Friday, January 06, 2006

Ask the Administrator: How to Give Good Meeting?

A long-suffering department chair writes:
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?


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.