An efficient meeting gets things done. A bad meeting is a time waster.
The top four complaints that I hear about meetings are:
"We have too many."
"They're too long."
"Our meetings go off track."
"We don't get anything accomplished."
To keep the meeting focused so you can get things done, it's essential to establish a few fundamentals about meetings. People need to know the reason they're being asked to attend the meeting. They need to understand the purpose of the meeting.
Bringing structure to meetings isn't a constraint. On the contrary, it's a strategic way to engage and empower meeting participants. When individuals are aware of the role they have in a meeting, they come prepared to fulfill that role. When companies call meetings with a specific agenda and purpose, the participants know beforehand that the meeting isn't a waste of time. There is a specific objective that needs to be achieved.
In the Preface, I shared the three reasons that meetings are held—to provide information, create a mechanism for decision-making, and allow feedback and discussion. Now, we'll talk about the different roles and responsibilities individuals can assume during a meeting. I'll add to that discussion by sharing some decision-making and problem-solving techniques you can use in your meetings. We'll wrap up with one of my favorite methods for taking meeting minutes.
A number of roles must be played in any group if it is going to get its work done, while at the same time keeping its members involved and committed. These roles generally serve one of two functions: Task and Process.
Although attention is almost always focused on the task functions, the presence or absence of process functions will often make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful meeting. Knowledge of both task and process functions can help individuals become more valuable and useful meeting participants.
Simply put, task functions have to do with the content of the work itself.
When the purpose of the meeting is to convey information, then the data and information is the task. An example would be the weekly staff meeting, where the task might revolve around the sales department sharing the clients who will be visiting headquarters during the upcoming week.
In a meeting where the goal is to reach a decision, the task is related to the facts and figures being used to make that decision. For example, if the meeting is to decide where the company will hold its annual shareholder meeting, the participants should be prepared to come with information about possible locations, the number of attendees, and schedule availability of key stakeholders.
During a feedback meeting, the task is the actual feedback itself. For instance, a manager is meeting with one of her employees to share compliments from a customer. The task is the nice story that the manager is going to tell her employee.
The process function deals with the nature of working relationships in the group and the flow of communication between group members.
One of the first process dynamics that meeting participants need to conquer is the issue of trust. Regardless of the purpose of the meeting, participants will not open up and engage with the group if they do not feel they can trust the other participants. This has a direct impact on the effectiveness of the meeting.
Back in the 1940s, Kenneth Benne and Paul Sheats defined several different roles a person can play during a team meeting. Over the years, their work has been refined but here are a few of the most common meeting responsibilities related to task and process functions.
Task responsibilities relate to getting the work done. They involve the people who are going to take a project from start to finish. When we're involved in meetings where people will have to do something after the meeting, we want these people to participate. They know the work or they have a strong opinion about the job. Their insight is critical to the success of the project. There are four different task responsibilities:
Information giving responsibilities involve providing facts and information. They provide personal experience relevant to the task.
"I have some books about problem solving we can use."
"Bob told me about a blog that offers writing tips and resources."
The person in this role could be considered a subject matter expert (SME).
Opinion giving responsibilities include offering views or opinions concerning information, suggestions, or alternatives.
"This is good work but I think we can do better."
"Mary brings up an excellent point about shipping schedules."
Information seeking responsibilities consist of asking for information and details pertinent to the task as well as seeking clarification of suggestions in terms of their factual accuracy.
"Lisa, can you share with us what happened the last time the system encountered this glitch?"
"You've been with the company a long time. Have you ever seen this situation before?"
Opinion seeking responsibilities consist of asking for views or opinions concerning the task.
"Tom, what do you think about our idea?"
"I'd like to hear what the group thinks about this data."
Task responsibilities do not necessarily have to be assigned to individuals. Sometimes a person's job title might be an indicator of their responsibility. For example, if the vice president of operations comes to a department meeting, they might have an opinion-giving role. It wouldn't be unusual to hear, "This is good work but I think we can do better." Or the chief information officer attending a meeting in an information seeking role asking, "Lisa, can you share what happened the last time the system encountered this glitch?". When the person's job title isn't an immediate indicator, the individual's abilities could be. For instance, the person with an effective questioning ability might be a natural opinion seeker. And of course, it's always possible to assign responsibilities. For instance, the employee with a great questioning technique might be very quiet during meetings. The meeting chair can have a private conversation with the employee, convey how impressive the employee's questioning skills are, and ask them to take a lead role during meetings. This provides feedback to the employee about something they do well and shares how that skill can benefit the entire group.
Process responsibilities can also be known as maintenance roles. These roles contribute to the overall group itself. They help to build healthy communication, enable collaboration and consensus building, and create a positive working experience.
Gatekeeping responsibilities involve encouraging or facilitating communication from or between group members.
"I think we need to hear what Mark has to say on this subject."
"Let's give Nancy the opportunity to weigh in."
Focusing responsibilities define the position of the group in relationship to its task by pointing to departures or raising questions about the direction the group is taking; keeping the group on time and on track.
"Our goal is to select a software vendor."
"How does this relate to the group's assignment?"
Paraphrasing is defined as restating in different words what someone else has said to ensure accurate communication.
"Just to confirm, we're going to recommend that the implementation date is changed to accommodate holiday vacation schedules."
"Basically, the IT department is saying that we need a larger server to adequately accommodate the extra users."
We defined paraphrasing above as the restating of different words to ensure accuracy. It's very different from what is known as "parroting." That's when someone repeats back the exact same words. When someone "parrots" a reply, it could be a sign that they are struggling to understand. Not always, but it will be important to confirm their understanding another way.
It's not necessary to call them out during the meeting with "Are you sure you comprehend?". A person might feel embarrassed and just say yes to end the questioning.
One way to reconfirm understanding is to do the restating yourself at a moment when you're recapping the meeting. For example, "Just to confirm, Justin is going to restate the deliverable here." If Justin has questions or needs additional clarification, the opportunity has been raised to address those issues.
Summarizing is reviewing the progress of the group from time to time by identifying what the major topics of discussion have been or by describing the major positions that have emerged to that point.
"So, we've decided to hold our strategic planning meeting on the first week of October."
"Thanks for the report. Our key takeaway is that sales are projected to be down for the second quarter."
Often we place the responsibility for filling all these functions on a single individual—the leader of the group. In most groups, though, so many things are going on at one time that one person cannot possibly perform all of these functions. Group leaders should consider sharing these roles and responsibilities within the group. When the work can be distributed more evenly, the likelihood of achieving the group's objectives in both the task and process functions will be significantly enhanced.
In addition, when you give everyone in the meeting a responsibility, it makes them accountable. Tina Samuels writes on Liz Strauss' Successful (and Outstanding) Blog that meetings are often unproductive because people don't respect time.
"Start the meeting on time so latecomers will find ways to catch up on their own. People will soon shape up and arrive on time because latecomers are embarrassed walking in when others are embroiled in deep discussions. This will save time for the whole group and the meeting will achieve its purpose."
Certain activities can make or break a meeting. Participants must know how to problem solve. Not just as an individual but in a group setting. They also need to be able to make decisions.
In both cases, if the group's problem-solving or decision-making capabilities are inadequate, a meeting could go on for what seems like forever. Whether you're a for-profit business with employees or a non-profit business with a volunteer board, you must provide people with the tools to effectively make decisions and solve problems.
In my work with a wide variety of individuals, groups, and organizations over the last twenty years, I've come to the conclusion that many people are not very good problem solvers. They often muddle through, do nothing, adapt, or produce solutions that actually make things worse.
Effective problem solving requires the courage to confront an issue, the commitment to do something, and above all, the willingness to assume responsibility for correcting the matter. When a group meets for the purpose of solving a problem, they need a set of problem-solving tools and strategies to guide them through the process.
This problem-solving model is one I've used for years. It takes into account three basic assumptions about problems in general:
Problem solving should be holistic: Typically, we think of problem solving as either a rational, logical, left-brain process, or a creative, imaginative, and right-brain one. The truth is we require the use of both sides of the brain. People must be rational at times and creative at others. Using a holistic approach creates a comprehensive design and can be used to address any problem.
Most problems are complex: If we look at the world in simple terms, then we will see problems as nothing more than puzzles that can be solved with some sense of finality. However, if we view the world in terms of complexity, then we realize problems are complex, interrelated, and incapable at times of a simple solution. Sometimes the answer is to find ways of managing the problem rather than outright solving them. The problems that people encounter aren't always simple and don't offer the illusion of a quick fix.
There is no substitute for effective interpersonal skills: I firmly believe that if a group is unable or unwilling to communicate openly and honestly with each other, then there's no problem-solving strategy that will help them. Problem solving requires both an effective method for solving problems, as well as an effective process of interpersonal communication.
Problem solving using the Situation-Target-Proposal (STP) model allows for information to be organized into three interrelated phases:
The situation phase involves identifying relevant information about the current status of an issue. It represents the starting point of the problem that needs to be solved. The situation includes both facts and opinions about the current state of affairs, as well as predictions about the possibility of change.
A word of caution here. Conducting assessments or analysis should be an important part of the process. It helps clearly identify the situation, so we can make good decisions about where we want to go and how to solve the problem. That being said, sometimes we will not be able to collect all the information we might want. External factors such as time or budgeted resources might impact the amount of information we're able to gather.
We have to be realistic about the relevance of information during this phase. One way to do that is by concentrating on information that helps understand the current situation. It's equally important to make certain that the information gathered is objective in nature. Here are six questions you can ask to ensure that all of the relevant information has been collected:
Who is involved?
What is specifically wrong?
Where is the problem taking place?
When did the problem begin?
When was the problem first observed?
What is the extent or pattern of the problem?
Additionally, we have to confirm that our sources of information are valid. The credibility of the data source helps the group determine whether the information is valid. For certain problems, citing only one data source might be sufficient. Complex problems might demand that time, money, and company resources are used to collect a variety of information.
Here's an example we can use to discuss gathering information about a situation. Larry, the department manager, is scheduled to have a conversation with his boss Nancy, about a member of his team Frank. To prepare for his meeting with Nancy, Larry drafts some talking points about Frank's performance.
Re: Frank's Performance
Thank you for meeting with me today to discuss Frank's performance. Frank has been a valuable employee, and I would like to review his case very carefully before taking any further action.
Last November, Frank began working in my department as a part time salesperson. I was so impressed with his eagerness and ability to work under pressure that I offered him a full time position, which he accepted in January. He worked out well in that position, and in May, I promoted him to assistant manager.
Even though Frank seemed to be doing well at his new role, we are both aware of the amount of sick time he has taken since late August and the increasing number of customer complaints we've received about his work. I talked with him a couple of times within the last month and he assured me that he only needs a little more time to adjust to the new position. I realize he is under some pressure. Although, we've had no complaints for the past week, we agree something needs to be done.
I am sure that part of the difficulty stems from Frank's rapid move from salesperson to assistant manager. The average time in the position of salesperson before promotion is about eighteen months to two years. But with the resignation of my former assistant manager, I needed someone right away and thought that Frank could handle the job.
Because of the pressure then and the introduction of the new fall products, I have not been able to find time to send Frank to the two-week corporate training course that is offered for new managers. This lack of training may have contributed to the problem.
In addition, we've spent a considerable amount of time working together since your arrival in June. As a result, I might not have spent enough time with Frank.
Finally, if I were to lose Frank, that is, from his resignation or involuntary termination, I have no one to replace him.
In this memo, Larry does several things right:
Larry articulates his concerns. The fact that Larry is taking action is a positive. It can be tempting to ignore the situation or hope that everything works out on its own. Those approaches are not fair to anyone, especially the employee.
He provides some history of the situation. This has been going on for months. In fairness to Nancy, she probably doesn't have the situation memorized. In writing this type of memo, Larry has the opportunity to refresh himself with the details at the same time. This allows Nancy and Larry to have the best information when they meet.
Larry takes responsibility. This situation is not totally Frank's fault and Larry admits that. A good manager knows how to take responsibility and uses it as an opportunity to make the situation better.
Larry could have improved the memo by adding more details, possibly including attachments of key conversations that had transpired. He could have also given Nancy a heads-up on possible solutions to the situation. This would better prepare Nancy in terms of approving a solution or offering one of her own.
The target phase involves determining the desired outcome. The target represents what one wants to accomplish and what they want to avoid. It's the end point, the termination of the problems solving process, and the desired result. Terms commonly used to talk about the target include goals, aims, ends, purposes, and objectives.
Goals versus objectives
This is a good time to discuss the definitions of goals and objectives. We often use the terms interchangeably. I know I've been guilty of it myself. Goals are broad and abstract in nature. They tend to focus on the long-term and are usually difficult to measure. An example of a goal is:
Managers need to be successful coaching employees.
Objectives are narrow and precise. They usually are focused on the short-term and can be measured. A sample objective is:
Larry needs to have a coaching plan in place for Frank by the end of the week.
When you're attempting to solve a problem that involves an organization, you must be certain that the answer you've established is consistent with the company's values. Here are ten questions you can ask to clarify the target or desired state:
What are we trying to accomplish?
If the problem were solved, what exactly would be happening?
What would look different?
What would feel different?
What would be different?
When is this happening?
Where is it happening?
How would I know that the desired outcome has occurred?
What would be the benchmarks of success?
How could I provide to someone proof that the problem has been solved?
Let's revisit our example with Larry and the meeting with his boss about Frank's performance. Some of the questions Larry might expect should include:
How would you know if Frank was doing his job well? Larry should expect to outline in very specific terms what satisfactory performance looks like. "Doing well" is not an adequate descriptor. The same with "no more problems." It might be helpful to refer to Frank's job description to understand the specifics.
What about Larry's relationship with his boss Nancy? Is it where you'd like for it to be? Larry needs to feel comfortable with his boss for several reasons. First, he should be comfortable sharing this employee challenge and admitting that on some level he, in part, created it. By moving Frank up in the organization quickly, Larry must accept responsibility for this situation. Lastly, he must feel comfortable asking his boss for support in solving the situation.
What options are available (besides replacing Frank)? There are many different ways to approach this situation that don't involve disciplinary action or termination. Sometimes, we are too quick to consider these options. Frank can still attend the corporate training program for new managers. He can also work closer with Larry, and possibly Nancy, to get additional guidance.
The proposal phase involves developing specific action proposals aimed at changing the current situation into the desired target. The proposal outlines the plan or strategy to be used to change the way things are into the way one would like them to be.
This is often where problem solving activities can fail. The urge can be strong to "do something" — anything to fix the problem. It's important to resist this urge and evaluate the situation as well as determining the target.
Developing solutions doesn't have to be a difficult activity. Most of us can generate ideas using comparisons. There are three ways to generate proposals.
Compare the current situation to a previous similar situation. Ask the question, "Have we been in this situation before?". Find out what happened and how the matter was resolved. Example: "Has the company ever promoted an employee too early? How did the employee perform? What did the company do to ensure their success?"
Depending upon the answer, Larry might be able to identify other options to help Frank's performance; options that have worked in the past.
Compare the current target to a previous one. Again, trying to use the past to help solve the current problem only this time the focus is a bit different. For instance, "How does the company correct poor performance?" might generate a very different set of options than the previous questions.
Maybe the company has never promoted an employee too early before. But they have run into situations where employees have missed corporate training and started to struggle with their performance. Larry can use those instances to develop alternatives for Frank.
Lastly, compare the current situation to the current target. Figure out how to get from where you currently are to where you want to be. This could involve multiple steps. We have to explore this option when dealing with new problems or situations where new solutions have emerged. An example would be if our poor performing employee Frank can attend a new training class that maybe others haven't because the program wasn't offered.
The company has never had an employee performance issue before. They do have a standard operating procedure that outlines the steps managers should take if they are faced with a performance matter. Larry can use the procedure to create an action plan with Frank.
The key to creating good solutions is to avoid the tendency to reject any idea that's new. Phrases such as "We don't have the time," "It's not in the budget," and "We tried that years ago and it didn't work" can kill momentum and stop progress. Another key to creating good solutions is to resist the urge to be right. The goal of problem solving isn't to be the person who came up with the solution. It's to fix the problem.
When considering solutions, the group can use four criteria to determine the best outcome:
Is the solution appropriate? The proposal should respond to the cause of the problem. One way to decide whether that's the case is to provide a detailed scenario that shows how the proposal will move the present situation to the target state.
When Larry and Frank finally meet regarding his performance, the solutions they come up with should address Frank's performance issues. Larry indicated that one of Frank's issues is customer complaints. Part of the solution might be customer service training. That directly relates to the problem they're trying to solve.
Is the solution attainable? Identify the current resources available and the resources needed to implement the proposal. The proposal should be successfully implemented using the resources available.
The solutions proposed must be attainable by either Frank or the company. So, if the solution includes training, then those training programs must be available and affordable. Frank must be willing to attend and participate.
Is the solution attractive? The people responsible for implementing the proposal should understand why this proposal was selected and how it works. Everyone doesn't have to love the solution, but they should support it to some degree.
Frank should be able to explain his current behavior as well as what is expected of him. He should know why the training solution was proposed and he should be willing to participate in the training.
Is the solution adaptable? Change is inevitable. The solution should have the ability to be modified if circumstances change or new information becomes available.
At some point during Frank's training program, the corporate office announces a training schedule change. Instead of attending a two-week program, participants will attend a one-week program then complete one-week of self-study online.
Once the best solution is selected, the group can focus their efforts on identifying alternatives, creating a pilot test when applicable, and developing an implementation plan. In thinking about the implementation plan, the group might want to consider breaking down the solution into smaller components or milestones. It becomes easier to monitor and evaluate results.
A major strength of the Situation-Target-Proposal model is its flexibility. It's often possible to start anywhere in the model and move in any direction. It's even possible to work all three phases at the same time. However, when a group is new to problem solving or working together for the first time, it makes sense to use the model in logical order starting with the situational assessment.
Becoming a more effective problem solver can be achieved by learning to assess a problem as it currently exists (situation), establish the desired solution (target), and determine the action to be taken (proposal).
A frustration during many meetings stems from confusion about the real purpose of the meeting. Consequently, the first step toward more effective meetings is to clarify the purpose for which people have been brought together.
Decision-making is perhaps the most difficult of three kinds of meetings to master. Yet decision-making is often central to an effective work group. If decision-making processes remain misunderstood or unchanged, little improvement can be expected in the quality or implementation of the decisions being made.
Decisions can be made and identified in a number of ways. Perhaps the simplest way of describing decisions is to see if they are made by the minority or the majority. The following are brief descriptions of different kinds of minority and majority decisions.
Minority decision-making techniques are the ones used by a small groups, that is, the minority, to influence the decision of the larger group. There are five different techniques:
Plop results when a group member makes a suggestion that meets with no response from the group as a whole. It falls, "plop." Not only is there no recognition or evaluation of the suggestion by the group, but the individual who offered the suggestion feels ignored and possibly rejected. They feel that no one will listen.
Barry: "I think we should have a paintball team building activity."
Tina: "Let's have a bowling team."
Group: "Yes! Sounds like a fun idea."
While the plop technique might appear harsh, it can be very useful when a person just refuses to believe the idea doesn't have any merit. In my experience, I've seen people get together prior to a meeting and someone presents an idea. The group says it will not be well received and the originator of the idea replies, "I'm going to let the group decide." At the meeting, the originator offers the idea and no one responds. It sends the same message without calling the idea stupid.
Kill happens when a suggestion offered by one member of the group is rejected at once, either by one or more of the powerful members of the group or by the group as a whole.
Patty: "I think we should be given access to Facebook on our work computers."
Mary: "That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard."
Calling an idea stupid is definitely harsh and can lead to strained work relationships. However, immediately rejecting an idea isn't always a terrible idea. When an idea doesn't mesh with company culture or the company doesn't have the funds to pursue the idea, then it's best to give a swift, direct "no" than lead the person to believe otherwise.
Self-authorized decisions occur when a group member suggests a course of action and immediately proceeds upon that course on the assumption that no one disagreed. They assume since no one said "no" the group has given its approval. Such action can lead a group down blind alleys. Even if others agree with the decision, they may still resent the way it was made. No one knows how much support the decision will receive.
Tom: "I've signed the department up for Spanish lessons."
Tom: "I mentioned it at the last meeting. No one had any objections."
Leading people to believe their ideas are still alive can add to self-authorized decision making. Years ago, I had a client whose CEO wanted to empower the team to make decisions. The team suggested the implementation of a software program. The CEO didn't say no but also didn't say yes. So the team purchased the system to the tune of $75,000. The CEO was furious when she found out. But as the team told her, "You wanted us to make decisions and you didn't say no."
Handclasp takes place when a suggestion made by one member elicits a reaction of support and permission to proceed from another. The group may move into action without sufficient testing as to whether the proposal is acceptable to the group as a whole.
Nancy: "Every manager should write an article for the company newsletter."
Paul: "Great idea! Do you think everyone will want to do it?"
Nancy: "Sure, why wouldn't they? You and I think it's a great idea."
Handclasp decisions often occur when individuals do not know the proper channel for approvals. It's great when employees can get together, problem-solve issues, and develop solutions. But before those solutions are implemented, they must be approved.
Minority support comes about when a minority of the group makes a decision with which the majority may not agree. This can lead to little future support by the group as a whole for the action taken.
George: "I just left a meeting with the company's vice president. We think all employees should start parking on the south side of the building."
Every decision cannot be made with the entire organization. Some decisions will be made by a small minority of people. Common examples include the company benefits program or the annual budget. People might offer feedback during the process but typically a small group finalizes the decision.
The key to minority decision making is knowing when to utilize these. Every business decision cannot be made with everyone in the room. Even decisions like handclasp, which might appear to be ineffective, can end up being very valuable if the proposed decision is presented in the right way.
Majority decision-making techniques are used by large groups to make decisions. Because the group is larger, these techniques can be used in an open forum or anonymously. Sometimes conducting an anonymous "vote" or gathering anonymous feedback can encourage greater participation.
Simple majority is often determined by voting. Many groups make the mistake of assuming that simply because the majority supports the decision, the minority will come along willingly. They may or they may not resent the action and when called on, give no more than token support at best or actively sabotage the decision at worst.
Charlie: "How many people want to hold the holiday party on Saturday night?"
Group: Majority says yes
Controller: "But if we hold it on a Thursday, we can have a nicer party."
Consensus is successful when all members have contributed to the decision and feel that they have had a fair chance to influence the discussion. Those few members who would not prefer the majority decision nevertheless understand it and are fully prepared to support it.
Consensus building activity
A colleague of mine shared a consensus building activity that she really likes. It was developed by Kristin Arnold and is simple to use. During a meeting, take a survey of the group using a 5L scale:
Give each participant a chance to rate their feelings about the decision:
They loathe (or hate) it.
They lament or will gripe about it afterward.
They can live with it.
They like it.
They really, really love it.
The goal with consensus building is to get everyone to live with the decision. Where consensus building efforts fail is when people try to convince everyone to like or love the decision. It's possible that will never happen. The goal of consensus building is to have everyone live with the decision. If a group pushes too much for someone to like or love a decision, they run the risk of having people secretly lament it.
Lamenting is worrisome because this is an area where decisions can be undermined. A person doesn't say they can live with the decision. They want the option of praising the decision if it goes well and distancing themselves if it goes poorly. Surveying the group to make sure everyone can live with the decision allows the group to hold people accountable for supporting the decision.
I was once a part of a committee that, when it became time to make a decision, the people opposed to the decision would conveniently go to the restroom or have to take an urgent phone call. It was obvious. That way, if they didn't like the decision, they could say they didn't vote to support it. And if it was a good decision, they could say they supported it the whole time.
Unanimity, in most cases, is impossible to obtain, inefficient, and unneeded. Here, everyone completely agrees with the decision that is being made and intends to support it.
Once the group understands how decisions are made, there becomes a second challenge that has to do with the decision itself. Groups have to balance two issues when making decisions: decision adequacy and commitment.
Decision adequacy refers to the quality of the decision
Commitment is the concern for the degree of support the group will have once the decision is made
The level of emphasis that an individual or a group gives these two issues (that is, decision adequacy and commitment) can effectively describe their orientation toward decision-making and the kind of decisions they are likely to reach. Needless to say, the concern for the adequacy of the decision and the concern for the commitment of the group to the decision are independent of each other. A high degree of concern for one does not necessarily indicate a high degree of concern for the other. Case in point:
Groups can make great decisions that no one likes and will support
Groups can make bad decisions that everyone likes and will support
Consequently, we can provide a framework for dealing with decision-making by placing these concerns on the horizontal (adequacy) and vertical (commitment) axis of a decision-making grid. Each axis is scaled from one to nine to show the level of emphasis placed on that particular concern. Thus, nine on the horizontal axis would indicate a maximum degree of concern for the adequacy of the decision, while one on the vertical axis would indicate a minimum concern for the commitment of the group to that decision. Within this decision-making grid, it is possible to identify five major approaches to decision-making:
Self-sufficient or 9/1 decision-making expresses a maximum concern for adequacy and a minimum concern for commitment. The individual is confident in their own ability as a decision maker. The facts (as they see them) dictate the nature of the decision. For this person, a group is simply not a good place to make a decision. If the decision is an excellent one, the group will probably go along with it but, in any event, it is the quality of the decision that is most important.
A 9/1 decision maker functions as if they hold the final responsibility for the decision. In some instances, this attitude may be quite appropriate. In a crisis or when a particular individual actually does know more than the other group members (and they are willing to acknowledge that expertise), self-sufficient decision-making may be necessary and even effective. Here are two examples where this has happened to me:
Our director of sales and marketing pitched a new campaign to the senior leadership team. We didn't hate the idea but were a bit unsure. Ultimately, the director of sales and marketing is responsible and accountable for the decision. He also has the expertise to make this decision on his own.
During a hurricane, the director of facilities makes the decision to send certain employees home. He does this based upon his experience during the last hurricane. The other members of the emergency team support his decision based upon his experience and expertise.
However, in most instances, 9/1 decision-making is based not on expertise but manipulation. To the extent that the 9/1 decision-maker has formal or informal power, their ideas will be reflected in the final decision. If the 9/1 decision-maker is without power, they may soon become frustrated and withdraw from the group.
At the opposite pole from the 9/1 position is the 1/9 or good neighbor decision-maker. This person expresses a minimum concern for the adequacy of the decision and a maximum concern for the commitment of the group to the decision. The primary value for a good neighbor is harmony. Goodwill within the group and avoidance of conflict are the most important objectives.
When the issue under discussion is relatively trivial or when the continued existence of the group is more important than anything else, a 1/9 approach to decision-making will be most productive.
On the other hand, because underneath the good neighbor's emphasis on openness and trust often lies an actual mistrust of power and fear of conflict, the 1/9 decision-maker may emphasize a superficial sort of togetherness that avoids the confrontation and conflict needed for adequate decision-making. If this conflict does break out, the good neighbor, like the frustrated 9/1, may withdraw from the decision-making process because they view conflict in a negative way.
Essentially, default or 1/1 decision-makers avoid making decisions. Often this position is a reaction to the stress of group decision-making. At times, they are operating out of conformity, self-protection, or both.
The 1/1 decision maker is not interested in either adequacy or commitment. It's possible the 1/1 decision-maker may be working in a highly regulated or bureaucratic organization where the guidelines are clearly defined by policies and procedures. In these cases, the 1/1 decision-maker rightly argues, it only makes more sense to follow the book than to invest very much energy in decision-making.
The traditional or 5/5 decision-maker expresses an equal concern for adequacy and commitment. However, they usually see these concerns not as complimentary, but as standing in opposition to each other. They do not believe that the group can make an excellent decision that will also produce a high level of commitment. Essentially the traditional decision-maker is more concerned with the adequacy of the decision than with the group's commitment to it but also realizes they may need to trade off and compromise to get enough support within the group. Usually that support takes the form of a numerical majority and the decision is usually made by a vote.
While it might not sound like it on the surface, in many cases, this approach to decision-making is quite appropriate. If the group making the decision is particularly large or if the minority can be expected to at least "go along" with the decision of the majority, 5/5 decision-making will probably be the best way to proceed.
Furthermore, if the group faces any conflict surrounding basic value issues or the allocation of limited resources, the compromise and give and take activities that characterize 5/5 decision-making will be required. Unfortunately, 5/5 decision-making can mean people spend the bulk of their time building majority support, which reduces the amount of time available to spend on the adequacy of the decision-making process itself. Finally, traditional decision-making may get stalled during implementation. If the minority is not willing to support the decision of the majority, the resources needed for the effective implementation of the decision may not be present.
Each of the four approaches to decision-making we've discussed so far assumes that adequacy and commitment are irreconcilable and that a group cannot produce a decision that is at the same time a good one with a high level of group support. The consensus or 9/9 decision-maker, on the other hand, expresses a maximum concern for both adequacy and commitment. They believe that the best decisions can be reached if all the resources of the group can be used. Consequently, the consensus decision-maker strives for a high level of involvement from all the members of the group as a good place to make decisions. Differences in opinion are seen as a source of new ideas and not to be avoided. If everyone can be involved in the decision, the 9/9 decision-maker believes not only will the decision be the best one possible, but it will also have the greatest degree of support. Genuine consensus will produce the best possible decisions.
Consensus decision-making has a number of advantages over other methods.
The time needed to reach a decision by consensus will be greater than the time a self-sufficient decision-maker will take. However, over the long run, the consensus approach may actually save time. The 9/1 decision-maker has a tendency to make the same decisions over and over because decisions reached on a 9/1 basis have no group commitment behind them. A decision made by consensus will tend to stand up over time since, once a decision is made by consensus, its implementation is usually assured.
Even decisions reached by a majority vote may be difficult to implement. Traditional 5/5 decision-makers are involved in developing majority support. Each new decision involves a new struggle and a new vote, leaving little time for the group to learn ways to improve the process of decision-making itself. A group using a consensus approach to decision-making is one that is aware of its own process and can learn from experience.
Because consensus decision-making does take time, it is usually not an appropriate method for routine or relatively trivial decisions. Consensus should instead be reserved for major decisions that require both a high level of decision adequacy and a significant commitment of the group to the decision. When the decision is important and when everyone needs to be involved in both making and implementing the decision, the time and effort demanded by consensus decision making will be well spent.
Effective consensus building
In his article Decisions, Decisions, Decisions, author Jay Hall shares several strategies for building consensus:
Avoid arguing for your own position. Present your ideas as succinctly and logically as possible, but listen to the other team members' reactions and consider them carefully before pressing your point of view further.
Do not assume that someone must win and someone must lose when discussion reaches a stalemate. Instead, look for the next most acceptable alternative for all parties.
Do not change your mind just to avoid conflict and to reach agreement and harmony. Be suspicious when agreement seems to come too quickly and easily. Explore the reasons and be sure everyone accepts the solution for basically similar reasons. Change your mind when questions and discussion have produced objective and logically sound foundations.
Avoid conflict-reducing techniques such as majority votes, averages, coin-flips, rock-paper-scissors, and bargaining. When a dissenting member finally agrees, don't think that they must be rewarded by having their own way on some later point.
Expect differences of opinion. Seek them out and try to involve everyone in the decision process. Disagreements can help the group's decision because, with a wide range of information and opinions, there is a greater chance that the group will hit upon more adequate solutions.
When conducting a meeting for the purpose of reaching a decision, the procedures used to reach a final decision are critical. Employing the proper technique keeps the meeting focused, the participants engaged, and ensures implementation success.
Whether we're having a meeting to give feedback, convey information or make a decision, documenting what occurs during the meeting is essential. The way meetings are recorded can have an impact on the outcome of the meeting.
Everyone takes notes during meetings. We all do it differently. Where years ago the only thing you saw at meetings were legal pads and pens, today people come with laptops and tablets. We can write with pens, pencils, our fingers, or styluses.
Many participants want agendas, handouts, and minutes in electronic format. This allows participants to move information into the programs that are most productive for them. It saves the environment by using less paper. The connected generation, defined as individuals willing and open to digital content and communications, might also argue that they are more accustomed to using a keyboard. It's faster than writing. Electronic meeting files can also be put into folders and shared with participants.
Meeting participants should be allowed to take notes any way that works for them. It's their notes. They will be held accountable for delivering whatever they agreed to. That's what I want to talk about—documenting what everyone agreed to during the meeting.
Years ago, I worked for a company where, every time something went wrong, our President wanted a meeting to discuss how we were going to fix the problem. Afterward, we had to create something called "a SMART plan" explaining the steps we were going to take. Sad to say, we developed a lot of SMART plans. I thought it was some sort of punishment.
It wasn't until I started studying for my human resources certification that I learned SMART plans have been around for many years and weren't some dreamt up form of torture from senior leadership. The project management term was first used in 1981 by George T. Doran. SMART is an acronym:
Specific represents exactly what you would like to accomplish. Think of it as the who, what, where, when, which, and why of the goal.
Measurable answers the question of how success is measured.
Actionable (also seen as Achievable, Attainable) outlines the steps it will take to complete the goal.
Responsible (some versions use Realistic or Relevant) identifies the people needed to reach this goal.
Time-bound (or Trackable) establishes the time frame to achieve the goal.
Over the years, I've found the SMART acronym easy to remember, so I mold it for creating meeting minutes. I can't think of a better way to outline what happens at a meeting:
What are we going to do? (Specific)
How will we measure our success? (Measurable)
What are the steps that will help us attain our goal? (Attainable)
Who will be responsible for each step? (Responsible)
When will the task be completed? (Timely)
About SMART plans
On a personal note, one thing that frustrates me to no end when someone presents a topic at a conference or meeting and in the last couple of minutes of their explanation, they say something to the effect of "… and I challenge each of you to leave this meeting and create your own personal action plan to…".
Frankly, they should tell us how to create an action plan. So to minimize my frustrations, I've learned that every time someone challenges me to develop an action plan, I try to work it into a SMART plan format. Works every time.
In my experience, I've found the biggest benefit of SMART plans is they allow me to steer conversations in the right direction. For each item, we have to address all of the steps: specific, measureable, actionable, responsible, and timely. It's often easy to get someone to say "We need to do this or that." Others may chime into the conversation and add, "Well, in order to accomplish the goal, we must do these ten things."
So, you get a lot of ideas. Then the conversation gets quiet.
SMART allows you to guide the conversation along. Here's an example: We're in a meeting and someone says, "I'm tired of the copiers not working right. Let's upgrade our copier machines." On the surface, this seems like a fine idea. Everyone agrees.
After the meeting, the facilities director comes to you and says, "I don't have a problem upgrading the copiers, but it's going to cost us thousands of dollars because we have a contract." Later, the technology director comes to you and says, "I don't have a problem upgrading the copiers, but we should consider wireless printing options. It will allow printing from anywhere in the building, but we need to do some rewiring (and there's a cost)."
You're thinking—why didn't this come up at the meeting?!
SMART keeps the discussion on track. Now when the copier gets brought up, someone can say to the facilities director, "It sounds like a good idea. What would be involved from your perspective?". They get the chance to answer.
The same goes for the technology director. You can ask them, "Are there any new technologies we need to consider?".
Now the whole group is informed and can make a good decision. It also saved a lot of time after the meeting with conversations that should have happened during the meeting.
SMART goals are particularly valuable in the areas of measurement, responsibility, and timeliness.
I used to work with someone whose entire goal during a meeting was not to be assigned anything. It was so obvious that his co-workers would joke about it—during the meeting!
Using a SMART format to keep track of the meeting gives you the ability to make sure every action step has a person responsible. It ensures that the person who will be held accountable for completing the step is committed to getting it done. It also helps the group understand the allocation of resources.
As you're putting together the SMART plan, you can see if one person is ending up with too many responsibilities and shift the workload. You can also see if someone who should have a role in the plan does.
Next, a great way to create commitment to the plan is by giving the people responsible for each actionable step the opportunity to choose their deadline. An individual can't say that some other person imposed an unrealistic deadline because they agreed to it. Participants also get to see how their action step impacts the other parts of the plan.
A participant knows up front their role and the impact of not meeting the goal. If you're leading or managing a group, this is the essence of holding people accountable for performance. Set the level of expectation. Have that discussion in the meeting.
Lastly, SMART formats provide participants with the ability to see and celebrate their success. When goals or action steps are created, everyone should understand what success looks like. This is the measurement component. Participants will use this information as motivation and validation that the plan was good.
If we use the copier example, upgrading the copiers will cost money and the inconvenience of rewiring the office. The measurement is that the copier will break 50 percent less and employees can print from anywhere in the building. Employees are willing to complete the action steps asked of them because the measurement (aka sign of success) is attractive. Who wouldn't like to cut the amount of time dealing with paper jams in half?
Using the SMART plan for meeting minutes also helps direct conversations toward key discussions like "We have a great idea here… now who's going to take ownership for getting it done?" and "Thanks Joe for leading this task, when can we expect it to be completed?"
The first rule of meetings is to understand why the meeting is being held and what role each person plays towards the meetings success. People will attend meetings when they understand the reason for them. They will participate and engage if they feel they are a part of the agenda.
During the meeting, groups can use problem-solving models such as the Situation-Target-Proposal (STP) and decision-making techniques like consensus building to create relevant and constructive discussions. The concept behind SMART plans can guide conversations and bring a consistent documentation process.
In the next chapter, we'll talk about the most common type of meeting: daily, weekly, and monthly status meetings. This meeting is probably criticized the most and often contains a lot of what we just discussed: problem solving and decision-making. How can we take the dreaded status meeting and turn it into something productive? Let's discuss in Chapter 2, Regularly Scheduled Status Updates.