Let’s Meet! (Good Books: Meeting Wise)

Let’s meet.

Few sentences carry so much uncertainty in the workplace. There are many unknowns in this invitation. Questions spring to mind. Why? For how long? When? And frequently, there are deep, unasked questions, like Will it be worth my time? Magazines like Forbes and Harvard Business Review frequently feature articles on improving meetings, maximizing meetings, shortening meetings, or avoiding meetings altogether. These topics are nearly guaranteed to drive readers to the site.

Meetings are not all bad, but we all have been in bad meetings. So our experience is tainted, and we are understandably wary. Even folks who understand that a lot can get accomplished at a meeting have to offer incentives and promises to get people to show up at all.

An unnamed executive blogged, “I believe that our abundance of meetings at our company is the Cultural Tax we pay for the inclusive, learning environment that we want to foster…and I’m ok with that. If the alternative to more meetings is more autocratic decision-making, less input from all levels throughout the organization, and fewer opportunities to ensure alignment and communication by personal interaction, then give me more meetings any time!” [Perlow, Leslie A., Constance Harvard Noonan Hadley, and Eunice Eun. “Stop the Meeting Madness.” Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Publishing, 26 June 2017. Web. 08 July 2017.]

Even this comment in support of meetings still manages to refer to them as a “Cultural Tax.” This is not a term of affection for an event that is eagerly anticipated.

I am a fan of a good meeting. However, bookmarked in my browser is another Harvard Business Review article with a flowchart of questions to ask before deciding whether a meeting is necessary.

 

Several years ago, I read Atul Gwande’s Checklist Manifesto and saw the implications it held for making things work better in almost every setting. At the same time, I learned of the book Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators, by Kathryn Parker Boudette and Elizabeth A. City. This second book built on some of Gwande’s concepts, and it is a comprehensive guide to having productive meetings. It has the added bonus of being a book about meetings that is NOT a book about business. As the title indicates, it is focused on meetings in education.

I mentioned the book to Krista, and she and I read it together, and started making some repairs to how we ran meetings. I updated my meeting agenda format for team leaders and ILT to match their suggestions. Krista saw the book as guidance on how to get better in her leadership role.  She chafed against the rigidity of the structure, until she saw the effect it had on her meetings. Now she has embraced the changes enthusiastically, especially some of the personal disciplines I describe below. And I am relatively certain that it was her preparation that guaranteed full attendance and participation at meetings where she was in charge.

The changes were positive and directly attributable to our work with the book. So this most recent school year, I decided to roll this out for the team leaders.

And before I go any further, I feel the need for full disclosure: this didn’t go great. In fact, by some measures it could be considered disastrous. So, I invite you to learn from our mistakes. Certainly there are always a number of factors involved, but this year three of our five team leaders abdicated their positions during the school year, all three opting to forego their stipends rather than remain in a leadership position. Two left the school at the end of the year, with one stepping out of teaching altogether. According to some, the quantity of meetings was one of the culprits, though this had not actually changed from previous years.

So this article is an explanation of what went well, and an explication of what didn’t.

Meetings are a necessary and important part of working with others. Making important decisions about key aspects of your work simply cannot be done in isolation, or through email or – worse yet – another app like GroupMe or Slack. Being face to face with other experts who can offer examples and arguments for or against proposals, or who can help you interpret the data you have gathered is a priceless commodity. One to be used wisely.

So while face to face meetings with experts in your cohort are priceless, meetings themselves actually have a price. And that is where the book Meeting Wise starts. A simple calculation of the time spent in meetings, when multiplied by the salaries of those involved, showed that our humble school invested nearly $100,000 in standing meetings alone in the 2015-16 SY.

 

Cost-effectiveness is one important measure of the importance of meetings, but not the most important. If team members leave meetings unsure of next steps, angry about a problem that was raised but not solved, or confused about why they were even present, then meetings have become a barrier to success and fulfillment, rather than a means to achieve them.

At Gamble, one of our regular meetings is a weekly team leader meeting. At these meetings we review key upcoming events, plan and review our semester team plans and data, coordinate the schedule for the school, manage whole-school conversations, write school policy proposals, and develop leadership skills.  These meetings are important because they contain our “official” building leadership – teachers who have stepped up into elected leadership positions and assumed the role of leaders in their community. These teachers receive up to $6,000 for serving in these leadership positions, depending on their own professional status in the district. Typically, these leaders are responsible for regular meetings in the school, usually for a team of teachers. It is obviously important that these leaders know how to lead meetings, because they are required to be at many of them, often in the position of facilitator.

With this in mind, I introduced Meeting Wise to my team leaders at the start of this school year and set up a plan to review the book together. My plan was that a short chapter reading each month, perhaps half an hour, with an activity (such as the chart above) which could be completed in 5 to 10 minutes, could likely have a positive school-wide effect. The plan was that we would practice together and all gain facility in directing and participating in meetings by implementing the solutions in the book, and a school-wide meeting renaissance would occur.

I built this plan around the structure of the book. These chapters and their specific work are outlined below.

Chapter 1: Why Focus on Meetings? Explores the importance of meetings, and the significance of doing them well. This is where the chart with the costs of meetings is explored. There is also a chance for the reader to reflect on the best and worst meetings they have attended.

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the MeetingWise checklist. This is where the magic happens. Building from Atul Gwande’s Checklist Manifesto,  Boudette and City share a checklist to review the agenda for the upcoming meeting to make sure that it is focused and effective – and that they need to happen. These 12 questions explore every aspect of the meeting, from determining whether it should happen to making sure people follow through with assigned tasks.

 

  1. Have we identified clear and important meeting objectives that contribute to the goal of improving learning?
  2. Have we established the connection between the work of this and other meetings in the series?
  3. Have we incorporated feedback from previous meetings?
  4. Have we chosen challenging activities that advance the meeting objectives and engage all participants?
  5. Have we assigned roles, including facilitator, timekeeper and note taker?
  6. Have we built in time to identify and commit to next steps?
  7. Have we built in time for assessment of what worked and what didn’t in the meeting?
  8. Have we gathered or developed materials (drafts, charts, etc.) that will help to focus and advance the meeting objectives?
  9. Have we determined what, if any, pre-work we will ask participants to do before the meeting?
  10. Have we put time allocations to each activity on the agenda?
  11. Have we ensured that we will address the primary objective early in the meeting?
  12. Is it realistic that we could get through our agenda in the time allocated?

 Boudette and City propose a meeting format that forces/reminds the facilitator to address most of the 12 questions, including allocating specific time, making sure meeting preparation occurs, and clarifying who is responsible for taking the next step with each topic. We devised our own template based on this, which is available for download here: Blank Gamble Montessori Meeting Template

We all understand that our days in a school are packed with obligations, tasks, and unexpected work interruptions. The more I planned my team leader meetings, the more productive we were. The closer we adhered to this template, the better the meetings ran. First and foremost, the meeting planner has to make sure that the pieces are taken care of in advance.

I frequently failed at putting together every piece, and I found I had to improve at the discipline of preparation. That is where chapters 4 and 5 focus: meeting preparation and wise facilitation.

I feel the need for full disclosure: this didn’t go great. In fact, by some measures it could be considered disastrous.

In retrospect, these two chapters were where we should have focused our work, rather than dividing the chapters up evenly over the allotted time. Team leader meetings would have been well spent if we had worked together to review the agendas for upcoming team meetings. By making sure that they were adhering to the process, I could have helped where they were struggling, while getting a glimpse into the real work of the team. Were they spending time discussing important school-wide and team matters, or were meetings devolving into something less, perhaps sessions complaining about issues but offering no solution? Or was the team earnestly exploring something that ultimately had little effect on instruction, climate, and relationships? Was the work really too much, or were teams or individuals actually refusing to complete important work demonstrating that they were growing students academically?

Reviewing the meeting template together as a leadership team would have helped reveal these problems in real time, and would have helped make me aware of the scope of the problem.  The wise facilitator does more than follow the template, however, and Meeting Wise chapters 4 and 5 provide help for dealing with a wide array of struggles faced by a meeting facilitator. What do you do when the conversation wanders, or with someone who is late, or when a new topic comes up? For each of these common issues that plague meetings everywhere, the authors offer a practical solution, focused on the principles of protecting everyone’s time and doing only the most important work.

If I had worked more closely with the leaders, cycling through chapters 4 and 5, perhaps I could have anticipated what went wrong. I might have been able to determine that some of my leaders were struggling in their role. How else could missed deadlines and massive communication failures be explained? We know that people will quit or sabotage in response to unwelcome or uncomfortable change. We were all undergoing change together. I know that I needed to grow in this area, and I wanted to help out my teams and committees. Certainly none of us consider ourselves accomplished leaders. I assumed everyone wanted to get better at areas where they were not strong. I was caught off guard by the passive resistance I saw.

It is my default position to blame myself for struggles in the school, and at our key meetings. It is reflexive to blame those who quit, or accuse them of sabotage. So at first I dismissed the entire precept of chapter 6. Here, the authors lay out the work of the meeting participant. Participants, it is really no surprise, are also responsible for making a meeting effective. They have four important tasks, some of which mirror the facilitator’s work, and some of which they are actually in a better position than the facilitator to make happen:

  1. Keep to the agenda by being on time and understanding the purpose of the meeting. Tips are provided for the participant to make sure the right purpose is being served, and to address the elephant in the room.
  2. Support full engagement by following the norms, addressing people and ideas by name, being fully present, and building on the ideas of others.
  3. Manage conflict. This is one area where the participants can be in a better position to promote positive conflict and squash unproductive conflict than even the facilitator. Take on the people who are simply going along or playing nice, and those whose participation is for show and is not true engagement.
  4. Maintain awareness of the role you play by weighing your words, and providing constructive feedback to everyone in the room.

It was within this 4th task – maintaining awareness of your role – that I saw helpful advice for me in the role as principal. The fact is, I hold positional authority in every meeting I attend in the school. I have for years struggled with how to use this authority to promote vigorous debate. My common default was to withhold comment until the end of the discussion, sometimes only offering it just prior to a vote. I see now that this had the effect of giving my voice a sort of veto power in key discussions. Instead, the authors suggest that I tend toward inquiry rather than advocacy in the discussion.

Only later, after reading Conversational Capacity by Craig Weber and getting additional concrete suggestions for improving my skills, did I fully appreciate the wisdom in Meeting Wise chapter 6.

Okay, so here is where I went wrong in my planning for how to use this book with my team leaders. I scheduled the final chapter as a standalone chapter to be covered late in the year at team leader meetings. This was poor planning, as chapter 7 is a guide for how to use the book to improve your teams’ practice in leadership. It was also poor planning, ultimately, because of the unforeseeable circumstance of the leaders in the building stepping down from their roles. Had chapter 7 been my guide, rather than my last chapter, I would have known to structure my meetings as a review of the agendas, and to reinforce the practice of my leaders. I knew that these teachers had not chosen to lead because of the status, or even because of the stipend. I believed they wanted to get better at leadership, but I squandered an opportunity to help them do that.

Would this have prevented the struggles we faced? I don’t know. There appear to be as many interpretations of what it means to be a leader as there are people trying to become leaders. Would it have brought me into greater engagement with my leaders and their work as teams? Yes.

And I believe that strong relationships make everything better, and make learning possible.

Meeting Wise offers sample meeting norms, a sample meeting template (mentioned earlier) and other handy resources to make your meeting run more smoothly and to stay more effectively focused on the important work of education.

What questions do you have about meeting participation and facilitation?

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