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Meeting Fix # 3: A Rudderless Ship Leads to Wasted Time in Meetings

In part one of the Top 10 Fixes for Miserable Meetings series, we ran the numbers to calculate the cost of wasted time in meetings. In one study, Doodle concluded that $399 billion is lost annually in bad meetings that waste time, drain morale, and impair productivity.

Graphic Showing Checking TimeTo significantly reduce the amount of time wasted in meetings, it’s imperative to do two things: improve the quality of time spent in meetings and reduce the amount of time overall that’s spent in meetings. We’ll tackle the first imperative in this post. Be sure to read the next post in this series for the second way to reduce time-wasting meetings. 

What’s Missing in These Meetings? 

To illustrate the point, consider these five common scenarios. In each example, something’s missing. All these problems are preventable with one simple fix. See if you can figure out what would universally resolve all five issues described.

Scenario 1: Let’s get started!

The meeting is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Where is everyone? By 10:05 a few more have arrived, apologizing for the lateness as they transitioned out of a previous meeting that ended a few minutes late. A few side conversations fill the time as others drift into the meeting. A few more minutes pass as new entrants adjust their cameras and microphones for participating virtually. Those who arrive on time watch the minutes slip away, victims of others’ lateness and everyone’s allowances for it. 

In the average meeting, 8.7 minutes are wasted with getting started and another 6.6 minutes are lost to distractions of team members. (LoopUp)

Scenario 2: This has nothing do with me.

Meetings often include project status updates. Some meetings are focused exclusively on status reports. Others include this line item in the agenda. Still others don’t plan for status updates but stray into this topic. The problem is that not everyone is involved in or affected by these status updates. That makes this content irrelevant, uninteresting, and a waste of time. 

35% of people say that status update meetings are a “complete waste of time” (Clarizen).

Scenario 3: I’ve got better things to do. 

You’re in the meeting, struggling to focus because you have urgent matters to deal with, deadlines approaching, and deliverables that require your input. The meeting topics are not as important or as urgent as the work that’s on your mind. New ideas and input don’t seem welcome. It appears that there are a lot of discussion items with none moving toward resolution or action items. And here we go again… admiring the same old problems without doing anything about them. 

62% of people say wasteful meetings get in the way of doing important work (Workfront, US Edition). 

Scenario 4: It’s just a hot mess. 

No agenda was sent in advance. No one really knows what to expect, and no one is prepared to participate in discussions. Already, people have stepped out three times to retrieve requested information. There doesn’t seem to be a clear outcome, just some random topics for discussion plus some impromptu requests. A few folks are multitasking and have clearly checked out mentally. There is a lot of repetition because people aren’t keeping up with the tangents and meandering dialogue.  

100% of respondents described poorly organized meetings as a waste of time (Circle Research/Barco).

Scenario 5: Just send me an email! 

Another day, another meeting that could’ve been an email. It’s one-way communication, and most of it isn’t complex or worthy of discussion. Yeah, great, so they added Doritos to the vending machine. So glad you took time to alert us all to that important information…  You start to wonder why this meeting ever happens and begin to think it’s about a certain someone’s ego. Or is it about making sure you’re starting work on time? There’s got to be an underlying reason because being here makes no sense…

Two thirds of all meetings are unnecessary or a waste time (Doodle, analysis of 19 million meetings).

The common problem in all five scenarios is that no one is minding the meeting. These miserable meetings are like a rudderless ship with no clear direction, drifting aimlessly without ever reaching a desired destination. To get both a rudder and compass, meetings like these need a trained facilitator.

A trained meeting facilitator would:

  • Start and end meetings on time. And people would show up on time, too, if starting meetings on time was the standard practice!
  • Create agendas and select topics that are applicable to all in attendance. 
  • Determine desired outcomes ahead of time and move from discussion to action planning.
  • Move extraneous topics to a parking lot, reel in dialogue that meanders or strays from the desired outcomes, and keep the group on track. 
  • Organize the meeting ahead of time so participants are adequately prepared.
  • Engage all participants in discussion, seeking input and diverse perspectives.  
  • Ask thought-provoking questions to zero in on key considerations and accelerate discussion. 
  • Push for solutions rather than allowing endless and pointless admiring of problems. 
  • Clarify why each person is invited to the meeting and what they can contribute. 
  • Determine which meetings and topics merit time and which ones do not.  

Without a trained facilitator, meetings are run by people who may not be organized, outcome-focused, or skilled in drawing others into the discussion. No wonder they’re so often a rudderless waste of time! 

Reduce Wasted Time in Meetings by Training Facilitators 

Anyone can be a facilitator. You may decide that everyone in your work group should be a facilitator so that you can rotate this role and share responsibilities for improving your meetings.

At a minimum, the people who routinely conduct meetings should consider getting basic training in facilitation skills. Alternately, there may be people in the administrative staff who could support groups by becoming skilled in meeting facilitation. 

To be clear, let’s define facilitation. It’s not the same as training, presenting, or emceeing. According to the ATD, facilitation is “the act of engaging participants in creating, discovering, and applying insights. In contrast to presentation, which is typically characterized by a ‘sage on the stage’ delivering content to an audience, facilitation usually involves a ‘guide on the side’ who asks questions, moderates discussions, introduces activities, and helps participants learn.” 

The people you select and train as facilitators will need to be skillful in:

  1. Asking purposeful, open-ended, thought-provoking questions. 
  2. Listening actively and empathetically to understand both content and feeling. 
  3. Synthesizing data and inputs to identify common ground and points where there is disagreement and/or more to be discussed.
  4. Root-cause analysis of problems to help groups get to and focus on the right things.
  5. Conflict mediation that helps everyone feel heard and understood. The facilitator must be able to appreciate the value of productive conflict and be willing to mine for it when it does not naturally surface (to avoid groupthink).
  6. Remaining objective so as not to over-steer in discussions. The facilitator should focus on the desired outcome for the meeting but should not “take sides” to get there. 
  7. Creating an environment that draws all voices in, encourages diversity of thought and contributions, and ennobles each member of the group. 

Select people who naturally display some of these abilities. Teaching people to listen and remain objective is much more difficult than starting with those who already listen well and can separate themselves from their opinions. 

Training for facilitators is available from numerous providers. You could outsource the training to get a comprehensive facilitation skills course. Or you could focus on each discrete skill to fill in gaps for the people you select. Building Critical thinking skills is a good place to start as it will address all seven skills and more.   

Even without formal training, your meetings will improve if you merely assign the role of facilitator to someone and set expectations for them to “mind the meeting” so it’s not like a rudderless ship.

For high-stakes or long-form meetings, you may wish to engage a highly-skilled, professional facilitator. If you do, be sure that your internal facilitators are observing techniques and learning how they can improve their own facilitation skills, too. 

How Professional Facilitation Support Improves Key Meetings   

When an internal team member is acting as facilitator, they aren’t able to fully participate in the meeting as a team member. That’s because good facilitation requires them to focus on group needs and to remain impartial. They won’t be able to contribute what they otherwise would. 

When it comes to team building, strategic planning, and high-stakes decision-making meetings, it’s often best to bring in a professional facilitator. The advantages include: 

Facilitators make it easier for everyone to participate

No one from your team will need to facilitate, and each member can then participate side-by-side. 

What’s more, skilled facilitators draw participants into the discussion. They recognize when people are deliberating and forming their thoughts, preparing to contribute. They understand how to coax participation without embarrassing people, putting them on the spot, or forcing them to share input they haven’t fully committed to yet. 

Skilled facilitators will also prevent any one participant from dominating the meeting. They use subtle cues and redirects when someone habitually speaks first or drowns out others. Without shutting down participation, a good facilitator will make everyone feel good about the balance. 

Facilitators can ask questions neutrally and without triggering defensiveness

When a member of the group asks a question, others assume there’s a question behind the question. They’ll be guarded when answering, and they’ll try to figure out what the motivation for the question is. 

An outside facilitator has the advantage of ignorance. The facilitator’s questions stand alone because the facilitator is separate from the group and no assumptions will be made about intent. 

Skilled facilitators are well-disciplined in maintaining neutrality and managing their tone and inflection so as not to trigger defensiveness or pushback. 

Facilitators have no personal agenda

Unlike members of the group, an outside facilitator has no “horse in the race.” The facilitator doesn’t take side or advocate for a particular position. With no personal preferences or agenda, the facilitator is better able to recognize opportunities for finding common ground and can gently (and privately) point out when others’ personal agendas are interfering with desired outcomes for the group.  

Facilitators are able to be objective and diplomatic

Sometimes groups need someone who doesn’t know much about the history, interpersonal relationships, typical exchanges, or personality styles of the group. Objectivity that comes from being new to the group allows a facilitator to proceed professionally without anticipating and catering to certain whims or norms of the group. 

Objectivity also allows facilitation for self-discovery and reflecting discrepancies back to the group. A facilitator’s simple observations about assumptions, elephants in the room, group mood, or group norms can cut through unspoken barriers to progress. 

Because the professional facilitator is not part of the group, sensitive topics can be tactfully addressed without any one feeling targeted or becoming defensive. 

Facilitators have skills and tricks for engaging all members of the group in discussion  

Well-run meetings have activities that are interesting, fun, and engaging. Icebreakers, breakouts, reflection exercises, and kinesthetic activities are not inserted solely for the fun. Professional facilitators use these to move the group toward the meeting’s desired outcome, to release tension, to move through sticking points in the discussion, and to heighten awareness of important points. 

For example, a facilitator might notice early on that you have some members of the group who are more introverted and prefer time to fully formulate their thoughts before sharing them. To engage these team members more, the facilitator might create reflection-before-sharing exercises or have small-group breakouts before full-group discussion. 

Skilled facilitators find ways for everyone to participate and contribute without feeling uncomfortable, forced, or ambushed.   

Facilitators are less easily distracted and better equipped for achieving the meeting’s desired outcome

Members of the group have history together. They have personal agendas related to the decisions that the group makes. They have constituents who expect them to champion their causes. They also have day-to-day work obligations that don’t stop during the meeting. For all these reasons and more, it’s easy for participants to get distracted during the meeting.

Not so for the professional facilitator! During your meeting, a hired gun has one and only one thing to focus on: getting the desired outcomes from your meeting. 

Facilitators add novelty that changes up the typical meeting dynamics

For key meetings, the last thing you want is for everyone to come in and fall into conditioned responses like they do in every other meeting. You want higher-level participation and engagement, deeper-level discussion, full focus, and a memorable experience. 

To change things up, you need to “set the table” differently. Maybe it’s an off-site meeting destination. Maybe you add some bells and whistles like bringing someone from the C-suite in to kick off the meeting. 

One surefire way to infuse energy throughout the meeting and prevent same-old behaviors is to bring in a skilled facilitator who is new to or not often working with the group. The novelty of a newbie instantly puts everyone on alert. Now, no one knows exactly what to expect. There’s anticipation and awareness that things are going to be different. Everyone responds in kind, behaving differently.  

Facilitators artfully steer discussions without influencing them

Skilled facilitators know where you want the meeting to go. They know what your desired outcome for the meeting is. They will take you from the starting point (where the group is when the meeting starts) to your end point.

It’s important to note that the facilitator’s job is not to manipulate, force, sway or influence the group. It’s not the facilitator’s job to convince the group to choose a predetermined path. Facilitators generate discussion and guide input so that decisions can be made. 

That’s why a desired outcome for the meeting is not the same as any one person’s hope that a decision goes a certain way. The desired outcome for the meeting is to reach a group decision. Personally, your desired outcome might be for the group to decide on the option you prefer. It’s the meeting facilitator’s job to get the options out on the table and generate dialogue about them. It’s your job to advocate for the option you prefer. 

Facilitators create accountabilities and capture action items along the way

During the meeting, the facilitator will artfully move the group from start-to-finish. Generally, this is from ideation and input to evaluating ideas and making decisions to creating action plans for next steps. Along the way, the facilitator will make note of anything offered out of sequence rather than allowing premature progress that will end up wasting time. 

Skilled facilitators will also make note of who offers ideas and who will need to be involved in bringing those ideas to life. Before the meeting ends, the facilitator will guide the group through action planning that includes naming names: who will do what, by when, how, why, and with what accountabilities to others in the group. 

Facilitators stick to budgeted time frames better and enable action planning at the end

Without making it seem like the clock is ticking, skilled facilitators navigate the group through discussions in productive ways that progress toward decisions and action items. There may be an agenda, but the facilitator will not abruptly end a fruitful discussion at the appointed time. Instead, using purposeful questions, the facilitator will guide the group into identifying what merits additional time and what is becoming a distraction from the main objective. 

Skilled facilitators always wrap up with action planning so that meetings yield results. Time is budgeted for the group to make commitments and to check for clarity – is everyone leaving with a common understanding of what was decided and what needs to happen next? 

Concerned about the cost of a professional facilitator? When you bring in a professional facilitator, look at the expense as an investment. One really good meeting will spare you from having an endless series of miserable meetings that frustrate participants and waste their time. Bad meetings cost a lot more than the price of a professional facilitator.