Better tools, or Better skills?

I have read many posts and discussions on how to run better meetings. I’ve even written some myself. I was reviewing another one recently, with a novel suggestion. The author advocated the use of MindMaps for organizing and running meetings. His title was ‘For Better Meetings, Use Better Tools’. I feel this title may may actually undercut what makes his meetings great.

To be sure, a good tool can vastly improve the flow of a meeting. Powerpoint can add weight to a good presentation. I’ve also seen it reflect the presenter’s style in a bad way. A tool enables a skilled user to produce great value… while it does little to help the unskilled user.

In the same way, a skill meeting facilitator can reap a great harvest from an improved tool. But an unskilled facilitator may not profit much by a better tool. By analyzing the author’s discussion, we can safely say that he is a seasoned and practiced meeting facilitator. Thus finding a tool which jives well with his personal style and with the culture of his company would pay great dividends!

That is why I think his title may be misleading. It is correct to indicated the relationship between good tools and good meetings. But above and beyond that relationship, good meetings require good facilitators. But here’s the catch, facilitating meetings is a skill. Moreover, it’s not a skill taught in class. Instead one can learn it either as an apprentice, or by the ‘school of hard-knocks’.

From my studies, and my own experience, there are a few common responsibilities of the meeting facilitator. As mentioned by the author, work begins well before a meeting. The facilitator needs to create an agenda to drive the meeting by. And whether by sharing a MindMap with the group, or a series of bullet points in an email, having this agenda is a must. The agenda provides a guiding framework for the meeting. By having it ready in advance, you allow your participants to prepare themselves. As a result, you will waste less time ‘figuring out’ what information you need.   This pre-meeting preparation is the first duty of the facilitator.

The second duty of the facilitator is to facilitate the meeting. I still haven’t master this. To run an effective meeting, you need to manage clock, while still allowing everyone to be heard. For a meeting to be effective, the participants need to be engaged. They also must buy-in to any decisions made during the meeting. The facilitator needs a good sense for when a topic has had enough discussion. They must keep the time spent on each topic more or less in line with its importance. I’ve found that a good stopping point is when two or three action items become apparent for a given topic. Usually, that means more information is needed. Or that we’ve made the necessary decision.

Finally, the last duty a facilitator is to report the decisions and discussion of a meeting. Here the author’s suggestion is actually quite helpful. Since he had already shared the agenda, and the agenda was used to record the meeting minutes and action items, he merely ensure the information on the MindMap is correct. For my part, I have found that a bullet point email usually works. In other cases, I have posted the presentation and a collection of my notes. I may try the mind map in the future.

A good meeting facilitator is a god-sent blessing to all who attend their meetings. And while it is not a commonly taught skill, one can learn it through diligent practice and some research. By far, the best thing to do is find someone who’s meeting style you admire, and learn from them. Failing that, spread your wings and try different styles, knowing some won’t work. Most importantly, seek feedback! Your attendees can tell you if they felt heard, and whether they felt the meeting was effective. This feedback will be invaluable for self-improvement. With practice, feedback, and new styles/tool to try, nearly anyone can become an effective meeting facilitator.


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