Not more advice on meetings: part 2

Factors and suggestions

In my previous article, Not more advice on meetings part 1, I identified how advice on meetings has become dislocated from reality.

For thirty years I have designed and facilitated sessions that have delivered great benefits to all those involved.  I am now asking: Why is it that so many meetings fail to achieve similar results?

I think there are two, closely related factors that contribute to the problems with most meetings:

  • The Boss
  • organisational culture.

The Boss

Most meetings are run by the manager.

This means they have triple, mutually exclusive, roles.  One role is to control the team, their direct reports; the second is to control the process of the meeting; and the third role is to contribute their personal ideas and to get these ideas heard.

Maintaining these three roles requires The Boss to become dominant.

Managers adopt a defensive behaviour when faced with so many people in one room at the same time.  Awkward issues are ignored.  The excuse is that they will take too long but the underlying problem is that The Boss fears losing control.

In an effort to keep the meeting on track (his track), the contributions of the individuals Jerwood room 1are suppressed, ignored and avoided.  Air time is dominated by one person or the most senior members.  No one else speaks.  Silence is taken as agreement.

The Boss will maintain that he (usually “he”) is democratic (everyone has an opportunity to contribute), and is consensual in his approach (silence means agreement.)  What this really means is that everyone has to agree with him.

During the meeting, individuals remain quiet and plot assassination attempts.  The meeting is a vitality vacuum, a coma inducing episode

Yet, in contrast, as soon as the attendees leave the meeting room, they burst into energetic conversation.  The ideas spill out – improvements, changes, how to make the plans better, what they would contribute if allowed to, who they know that might help….

What a waste.  Sow the seeds; abandon the crop.

Organisational culture

The second factor is related to the first factor and it is organisational culture.

Meetings develop a culture that reflects the most negative organisational aspects – tradition and hierarchy.


Those who may challenge are told to keep quiet and are usually accused of being negative.  “Don’t you understand,” the argument goes, “that the purpose of a meeting is agreement?  If everybody disagrees the whole time, we will never achieve anything.”

This attitude totally undermines the collaborative purpose of a meeting.

Another aspect of meetings that reflects negative organisational culture is the criticism and rejection that greets new ideas.  An idea, when first floated, is often imperfect – there has not been time to think it through.  The generator of the idea may have identified something that the others have not and this person would now appreciate help in refining their idea.

The further characteristic of most meetings is that the amount of air time you are allowed and the perceived credibility of your contributions is in direct proportion to your grade and how long you have worked there.

Show us your scars; parade your medals.  Status trumps originality, the traditional is regurgitated, progress is stifled, stale air is recirculated.

The meeting becomes a prevention of the emergence of new ideas.

A consequence of this approach is that contributions are not welcomed outside your specific area of expertise.  So, not only are individuals encouraged not to communicate with each other but so, too, are whole departments.

This emphasises a silo mentality, eliminating the sharing of information and the generation of ideas across boundaries.

In conclusion, the hierarchical and bureaucratic culture of the organisation, plus the readiness of The Boss to reflect that culture is perpetuated in an activity the purpose of which is engagement and collaboration.

Let’s get to the bit you have been waiting for.Merthyr 3


To help overcome these challenges, I suggest two things:

  • attitude
  • feedback.

My first suggestion, an attitude, is: people must understand that the responsibility for the success of a meeting rests with all.

This is neither a skill nor a technique, but a high level unifying objective, a fundamental approach.  Everybody must understand this concept, not only in individual meetings, but throughout the organisation.

Adopting this attitude leads to a number of powerful beliefs and actions.  For example:

  • a meeting is a collective effort
  • all contributions are welcome
  • participants will listen
  • meeting rules will be agreed and adhered to by all.

My second suggestion is feedback.  Time must be allocated to discuss the continuing purpose of the meeting and its process, plus the individual behaviour of the participants – what is helpful and successful, what prevents the meeting from being as effective as we would like?

Following on from these high level approaches, I have many practical hints that I can suggest that will help your meetings.  For example:

  • treat different agenda items in different ways
  • separate the generation of ideas from critical thinking
  • agreement is what you aim for at the end, not the beginning.

Instil an all embracing attitude and invest in feedback.  Then you can agree practical guidelines so that your meetings will become engaging, stimulating and results oriented events.

If you are determined to improve performance, or have a commitment to solve a problem but might be unsure how to start, let me know.

Not more advice on meetings? Part 1

Impractical and harmful advice

It has been my pleasure for thirty years to design and facilitate meetings in different sectors in different countries.  My experience is that these events are engaging, stimulating and effective.

Strategies, project definitions, project reviews, public consultations, company mergers, change – all have resulted in significant improvements to the organisations and their staff.

Now I am asking: Why is it that so many meetings fail to achieve similar results?

A lot of advice on meetings exists, and it is not my purpose merely to add to this advice.  I wish, in this first article of two, to point out where the advice is impractical.

In the second article, I will identify what I believe are the root causes.  Then I suggest how these issues can be more effectively managed to make your meetings similarly engaging, stimulating and results oriented.

Advice on meetings

Literature and training courses have been hawking this advice on meetings for decades:

  • circulate the agenda beforehand
  • start on time
  • finish on time
  • have a time limit for each agenda item
  • stop those who dominate
  • keep the meeting on course.

You will find training courses such as Meetings basics, Making meetings work and Chairing meetings.

Or, you could be tempted by the Dynamic meeting skills course.   Will this training produce dynamic meetings?  Or, is it promising to make your personal meeting skills dynamic?  Or, does the adjective “dynamic” refer to the meeting skills course itself?  (If you don’t like having to think, don’t read my articles.)


People attend these courses because they believe they are good and they will learn something – you don’t need the intelligence of a tadpole to realise neither of these two beliefs stands up to scrutiny.

Because, if these practical, effective, stimulating and dynamic training courses were any good, why haven’t meetings improved in the previous decades?  Why are we now not universally and fully engaged in vibrant and collaborative meetings?

First, let’s analyse some of the advice that I have just cited.

Typical meeting situations

Example one: circulate the agenda beforehand.  Great.  So what?  How much effort is put in to designing a really effective agenda?  When is it likely to be distributed?  And how many people read it, and think about it, before attending?

Example two: start on time.  You arrive at 9.50 for a 10.00 meeting and, as usual, no one is there.  No one else arrives, as usual, until 10.10.  How can you start when no one is there?  And why are they late?  Because the previous meeting overran?

And what if it’s the boss that regularly arrives late?  “Sorry, sorry.  Something important came up which I had to deal with.”  We all nod – well done Boss, more important matters, it’s tough being a Big Cheese.

Example three: time limit agenda items and be firm on closing time.  So, how do you stop an overrun when The Boss – the same Big Cheese – says “We must sort this out now.  We are not leaving until we agree.  Even if it takes all night.”

These guidelines may have the appearance of good suggestions but they just do not work in real meetings, with dominant individuals and live situations.  This advice leaves people frustrated and disengaged.  If it makes a difference, it seems to me that it makes matters worse.

Specific advice

Let me now quote for you an extract from a current book on management:

Take as an example a problem-solving committee meeting that includes the executive vice president at one end of the hierarchy and a new junior assistant at the other.  If the assistant comes up with the brightest and most useful idea, some way must be found to accept it without lowering the status of the vice president in the eyes of the group, thereby threatening the group’s stability.

I won’t bother to analyse his chilling misguidance.  But I will say that it reveals a deeply negative attitude and provides perilous advice.


The author shows as much insight into human behaviour as a shoelace.

The advice I mentioned earlier was impractical; this book is harmful.

So, what’s the answer?

Well, in my next article I analyse the root cause of what happens in meetings – specifically, two closely related factors:

  • The Boss
  • organisational culture.

And then I explore suggestions about how you can manage these factors to make your own meetings stimulating, engaging and results oriented.



Facilitating a session without using a pen

In my most recent article, Enhance your facilitation effectiveness, I put forward the view that the effectiveness of the facilitator can be increased if they do not write anything during a session – transferring, instead, all the generation and recording of contributions to the participants.

This practice means that the participants own the content and, especially, the output.  My experience is, if the participants contribute fully throughout the process, they are more likely to be committed to the actions they have proposed.

How do I manage without using a pen?


The first activity

Let’s start with design.

A facilitated session that has been well designed has specific objectives – each objective is a separate agenda item.

For example, if you are conducting a project review, the first objective is most likely to be to define what was successful in the project.  This objective can be achieved by asking a simple question: What went well.

To start off, the participants arrange themselves in small groups to consider this question.  Every person has a pen and cards – this means that every single person has the opportunity to contribute.

The purpose of this activity in small groups is not to gain agreement but to generate ideas.  This gets the participants familiar with a crucial concept: If I want my ideas heard, I must respect the right of the others to have their ideas heard.

They also experience two other positive concepts.

First, this is a dynamic activity which engages all.  And second you, the participants, not a facilitator, are responsible for its success.

Wyeth team working 1

Sharing the contributions

Having discussed the question, generated ideas and written their answers, the participants give me their cards.

We are all eager to see what others have written.  Indeed, excited.

This first plenary session is usually powerful.  On most occasions, the introduction of the first contributions is met with nervous laughter.  Then, there is recognition that what someone has written is what we have all been thinking but have not dared to say.

Participants then realise that we are talking about what actually happened – and that many others think the same.  Phew!

I post the cards on the boards, the participants telling me how to arrange them – cards with similar ideas are placed together to form clusters.


Subsequent contributions

At the same time, subsequent cards can be added but only by agreement with the whole group.  These new cards are written by one of the participants.

To write these new cards, I choose the first person to my right to write the first cards; then the next person becomes secretary to write further cards, and so on round the group.


Clustering and heading


Having put all the cards in clusters as instructed by the group, I check each cluster with the participants:

– does every card in this cluster belong here

– are there others that can be added from elsewhere on the boards

– what words summarise the contents?

They agree the wording for a heading for each cluster and the secretary writes the heading cards which I post on the board.


The significance of visualisation

As a participant, you write your own contributions to share with the group and then you see them on the boards.  Your cards are in your handwriting.  This is a powerful experience.

You see that your card has significance and you recognise that the cards from the other people have significance just like yours.  You see how each card complements the other contributions.

If you are a participant, you are fully engaged in this process through your contributions and then by directing the organisation of the cards on the boards.  You see how the discussion builds from many disparate ideas into a logical and coherent structure.

The boards are a physical focus of attention.  In a facilitated event, you experience far greater concentration levels.  The focus is on the content – not behaviour, not seniority, nor whose idea it is.

All contributions are equal and not dependent on the loudness of your voice nor the speed of your car.  Everyone is focused on the same thing at the same time and directly related to the issues that they wish to resolve.

So, that is the process – what are the benefits?


The benefits of this process

I will mention what I believe to be the two most significant benefits.

First, this process uncovers what is actually happening, not what we are supposed to think or are expected to say.  Everyone can plainly see what is going on.  When action is proposed, those actions are made on facts, not supposition nor wishful thinking.

Second, engagement in the process leads to ownership.  This, in turn, leads to commitment; actions proposed will be executed.

engage // collaborate // commit