Leaving a meeting with a shared understandingPosted by Clayton Greer
A vexation of work life that is all too common is to carve a meeting out of an extended team's minimal available time and then discover after the meeting that individual members hold their own different understanding of what was decided. An example might be a systems analyst who supports the needs of multiple business platforms or applications, all of which have business managers competing for both priority service response and extensive product delivery from the analyst. In this example, agreements that were made in a team meeting begin to unravel just days later over disagreements of exactly what was decided and negotiated regarding which system was going to receive what functional upgrades first. Another example might be a technical management team that meets to decide on how a departmental reorganization should handle a proscribed 5% reduction in headcount, only to discover during the middle of implementing the re-organization that one of the QA managers has misunderstood how workflow was going to be restructured within her team.
Sometimes a lack of shared understanding can be a calculated attempt on the part of a meeting participant to be opportunistic in implmenting their own course amidst the busyness and confusion of hectic work demands that are further stretched by cross-functional team collaboration. Regardless if the reason for the confusion is due to calculated intent, inattention, or the occassional lapse of detail by an individual of goodwill, practicing strong meeting leadership can maximize a common understanding of what was agreed to at a meeting as well as clarify the observed behavior of meeting participants who chronically misunderstand meeting decisions. This leadership takes the form of 2 practices prior to holding the meeting and 3 practices at the end of a meeting.
Pre-meeting leadership practices
A successful shared understanding at the end of a meeting is enhanced by encouraging meeting participants to be prepared individually in advance of the meeting. It is a common practice to meet individually with key individuals prior to a meeting in order to smooth out the surprises or objections that will influence the direction or conclusion of a strategic or contentious decision. This technique is also a valuable practice to increase shared understandings of decisions made during a meeting when there is either complex or large amounts of new material or options to be considered prior to a decision being made, or when there has been a history of confusion or disagreements about what a meeting decided. In this situation, the meeting leader is using their influence to ensure that everyone comes fully prepared and ready to contribute productively to the meeting. Obviously some number of new ideas, issues, and bases of negotiation will arise for the first time during the actual meeting, but your chances of leaving with a shared understanding are greatly improved if you have individually confirmed that each participant begins the meeting with the required background.
The other pre-meeting practice is to prepare and distribute an agenda sufficiently in advance of the meeting. The agenda reminds the participants of the import of your individual visit if one was conducted, and it always presents a record that sets a tone of how they should be prepared and of the certainy of how you will lead the meeting. Perhaps more importantly, an agenda also allows you to plan all the items, no more or less than necessary, in the appropriate order and with sufficient time for discussion that will allow the meeting participants to focus on the critical decisions at hand. If your agenda analysis reveals that you only have 60 minutes to cover 120 minutes worth of discussion, you can limit the introduction of topics to ensure that discussion is not rushed or confused during the meeting. This planning leads to a better chance that everyone will have followed the details and conclusions reached during the meeting's discussion.
In-meeting leadership practices
During the meeting, work through the agenda and place discussion notes under each agenda line item in sufficient detail that minimally records decisions and action items. Every decision should be flagged on your agenda notes with a prominent asterisk in the left margin. If appropriate to the flow and tone of the conversation, verbally cue the group of the decision that has been reached at this point of the meeting. In addition, flag any action items on your notes with a square bullet in the left margin.
As meeting leader, you will want faithfully to end every meeting with three practices that maximize a shared understanding and increase the chances of co-ordinated follow through. Your agenda template should always include an entry with 5 minutes of time to allow for an unhurried discussion of these three practices: review of decisions made, review of action items with due date of next step, and cascading communication plan.
A review of the decisions made during the meeting is an obvious first step in gaining agreement of a shared understanding of what was decided. Because the agenda is prepared prior to the meeting, the agenda items will be typed and neatly ordered, and therefore visually assist you in determining whether every intended decision has been reviewed.
A review of open action items with the due date of its next step not only helps ensure that decisions will be implemented, but also it moves the previous review of decisions from "mere words" that might remain indistinct in the minds of a distracted or inattentive meeting participant to something that requires their commitment on the calendar. While this practice and the next of cascading communications doesn't guarantee an identically shared understanding, it at the least nudges people to action which is likely to spur them to ask clarifying questions of the group-reviewed actions they are signing up to implement.
The final step is to discuss the cascading communications that need to result from the decisions and action items resulting from this meeting. Cascading communications asks the question of who else outside of this meeting needs to know what was decided in the meeting. Which direct reports of those in this meeting, which executives, which managers in other departments not in this meeting need to know which details? This shared discussion enables all participants to express feedback on the message that should be communicated by this group of participants. The expression of this feedback enhances a group ownership of exactly what was decided.
The leadership practices performed prior to the meeting ensure that necessary preparation and unrushed, focused discussion can result in apt and clearly expressed decisions. Leadership performed during and at the end of the meeting then results in a shared review of both the words of the decision, the necessary follow-up actions that individual meeting participants are required to take, and a restatement of the decisions that individuals must make to those outside the meeting. In combination, these practices should regularly result in maximized shared understanding and reliable implmentation of every decision.