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How To Avoid Meetings That Go In Circles

How To Avoid Meetings That Go In Circles

Most teams struggle with meetings that go in circles. Repetitive conversations with no clear end point, confusion about what the topic is, time wasted re-hashing decisions you thought you made at the last meeting….Sound familiar?

Last week a colleague and I spent three days with a team that went in circles. Sometimes big, meandering circles. The most frustrating part for them was that everybody knew when they started circling, and they knew it was a long-standing pattern, but up to that point they had been unsuccessful in changing it. Part of our goal in coaching them was to help them develop the capacity to change the pattern, so they could go back to their regular jobs and keep their meetings focused and productive without us there to help.

Two things happened in this meeting that set them up for success.

First, we offered them a simple process for action planning, with defined steps to help them stay on track. Up to this point, they hadn’t been using any clear process for guiding their discussions about important topics. As a result, they were often brainstorming action items without having clarified the goal they were trying to accomplish, or spending time on the least important topic because they hadn’t prioritized their agenda. They needed a shared map to help them stay focused on where they were in the process.

Second, and most importantly, each team member began to really see how they had been contributing to the pattern, and to change their own behavior in order to keep the meeting on track. In other words, every team member began to take personal responsibility for the success of every meeting. Here are some examples of the shifts they made:

How They Made Things Worse

How They Made Things Better

Not speaking up when the meeting went off track Speaking up: “I think we’re off track.”
Complaining about being off track Offering specific recommendations for how to get back on track: “I want to clarify the goal of this conversation.”
Blaming others for taking the meeting off track Staying focused on solutions
Waiting for the leader to fix things Recognizing their own responsibility to fix things and acting on it

These shifts are no small thing. Not every team can pull them off. Even with this highly motivated team, made up of very competent leaders, it took until the third day of their off site for many people to truly digest and integrate what it means to take personal responsibility for the success of the team. That says nothing about them as individuals – but it does say a lot about human nature and human biology. When things aren’t going well, we’re wired to defend ourselves. It takes a lot of courage to instead examine our contribution to the problem, and change our own behavior in order to make things better.

Action Steps for Leaders

Do your team meetings tend to go in circles? Try these steps.

  1. First, get very clear about how you contribute to the pattern. Do you not stop unproductive conversations? Do you set confusing goals? Whatever your contribution, be up front with your team about it, commit to changing it, and be clear about your expectation that every team member take responsibility for the success of every meeting.
  2. Know your end goals for every meeting topic. “Discuss X” is not a useful goal, by the way. For what purpose are you having the discussion? How will you know when you’re done? What are the specific outcomes you need from each conversation?
  3. Have a clear decision making process. For every topic, if the outcome you need is a decision, communicate ahead of time how that decision will be made. Does the team vote? Is it your call, and they’re providing input? Teams can experience lots of unnecessary conflict that wastes time when the decision making process isn’t clear.
  4. Use a facilitator. Good leaders are not necessarily good facilitators. But, you probably have somebody on your team who is. Use their skills and abilities to keep things on track.

Your turn: Do your meetings sometimes go in circles? What strategies have you used to successfully keep things on track?

Photo courtesy of fdecomite, Flickr Creative Commons

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