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 Rules for Effective Meetings
and Brain Storming Sessions

  by

Prem Kamble

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Contents
 

TYPES OF MEETINGS..........................................................................

          Meetings for Decision Making ......................................................
          Meetings Requiring No Decision....................................................

DISCUSSION FOR DECISION MAKING AND ACTION...............................

Characteristics of Such discussions............................................

Democratic or Autocratic............................................................

Benefits of Meetings...................................................................

Responsibilities of the Co-ordinator..............................................

Responsibilities of Participants : Recommended Code of Conduct..

Be Open to Listen.........................................................

Know the Meeting Etiquettes....................................

Keep Your Ego in Check............................................

Technical Meetings & Brainstorming Sessions..................................................................

OTHER DISCUSSIONS - NO DECISION OR ACTION............................

Group Discussion for Management Aspirants..............................

Discussion as an Intellectual Game............................................

 

 

Rules for Effective Meetings and Brain Storming Sessions

 

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TYPES OF MEETINGS

There are several occasions in life when we find ourselves in the midst of discussions and meetings. Both in professional and personal lives, group discussions, meetings and friendly arguments are a part of our life. It can help us to effectively participate in any of such discussions if we are aware of the rules and etiquettes of such meetings and of our own roles and responsibilities as participants.

Our roles and responsibilities vary based on what type of discussion it is and what we are supposed to contribute. Broadly, the discussions and meetings can be of two types:

1.  Meetings for Decision Making: These are meetings which are required for decision making, and where some action is desired based on the outcome of the discussion. At work, most of our meetings are of this category. The discussions are usually followed by a decision and a planned action.

2.  Meetings that Require no Decision or Action: These meetings do not need any action or decision making. Communication meetings or knowledge sharing meetings at workplace fall in this category as they are not decision oriented. The other examples of such discussions outside the work place are the group discussions at competitive examinations (like the ones at MBA entrance examinations, and the academic discussions for fun held informally and leisurely with family and friends.

 

To summarise, discussions can be of following types:

      1.      Discussion for decision making and appropriate action
2.      Communication meetings and knowledge sharing meetings
3.      Group Discussions for Competitive exams like MBA
4.      Discussions for discussion sake - just for fun

This article looks at some of the ground rules of the all the above discussions. It discusses how we can be effective in competitive group discussions and impress the selectors. Even friendly discussions at times turn into heated discussions resulting into ill feelings unless we understand the ground rules.  We shall see how we can actually enjoy academic discussions without creating ill feelings due to differences of opinions.   

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DISCUSSION FOR DECISION MAKING AND ACTION  


Characteristics of such Discussions

Business meetings at workplace typically have the following characteristics:

  • As stated earlier, these meetings are for decision-making and action unless they are purely communication meetings or knowledge sharing meetings.
  • There has to be a conclusion/decision at the end of such meetings. In most business meetings there is a co-ordinator who is also the decision maker. Most often it is this person who decides after hearing the views of the other participants in the discussion. In some cases, the participants together arrive at some decision.
  • The participants are those who are impacted by the decision and most often are the ones who would be actually implementing the action decided upon.
  • Often there is a limited time to discuss, and a deadline to arrive at a decision.

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Democratic or Autocratic

  

Decision making through meetings, discussions and consultations seems to be a very democratic way of decision making. At the same time there are some who believe that  decisions cannot be made by democratic means - they need to be forced upon. Democratic approach at workplace does not mean that everyone decides. Decision is still made by one person, but after consulting his or her subordinates and involving them by hearing their views on the subject.

Most often, such decision-maker is a senior person in the organisation. He encourages discussions as it also gives him food for thought. It gives him different directions and alternatives to think into. Finally having heard all, he decides. He has that prerogative as he has to consider other environmental factors that influence the decisions which only he knows and and which other participants may not be aware of. Being at senior position, he may have the best overview of the conditions in his company.

Thus, the responsibility of decision making is still with one person. Others help the decision maker by putting forth views, opinions, facts. Based on the views and facts presented, the leader can  make a decision.

Therefore the process is normally a mix of democratic process and autocratic process. If the group comes to some conclusion unanimously, it could be a group decision, else the leader decides and that decision is binding on all.

I have heard the comments at the end of the meetings or after meetings when decisions are made, “If they wanted to make these decisions on their own, why did they at all call us for a meeting to consult us?” They think that group meetings are for joint decisions. Most often, decision is still made by one person.

People have the freedom to air their views, protest fervently if necessary, but finally the decision is by one person. The participants generally feel good for having aired their views.

 

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Benefits of Meetings

 

I have often heard comments from people coming out of meetings, "Oh, it was a waste of everybody's time. Finally he took decision on his own". But they forget that such discussions have other benefits in terms of motivating people:

1.   People feel good that they are consulted. This has a positive psychological effect on compliance. The implementation of the acion is generally smoother if people have been consulted and informed.

2.   People feel that they have at least expressed their views.

3.   Sometimes it helps people to let off steam or pent-up frustration which adversely affects performance if not released.

4.   Increases employee motivation as they feel that they are part of important decisions.

5.   Sometimes excellent ideas are thrown up because of the diversity of thoughts and experiences of the participants.

6.   The decision maker is better informed of the repercussions. Not only can this help in a more informed  decision, it can also aid in a better planned implementation.

7.   A meeting promotes interaction of people and keeps people informed.

 

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Responsibilities of the Co-ordinator

   

The person who plays the role of a coordinator or leader for the meeting has the following responsibilities. He or she needs to:

1.   Define the objective of the meeting. Define the objective of the scheme, policy being debated. This will help ensure that unrelated and irrelevant discussions/comments are avoided. It is more likely that the arguments placed contribute to the goal if the participants are clearly aware of the goal.  

2.  Define the problem clearly. A small difference in the definition of the problem or meeting objective can alter the course of the discussion.

3.   See that the objective is not lost track of during the course of the discussion. It is very common that one comment may lead to another and the discussion may digress completely from the topic. The coordinator needs to bring back the discussion on track whenever it goes off-track.

4.   Give a chance to everyone to speak.

5.  Be vigilant to avoid situations where few people dominate and others do not get a chance to speak though they wish to.

6.   Gently coax some silent people into discussion. For instance, if Sunil has not been expressing himself, a question like "What do you think of this, Sunil?" can induce him to speak out.

7.  See that ideas are not ridiculed and people are not forced to shut up by colleagues without being given a chance to be fully heard. This is a very common pitfall. Sometimes seemingly ridiculous ideas can lead to innovation if they are allowed to survive the "reflexive rejection" syndrome..

8.   See that it does not become a dialogue between a few who talk most of the time. See that majority of the participants participate in the discussion.

9.   See that people speak one at a time. When they wish to contribute, they raise their hand to request audience.

10.  Encourage free communication within the group.

11.  Let everyone express himself/herself freely.

12.  Encourage different views and ideas which can lead to creative ideas.

13.  Create a feeling of togetherness and team spirit

14.  Ensure that the meeting is held in an informal atmosphere.

15.  Ensure that the meeting is result oriented. 

If the co-ordinator is a senior person, he should see that his subordinates feel free to express themselves and to challenge his own views.
Particpants should have the freedom to air their views, protest strongly if necessary. 

The meeting co-ordinator shoulf make it clear to the participants, that they are free to air their views, but finally in the interest of the whole proceedings, the decision has to be made by the coordinator in case there is no consensus.

When I have conducted meetings, I have encouraged people to freely argue against me. I encourage participants to put arguments and counter-arguments, even against my point of view. But it is made very clear right in the beginning that finally, having heard all arguments and views, the prerogative to take decision is mine.

 

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Responsibilities of Participants : Recommended Code Of Conduct   

 

Whereas the Meeting coordinator has a role cut our for him and has clear cut responsibilities, the participants too should be aware that they have a role to play and also have responsibilities as participants. Some of them are discussed here.

Be Open to Listen

1.   Expressing views should be encouraged by each participant.

2.   No one should discourage anyone from arguing or putting his/her viewpoint, however skewed it may appear to be.

3.   Any view, whether looking utterly foolish initially, should be listened to and not be ridiculed. In fact divergent and non standard views must be encouraged. There is a very high natural tendency of all the participants to nip in the bud some divergent view being expressed.

4.   Remember that the purpose of discussion is to have divergent points of view and varied ideas put on the table.

5    The participants must adopt a Brain storming approach to discuss every problem. Listening to new ideas and not rejecting or ridiculing new ideas is a prerequisite for a brain storming approach.

 

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Know the Meeting Etiquettes

1.   Respect the individuality and views of others.

2.   Participate and encourage participation.

3.   Ensure that only one person talks at a time.  Raise a hand to participate.

4.   Do not interrupt others, or start talking before someone finishes.

5.   Do not engage in cross talk.

6.   Avoid individual discussions in small groups during the meeting. When one person speaks, others should listen.

7.   Be present exactly at the scheduled time of start of meeting.

8.   Live participation is required from everybody. At the same time, participants must encourage and let others speak.

9.   Participants should strictly adhere to the subjects of the discussion. There should be no deviations or loose talk.

10.  Individuals should be brief and precise.

 
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Keep Your Ego in Check

  

It is important that participants are open minded enough to appreciate that there is nothing personal in arguments. Everyone must realise that the arguments put forth are not for own benefits (though it may often happen, as people will be people) but to achieve the company's or group's objective. There has to be a professional environment. Like true professionals, participants should understand that they do not take remarks personally. You as a participant need to appreciate that people will have different views and if they are expressing their view they are not attacking you but only helping the process of decision-making by discussing threadbare all aspects of a problem.

What would you do if you have a rock or a strange object from Mars in your hand? You would look at it from all directions, turn it around and examine from all angles. Look at the problem at hand as some object you are examining and examine it from all angles and all sides with impersonal feelings as you would look at the rock. The personal involvement and the ego creates the problem

Sometimes there may be senior colleagues and their reportees both participating in the same discussion. There is a tendency on the part of reportees not to speak at all or not to negate their superior. The boss should encourage their subordinates to speak. It is the responsibility of the boss to keep his or her ego in check and show openness to listen so that the subordinates feel free to talk.

People should have the freedom to air their views, protest if necessary, but appreciate that finally the decision may or may not be in line with their views. The participants should feel good of having aired their views.

All participants should be open minded enough to accept that after all hierarchies are there so that businesses can run. If there is no clear collective decision, the president has the right to decide.

Participants should not feel offended if his/her idea is not accepted. It is not important whether your idea is accepted or rejected. What is important is that the group arrives jointly at some conclusion. If the group comes to some conclusion unanimously, it is good, else the leader has to decide.

Participants must avoid saying "I was always saying this…, had you all listened to me..." They should understand that once the decision is arrived at, it is a collective decision, their own decision. All should accept the decision and the outcome of the decision sportingly, keeping in mind that this is the only way to arrive at a decision, else there would be no decision. In the process, there may be a few wrong decisions, but that is better than no decisions.

This may sound idealistic, but unless each participant appreciates this reality, he or she would be only disappointed and frustrated in meetings.

 

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Technical Meetings & Brainstorming Sessions

  

Meetings for decision-making could be different based on whether the issue is technical or managerial. Managerial issues tend to be highly subjective and hence chances of consensus are lower because of diversity of opinions. Then the decision maker has to use his prerogative. In meetings where technical issues are discussed, you need to adopt a slightly different approach and strategy. In technical issues, opinions matter less. Most of the time, there can be more objective discussions. 

For barinstorming sessions, I have found that there are two very important phases, and each phase has its own unique requirements. The two phases are:

1.  Identifying Alternatives
2.  Examining the pros and cons for each alternative

It is a good idea to assign a fixed time to phase I and only then go into phase 2. There is a very high tendency to go into phase 2, which needs to be consciously avoided. Avoiding the tendency to jump into phase 2 prematurely before having completed phase 1 is, according to me, the most critical to the success of such meetings.

List all the alternatives, however ridiculous it may sound initially. Reserve some fixed time to brainstorm to identify and list alternatives. ‘Out-of-the-blue’ ideas are required so you need to really concentrate and think exclusively on alternatives for some time. The group should not go into discussions of ideas or alternatives immediately because that is where people have too many ideas and you tend to have hot discussions. In the hot discussions, it may happen that you may spend the whole time debating the first not-so-good idea that you hit upon, and may not even identify another alternative which may turn out to be the best. Quite often, before going into discussions of alternatives, I give extra 5 minutes when there is silence and people can really think of new alternatives.

If you rush into discussing alternatives prematurely, some good alternatives may not even be identified, leave alone discussed.

 

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Other Discussions – No Decision or Action

Apart from the discussions at office, which are mainly for arriving at decisions and thereafter getting into action, there can be other types of discussions. I can think of two major types: Group discussions which are a part of selection process, and some friendly discussions with family and friends.  It may not be obvious, but these discussions too have certain rules which can make you an effective participant.

 

Group Discussion for Management Aspirants

 

 

Several selection processes have group discussions to assess the  candidates on various counts. For instance, most of the management institutes have group discussions as a part of their selection process.

I have seen that most of the students go for such discussions with a misconception that dominating a group discussion will help impress the selectors. In my group discussion for selection to the management institute, the topic was " Can women make good managers?" Two of the participants started off the discussions by hogging the limelight and would not let other candidates participate. At the same time they seemed to be talking mainly of the physical strength of males over females implying that women are too weak to be good managers. I somehow managed to speak and introduced a different line of thinking by suggesting that good management required mental strength and not necessarily physical strength. I also opined that in my view women are stronger mentally than men. I said that was my opinion based mainly on the people I saw around me and I may be wrong. I also invited the views of other participants as to what they had experienced in this regard. In fact there was a young lady who was trying hard to speak, but unable to do so. I invited her to express her views on the topic. With this, I hit several birds in one stone:

i.        I gave a chance for other candidates to come out with more divergent views or even opposing views.

ii.       I made it clear that what I said was my view and that others may have a different view.

iii.      I was not insisting that my views were right. I showed my openness to listen to the other side of the argument.

iv.     I showed that it was important for such discussions to have more participants express their views. When more diverse views are presented, there are more chances of a good decision.

v.       I helped change the discussion from a monologue to a more participative discussion.

What several aspirants who participate in such discussions need to understand is that it is not important to have the "right" views or "firm" views on a topic. In fact there are no right and wrong views. There are only views.  What is more important is to encourage others to participate, to be open to listen to other points of view and to help the process of collective decision-making by inviting more views and opinions.

 

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Discussion as an Intellectual Game

The discussions in this category are the friendly debates within a group of friends or family members. They are generally discussions on topics of common interest, on individual preferences, etc. Quite often, if the participants do not have the right attitude, they can end up in heated discussions with opposing parties abusing and offending the other. They can end up with the participants feeling very hurt and wretched and can even end up in real violence.

It will help if you remember the following rules of such friendly discussions:

1.   There is no universal truth. There is no right or wrong. There are either facts or opinions (This is particularly true for the type of topics normally chosen for discussion in such friendly debates).

2.   There is no right or wrong, only opinions and viewpoints.

3.   Majority is not always right. If ten people have the same opinion, it does not become a fact. It is still ten people's opinion. If ten different people say that Aishwarya Rai is the most beautiful actress on the Indian screen, it does not make her the most beautiful – it only means that ten people believe that she is the most beautiful. Galileo was the lone person saying that the earth moves around the sun, and there were several millions saying that the sun moves around the earth!

4.   All participants need to be treated as equal - there is no difference due to age, sex, education, position in the family or position in the society. Each person has a right to his or her opinion.

5.   Each individual person is different, and has different opinions and views. Appreciate and respect the individuality of people.

6.   Remember that it is a game and should be played like a game. The fun is in arguments and counter arguments (like moves and counter moves in a game of chess or cards - "You played your king? Here's my trump card"), not in winning/losing, or being right or wrong.

Such discussions must be treated as an intellectual game and nothing more than that. The moment any of the participants have their egos hurt during such discussions, there is bound to be trouble.


Related Readings:

More Articles for Managers

All Articles by Prem Kamble

Also See:

More Seminars for CIOs

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