How to Stop Facilitating the World's Most Boring Meetings

A Deeper Look at Meeting Facilitation
A graphic showing an image of Vibhu Srinivasan and the title of his July 2022 webinar

We’ve all sat in a meeting or two waiting desperately for it to end, wondering why some meetings seem to be hosted simply for the sake of hosting them. In this article, we cover tools, tips, and techniques for creating a useful experience for every meeting attendee. Topics covered include:

  • How to make meetings relevant, outcome-driven, and joyful
  • The defining elements of a good meeting
  • Techniques to facilitate outcome-oriented hybrid meetings
  • Tips for designing the meeting experience and virtual boards
  • The dos and don’ts of hybrid meetings
  • Strategies for effective remote facilitation of scrum events
  • How to avoid getting the award for Worst Meeting Facilitator Ever

You can hopefully take the ideas from this article and mix and match them. Add your own techniques and best practices to make meetings fun and interesting. Many of the concepts in this article are not new and may seem simple enough, but if used correctly, they provide huge value to attendees and facilitators. 

If you are facilitating meetings on a daily basis, then the tips below are for you. I hope to leave you with useful techniques that you can use right away. 

Facilitate Effective Meetings

For context, in this era following the arrival of COVID-19, an average U.S. worker in a technology company spends up to 7 hours in back-to-back calls. There are days when many of us are left wondering when to actually do the real work we are supposed to be doing. There are multiple calls now at the same time, each featuring people who may need information and input from you. Most of us are forced to prioritize between picking the best meeting and giving an excuse to the host of the other meetings that we are unable to attend. Sometime after we pick a meeting to attend, the realization happens that this is the wrong choice of meeting, but it may be too late to leave so we stay there for optic reasons. 

The top two reasons bad meetings happen are:

  1. An unprepared and ineffective facilitator for the meeting
  2. Unclear purpose and outcomes for the meeting 

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, the average productive hours in the U.S. according to a study were anywhere from two to three hours in a day. That number has probably only gone down now that many of us work from home and there are many dimensions of demands for our time. I am guessing that number is around two hours with the overload of meetings. 

Why Do We Need Meetings?

Meetings or gatherings have always been how humans like to collaborate. This collaboration could be voluntary or mandatory. The conversations in meetings tend to take different forms, including:

  • Reaching a consensus
  • Disseminating information
  • Gathering ideas

For many things today, we can collaborate on asynchronous collaboration tools like Slack and MS Teams, and project management tools like Jira and many others, and avoid meetings altogether. 

So Let's Get Some Basic Definitions Out of the Way 

Meeting: A safe, timeboxed space; a container for collaboration, where humans gather around to learn, ideate, and come to decisions. 

Meeting Host(s)/Stakeholder(s): Someone who helps define a problem statement or purpose and wants to call participants. This could be one or more people. 

Meeting Participants: These are the people who are invited by the host to participate in the meetings. 

Meeting Observers: The concept of observers was introduced by Jean Tabaka, who wrote one of the best books on facilitation called, "Collaboration Explained." Observers are present but are not active participants. 

Meeting Facilitator: This is the person who facilitates the meeting - someone who has the interest of everyone in the meeting and does not give his or her own opinions, and is the process owner for the meeting. The facilitator enables the host to participate well.

Different Types of Meetings

As shown in the picture above, the range of meeting types include:

  • One-on-one, between two people 
  • Between a group of people who know each other (fewer than six)
  • Between a group of people where many don’t know each other (fewer than six)
  • Between a group of eight or more people (usually works best when some information has to be shared and not much collaboration is needed)

Some meetings are one-time only; then there is the type that takes a lot of time, the recurring meeting like the daily standup. The most painful kind of meeting is when you show up at the meeting and are wondering if this could have just been an email. 

As a facilitator, the degree of personalization and personal attention to the participants gets challenging as you have more and more people joining the meeting. So the number of people you plan to add to a meeting plays a super important role once you understand the purpose and outcomes of an event. 

Basic Elements of a Meeting

I am focusing on aspects of a meeting related to the facilitator, to help you get good at what you do. Let’s first talk about the basic structure of a meeting. This general framework was popularized by the Agile Coaching Institute and I have modified it to add some more elements that I recommend. 

A meeting is a gathering of people to achieve a common goal. A meeting is a container that has before, during, and after elements of facilitation that need careful planning. 

As a facilitator, you should take the time to design the overall experience of the participants in the meeting. We all remember great experiences vs. those that leave a bad taste in your mouth, so to speak. Think of a wedding or a party you have attended, a favorite movie or theater show that you watched that left you with a warm and fuzzy feeling. None of these events happened by accident or were improvised. So when it comes to meetings, why leave things to chance? Why not create a memorable experience for the attendees?

 

A Meeting To Remember

This happened at an insurance company in the Pacific Northwest. The CEO of the company wanted to meet teams that had missed a major deadline. In this organization, nearly 50 people were involved in the release of this new product which had to be released to a state. The company had applied for approval from that state. Three months before the product was going to go live, the leader of this team sent a report to the CEO office that notified them that this project had now gotten delayed by eight months.

The CEO, who nearly fell off their chair, wanted to host a meeting with all the 50 employees to demand a release as they had promised. When I facilitated that event for half a day, we did the event as a celebration. 

The purpose of the meeting: How might we enable a product release in time to avoid huge penalties from the state government?

There were balloons tied in the hallways, music was playing. Before the event started we sent a video message from the CEO, which was delivered to each employee's inbox addressing them by name. In this video, the CEO explained why everyone needed to be present to help figure out a way that the company could ship the product in time. 

Outcome: The teams worked together and found a way to remove many features and still be able to ship the required features in time. They told the CEO that they needed $2 million in funding, which was given to them on that day to add some automation tools and hardware. 

As the meeting ended there was a band playing music with an awesome lunch served. Everyone still talks about this event.

As a facilitator, the recommendation is to spend two to three times the length of the meeting preparing for the meeting. The more preparation you do as a facilitator before, the better the meeting generally goes.

 The Meeting Lifecycle

As a facilitator, you are responsible for managing the overall lifecycle of the meeting, which includes what happens before, during, and after the meeting. You are responsible for creating the overall experience. 

 

The Before:

Before the meeting, good facilitators work with the host (or the requestor) to help co-create a problem statement or purpose and clear outcomes. An expert facilitator I know develops the problem statement by asking "why?", why do we need this meeting? 

Step 1: Define the Problem Statement

Problem Statement: Why do we need to do this meeting? What is the purpose of this meeting? 

Capturing problem statements in a How Might We (HMW) format is recommended. 

For example: Let’s say we want to call a group of people to get initial design thoughts for building a new experience for basketball fans to interact with each other when the game is being played when they are seated in the stadium. We might write How Might We (HMW) as: 

“HMW create a new and differentiated experience for basketball fans of our team so that they can interact with each other during game day in real-time?”

Step 2: Define What Success Looks Like When the Meeting is Completed 

Pose the question to the host, “What does success look like at the end of this session?" This may lead to a conversation where you capture key outcomes for this meeting. 

For our meeting, success looks like this: 

  • We have many new ideas generated for a differentiated fan experience 
  • That these ideas have been prioritized by value and complexity 

Step 1 and step 2 are the most important things to get right with the stakeholders or hosts. These are the people who want the meeting in the first place. This may take many iterations to get right. But when done well, the actual meeting goes smoothly. 

Step 3: Preparing to Host (or Cancel the Meeting)

If step 1 and step 2 are unclear or if there is no agreement, do not waste the time of the participants. Do not call for a meeting; however, if they are clear and agreed upon, then the next questions are, “Who should be the participants?” and “who are the observers?" Once this list is ready, then it’s time to design the experience using Human Centric Techniques that lead with empathy like Design Thinking. This may include thinking about the various ways you plan to engage the participants in the meeting to allow for everyone to participate.

Think about sending a welcome note to the participants covering why they should come, including a video message instead of just an email. At times you may be thinking that all this prep is a lot of effort and that maybe you can just do the regular meeting. Yes, you may not need everything mentioned here for all the meetings you facilitate, but do consider some of these ideas for important meetings. 

If you plan to do break-out rooms during your meetings for participants, think about how many rooms you'll need and work with the host to figure out the best organization of these breakout rooms. 

The During:

As a facilitator, it's really important to be in the headspace to facilitate. Take a break before the session or make sure there are no other calls before the session starts. One of my mentors has ingrained in me the thought that, as facilitators, it's important to be present when others arrive. This applies to both real and virtual meetings. He would always encourage me to be at least 30 minutes early to the meeting to be ready. Some larger meetings would demand more time from you before the event starts just to make sure everything is in order and there are no last-minute surprises. With tech today, expect something to go wrong. This sounds trivial and silly but, believe me, giving yourself some space to get ready to facilitate is really important and will go a long way for the quality of your session. 

Author Jean Tabaka suggests a simple format for any meeting:

Opening, 

{Bulk of the meeting goes here}

Closing

Shown below is an example task board of opening and closing activities: 

 

A task board of opening and closing activities for meetings

Shown below is an example of ground rules or a working agreement and an example of an action-items list. You could design these using any kind of virtual whiteboard:

By doing ground rules or a working agreement and seeking the acceptance of the participants, then when someone violates one of the ground rules, you get the permission to point this out to them in a subtle manner and manage the meeting better. For example, people agreed to no devices and you can see that some people are checking their phones all the time and not paying attention at all. Since you have already asked for their acceptance of the working agreement, they know the rules and you can now point out they're breaking the agreement in a straightforward way, for example by giving a thumbs up or some other agreed-upon cue, and most people will take it constructively.

Scrum Alliance provides a Learning Journey course, Working Agreements that Work, for members who want to learn more about these team agreements while earning SEUs for completing the course.

Using the Parking Lot Successfully

A virtual whiteboard showing a working agreement/rules for a meeting

In many meetings, we may have a situation where someone starts a discussion and you are thinking, "How does this apply to what we are supposed to be doing in the meeting?"

 

By encouraging anyone in the meeting to show a yellow card (like in soccer), you can encourage the person who is talking to "park" the topic for the time being in the parking lot with a promise from the facilitator that you will surely clear the parking lot at the end of the meeting. This protects the focus of the meeting and keeps it moving along.

During closing, it's good practice to: 

  • Process the parking lot and convert any items that still need attention by adding them to the action items list
  • Get a name and date for each action item and who is responsible for following through on each one
  • Consider doing a quick retro on how the session went overall. Participants tend to give more feedback right after the meeting, as opposed to a survey or email sent to them later

So What Do I Do in the Meeting as a Facilitator?

When the main part of the meeting is going on, it’s important for the facilitator to remind themselves that they are only here to facilitate and that their personal opinions about this topic are less relevant. 

Most of the facilitation is taking the participants through the experience you had designed before the meeting started. Apart from that, a big part of the facilitation is to manage the behaviors of participants. 

We have seen so many behaviors that can negatively affect the energy of the meeting, including: 

  • A person who talks too much and always talks about themselves 
  • Someone who remains silent mostly or the entire time
  • Someone who comes in late habitually and interrupts the thread of conversation

The participants may do these behaviors due to the various insecurities they may have about themselves. Some of us behave differently in group situations than in individual situations. Whatever the cause may be, if these behaviors are left unchecked we may end up losing the interest of the participants. 

Designing the Experience 

In the journey from problem statement to outcomes in a meeting, the facilitator's main role is to design the experience of the attendee before, during, and after. 

As the facilitator designs the experience, generally it's a mix of divergent thinking and convergent thinking-related activities. Divergent thinking allows for ideation: Lots of open-ended thinking happens and everyone's ideas can be gathered on the board. The opposite of that is convergent thinking, where we may have to facilitate collaboration in a meeting where the participants would have to come to a conclusion and zoom into one of the many possible solutions. 

Divergent thinking is also called creative or horizontal thinking and uses our imagination to bring the best of the ideas to solve a specific problem. Convergent thinking uses logic to come up with solutions or to select one of the best ideas to work on.

When designing how to engage the participants, various techniques work well, enabling both divergent and convergent thinking.

Crazy 8’s is a simple ideation activity that allows each person to listen to the problem statement and allows people to ideate eight crazy ways to solve the problem. 

A flowchart representation of the work technique called Crazy 8s

 

Then using techniques like dot voting and a prioritization matrix, we can help the participants come to a conclusion and pick one of these ideas to work on further. 

Other Creative Ideas for Meetings

Lean Coffee: This technique allows for a group to structure conversations they like to focus on in a well-controlled fashion. Use this when you have to get through many topics in a short amount of time and you want to give everyone a chance - Lean Coffee

Amazon Narrative Format: At Amazon, for most of the meetings the narrative format is encouraged instead of slide presentations. A typical meeting starts with the host giving everyone 15 minutes to read this document that has been prepared with all the research and thought that has already gone into it. This brings everyone to the same level of thinking and then, if needed, introductions start. Read here for more information on the specifics - Startup Advice: How to Write a Narrative

Best Practices for Meetings

I've presented techniques that can make your meetings and facilitation collaborative, and that encourage everyone to participate. The more you prepare for the meeting as a facilitator, the better experience you will have for those you attend. The best thing you can ever do is help teams reach decisions without meetings or in less meeting time. Good luck being an awesome facilitator and reach out to me if there are any questions.

Other Suggested Reading References:

RL_415_stop-facilitating-worlds-boring-meetings
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