Ten Essential Rules for Productive Meetings

Vol. 11 No. 7

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Meetings are talked about too little and carried out too much. Most schools spend a great deal of time in meetings of one kind or another—e.g., Board committees, the School Head and the Management Team, the Division Heads together with Department Chairs or grade team leaders, the Student Response Team, and faculty meetings. Of course, it is valuable and often essential that people come together in a formal sense and talk about difference-makers in the lives of children. Group networks aggregate information and can examine it more critically. Group members often will determine better solutions and/or outcomes than isolated individuals—but only if the group meets in a way that allows these things to happen. Here, then, are ISM’s Ten Essential Rules for Productive Meetings.

1. Ask how your time has been wasted. At the first meeting of the year (and maybe also the last), ask the each member of the group this question. Establish where the tension points are whether in meeting process, content, outcome, or follow-up. Determine ways to mitigate it. Management guru Peter Drucker suggested one possibility being the idea that some must come (necessary given the agenda), all are invited (to foster inclusion and transparency), all will be informed (to preserve communication and community), with the caveat that nonattendance implies consent to what the group decides.

2. There must be two minutes of preparation for each minute of meeting. Meetings where this preparation has not occurred will be cancelled. Or if an individual is responsible for an agenda item, and has not done the requisite preparation, that agenda item is cancelled. Good preparation for meetings is essential to promote clarity (all the knowledge necessary for decision making is brought to the table), good order (maintaining purpose over frustration), meaningful outcomes (rather than meeting to determine what the next meeting should be about), and accountability (holding the convener responsible).

3. Require all meetings to follow an agenda protocol. This protocol should parallel the following structure:

  • Welcome: Carry out an affiliation activity to allow participants to truly become present for one another so that the meeting can proceed on the basis of continually re-established community. This part can take up to 10% of the meeting’s time.
  • Reflect: Provide time at the beginning of each meeting for members to reflect (maybe through some form of professional journal writing) on, for example, previous actions taken, the agenda itself, a question prompt provided. Reflective practice moves surface conversation to deeper dialogue.
  • Main Item: This item that will take up 60%–75% of the meeting’s time. Meetings are limited in their capacity. Agendas with multiple items either become administrative, rushed, or unfinished. Single item agendas promote strategic thinking, metacognition, and optimal outcomes.
  • Administrivia: These are business items that seem always to be present. They should take no more than 20% of the meeting’s time. Administrivia is always carried out after the Main Item.
  • Celebrate: Take up to 10% of the meeting to consider the great things that are happening in your school—and celebrate them. These will typically not be the headliners (although they could be) but the activities of the myriad unsung heroes (student, faculty, staff, and supporters) who represent the school’s mission in action every day.

Such a meeting might therefore be timed in this way:

Welcome 4:00–4:05 p.m.
Reflection 4:05–4:15 p.m.
Main Item 4:15–5:00 p.m.
Administrivia 5:00–5:10 p.m.
Celebration 5:10–5:15 p.m.

4. Lead process, not crisis. Crises should be unusual in a school. Schools are highly predictable environments with predictable calendars, events, and interactions. A particular crisis, unexpected and dramatic, should only happen once. If it happens twice, it is an error. If it happens three times, it is a failure of leadership. Good leaders don’t spend meetings talking about crises; good meetings anticipate, avoid, and solve crises before they occur.

5. Start and finish on time. Respect those who are on time. Train those who act on the assumption that you will wait. When bad behavior continues, have a difficult conversation with offenders.

6. Send out the agenda at least 24 hours before the meeting. Each member of the group should be able to consider all the items, reflect on whether he or she needs to do some research, bring materials, wonder what the right questions are in order to be productive. It’s just respectful.

7. Guarantee a 24-hour turnaround for minutes. Assign a note taker, ask an assistant to come and take notes, or take notes as the convener. Maintain the momentum of the meeting as it moves to action.

8. Focus minutes on action. Minimalist minutes include only action items—e.g., what is to be done, who is to do it, what are the anticipated outcomes, how is success measured, and what is the timeline. If discussion notes are included, do not make it a habit. Identify the reason. Ensure that participants can speak freely, say foolish things, and change their minds without it being memorialized.

9. Identify the decision process before the discussion. In the main item (or in the administrivia), with action of some kind as the outcome, identify clearly the decision process. As the convener, are you asking for input from which you will decide? Are you collaborating and making the decision consensually? Are you asking the group to make a recommendation for you to think about? Are you asking the group to decide and you will support their decision?

10. Meet in an appropriate setting. Think about the group, the objective, and the process you will follow, and then pick the setting to match. One locale is unlikely to be suitable for every meeting. One may be best in a collegial setting with sofas. Another may require a single table around which the group gathers. Another may require a classroom with its many aides to learning. Another may be best held in a retreat setting. Pick the setting to suit the agenda.


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