I will cut to the chase. You are reading this article to strengthen your inclusive facilitation skills and learn leadership techniques to include all voices. The most common meetings are the weekly staff meetings, the work groups we attend or run, and the community meetings that blanket the landscape of the globe. In this post, I will share basic practices to make your normal, everyday meetings fully engaging and productive.
Let’s begin by forming an agenda. I will outline the steps.
A skilled facilitator drafts an agenda by first listening. Listen to your work team or planning group. The best agendas are co-created. If you’re constructing an agenda alone, listen to those who will attend the meeting. As you listen, collect the issues and questions you believe should be discussed. Consider possible outcomes and, very importantly, the process for reaching them. Constructing an effective agenda is a dynamic, not linear, process.
Choosing the right design for your meeting and constructing an agenda should be based on answers to these questions:
- What issues do you hope to discuss?
- What questions, if answered, best advance what you hope to accomplish?
- What specific outcomes are you hoping will emerge?
- What meeting design will achieve your goals?
- How will the meeting design engage and include all voices and perspectives?
- Will any topics evoke powerful emotions or be polarizing?
- How much time is available?
- How might the meeting begin in a way that focuses people on the agenda at hand?
- What ground rules, habits or guidelines for group behavior would you like to see?
- How might the room layout be arranged for the best process and outcomes?
- What accommodations are needed to include people with disabilities and special needs?
- How might the meeting results be best recorded?
- How will the group and facilitator receive evaluation and feedback on what went well and what did not?
A well-written meeting invitation goes a long way toward inspiring people to want to attend the meeting. It forces the facilitator of the meeting to clarify the goals, design and time allocated for each agenda item.
The practice of summoning a meeting through an email that states the date, time, place and agenda, while a good start, is insufficient. An exciting and engaging meeting invitation also includes the framing of a question or request, the intended goal, the way each person will contribute, and the time needed for each item. If the meeting has multiple items, the invitation includes these elements for each item.
Writing an invitation is hard work. It requires discipline and focus. However, meeting participants will appreciate how strategic and thoughtful your preparation has been. Just by reading the invitation, they’ll understand how the meeting will engage and include them.
Here’s an example of a meeting invitation that goes beyond the ordinary by being explicit about the question or request, goals, design and timeframe.
The organizational meeting of the Digital Access Working Group will meet Friday, March 1, from 9:00 to 10:00 a.m. in a virtual Microsoft Teams meeting.
The purposes of the meeting are to get to know one another, share challenges and build new connections through a twenty-minute exercise called Impromptu Networking.
For the remaining forty minutes of our time, we’ll identify the key impediments and opportunities to universal digital access in the Rainier Valley of Seattle through a series of Conversation Cafés.
I promise an engaging and energizing meeting, with clear outcomes. I look forward to seeing you on Friday.
Assuming you have listened well, it is time to choose a meeting design and draft the agenda based on your answers to the above questions. A weekly check‑in staff meeting with less than a dozen people will have a different agenda than a three‑day conference with one thousand people present.
Whichever design you choose, the best meeting agendas share common elements:
- Becoming fully present
- Ground rules
- Review of the meeting agenda
- Issues, questions and the process for engaging participants
- Clarifying outcomes and summarizing next steps
Every meeting should begin with a welcome An upbeat, can-do spirit works best for most groups. Conflicted, tired and impatient participants especially need to sense confidence and optimism in their facilitator. “Let’s get started. We can do this. Let’s get to work.” State the meeting’s purpose in a clear voice and a minimum number of words:
“We’re here to draft our department’s asking budget for the fiscal year beginning January 1.”
“We’re here to plan a summit on climate change that will result in a clear public policy strategy.”
“We have twenty minutes to establish ground rules that will guide our behavior for the next six months.”
Introductions vary according to the group’s size, purpose and familiarity. Even a group of hundreds can experience energy in a meeting with the right questions. At tables or in small groups, have participants share answers to the following:
- What is your name and where do you live?
- Where would you be if you were not at this meeting?
- What do you hope for out of today’s event?
You might think a small group of coworkers who have worked together for years need no introductions. However, try these questions at a monthly meeting and see how much they enliven your group:
- Give your first name, then share one thing that is going well in your life.
- Give your name, tell who named you, and where your grandparents were born.
I facilitated a networking workshop for seventy‑five transportation civil engineers, people not necessarily known as touchy-feely or talkative. During introductions, I asked them to form pairs. I said, “After you give your name, take two minutes each to describe the coolest project you designed as a child.” Wow. The room erupted into a cacophony of gadget boasting as entertaining as a verbal circus. The right question is like a lever that moves the world.
Becoming Fully Present
Facilitators cannot know in advance what is going on in the lives of participants. People may feel rushed, preoccupied with family, elated at a child’s achievement, tired of too many online meetings, worried about paying bills, or concerned about recent news. Everyone brings something: low expectations, high expectations, a desire for a short meeting, hope for great outcomes. To become fully present and centered, they need to separate from their baggage.
A period of silence and deep breathing can bring mindfulness to help people separate from their junk. For religious groups, a prayer helps, too. For others, use a guided meditation in which people are invited to relax their muscles and visualize a place of beauty. Another approach is to form pairs and briefly answer questions, such as “What did you have to give up to be here today?” or “If you were not here, what would you be doing?”
Then, say something like, “Now, I invite all of you to set aside whatever was on your mind when you arrived. Those dirty dishes or that unfinished project will still be there for you to pick up when you leave. For now, be fully present to each other and to what we are doing here.”
Ground Rules and Codes of Conduct
I once thought ground rules did not need to be repeated at every meeting of a group who knew each other well. I was wrong. Reviewing ground rules near the beginning of each meeting, even briefly, reinforces respectful behavior. Far from a waste of time, reviewing ground rules builds respectful meetings and organizations.
My favorite ground rules are the Respectful Communication Guidelines created by Eric Law and described in the chapter “Ground Rules” in my book Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2nd ed. Use them or something similar.
You can invite the group to form ground rules from scratch, perhaps seeding the group with a couple of suggestions. If you introduce an already written set of ground rules to a new group, dedicate plenty of time explaining each one and giving an example for how each rule or guideline can be used.
Review of the Meeting Agenda
Inviting participants to review the draft agenda near the beginning of the meeting and asking if they have ways to strengthen it can build ownership. Say, “Let’s review the agenda. Is there anything we should add? Any suggestions to improve it?”
By testing the waters with a draft agenda and asking a question such as “What suggestions do you have for strengthening this agenda?” your meeting attendees will help you build a better agenda and one that engages all.
Issues, Goals and Process
The heart of every meeting is its issues or questions, its goals, and a process to achieve those goals. The best meeting agendas have a logical sequence for each subject:
Issue —–> Goal —–> Process
I prefer to frame issues as questions that need answering. The chapter on “Strategic Questions” on page 93 of Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2nd Ed. describes how to frame questions that engage, energize and inspire. Listing agenda items as phrases instead of questions can result in confusion and ambiguity. Imagine a staff meeting in which items for discussion are listed on the agenda in the following way:
- Human Resources Software
- Workplace Safety
- Long-term Employee Celebration
Most of us have organized agenda items this way. The problem with the format is that it doesn’t frame the issues in a meaningful way for discussion. Based on the information provided above, participants don’t know:
What aspect of Human Resources software will we discuss? Is it a complaint session about the old software? Is it a plea for the Human Resources and Information Technology departments to work harder? Is it an information item about newly acquired software?
Is the item on workplace safety a report on accidents? Notification of an Excellence Award from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)? Will we focus on best practices or solicit ideas for improvements from employees?
Will the discussion focus on last year’s celebration party? Alternatively, will we discuss certificates and types of gift cards for this year’s long-term employees?
As you can see, participants have little idea from the agenda what they’re expected to think about, discuss and propose. This agenda is a roadmap for wandering in the wilderness.
Use Open-Ended Questions without Easy Answers
The best meetings use open-ended questions in which the answer is not yet known. They provide content that invites creativity, concrete answers, goals and next steps. They list the purpose of the topic. Is it to share information, develop solutions, or reach a decision? The first time I tried this and saw what a difference it made, I felt like the tagline in the old V-8 tomato juice commercial, “I could have had a V-8!” The meeting was better in ways that are hard to describe.
Notice the difference between the above agenda items and those listed below. Each example that follows would be effective in establishing clarity and momentum in an agenda:
- What Human Resources software shall we recommend to the CEO?
- What steps and timeframe for implementing the new Human Resources software shall we craft?
- How might our warehouses implement best safety practices in our industry by the end of the year?
- How shall we celebrate long-term employees?
- What gifts shall we give to employees with twenty or more years with the company?
If the goal is to brainstorm an issue, the agenda should say so and describe the process for how you will engage everyone:
What gifts shall we give to employees with twenty or more years with the company?
As individuals, write down your ideas on a piece of paper. Then share ideas in pairs. Next share ideas in foursomes. Convene as a whole group and report the best ideas.
What big challenge do you bring to this group in the post-pandemic era, and what do you hope to give to and gain from this group? In pairs, spend two minutes each to answer the question, using only four or five minutes in total. Convene as a whole group and report the best ideas.
Suppose you needed to write an invitation to a stakeholder summit to strengthen workplace safety in warehouses. Let’s begin with a question and include the proposed meeting design.
How might our warehouses implement the best safety practices in our industry by the end of the year?
We will hold a ninety-minute World Café of three twenty-minute rounds, followed by a thirty-minute harvest to discuss this question. The Human Resources department will issue a summary of recommendations by 4:00 p.m. next Thursday, the fifth.
Note that this example includes a timeframe, deadline and responsible party. Establishing a deadline and naming a responsible party for next steps adds clarity. Giving a timeframe forces the facilitator to think about the meeting in a disciplined way and establishes realistic expectations for the length of the meeting. Framing the amount of time for the agenda item has the added benefit of helping groups adhere to a schedule. When the time draws short, the facilitator can remind participants that time is nearly up.
Monitor the Time
Packing too much into a short time frame results in a meeting disaster and frustrated people. Facilitators tend to underestimate the amount of time an agenda item will take. Multiply the number of people in the group by the number of minutes you expect each to speak on a topic (10 people x 3 minutes = 30 minutes).
If the meeting’s purpose is to reach a decision, state the method you will use. As the facilitator, you might say, “By the end of our meeting, I plan to take a vote. We’ll decide by a simple majority.” In groups that function by consensus, you might say, “After discussing this item for forty‑five minutes, I’ll see if the group is ready to decide. If you need more time to reach a consensus, we’ll decide then how much more time we need. Okay?”
Clarifying Outcomes and Summarizing Next Steps
Summarizing key decisions, clarifying outcomes, and naming the next steps increases meeting effectiveness. As the facilitator, you might ask the group to detail the outcomes and next steps, or you might summarize them.
An effective way to increase clarity is by asking what items need to be on the next meeting’s agenda based on the day’s outcomes.
For Further Reading and Resources
The last two elements for crafting an inclusive and productive agenda, Inclusive Meeting Evaluations and a Meeting Checklist can be found in my book, Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2nd edition. Purchase Thrive Today!
© 2021 Dr. Mark Smutny. All rights reserved no part of this article may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording company taping or any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of Dr. Mark Smutny except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
For more resources, articles, workshops, coaching, speaking, facilitation services and to order copies of the book, Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2nd ed., visit www.civicreinventions.com. Email Mark Smutny a question, idea for inclusive meetings, a book recommendation, or a personal story at email@example.com. He will personally respond to your email.