What was considered high-tech gadgetry just a few shorts years ago is now commonplace in minivans across America. For some, they are a no-brainer for anyone who transports young children from Point A to Point B with durations lasting longer than fifteen minutes. Imbedded in headrests or hanging from the ceiling are glowing images of Nemo or Shrek that provide children with entertainment—and mom or dad with some well-deserved peace and quiet. DVD players are an answer to the age-old problem that revolves around the question, “Are we there yet?”
For children, a long trip can become a bit easier by addressing three elements:
The Destination—Task. Knowing that the destination of the vacation or grandma’s house is worthy of the time investment can ease the stress.
The Road—Process. Having a map or GPS, that shows the destination with connecting routes to get there, gives a sense of purpose and progress.
The Atmosphere—Maintenance. As with the DVD player, parents are aware that actively addressing temperature, personal space, boredom, and conflict can make or break a trip.
Maybe because adults are more polite and less expressive of how they really feel, we tend to subject them to long, uneventful meetings, without a firm grasp on the destination nor the road to get there. Even contemporary churches—that provide dynamic and purposeful communication to their congregations on Sunday mornings—can leave their purpose and energy at the boardroom door at 7:00 pm on a Tuesday night.
Meetings take time, and time is a stewardship. We want to be good stewards of our own time, as well as the time of others. If some or all of your participants are volunteers, wise meeting management becomes even more imperative. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves and certainly meetings involve corporate efforts that often transcend the abilities of one single person. However, corporate opportunities also invite corporate pathologies. Groups will sometimes do things and allow norms that individuals would never tolerate on their own.
Few people would load six children under the age of twelve into a mini-van and drive around for hours without a clear destination. We would never purposely plot our course to take us through a gridlocked traffic jam. Lastly, we would never crank up the van heat on a summer day. Yet, using traveling as a metaphor for church life, we do just that with participants in our meetings.
The Three Elements
Monitoring task, process and maintenance are important elements of many areas of our ministry lives, including small or large meetings. All three must be equally valued. The best facilitators pull them into play and then continue to repeat and reinforce them throughout the meeting.
This element is a noun that defines the “where?” or the destination. In the question,
“Are we there yet?” it defines “there.” Simply having a meeting with discussion is not enough. You have to define what success is in where you are going. If task is defined and adhered to, it helps prevent dialog that just wanders.
Task may be:
- A decision to be made
- An approach to advance strengths and/or diminish weaknesses
- A product to be created
- Information to be dispelled
Notice that I put the noun before the verb. Many times our fault comes when we highlight the verb first. When we do this we unknowingly say, “As long as we meet and talk, we are doing what we should be doing.” It is like telling your kids, “We are going to drive and drive and drive for the sake of driving.” While dialog is vital, the noun before the verb approach forces us to identify a destination or a “thing” that we will take from the meeting.
Some insights into task:
Someone once said, “Leaders need a situation.” In other words, leaders don’t lead well by taking notes in the leadership classroom. It is when they are thrust into complexity that they grow in real time. I would take that further and say that leaders need significant situations to bring out the best in them. If you give leaders routine, you can expect routine results.
Author and medical doctor Richard Swenson has written extensively on the subject of margin. Margin is the space between your load and your limits. One concept behind his teaching is that it is sometimes necessary to limit some areas in our lives in order to be able to rate positively in others. In meetings, it may be necessary to limit peripheral tasks that are addressed in order to fully address significant ones.
When possible, set your leaders up to effectively address task by providing agendas, information and issues in advance, versus to on-the-spot in a meeting.
This element defines the “how.” If task is the “what” destination, process is the driver, the vehicle and the road to be taken to get to task. A typical problematic approach to meetings that I see is to surface an issue and then enter into discussion, hoping that in the midst of a tapestry of words, an answer will present itself. Again, many churches are strategic and proactive as they approach their public ministry but become reactive with issues in the boardroom. Process defines elements such as:
The Driver—The facilitator of the process. This individual maps out the routes and then actively monitors the direction and pace.
The Passengers—This starts with who is invited to the meeting and proceeds on to identify the role the whole group or various individuals will play.
The Road—The road involves incremental elements that you will look at that add up to the whole of task. It may be a combination of sub-issues, vital information that gives insights from outside of the boardroom, scenarios, case studies, etc. Up close it provides clear steps during the meeting. From an aerial view, it is like a map that shows how individual routes connect to lead to the destination.
The Vehicle—This is an outline of the form of group interactions. It takes the incremental elements of “the road” and identifies when and how they will be addressed.
They could be:
- The use of presentation style and by whom
- The introduction of insights and information and at what point
- The style of discussion questions
- The use of breakout groups
- The use of visuals or handouts
- Landing points for incremental summaries
- Landing points for overall meeting conclusions
- Post-meeting assignment
Don’t just define task and then veil the process for your group. Let them see the steps along the way. A clearly defined process encourages participants and increases productivity. It also lets people know you value their time and, as much as is possible, you will keep things on target and moving forward. Moreover, combined with effective meeting facilitation, it helps guard against common communication crushers such as:
- Domination—One or two individuals taking over the direction and dialog
- Rabbit Trails—Getting sidetracked by peripherals
- Analysis Paralysis—Wanting to explore every conceivable issue before acting
- Circling the Runway— Allowing conversation to drone on without a conclusion
Some insights into process
Facilitation is both a science and an art. Some skills can be learned but oftentimes the artistic application of skills is innate. Visionary leaders with legitimate authority to lead meetings are sometimes poor facilitators. Consider having a person with solid facilitation skills map out the meeting—and maybe even facilitate.
Do your research in order to bring in objective information and insights versus solely having leaders sit in a circle and listen to themselves.
Part of an effective process happens at the end of the meeting when clear action points with assignments, time frames, accountability, and next steps are given out.
I believe that this is by far the most overlooked element in meetings. Unless you are tuned into it, you will miss the positive or negative effects of the “who” question. Maintenance tunes into the needs, emotions, and potential contributions of who is at the meeting. In keeping with our driving analogy, it is the climate or atmosphere inside of the van.
A marketplace name for this would be “process consulting.” Some people see it as the unnecessary “snake oil” that looks at the perceptions and feelings of people. They may see it as the “software” that takes away from getting the “hardware” of task accomplished. I would say that maintenance is not only necessary but its embracement or neglect directly affects task.
Synergy is a buzzword that speaks about the power of corporate IQ. The premise is that none of us is as smart as all of us. When a group effectively pools its intelligence, the result is multiplication rather than addition. In other words, pooling the intelligence of 5 people, each of whom have an IQ of 100, does not have to equal 500. In synergy, participants spark one another’s creativity, challenge one another, think together, and spin off new ideas; their IQ’s together equal 2,500 through multiplication.
The 2,500 IQ score rarely comes by accident. Left unchecked, unhealthy group dynamics can compromise the corporate IQ and unity of the group. To achieve synergy, it must be cultivated by carefully defining, assessing, and monitoring
The key players of maintenance that can make or break synergy are:
There are basically four styles of expected participation:
Delegation—High people orientation and high task involvement of those people. The leader empowers others to create and carry out tasks as they make it happen.
Participation—High people orientation and high task involvement of those people. The leader monitors the process and yet allows people to be involved in task as they help it happen.
Selling—High people orientation but low task involvement of those people. The leader sells his task(s) and the people let it happen.
Telling—Low people orientation but high task involvement of those people. The leaders tells his task(s) and the people carry out their assigned duties in support of the task as they watch it happen.
No form is necessarily wrong in and of itself. Situational leadership tells us that we must adapt our style according to the urgency of the moment, the competence of those involved, the severity and risk of the situation, etc. However, I believe that, whenever possible, you should strive for delegation or participation to inspire, empower and draw out the best in people.
I worked with a member of the Gallup organization in designing an evangelistic assessment tool for our surrounding area. He said that surveys that are mailed out will automatically skew results since only certain types of people will return them. The same goes for the social temperature of a meeting. Only certain types of people will participate in a debate style of interaction. If you have loose canons in the group who dominate or punish others, you will further reduce your active participants. Part of the IQ that you leave behind is the voices of those who will not speak up in a competitive or adversarial climate. View your interactions as a house of cards versus a poker game. Everyone is encouraged to build through participation rather than win through competition.
Participants may distance themselves during a meeting according to how fast or slow it moves. We know that people can think faster than others can talk and will become bored if the pace of information and interaction is too slow. Facilitators need to keep a sense of progress going as well as discerning how much technical information is given out and what form it takes.
Conversely, participants will also distance themselves if they can’t process information fast enough and form it into logic. A key to avoiding this is to get technical information or long commentary out to participants in advance and not use meeting time for reading and processing facts and issues.
Three Useful Tools for Meetings
1. 30/60 Sound-off
At certain critical places in a meeting, you can do a 30/60 second sound-off. Go around the room and have each attendee take thirty seconds with a maximum of sixty seconds to “have the floor” and summarize their opinion on the issue. This allows everyone to talk and draws out people who would normally remain silent. If needed, someone could “pass.” The strength of this exercise is in strict enforcement of time limits. Choose someone to watch the clock, warn of timing running out and then even cut someone off after sixty seconds. Especially in a large group, once a person starts into a long speech others will disengage.
2. Four Walls and Poster Board
People struggle to keep mental track of the contributing issues. Part of the reason that we struggle to “land the plane” in meetings is that we surface key points that are forgotten with time and/or as other new points are added. Key points and insights have the best staying power and stand the best chance of being referred back to if you make them visual.
While I will sometimes use projected slides in meetings, I don’t like how information disappears from slide to slide. Flip charts have a similar issue with disappearing information. That is why I believe in tear-off sheets.
You could either have prefabricated headings for each poster board or generate them as ideas and categories are surfaced. Post them on the front wall and even continue around the room as needed. It provides a visual panorama of what has been stated.
An additional aspect of this is to have one or more summary sheets to draw many points into a few. It could be a single sheet where you will list all summary points. It could also be, for instance, four summary sheets where the headings are strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
3. Dot Poll
This exercise allows everyone to have a voice as well as visually representing the collective opinion of the group at a point in time. Provide all participants with enough sticky dots (like the ones used to label prices at a yard sale) to vote once on each issue posted on the wall. They will all walk up to a poster board and place a dot on the best description of their perceptions. When everyone sits back down, you will have a visual and objective representation of the opinion of the group. This is a static diagnostic tool that is best used to then solicit feedback. Some examples of laying it out are:
Strongly Disagree Moderate Strongly Agree
After the exercise you may end up with something like this:
Strongly Disagree Moderate Strongly Agree
** * *** * **************
The visual gives a view that, while some opinions are scattered, most participants strongly agree with the approach. The approach can be repeated in different formats below.
Approach and Timing
Multiple Issues at Once
Ineffective Neutral Effective
Ineffective Neutral Effective
Ineffective Neutral Effective