Guest post by David Rumsey
Meetings can come in all shapes and sizes. But there are ultimately two reasons for holding a meeting: to discuss topics and/or to make decisions. Although most meetings include both elements to some extent, understanding which element should be emphasized and when will go a long way toward achieving successful meetings.
Two types of meetings
Consider two types of meetings: efficiency meetings and expression meetings. An “efficiency meeting” refers to a meeting where the major intention is to reach as many decisions on as many issues as possible within a certain amount of time. For example, a nonprofit board may have to make a number of financial decisions regarding upcoming events, decide on policy matters that address recent incidents, or appoint new committees or personnel to study particular ideas. Many of these items are time-dependent, in other words, they need to be decided within a particular time frame in order to be useful, e.g. budget decisions, nomination decisions, or decisions for applying for funds, etc.
However, being able to reach decisions may require restricting the associated discussion. So, in the interest of efficiency, some of the opinions and perspectives are not going to be heard. For efficiency meetings, the focus is less about the content of the discussion, and more about the process to achieve an outcome.
Conversely, an “expression meeting” refers to the process of discussing various ideas without needing to reach an outcome. The overriding goal is to elicit as many ideas and opinions as possible around a topic, e.g. ideas for various events, nominees, approaches. A simpler term for this might be “brainstorming,” but it can be more than that.
An expression meeting can focus on a single question but look to obtain as many opinions as possible and examine the issue from as many angles as possible before coming to a decision, if at all. Discussions around a group’s mission statement or strategic goals are ideal topics for expression meetings.
Expression meetings can be just as long as any other meeting, and even longer, e.g. at organizational retreats. For expression meetings, the focus is more about the content of the discussion and less about the process for achieving an outcome.
Which approach works best?
A lot of the problems with meetings arise because organizers may be taking an “efficiency” approach to one topic, while a “expressive” approach to another topic—all within the same meeting. They forget that it can take a while for people to “get into the groove” of willingly sharing their insights, or learn to “hold their tongue” for the sake of efficiency.
Open-ended discussions may go well at the end of a meeting—unless they require a lot of energy, in which case they may be best at the beginning. Quick decisions may seem to be best suited to start a meeting, but may actually be made most efficiently at the end of the meeting, when everyone wants to go home. Trying to combine both elements in the same meeting requires serious skills and can easily go astray.
A wise meeting leader will carefully consider the energy of the group and the priorities of the organization, and arrange a meeting that is best suited for the issues to be addressed. This can even include selecting a venue with minimal distractions for efficient decision-making, or with maximum comfort to elicit opinions.
Most important is that the organizer explicitly announces the approach for the meeting or part thereof, so that attendees can set their expectations accordingly—and no one is left wondering what the intention behind of the meeting actually is.
David Rumsey is a meeting coach, writer, translator, and Buddhist teacher. He is devoted to fostering the art of civics and civil discourse in meetings for all types of traditional and non-traditional groups. See his post, Boardroom and church – how much difference? You can learn more about David at his website, boardroombuddha.net. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Mindful Meetings: Transforming chaotic conversations into purposeful productivity.