Friday, January 06, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: How to Give Good Meeting?

A long-suffering department chair writes:
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My question in brief: how do you run a good department meeting?

I have run other meetings with success. For example I was in charge of
the chairs group at the college for 2 years and people seemed happy
with how meetings were run and what we covered. But department meetings
are tough. It is tough to get them there and to get them focused on
business. It is hard to get them to stay for an hour. I try not to
have meetings to chat. We are a small group and our offices are close
together. We talk a lot. I know the business is not fun: assessment,
program planning, scheduling, but it needs to be done.

Before I was chair I went to a lot of pointless meetings, but I went. I
never saw them as optional. How do I let my colleagues know that they
must make meetings, that they need to begin on time, and we have work to
do while we are there without being heavy-handed or getting angry?

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Are you insinuating that assessment isn’t fun? I’m shocked!

Obviously, much will depend on the size, and personalities, of the group, as well as its historical patterns. That said, I’ve had good luck in multiple settings with a simple technique:

- a printed agenda with at least ten points
- a time limit
- food
- carefully-phrased questions, and
- a firm hand (hopefully not too heavy) in moving the discussion along.

If the agenda has too few points, people will take that as license to pontificate. Food tends to filter out the less important comments, since they’re busy chewing. (The same principle works with kids.) A time limit helps, but you have to be willing to stick to it. Starting promptly, oddly enough, can actually help, since it conveys a certain sense of urgency.

(With food, you can score no-pun-intended brownie points if you observe everyone’s dietary restrictions – vegetarian, kosher, Atkins, whatever. At my previous school, I won major points simply for breaking the all-pizza-all-the-time habit in recognition of dietary diversity. It seems like a little thing, but the folks who’ve consistently been excluded will notice. This is tricky when the group is huge, but it works wonders in groups as large as 25. If there’s a decent grocery store with a decent deli nearby, a few veggies-in-vinaigrette will make quite the impression.)

Scheduling the meeting to end before a popular class hour can help you enforce the deadline. If everyone has class at, say, 1:00, then a meeting that starts at 11:30 or 12 has a natural limit. If you have it at 3:00, it could drag on forever.

If Professor Blowhard insists on trying to filibuster, cut him off by asking for a proposed action item. “Is there a proposal on the floor” can work wonders. If he’s undeterred, offer to continue the discussion ‘offline,’ meaning after the meeting.

If this seems a little too directive, a way to make sure that nobody can claim that you’re railroading them is to distribute the (long) agenda a day or two in advance. That way, they’ll know what’s coming, and if one of their pet topics is coming, they won’t be ambushed. Mention on the agenda that food will be served. If you feed them, they will come.

In terms of phrasing, never ask “what do you think about...?” Instead, propose something, and ask “are there any objections?” The former question almost requires pausing, and invites speechifying. The latter puts the burden of interruption on anyone who raises a point, implicitly raising the bar for relevance. Use social dynamics to your advantage.

Question to my readers: do you give good meeting? If so, how?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Comments:
Start the meeting on time, even if no one else is there and you don't have quorum. Then when Professor Blowhard comes in and says "humpf, you don't have quorum" you can say "egads you are right! I guess people need to get here on time so that the business of the department can be done fairly and properly." If people know you start on time they will eventually make it their own habit, too.

You could also try a rotating chair so that other people get to have the experience and realize how, er, challenging it can be. Either get others to chair a whole meeting or give them a particular project or issue to usher through the process.

I also agree that food helps, and that making sure there is something everyone can eat is a big help.
 
I agree about the lenghty and detailed agenda. I deal with a notoriously difficult colleague, and I have often kept him quiet(er) with a sense of the large number of items requiring discussion.
 
Food is the best. But I think it is also important not to include things on the agenda that could have gone in an e-mail (announcements, reminders to get paperwork in, etc.). There must be meaningful work on the agenda, not busy work so you can say we had a meeting. This has been the biggest problem in my dept.
 
I only have experience at the "lower end" of the academic totem pole (ta meetings, club/organization meetings, etc.). I strongly recommend all of Dean Dad's suggestions. Here are my additions:

1) Variety of food is key but make sure it is still finger food or close to it. People tend to get distracted by plasticware and then start to think it is lunch (off topic convo), not a meeting.

2) I've found that a detailed or bulleted agenda is critical! Also, if I include a small notation on the points where suggestions and/or comments are expected, the attendees at my meetings have always seemed more ready to be interactive. I guess this gives them a sense of a "workshop" environment rather than "lecture" environment.

3) If you have a chronically late attendee, put their pet project first or second. If they show up late, refuse to discuss it again during that particular meeting. The one person I was having trouble with was not late again. I think this strategy might work equally well with someone who chronically leaves early... but I have no direct experience with that problem.

Just some things that have worked for me. Good luck reader.
 
Thanks for the great ideas! We never do food and we meet at noon (I know, but that is what we have worked out) so it is a natural. I always have an agenda, but it sometimes lacks detail. I have had a sense that the more I try prep my colleagues about this stuff they less they want to deal with it, but I will give it a try!

BTW, there really ought to be a book coming out of these q and as. :-)
 
Good Lord! You have answer the very question I've been pondering all week. Great post!
 
Some suggestions:

1. If you don't have a quorum start an informal discussion on the key item you have to deal with. When you get the quorum you can often deal with it quickly.

2. Go around the table and ask each person in turn for their views. Do not let others interrupt (save it for the general discussion, wait your turn, etc.)

3. You have two function, the first is as the chair of the meeting which means you let everyone talk. You get to talk last as the chair of the department. I've been in too many meetings where the chair argues with each person who speaks in turn.

4. Sometimes nothing works
 
Before entering academia I spent a lot of time as a community organizer. I organized poor, overworked people who have no patience for long meetings. The network spent significant time on training leaders and organizers on how to run meetings. Judging by my experience of faculty meetings in my department, we would all be well-served if dean's trained all new chairs in running meetings. It turns out that your average poverty line person can run better meetings than your average Ph.D. Why? Because they go to union meetings and church meetings. Both of these are largely run on Robert's Rules of Order. The only model's for Ph.D's is other faculty meetings. Blah.

Running meetings is about establishing accountability. You can't hold other people accountable for being late if you don't start on time. You can't hold other people accountable for using up more time than allotted on the agenda if you spout off endlessly yourself or allow meetings to run over. Do you abuse other people's time? Do you allow their colleagues to abuse their time? If so, you will get the respect you deserve.

Dean Dad is mostly outlining how to establish accountability (aside from the food part) and I think he is right on. Two other things.

First, you have to be more creative in a highly contentious setting. What if, for example, formulating the agenda itself is contentious? Then, you have to place the burden on the shoulders of the contending parties to arrive at a solution. You can have contending parties formulate an agenda with you. This makes it clear that you are simply trying to get through business, not impose an ideology or some such thing. Most faculties already operate on this principle with regard to issues such as hiring. Oddly, they don't over things such as agenda-setting. Once this is done the warring parties can't sabotage the meeting without being held accountable for being duplicitous.

Second, some people of upper middle class, highly-educated backgrounds think that consensus is somehow 'democratic'. It isn't unless the room is filled with Quakers who have been in meetings operating on that principle since they could walk. Nonetheless, this is the primary source of criticism of Robert's Rules-based methods of running meetings. Point out how undemocratic it is for one idiot to hold the rest hostage.

Great blog, BTW
 
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