Where We’re Going: Crucial, but not Glamorous
You know the feeling. You walk out of the meeting, and you have a sinking feeling in your stomach, or perhaps your jaw is tight with frustration. “What just happened in there?” you think, “Did we accomplish anything at all?” If too many people in your partnership or collaboration leave meetings feeling this way very often, participation and commitment are likely to dwindle over time, jeopardizing the broad engagement and shared leadership that are hallmarks of an effective cross-sector change effort.
Fortunately, a remedy to either prevent or cure this disease exists. It’s called “good meeting practice,” and it is one of the practices MDC teaches and models in all our community and institutional engagements. Good meeting practice is simple, but not easy—crucial, but not glamorous—and it is often overlooked in the rush to create a compelling vision, develop exciting strategies, and secure financial resources.
Our time, especially in the form of limited opportunities to meet with our partners face-to-face, is way too valuable to waste. Adhering to the following guidelines will greatly improve the chances that a partnership will effectively set and achieve its goals.
- Write and share your desired results for the meeting
- Write an agenda that moves the group toward the desired results
- Decide who is facilitating/leading the meeting and who is responsible for each agenda item
- At the beginning of the meeting, set or review meeting guidelines
- Connect the work of the meeting to the work of past meetings
- Set time frames for each agenda item and stick to them as much as possible
- Define whether each agenda item is for the purpose of information sharing, decision making, or some combination of the two
- Be clear about decision processes – who is ultimately responsible for a decision, who is providing input, and what the protocol is in each situation
- Be clear about what kind of notes are needed, and make sure someone takes and distributes them
- At the end of the meeting, recap and clarify outcomes and next steps
- Talk about how your meeting went, and use the results to improve your next meeting
As a coach, facilitator, and consultant, I model these practices in my engagements, and I encourage and support groups to adopt them. I know change is happening when I hear questions from the group such as, “What is the desired result for this agenda item?” and “Could we have a review of our decisions and next steps before we leave?” The appearance of items such as these on group agendas (that I did not create) is another sign of progress.
Group guidelines are particularly important to developing a culture of productive meetings and healthy group process. I know they are starting to take hold when group members reference them in the course of a meeting. One of the guidelines we often recommend is, “Speak your own truth.” In the course of the Partnership for Postsecondary Success initiative, we often heard people initiate potentially difficult conversations by saying things like, “I know this might be hard to hear, but I am speaking my own truth.” The willingness to lift up difficult issues and constructively engage with differences is a sign of group health and a necessary skill for partnerships wrestling with challenging social issues. Good guidelines help create the trust necessary for engaging in difficult conversations.
Creativity and fun can be a part of the picture, too. For example, to help create continuity from meeting to meeting and to help orient new members, All In Brownsville (the Brownsville PPS partnership) has papered their meeting room walls with large versions of their meeting guidelines and key framing documents for their work. Other groups have a quick “check in” time at the beginning of the meeting for sharing personal news. We call this “New and Good,” and each person gets a chance to name (briefly) one new and/or good thing in his/her life.
Implementing basic practices for effective meetings is not glamorous or sexy, and your group may groan when asked once again to review meeting guidelines or evaluate the meeting. However, the payoff comes when people walk out of the meeting with a sense of accomplishment—when they are able to say, “That meeting was well worth my time.”
The compass points north: Meetings with clear desired results and processes that lead to those results will yield better outcomes as well as engaged and satisfied participants. Who knows, it might even be more fun!
This is the seventh installment in a series called “Where We’re Going: Places on the Road to the North Star,” which explores lessons from the past three years of the Partners for Postsecondary Success (PPS) initiative and looks ahead, toward the North Star goals the partner cities are aiming to achieve. PPS, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and led by MDC, is an effort by partnerships in Amarillo, TX; Brownsville, TX; Raleigh, NC; and affiliate site Charlotte, NC, to increase the number of low-income young adults getting postsecondary credentials that lead to living-wage jobs.