Meeting Design: What would make the process/pace more productive?

"The amount of output per unit of input."  That's one common definition of productivity.  But for meetings the sheer amount of output may be a useful, but insufficient definition of success.  If you produces pages and pages of flipcharted ideas, but most of them are unusable, that probably wouldn't be considered a success.  So here are a few common sense facilitation tips for increasing both the quantity and the quality of the input (people's insights and opinions) and outputs (ideas generated and decisions reached) in a typical meting.

Honor individual learning/contribution styles
More introverted participants appreciate time to reflect and perhaps write out/down their ideas.  more extroverted participants feed off the energy of others sharing ideas verbally.  Consider using a tandem approach periodically with individuals first noting their ideas on their own and then sharing them with the large group either verbally or posting their written ideas and then discussing them verbally.  This strategy also works well in workshops.

Use the value of visuals
Keeping an ongoing visual record of the discussions provides a common point of reference and also can help neutralize the tendency of some individuals to get repetitive in stating their points.  General rule: you can't facilitate and flipchart simultaneously, so get others to cpature the conversation.  Keep at least two sets of color-coded notes: (1) running comments and ideas, and (2) core themes, summaries, decisions.  If your meeting is a conference call, consider having an online component where notes taken on a computer can be shared.

Remain vigilant about drawing in diverse input
It's easy to get overly focused on facilitating those sharing of their own initiative and to not notice the number of people who may be processing thoughts on their own and not offering them to the group.  Expand your toolkit of phrases to broaden the contributions:
  • How do others feel about this issue?  
  • I'd love to hear from some folks we haven't heard from yet.  
  • This is a critical issue so let's go around the room and hear from everyone.  Feel free to pass or say "ditto ___" if someone already has expressed our viewpoint.  
  • We've heard several people echo the same viewpoints, I'm wondering if any others in the room have a different take.
Knit the threads of conversation into a coherent whole.
This is particularly critical if a highly verbal group is involved and/or energy or passions are high.  At any given moment individuals are more focused on their next comment rather than listening to what is being said.  This requires facilitation that regularly restates, distills, and summarizes the many contributions of individuals, weaving them together into a more cohesive record of what is happening.  At a conference a host or emcee can perform this function, connecting key takeaways from breakout sessions and other events when the entire community convenes in general sessions.

Clarify intentions, agendas, and contributions.
Lots of people show up to meetings physically without being fully engaged mentally, so starting off with a quick review of what success looks like for your meeting is usually helpful.  I often follow this, particularly with groups who don't work together regularly, by asking individuals to share; (1) the role/perspective they can offer, (2) the needs and/or agenda they bring, and (3) how they are likely to contribute or participate.  By making all of this information public (think Johari's Window) it allows for the group to then discuss the implications of what they now know in relation to the purpose of the meeting.

Allow productive detours, but avoid dead ends and derailments.
Overly restrictive facilitation impedes potentially creative detours that can stimulate fresh thinking.  but allowing participants to stray too far into unnecessary details or extraneous issues obviously uses valuable time.  If a seemingly interesting side issue is raised get the group's permission to address it with this type of statement: "There seems to be some good energy around this idea even though it is a bit off-topic.  Would you like to take #____ minutes and explore it a bit more?"  The time limit and permission allow you to then pull the group back to the main agenda more easily.  And when you need to refocus a group try saying, "I'm wondering if this is something we need to discuss or decide right now."

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