoming events, and the like.
The next 45 minutes are often targeted towards an idea: cool outing ideas, how to deal with certain problems, etc..

We have over 100 troops in our SU. We usually have 45 people in our meetings. Weekday nights are hard, especially as kids get older and obligations become stretched across school, sports, music, and Scouts.
posted by heathrowga at 5:09 PM on November 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Build in a formal way to make sure each relevant person has the chance to speak on each topic or agenda item. Like maybe before moving onto something new just briefly give space to anyone who hasn't spoken, if they want to avail themselves. This can be as short as a few seconds if the dynamic has been good and people have had the chance to say their piece. It drives me CRAZY when everyone is jumping on the ends of each others' sentences and by the time you can get a word in edgewise the meeting is three topics down the road and the important thing you have to say no longer makes any sense.
posted by threeants at 5:45 PM on November 2, 2015

This is also a good litmus test because if there's anyone who it doesn't really seem like they should need to weigh in, either that topic or that person may have not been best served by being part of the meeting at hand.
posted by threeants at 5:50 PM on November 2, 2015

Best answer: I agree with the process suggestions people have already made about agendas, minutes and so on.

But what twigged my attention is this comment from metasarah:

"I go to a lot of meetings at work, and eventually ended all of my volunteer/ activism activities...because I had spent all day at them and couldn't subject myself to more."

This. I'm part of a volunteer group and our meetings used to be pretty bland. No surprise that we had a big problem with turnover.

The key is to have fun at your meetings. Make it a break from the usual. You can still get a lot of things done, and maybe even more so than if it's run like Corporate 101. This ties in to what The Corpse was saying up above. She got a lot out of her meetings, and not stuff that you would expect, if we're just talking about efficient/effective meeting techniques.

Bad news: food is important. Breaking bread together brings people closer. I'm not saying you need monthly pot lucks or dinners. Just even a box of donuts or samosas would do it.

The other aspect of fun is the interpersonal stuff. In the corporate world, meetings are run with the implied understanding that you are there because you're paid to be (along with whatever other psychic rewards). In the volunteer group, it's all psychic all the way. That means intuiting what people are getting from volunteering. And yes, it may mean that some really really want to socialize. So the trick becomes giving them what they need, while still powering ahead with the agenda. (e.g. finish the agenda first, then break for coffee/donuts and catch-up time).

Finally, no matter what psychic rewards volunteers are getting, everyone still likes to be thanked and recognized for their contribution in a sincere and kind way.

So anyway, I'm happy to say the volunteer group I'm in has changed for the better. I can tell because I look forward to the meetings.
posted by storybored at 7:54 PM on November 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

No chairs! Have the meeting standing up. A rule from "Up the Organization," a great book about business.
posted by kerf at 8:19 PM on November 2, 2015

Best answer: I am the chair of a volunteer group that also meets ten times a year. I don't think what you are asking for is unreasonable, but it will be tough to get this floating ship back on course.

A few things that work well for our group:

* Set meeting dates/times. Third Tuesday of every month, except for the months when we don't meet (we skip December and July). We always have something we can work on, and if it's a short meeting one month, then fine, but I think it makes it easier for people to plan to attend if they know it's always on the same day at the same time, so they can line up childcare or whatever.

* Have a chatting period. Built into our agenda is a half hour for dinner (we do have a small budget). We spend this time catching up instead of jumping right into the agenda, which seems to help with cutting down on chatting during the meeting itself. The last part of our meeting is also a crafting period, which allows for additional chatter while our hands are busy. Acknowledging that people want to talk and that this is to some extent a social outlet might help reign it in when focus is needed. (It also gives a firm cut-off time for people who straggle in late - you won't miss something if you're late for dinner, but the meeting starts after that half hour and if you're not there, too bad.)

* Nthing a written agenda, circulated ahead of time, and written minutes, circulated a day or two after the meeting, with people's names called out if they are asked to do something. As chair, I also follow up by email/phone a LOT through the month. The trap to avoid is going home on the meeting high and having no one do the follow through. Assume that no one will remember what they agreed to do - set deadlines at the meeting, and follow up in a friendly fashion before the next meeting.

* We take attendance at our meeting to submit volunteer hours to our program coordinator. This is what gets us our funding, so people try hard to make it to the meeting (which counts as 3 hours in addition to whatever else we do during the month).

The list of things that need to happen in your post is almost a perfect agenda template. Just run down the list at every meeting, then once a week run down the list of take-aways at home and send emails to the relevant parties to get a status update.

An entire volunteer group's work can't come out of ten three-hour meetings a year - most of the work has to happen offline. Leadership of the meetings is great, but realize that you are probably agreeing to ride herd on a bunch of cats the rest of the month as well! It can be worth it, and you seem to have identified the big issues, but prepare to spend a few hours a week on follow up as well.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:20 PM on November 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Phrase the agenda as a series of specific questions, rather than a series of topics.

Rather than an agenda item like "Discuss event" (which is nebulous and creates a conversation that has no ending), the agenda item could be:

1. Event
(a) Day or night?
(b) 5 possible venues? Delegate who will call them all to check rates & availabilty?
(c) Should we do a buffet, or servers with hors d'ouvres trays? Who will call 4 caterers for quotes?
(d) What's the target amount we need for our fundraising goals? Brainstorm 10 ways to raise cash.
(e) Do we need liability insurance? Who can get 3 quotes?
(f) Any other concerns about event that we should start work on this week?

If the agenda is more granular, it's easier to stop talking about each topic because it becomes obvious when either the question has been answered or someone needs to do a specific piece of research to find the answer. It's more prep work for the meeting chair, but makes the meeting more efficient, and when the tasks are delegated, each person's role is clear and simple.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:30 AM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm going to strongly disagree with giving updates being a problem and that it is always true that "Good meetings involve brainstorming, working out problems, asking questions, making decisions and assigning work to do. When everyone just gives an update to prove they are working, it doesn't help anyone. ".

The problem isn't with giving updates. It is that people don't know how to give them. A good update sounds like this.

"Project X is on track. It will be done on time and on budget." OR
"Project Y is going well, but we need Meeting Participant W to give us some insight on one of the issues." OR
"Project Z is off track, we need to make a strategic decision whether to expend more resources to save it."
The point is that everyone shares responsibility for making sure that all tasks get accomplished and this is the regular check-in that helps you intervene in time to save something if it is failing.

A good rule of thumb is that if any discussion goes for more than 2 minutes without a concrete action proposed it is time for that conversation to be moved out of the big group meeting until a course of action that the whole group can respond to and vote on can be determined.

Often, in my experience, the problem with meetings can become precisely because they become problem solving sessions where 1/3 of the participants are engaged and the rest are just sitting around waiting for that topic to pass.

But, with volunteers and to reiterate the above. Begin with a clear agenda, written out items to act upon if possible and strictly sticking to start and end times. That will give people the mental space to attend and participate.
posted by meinvt at 6:34 AM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A lot of really great ideas here. One to add is asking volunteers to do some type of light "pre-work" before the meeting. This is particularly helpful if there's an agenda item that requires brainstorming and sharing of various ideas. You don't want to get to that agenda item and it's just crickets in the room!
posted by ellerhodes at 7:14 AM on November 3, 2015

10 meetings in a whole year I don't think it's asking too much.

Just to weigh in on this aspect, monthly is pretty high frequency to some people (me included). I'd try for every other month or quarterly.
posted by JenMarie at 10:42 AM on November 3, 2015

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