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Running effective meetings

Number: 
4
Stage: 
Starting out

You will soon find that you are having meetings and need to get a lot done in little time.

For most of us, even the mention of the word meeting leads to a sinking feeling. One notable sustainability project that I followed for a while in the UK in the early 1990s folded after four years of innovative and productive work. I asked one of the founder members why. “I think we just met each other to death,” she told me.

It doesn’t have to be like that.

Meetings need to balance having fun and feeling good about working together with getting things done. This is not always easy. Too often we assume it’s a choice between one and the other. In fact, if we feel good about our meetings we work together better and get more done. It is easy to see where many meetings go wrong . . . monotony is one of our biggest enemies!

All sitting round in a circle the entire time, week in week out . . . there are more creative ways to work as a group. Our meetings need to enable everyone present to participate (after all, why would you come if you can’t participate?), learn from each other and create a shared culture (otherwise we might as well be working on our own!), welcome and involve new people and get stuff done. They also need to be something that people look forward to.

There are a number of ways to make meetings far more productive and enjoyable.

‘Go-rounds'

Transition groups often use these in two ways. Firstly, at the beginning of a meeting we do a go-round of what has been happening in each person’s group since the last meeting. We give each person 5-10 minutes, and avoid interrupting them or getting into a discussion about what they have said. They are also asked to begin with ‘how I am feeling right now’, and then highlight what they would like on the agenda. In the group’s early meetings, when the people are still getting to know each other, we also put in a ‘throwaway question’ for the end of each person’s time. These can be things like ‘the best meal I ever had’, ‘the most beautiful place I have ever been’, or ‘the greatest piece of music I ever heard’. There are of course many variations on this, but they enable the group to get to know each other a bit better, and to relax more with each other.

Open agendas

Although it can be useful to circulate an agenda in advance, it can help to start a meeting with a blank sheet of flip-chart paper and, during the go-round, write up what people want on the agenda. Once this list is complete, everyone goes through the list and labels each item between one and three, one being ‘this must be discussed today’, two being ‘we’d like to talk about it today, but it can wait’, and three being ‘this could easily wait until next time’.

We assess how much time we have left in the meeting and allocate each item a strict time limit. It is a good idea to structure the meeting to ensure the last item is not contentious, to avoid arguments at closing time. It is important to keep the agenda visible to all, and to check with everyone that the item has been satisfactorily dealt with before it can be checked off the list.

Clear beginnings and endings

Make sure the meeting starts with something to mark its opening – perhaps a minute of silent reflection, or even just announcing that the meeting has begun. At the end, it is good to have something that formally closes the meeting, so there is a clear sense of closure, rather than just drifting off into the next thing.

Celebration!

Again, this is a key component of your meetings. One of the easiest and most satisfying ways of doing this is to eat together, perhaps at the end of your meeting.

Welcoming new people

Sometimes we encounter reports of people arriving at their first Transition event and not feeling welcomed. It is important to be mindful of welcoming and supporting newcomers, asking them about their interests and skills. Some constructive help can be given to newcomers in finding their role in the group.

Resources

  • Seeds for Change has some great guides to running effective meetings and other useful tools: see the Seeds for Change site
  • Kaner, S, Lind, L, Toldi, C, Fisk, S, Berger, D. (2007) Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. Jossey-Bass Business & Management
     

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