Making Meetings Matter- A reflection on nonprofit office space

If there is one thing I have learned from launching my own company, managing my small team, and conducting business largely from my kitchen table it is the value of strategic meetings.  I am blown away at how much time I have wasted planning, attending, and debriefing meetings.  As an entreprenuer, I set out to create a life as free from unproductive meetings and “check-ins” as possible. Not only does this free up additional work time, but it has also reduced meeting-related drama by 100%.  Meaning I have no drama but I still have meetings.

Most of my nonprofit, school, and museum clients have undeniable work cultures that  emerge most visibly during meetings. I’ve noticed:

  1. Posturing: Many of these spaces have a posture towards consensus building that does not match their decision-making protocol. In other words, supervisors call the meetings, supervisors ask for input to build consensus, supervisors go ahead and execute on what they have already decided prior to the meeting. This frustrating habit is particularly evident in school cultures in which principals ask for input and immediately look down at their computer before responses are given. 
  2. Silencing: Employees come to the meeting on time and sit stiffly around a table. They do not speak, barely even greeting each other in the space.  When asked they make eye contact with others at their table desperately seeking an ally. This self-silencing is a result of an unsafe work culture in which the “team” is really a one-person or one group dominated space. 
  3. Unpreparedness. No agenda, no timing, no expectations, no norms. Of course, you don’t move the needle. 
  4. Cycling.  When a group has not established a protocol to make decisions you experience cycling. Group meets, shares great ideas, decides to meet again. Group meets, share some more great ideas, decides to meet again.  *People start to become “sick” by the 3rd round. 

A recent article  offered some insight into the 3 Questions that Oprah uses to start any meeting. The questions were simple and straightforward, but I would like to add pointless if you haven’t worked hard to establish a work culture of focused and strategic meetings. 

My thoughts:

  1. Use agendas. Timed agendas work best when a tight turnaround is needed for decision making. 
  2. Establish group norms. I am not sure why so many “leaders” skip this step, but it could save so much interoffice angst if people clearly articulated and used collaborative group norms. The norms should be reviewed with each new integration of a staff member. If you are having to constantly tweak your norms you turn-over is too high and is probably indicating that you have poor leadership. 
  3. Create multiple levels of process engagement. Not everyone is comfortable speaking up in a whole group setting. Include anonymous input using sticky notes (or technology), hand-raising, or turn and talk opportunities for those members who like to engage using different strategies. 
  4. Make the decisions. Make the decisions clearly, collaboratively, and as transparently as possible. Otherwise, you did not need to call a meeting. 

*Edited for typos

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