Improve Your Meetings with Preventions & Interventions
“You have no authority here Jackie Weaver!” How to Keep Your Meeting from Going Off the Rails.In December 2020, an online Zoom meeting of Handforth Town Council in Cheshire, England went viral after quickly spiraling into chaos. During the meeting, the chairman refused to recognize the meeting's legitimacy and began insulting meeting leader, Jackie Weaver. He was promptly expelled along with the vice-chairman who also offered up insults. A clip of the Zoom meeting’s chaos soon racked up millions of views on Twitter and YouTube.
While most meetings (thankfully) aren’t as chaotic as Handforth’s, we all have likely experienced some form of meeting chaos. At Interaction Associates, we have a saying that meetings are a “microcosm of the organization”. If meetings are run efficiently and effectively, the organization often displays the same characteristics. If disorganized and chaotic, chances are your organization might be the same. How might a leader ensure their meetings are well-run and stay focused on the task at hand? What steps can a leader take when a meeting is going in multiple directions or participants are downright rude or bullying? In this blog, we’ll present two concepts to keep your meetings from going off the rails and stay on track. It is our hope that you’ll be inspired to try a few of these ideas.
Imagine you are attending a cross-functional meeting with other managers to discuss some recent problems with your supply chain. These problems affect a variety of areas within the business, so you’ve assembled a group of seven individuals to broadly outline and prioritize the problems before considering possible solutions.
- You: “Hi everyone, we are here today to outline and prioritize some of the problems we’re experiencing with supply chain issues. Our goal is to get a broad understanding of the problems, prioritize them, and then consider potential solutions.”
- Joe (another functional leader interjects): “I’d like to tell everyone about a new supplier I met yesterday. They can meet all our needs and more. Their pricing is much better!”
- Carol (another functional leader): “The biggest problem is clearly our lack of parts for the continuous mixer.”
The group then begins a spirited debate about the lack of parts for the continuous mixer.
Before you know it, your meeting has gone sideways and people are talking about different things (the content) in different ways (the process). Have you had a similar experience?
While there is always the possibility of something going awry, there are two main things anyone can do the keep the meeting on track. We call these concepts Preventions & Interventions. Let’s outline a few and then see how this might play out.
These are behaviors the meeting leader or a group member can use to help guide others on how to participate and are used before or during a discussion to prevent the discussion from getting off track. These are often seen as small agreements around a process. For example, you might first get agreement on desired outcomes, the agenda, roles, or ground rules.
- “Before we get into our discussion today, I’d like to make sure we all understand and agree on our ground rules”
- “Let’s review our agenda for today. The suggested time for brainstorming root-cause items is 15-minutes. Is there anyone who can’t live with that time allotment?”
- “Mary will serve as timekeeper today. She’ll put a message in chat when we are at 15, 30, and 45-minutes to keep us moving. Frank has agreed to be our scribe for today. He’ll aim to record the ideas without changing the meaning.”
Making a suggestion on the process is also excellent prevention:
- “I think we are bouncing around too much. I’d like to suggest that we list out problems as we see them before we think about potential solutions”
Overall, preventions are powerful and helpful techniques. Leaders should primarily focus on mastering these techniques first because they have a multiplier effect. In other words, these are proactive techniques aimed to keep the meeting on track before the derailment occurs.
Interventions – no matter how well you’ve prepared, there are bound to be times when a meeting will go off track and you find yourself wondering what to do next. Interventions are behaviors used to help the group get back on track. Here are a few you might try:
Boomerang - return a question to the person who asks it or to the group:
- “Joe, you wanted to know why we are brainstorming about potential solutions today. Can anyone describe the rationale for that decision to Joe?”
Regain focus – ensure that everyone is working on the same content, using the same process.
- “Let’s have one talker at a time. Joe, you go first, then Mary”
- “Carlos - you are bringing up an entirely new issue here. Can we first finish listing our problems as we see them and then get to your question?”
Ask or Say What is Going On – convey what you see as the meeting leader and ask a question.
- “It's quiet here. We aren’t getting any new ideas. What’s going on?”
Enforce process agreements
- “Carlos - we agreed at the beginning of the meeting we would spend 15 minutes brainstorming root-cause items.”
- If needed, you may need to pull a so-called “Jackie Weaver” - remove a disruptive or bullying attendee.
Done well, meetings can bring to the surface important information and catalyze forward action. Done poorly (or too frequently), meetings can become a dreaded part of your work week. As a leader, it’s my sincere hope that you might try on a few of the techniques presented and that their use helps to transform and improve your meetings. If you’d like to learn more about these techniques or consider bringing targeted skills training to your organization, consider Essential Facilitation™ – our flagship program on facilitation skills that has been trusted by the world’s top organizations and teaches core skills for guiding groups to their desired outcomes.
About Chris Williams
Chris’ experience includes work in operations, recruiting, and complex research. He has supported senior-level executives in a variety of industries including economic development, government contracting, and strategy consulting. Chris holds a BA in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Masters in Public Administration (MPA) from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.