Are Your Meetings Productive or Time Wasters?
By Ron Williamson and Barbara Blackburn
If you are like most of the principals we work with, you have spent more time than you would like in meetings. And much of that time may have been unproductive.
When you are conducting a meeting, you always want participants to leave feeling it was a meaningful experience with clear outcomes. If that is your goal, remember this:
Successful meetings are thoughtfully planned and implemented.
Always Begin With Norms
A crucial part of any effective meeting is having a set of meeting standards or operational norms. These include basic decisions like seating arrangements. If you want an open discussion, arrange for participants to face each other, perhaps around a table or in a semicircle rather than in rows.
Set a firm start and end time, and honor your schedule. This shows that you respect the participants’ time. If the meeting is lengthy, plan for a break, but again, set a time and adhere to that. Be sure that any speaker knows his or her allocated time and stays within those parameters.
As you prepare for a meeting, ask yourself, “How will we maintain our group memory of discussion and decisions?” Do you want to use chart paper posted visibly in the room, or will you have someone record and share notes? In today’s age of technology, how can you utilize the equipment you have to support the process?
You might even consider video recording the meeting. A public recording provides visual clues, develops shared ownership, minimizes repetition, reduces status differences among participants, and makes accountability easier.
What are the guidelines for discussion? We often suggest using a “parking lot,” which is simply a poster in the room. Participants are given sticky notes, and if there is a question or discussion item that is off the topic, they write it on a note and post it in the parking lot. You can visit the parking lot items at the end of the meeting if there is time, or you can discuss them individually or at another time.
Take advantage of productivity tools
One of our favorite sites for productive meeting tools is the National School Reform Faculty. It includes tools for making all sorts of collaborative work successful.
It’s also important to model collaborative discussion and inquiry. Allowing adequate wait time in response to questions, asking open-ended questions, and giving everyone a chance to speak are the foundational elements of a collaborative discussion.
If you’ve ever participated in a workshop with Robert Garmston, co-developer of Cognitive Coaching, you’ll be aware of his many strategies and techniques that support collaborative leadership and decision-making. In their valuable tool-filled book The Adaptive School (3rd Ed., 2016), Garmston and Wellman describe seven norms of collaboration that are helpful as you facilitate discussions.
With your norms in place, there are three essential questions you will want to consider when planning meetings: What is the purpose? What is being decided? Who decides? Let’s take a look at each one.
1. What Is the Purpose of the Meeting?
You may be thinking, “Of course I need to be clear about the purpose. Who doesn’t do that?” But we’ve been to far too many meetings where the purpose was unclear, unstated, or unknown.
Think about it this way: Are you conducting a meeting in order to discuss and identify options and alternatives for a situation, or is the end result to make a decision? If you want to bring together a group of stakeholders to gather input, that is appropriate, but if they believe they are meeting to make a decision, then your meeting begins with a conflict, and it is less likely to be productive.
2. What Is Being Decided?
It’s also important for participants to have a clear idea of what is to be discussed. The agenda may be developed collaboratively, but plan for that in advance. An agenda can also help you budget your time appropriately, so everything is discussed.
As you plan, ask yourself, “By the end of the meeting, will participants have the information they need to make a decision on the issue?” You might also consider whether your agenda allows for adequate discussion to inform the decision.
3. Who Decides?
Prior to the meeting, determine the role of the group in terms of decision making. Is the group to make a decision? Perhaps it is to make a recommendation or to study the issue. Is the decision-making body clear? For example, will the decision be made by the principal alone or by the principal with input?
Perhaps the goal is for the decision to be made by the administrator with staff consensus or by the staff with administrative input. Or the decision may be made by the staff using consensus or by majority vote. You may even have a subgroup making the decision. Each of these strategies is appropriate for certain situations; however, everyone needs to clearly understand their role.
Several years ago, while waiting to present a staff development session to elementary school teachers, we observed a principal conducting a short meeting. He explained that a decision needed to be made regarding staffing and personnel responsibilities for the next school year, and that it would be decided based on a vote from teachers and other staff.
Everyone voted on a ballot, and at lunch, the principal privately explained that he was disappointed in the results. He said that he had trusted the staff to make the right decision, and they didn’t. Then he said, “I’m going to tell them that we aren’t doing it that way, we are going to do it my way.”
That’s what he did, and the morale of the teachers and staff plummeted. This principal lost all credibility. That’s exactly the situation you want to avoid.
As you determine who will make the decision, also consider the timeline for the decision, and make that clear to participants. Finally, determine how the decision will be shared with or communicated to the larger school community.
A Final Thought
Meetings are a routine part of any school, but never treat them as routine. If a meeting is worth the investment of your professionals’ time and effort, then it’s worth your own investment to make sure it’s well planned, productive, and meaningful for all involved, including – ultimately – your students.
Garmston, R. & Wellman, B. (2016). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups (3rd ed.). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Ron Williamson is a professor of leadership and counseling at Eastern Michigan University. He was a middle grades teacher, principal and executive director of instruction in Ann Arbor, MI. He’s also served as executive director of the National Middle School Association (now AMLE) and as president of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. Ron works with middle grades schools across the country and is the author of numerous books including The School Leader’s Guide to Social Media with J. Howard Johnston.
Barbara Blackburn is a best-selling author of 15 books including Rigor is Not a Four Letter Word. A nationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor and motivation, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. Barbara can be reached through her website or her blog. She’s on Twitter @BarbBlackburn. Her latest books are 2017’s Rigor and Assessment in the Classroom and the 2nd edition of The Principalship from A to Z, written with Ron Williamson.