Meeting dynamics

Abstract

A team's performance is dependant on multiple factors including the effectiveness of that team's meetings. This presentation is intended to help project managers conduct more efficient meetings, to stay in control during discussions, and to understand the effect of participants’ personality on the flow of the meeting and to account for it.

The effectiveness of the meeting may be greatly improved if the facilitator comes prepared and drives the meeting in the right direction with a clear understanding of the anticipated outcome. A meeting can be classified by its purpose and outcome and dissected in the following meeting's models: Brainstorming, Review, Status, Dispute Resolution or Agreement Models. Models are differentiated by homework required, preparation time, meeting duration time, optimal number of participants, and outcome results.

Empathetic management style is a key asset of a successful PM. Hippocrates described the four basic types of human temperaments: Choleric, Sanguine, Phlegmatic, and Melancholic. Although in reality human personalities appear to be much more complex, different temperaments have various effects on the meeting flow.

The decision-making process during a meeting is described by decision pendulum model. It visualizes the unconscious behavior of a meeting's participants and provides leverage for the facilitator to influence the decision outcome.

There are four key negotiation tactics that may be applied during meeting debates. The first is to separate the people from the problem. The second tactic is to avoid a positional negotiation style when both sides of the dispute are arguing over positions rather than interest. The pie-expansion and pie-slicing tactics are examples of integrative and distributive negotiation approaches.

Introduction

The modern business environment is built on the principals of collective work from employees. A team effort approach with recognition of individual contributions is unquestionably accepted as a far more efficient way to achieve goals than promoting individualism and competition among the peers. Consequently, success of the project will be defined by the most productive utilization of resources and time by project managers. A team's performance is dependant on multiple factors including the effectiveness of that team's meetings. The lead of the team often spends 40 to 50 percent of each week in meetings (Douglass and Douglass, 1992, pp. 10). In many organizations, meeting efficiency is well below desirable levels, at least in the opinions of team members. The list of common complaints is too long to present, but covers various issues ranging from meeting set up, agenda, and participation, to the meeting's follow up actions. This paper is intended to help project managers conduct more efficient meetings, to stay in control during discussions, and to understand the effect of participants’ personality on the flow of the meeting and to account for it.

Meeting Planning 101

Meetings are an inherent part of any multiparty environment. Negative experiences with meetings are major deterrents to team time management. Past experience with poor meetings leads to lowered expectations about future meetings. To break this cycle, project managers need not only to establish effective meeting practices at an early stage of the project, but also maintain such levels over the duration of the project. The key factor to succesful meeting activities is detailed planning, precise execution, and timely follow-ups (Exhibit 1).

Common tips for a successful meeting

Exhibit 1: Common tips for a successful meeting

The first thing that needs to be considered is an answer to the question: “can this issue be resolved only over the course of a meeting?” Simply answering that question will save many hours for you and your peers. An effective meeting is the one that achieves its purpose. Hence, a clear definition of the meeting's issue and formalized expectations about potential results in the form of an agenda is imperative to overall success.

The next step is to define participants for the meeting. In order to achieve meaningful results, a quorum of decision makers must be present at the time of the meeting. Preparing home work is an essential part of the meeting's planning. The facilitator has to be, at the very least, familiar with the issue to determine the right people to solve it. Sharing information and documents within participants before the meeting helps not only make the meeting more efficient, but also gives a chance to prime key participants about the decision expectance.

A well organized meeting starts on time, follows the agenda and ends as it was promised. An opening statement at the beginning with a short introduction of participants helps to determine the presence of a quorum. It is better to cancel a meeting in the beginning than to spend time but not reach an agreement due to missing decision makers. It is not recommended to prolong a meeting more than 15 minutes past the scheduled end. If the final decision could not be reached during this time extension, typically more investigation is required to solve a problem or different people must be involved in the meeting. One way or another, it would require an addition meeting.

Duration of the meeting has it own effect on outcome: long meeting is more prompted to disperse participants attention compare to the series of shorter meetings. As a rule of thumb, breaks should be scheduled every 60 – 90 minutes. Same reasoning may be applied to general recommended duration of the meeting.

Meeting notes documents are a way to solidify the meeting's results. In the short form, it will restate the initial problem, final decision and who is responsible for it's implementation. Commonly viewed only as a transcript of past events, this document is an equally important bridge to future events and should be released within 24 hours after the meeting.

Meeting Models

The effectiveness of the meeting may be greatly improved if the facilitator comes prepared and drives the meeting in the right direction with a clear understanding of the anticipated outcome. A meeting can be classified by its purpose and outcome (Exhibit 2). Models are differentiated by homework required, preparation time, meeting duration time, optimal number of participants, and outcome results.

Meeting models and applications

Exhibit 2: Meeting models and applications

The Brainstorming category of meeting is the most commonly used type of gathering. It implies free flow of discussion, ideas and information exchange. Naturally, it is the most democratic form of meeting and the best suited for the discussion of open-end questions. Discussion of preliminary design and innovation idea scraps are the best examples of a brainstorming type of meeting. The role of the facilitator in such meetings comes down to orchestrating the flow of the discussion between participants and insuring that everybody has a chance to voice their opinion and nobody monopolizes the meeting discussion. Meeting preparation in this case is usually very limited and an expected outcome most of the time is unknown. Brainstorming meetings have a great tendancy to run over time, so it's a wise idea to schedule them toward the end of the day or be sure that the meeting room is available for some time past the booked period.

A Review meeting has a very simple agenda: to review a subject matter and bring forth a verdict in that regard. It cannot be overstressed that the success of the review meeting lies in the preparation for it. The participants of the meeting are a matter of careful selection due to the required quorum of decision makers on the subject. The review material and comments feedback list has to be available for review within a sufficient time period prior to the meeting. It is the responsibility of the mediator to obtain the maximum number of review comments before the meeting and preemptively address them. To assure quality of the meeting, the review subject, e.g. document or software code, shall meet with a minimum approval level. If pre-meeting comments from reviews have a significant impact on the review subject, it is better to cancel a meeting. Unfortunately, there is no unified criteria to define the level of required changes that justify re-scheduling a review meeting. The best way for the mediator to make an educated decision in that regard is to solicit recommendations from the reviewers. In the course of the meeting, each comment needs to be answered with a resolution to reject, accept or postpone the proposed change. A common pitfall in the review meeting is to have an extended discussion about a particular comment. Such an issue should be addressed before the meeting. During the meeting, if the author and reviewers cannot reach a consensus shortly, the discussion should be postponed until the issue is resolved outside of the meeting. From the mediator point of view, success of the meeting may be measured by the amount of comments with postponed resolutions. There are various reasons why a resolution in a particular issue cannot be reached at the meeting: lack of information, needs for a third party opinion, antagonistic points of view, etc. But it is the responsibility of the moderator to bring the number of such issues to a minimum. The outcome of the review meeting consists of two parts, the resolution of the meeting and a follow-up items list that includes not only issues to be addressed but also timing and responsibility assignments.

Status meetings are an important part of every project. They provide a synchronizing drum beat for the whole team. To achieve the effect of a clear and sharp stroke of the drummer, the project manager should hold a status meeting at regular intervals and, if possible, in the same place and at the same time. Over the course of the project, people will develop an expectation for meetings and the responsibility to regularly update their co-workers about work progress. The status meeting is equally important for the PM and other team members.

It does not require a long preparation time, and neither should it be excessive in its duration. A Status meeting always has a crystal-clear agenda: update participants with the current state of the project. A common pitfall of a PM or the facilitator of the meeting is letting the meeting wander off track due to extensive discussion. PM should embraces productive discussions and ideas exchange during the meeting, but remembers that the main purpose of a status meeting is to provide an update of the progress. Any issues uncovered during a status meeting should be addressed at a separate time.

Dispute Resolution is another type of assembly where two or more parties come to the table in order to discuss contra-active problem(s). The role of facilitator in such types of meetings may be different depending on his or her legal power. But regardless of the role, arbitrary decision making or just third party representation, the facilitator's ultimate goal is to find a way to resolve a conflict that will be accepted by all involved parties. The best approach is to demonstrate a truly unbiased view of the problem along with genuine interest to resolve the conflict.

Agreement signing or a formal approval meeting often follows a successful dispute resolution meeting where all participants review final document(s) or joint statements. Success of the meeting as well as its duration depends on the quality of material prepared for the meeting. Extensive home work and review coordination are required in order to achieve final accord.

Teleconferencing is widely used for the meeting of a non-collocated team. It may adopt different styles depending on the skills of the PM, but this method fits most for status and agreement types of meetings, and it is less suitable for brainstorming and dispute resolutions. A common problem with teleconferences is an individual's engagement during the meeting or sharing time with other tasks like answering e-mails.

Additional methods to improve a meeting's effectiveness are i) assigning a dedicated person to take meeting notes to capture all ideas, proposals or statements during the meeting; ii) split the meeting into two sessions to apply a different meeting model for each session; iii) remove chairs from the meeting room to stimulate concise presentation or reports.

Empathetic Aspects of Meeting Dynamics

Empathetic management style is a key asset of a successful PM. Hippocrates described the four basic types of human temperaments (Keirsey and Bates, 1984, pp. 27, 29). Although in reality human personalities appear to be much more complex, different temperaments have various effects on the meeting flow.

A Choleric person could be you best supporter or your worst enemy. This personality type is very impulsive and may bring aggravated arguments in the case of disagreements. The best way to deal with choleric-type people is to foresee conflicting situations in the course of the meeting and encourage them to find a consensus before the meeting starts. Even if such an outcome is most unlikely, it makes impulsive people not only be aware of the problem but also puts their energy in more constructive directions. As a valuable bought-in member of the team, a choleric will enthusiastically promote the idea and furiously defended if needed.

A Sanguine usually is a team binding person, whose talent for small pet-talk is difficult to underestimate during the team building process. He or she is a great asset during a brainstorming session as well. But be careful during status meetings, shifting focus of the discussion to other topics is a common trend for a sanguine-type personality.

Phlegmatic members of the team are solid supporters but often lack initiative. Preemptive assignments in the form of a meeting report helps to keep them involved in the group discussion. Phlegmatic-type people are indispensable executioners, the back bone of any group, but require a leader who provides clear direction.

People with a melancholic type personality incline to dissect an idea to the smallest details and analyze it at that point. They fit the best for detailed analysis and review but may stall the meeting during general idea discussions or outlining of the strategy. Let them carry all the details after rather than during the meeting.

Decision Pendulum

The decision pendulum is a model that visualizes the decision-making process. It helps project managers to better understand meeting dynamics and how these affect the behavior of the members of the group and the meeting outcome. Based on practical observations, every participant of the meeting plays a certain role. In many cases, participants’ roles in the meeting are selected unconsciously and may be different from meeting to meeting, depending on the nature of the meeting and the agenda. Even in the same meeting, a participant may change roles with respect to different stages of the discussion. There are four distinct roles that may be identified in every meeting. These roles are: the leader, an initiator, an opposer, and an observer. The “leader” is the person who facilitates the meeting, keeping the discussion in the scope of the agenda and steering the overall dynamics of the meeting. The “leader” is an anchor to the decision-making pendulum that moves the observers or the decisionmaking majority between the initiator of an idea and an opposer of the idea (Exhibit 3).

Model of a meeting's decision pendulum

Exhibit 3: Model of a meeting's decision pendulum

The “initiator” is a member who proposes or presents an idea, and the “opposer” is a person who proposes to reject or change that idea. Each of them competes to sway the rest of the group, the “observers”, to their own side.

As the meeting is progressing, a participant may have other roles for different subjects. Although the role of the leader is usually very stable due to the responsibility to combine all meeting decisions into one formalized group consensus, in some cases all the observers may become opposers or initiators, and put the decision pendulum out of balance. (Such as the introduction of a very controversial idea that is not publicly accepted or opposes common practice and methods.) In this case, the role of the leader is to bring the pendulum into relative equilibrium by taking the side of the minority in the discussion. This assures that every idea has a chance to be properly evaluated, even if the conclusion is rejected in the end. Among a well-established group of people, the roles often are already determined, rather than evolving, as in a new group. Due to the absence of role determination, a newly formed group is thrown into a rather chaotic process of decision-making, which directly affects the productiveness of the meeting.

Negotiation Techniques for Meeting Enhancement

Effective negotiation skills are increasingly important for project managers due to the globalization of business and multi-site development processes. In a project with geographical or organizational diversity among the development groups, the meeting participants often tend to be more defensive about the issues directly related to their divisions. At the same time, they are much less tolerant to the shortcoming of other groups. The responsibility of the project manager is not only to bring balance in such a situation, but also to insure that the objectives of the project are not jeopardized.

Negotiation tactics and meeting applications

Exhibit 4: Negotiation tactics and meeting applications

There are four key tactics that may be applied during meeting debates (Exhibit 4). The first is to separate the people from the problem. The human aspect of negotiation can play a very negative role in the outcome of the meeting due to emotional involvement in a dispute. Misunderstandings can reinforce a biased opinion and lead to a negative reaction to any proposition. The goal of the facilitator is to convince the participants to see themselves as working together to attack the issue, not each other.

The second tactic is to avoid a positional negotiation style when both sides of the dispute are arguing over positions rather than interest. Positional approaches to problem resolution are inefficient because they concentrate on the differences between participants (which are less likely to be changed), and do not explore the interests that motivate them. The facilitator needs to be able to recognize each side's interest(s) and manipulates them to achieve positive results.

The pie-expansion and pie-slicing tactics (Thompson, 2001, pp. 33, 61) are examples of integrative and distributive negotiation approaches. In the first case, the goal is to invent a solution that offers additional value to each party. For example, participants compromise requirements in order to gain greater reusability of the deliverables. In general, to find a solution that creates a value and makes both parties winners is not a trivial task. It requires deep knowledge of the other party's needs and concerns. If the integrative approach is working well, then trust and cooperation are established between the parties. In the second case, the pie-slicing tactic is an analytical way to determine settlement points by calculating the bargaining range for each party. When the price for a proposed compromise reaches the price for an alternative solution, the parties will leave the negotiation table. Hence, the objective in this case is to estimate alternatives for your opponent and maximize the size of your pie.

Conclusion

Because of the intensifying demand for shorter development time and iterative improvements of the development process, the skills of a project manager must not be limited by planning, scheduling and estimation tasks. The situation demands optimization of time utilization and particularly effective meeting practices. It requires that these managers have knowledge of negotiation tactics, psychology, and inter-cultural interaction. The secret of a productive meeting lies in detailed planning, thorough preparation and successful execution. Postmortem activities, such as meeting minutes and having follow-up tasks, insure the efficiency of further meetings. The concept of the five meeting models allows the manager to tune the meeting style to best fit the agenda. It gives the meeting facilitator the ability to optimize effort and time and increase the overall efficiency of the meeting. The decisionmaking process during a meeting is described by decision pendulum model. It visualizes the unconscious behavior of a meeting's participants and provides leverage for the facilitator to influence the decision outcome.

Douglass M., Douglass D. (1992). Time Management for Teams. NY: American Management Association.

Hofstede G. (1996). Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind: Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance. New York NY: McGraw-Hill.

Keirsey D., Bates M. (1984). Please Understand Me: Character & Temperament Types. Del Mar,

Thompson, L. (2001). The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator New York, NY : Prentice Hall. CA: Prometheus Nemesis Book Company.

©2007, Daniel S. Servi and Mikhail T. Galeev
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceeding – Atlanta, Georgia

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