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podcast: Master your meetings with Rebecca Sutherns

blog photo: Master your meetings with Rebecca Sutherns

We’ve all been in meetings wondering... “why am I here?” In fact, I imagine that’s what you’re thinking during most meetings. Or, “when will this be over so I can get back to my real work!?”

Whether it’s going on for too long or someone else seems to be dominating the conversation, meetings can feel time-consuming and unproductive. In our conversation with Rebecca Sutherns, founder and principal of Sage Solutions, we discuss how you can have better, more meaningful meetings (and fewer of them!).

the criteria for an effective, collaborative meeting

What makes for an effective meeting? Knowing why you’re having it in the first place. If you’re hosting the meeting, ask yourself why. Is this meeting necessary? How does it connect to the broader context or project? What do we want to accomplish?

In our sector, we assume that collaboration is always a good idea. While it’s a good idea for certain things, that doesn’t make it always good.

Collaboration through meetings can be very effective if everyone understands why they are there and how it’s helpful to their goal individually and as a team. Having a regular meeting for the sake of having a regular meeting is a recipe for disengagement and frustration.

Rebecca also notes that collaboration is not having people together - it means having people meaningfully contribute.

A facilitated, well-run meeting increases the likelihood of having people around the table (as in, actually showing up) and ensuring your meetings will be productive. We need each other more and more, particularly in environments where resources are scarce, to be able to access those resources or to have the impact you want.

how to facilitate better meetings

The absolute first step to better meetings is to plan it properly - having an agenda doesn’t mean your meeting is well-planned. Rebecca recommends thinking of it as planning a party. You wouldn’t plan a party and forget to invite your guests. You need to give your participants a proper invitation with all the details they need to know: where, what time, what to wear, what to bring and why you’re inviting them.

For content, set an agenda for the topics you need to discuss. You can also ask those attending the meeting if they’d like to contribute topics. Too many topics - have fewer, shorter, and even smaller meetings. What are the agenda items that need everyone there? Are there some that can be allocated to smaller teams?

Many meetings default at 1 hour, in person. Most meetings can be done more efficiently by simply shortening the time. Try asking if you can do the meeting over a 15-minute call and sometimes this is plenty of time to cut right to the heart of what your meeting is all about. With collaborative technology out there such as shared online documents, you can have each member work as a collective from their desks. Instead of using a whole hour, now you have 45 minutes to get what you need to get done.

your meeting is an experience, make it a good one

Rebecca doesn’t want you to forget about the experiential part of your meeting. The way people feel when they leave a meeting is a tell-tale sign of both how the content and the experience of the meeting resonated with them. Think about what you’ll be doing together in this meeting - what topic will you be addressing and how will you address it?

Adding variety can instantly make a meeting go from good to great. If you normally have your meetings in a certain room, try using a different space. Rebecca recommends “moving meetings” where you and your group can meet on your way from the office to the nearest coffee shop, grab a coffee and head back over to the office. You can also choose to meet outside on a nice, sunny day. Changing the venue doesn’t cost you much and can be more interesting and effective - especially when you’re most likely sitting down at your desk all day.

Rebecca also finds that “stand-up” meetings are effective - this is a quick meeting where everyone debriefs what’s been done, what they’re working on for the week and what they might need help with. This keeps things to the point and changes the environment in which you’re working.

Another idea is to make things more visual by using sticky notes on the walls or whiteboards and having participants get up and write down ideas. To keep your meetings interesting, you need to consider not just the space in which you’re holding it but the activities that you’re doing together. Whatever you decide, be sure that it is inclusive so that everyone’s voice is heard.

how to decide before deciding

In a lot of meetings, there are times where everyone's just sitting there and you're listening to one or two people talk during the entire meeting. And then they make the decision instead of everyone collaborating and participating together.

Rebecca suggests that the best way to avoid this is and ensure that everyone has a chance to voice their ideas is to make it clear what the decision rights are. Think about who ultimately gets to make this decision and how. If the group in the room are advisors to a decision then that's different than if they are the decision-makers. Any participant wants to know what the pathway to the decision is and how their input has a way of influencing that decision.

The second part of this is understanding what makes a good idea and what doesn’t. Decide with your decision-maker what criteria or filters you can use to guide the ideas being shared and put them up on a board somewhere visible to everyone. Rebecca suggests also writing them on a flip chart or including them on a slideshow presentation.

When it’s time for decision making, you look back at that criteria and prioritize.

“this sounds like it’s a lot of work and time commitment”

We can start to tackle this in a way that doesn't actually feel like we have to figure everything out at once or be overwhelmed by all of this amazing advice. Rebecca suggests that it’s wise to go slowly at the beginning so that you can get more efficient and effective. You need to build this in to your team’s culture for it to work in the long-term.

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Also listen at:

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Resources from this Episode

The Good Partnership Guide


Wiser Decisions Faster (if you need encouragement)

Sage Solutions

Meeting First-Aid

Rebecca’s new book, Nimble: Off Script but Still On Track

Rebecca on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram

The Small Nonprofit is produced by Eloisa Jane Mariano