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Focusing on real issues: revamping ho-hum meetings.

Getting teams of people focused, aligned, and committed to specific action on crucial issues is the essence of today's management style. Yet, all too often, the planning process is allowed to go on forever, Plans never jell, the team loses interest, and opportunity is lost. In a competitive, fast-moving environment, that can be disastrous.

On the positive side, a growing number of managers are looking for ways to speed up -- and increase the effectiveness of -- their meeting processes. Those who have made strides in this area have found that there is a process that enables their teams to achieve better, more creative solutions faster.

The basic requirements for a successful group session include:

* A manager/leader and a team committed to resolving the issue not just talking about it.

* A meeting design that focuses on the real issue and guides the team in its resolution;

* A neutral process facilitator who has been trained in the skills it takes to lead a group and is not emotionally buried in the content;

* A means for recording ideas and keeping track of what goes on. "Storyboarding" is an ideal medium, because of its inherent flexibility and speed; and

* A planning location where other activities are not allowed to intrude on the session.

The most important element in the process is design -- thinking through the session before the group convenes. Design involves seven steps that are taken in order and reworked until the whole design feels right. The design is then displayed on a storyboard that guides the session and acts as a reference point throughout. Below are the design steps:

1. Clearly state the topic. This can be the most difficult step, but it is critical to success. That is clear to anyone who has ever sat in a long, rambling meeting where nobody, not even the leader, seemed to have a clear idea what people were there to discuss. State the topic as the question you need to answer. Or begin with specific such as "how to..." Or "ways to..."

2. Give team members complete background on the project at hand, but do not bury them in useless facts. Do not send out masses of "homework" that busy people do not have time to read. Thinking through what people need to know about the topic will keep the background portion of the meeting brief and to-the point; good backgrounding helps define the real issue and focuses the group.

3. Clearly state the purpose of the project. Answer the question: "What do we want to have in hand when the whole project is done?" Insist on measurable and verifiable purposes.

4. State the purpose of this session. It should answer the question: "What are we going to accomplish in the next two hours? (or other time allowed)." Be specific, for instance, "We will identify our five best ideas for marketing this new product."

5. Tell the group what kind of focus they need to maintain. Some of the most common focuses include: generating ideas, master planning, problem solving, organization and communications. If the focus is strictly on ideas at this time, the group should not veer off into problem solving.

6. Set up four to six key questions to guide the discussion. Use gut-level language and include a verb to draw action and energy from the group. Be specific.

7. Set the "permission meter" to tell team members where to set their "thinking tension" for this particular project. On a scale of one to ten, one is very analytical and precise; 10 is very creative.

Following these steps will help ensure that you have designed a session that will focus on the real issue at hand. This will not only speed up your planning, but also elicit more and better ideas, so that meeting times are far more productive than before. As many organizations have now found, the right design focuses people's energies, and that makes all the difference.

The following examples show the kind of results that can be achieved when people have learned how to focus on the real issues:

* In three days, two Wisconsin companies resolved an issue that had festered for 18 months and threatened to abort their merge.

* One state's child welfare laws were re-written in two sessions, ending two years of committee wrangling.

* A Fortune 100 manufacturer brought together several departments to pinpoint and resolve production inefficiencies. In just a few hours, this team came up with solutions that worked -- and had eluded for years.

* In three days, an international team of 28 physicians was able to create, agree on and implement a reporting system that is expected to improve infant healthcare worldwide.

* Perhaps most amazing of all: A family with two teenagers planned and went together on a vacation they all liked!

Jerry McNellis is a designer and leader of strategic sessions for business, industry and the professions. He is president of The McNellis Co., which is dedicated to creative planing and problem-solving. He is also director of the McNellis Planning Institutes, a network of teaching laboratories and specialized planning centers across the country.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Meeting Processes
Author:McNellis, Jerry
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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