Seven Best Practices for Problem-Solving Meetings

Oh Ye Gods and Monsters, not another <groan> meeting.

Admit it. You’ve said that. Or some version of it, only NSFW.

manager meeting productive leadership trainingIt’s OK. We’ve all been there. We may love our work, our employer, our manager, and our colleagues, but it’s a universal truth that we all pretty much hate being shut in a room with them for a costly hour or more to go over a PowerPoint that could have simply been emailed out to the same group of people. Or, even worse, to actually try to accomplish something important, only to end up hashing and re-hashing the same tired, threadbare old disagreements between Chad from Sales, Chelsea from Operations, and Juan from Information Systems.

In Leader Effectiveness Training, Dr. Thomas Gordon dedicates 28 jam-packed pages to “How to Make Your Management Team Meetings More Effective.” Unsurprisingly, in an environment already using the No-Lose Method of conflict resolution, this approach will build trust and consensus. It’s a surefire basis to make meetings more productive.

Leaders can help ensure the teams they assemble to solve tricky workplace problems function optimally (and maybe even have fun while they’re at it—it’s science!) by following these guidelines, amalgamated and abstracted from Dr. Gordon’s original 17 guidelines for problem-solving management teams.

  • Frequency and Duration: While new groups will have to meet more often, and frequency will be dictated by the number and complexity of the problems the group is working on, consistency is key. Meet at the same time on the same day, even if the group leader can’t be there. And never, ever meet for more than two hours at a time. Enforce that limit, because brains fry.
  • Get the Right People in the Room: The problems a group will be working on should dictate group membership (never more than 15 people; more voices than that become unworkable). Does each member have access to critical data that will be important to solving the problem or represent an organizational group that will be directly affected by the group’s decision? Then they’re in. Also, each member will need to a delegate an alternate with full participatory and decision-making authority should he or she not be able to make it to a meeting.
  • Agendas and Priorities: The group, not the leader, develops the agenda, either ahead of time or at the beginning of the meeting, with a means for adding items at the last minute if needed. The group prioritizes items at meeting kickoff.
  • Discussion Ground Rules: Surprise! In a functional autonomous group of adults entrusted with solving important workplace problems, they should also be trusted to come up with their own ground rules. The group leader’s main role is to stay out of the way of productive discussion.
  • Right Problem/Wrong Problem: The Polish proverb “Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys” is as good a guideline as any to help a problem-solving group decide what is an appropriate problem to tackle and what is not. If group members agree a problem affects them and is within their span of authority and scope of responsibility, it’s the right problem. If not, they can and should delegate up, down, or out.
  • Reaching Consensus: Like a jury, a problem-solving group must strive for unanimous consensus. This means a member with a very strong opinion needs to be willing to let it go when she’s greatly outnumbered; conversely, members without strong feelings should always be willing to go with the majority. And in some cases (highly technical software purchasing decisions, for example), the group should be willing to defer to members with the greatest responsibility for implementation or expertise in the area under consideration.
  • Follow-up: Agenda items should be marked resolved in one of several ways: Resolved; Delegated (inside or outside the group); Deferred to a future agenda; Removed by the submitter; or Redefined in other terms. Meeting notes should be sent to members as soon as possible after the meeting (record only decisions, task assignments, future agenda items, and follow-up items—not discussion details). Finally, the group itself should set up a mechanism to periodically evaluate its own effectiveness.

And there you have it. A seven-point prescription for more productivity and less pain in meetings. A kind of analgesic, or acupuncture (depending on your painkiller preference) for getting people together and focused on getting stuff done—which, after all, is the purpose for work team meetings in the first place: to collaborate on problems that can’t be solved alone.

Try it. (If you want to read the full 28 pages—well worth your time—get a copy of Leader Effectiveness Training.)

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