Focused Meetings – What a Concept!
If you’ve ever thought your organization has secretly decided to dispose of you by using a “death by meetings” strategy, then you will be happy to know that there is a way to hold meetings that are short, to-the-point and more productive than you ever dreamed possible.
Not surprisingly, the key is focus.
I just completed a training course entitled Designing and Leading Effective Meetings put on by the California Workforce Association. (www.calworkforce.org). It may not be the path to world peace. (Then again how will we know unless we try it?) However, the techniques I learned reminded me that too much of my life has been wasted in meetings that seemed destined for the Guinness Book of World Records in several categories: (1) longest; (2) most boring; and (3) biggest waste of time.
During this incredible training I learned how to better facilitate a Consensus Workshop, an Action Planning meeting and my personal favorite, what they call a Focused Conversation. Besides the obvious connection to my tagline Change Your Focus, Change Your Life, the reason I so like the methodology behind the Focused Conversation is because it provides a solid framework for and expands upon a technique I’ve been using for years—employing questions to get yourself and/or others to focus.
Using questions for the purpose of focus is a technique as old as Socrates and no doubt someone taught it to him. One would think it a simple thing to do. After all, we ask questions all the time. But when you use them purposefully to get others to focus on something specific, the design of the question is crucial. For example, see the difference in these two questions:
Question #1 – How should we design our new training program?
Question #2 – What elements should be included in our new training program?
Question #1 will trigger a free-for-all covering a wide variety of topics from what type of software to buy to whether the training guide font should be Comic Sans or Times New Roman. At the end of the meeting, the only likely decision will be that a committee should be formed to take on the project. Meanwhile, the new training program remains in the idea phase with no clear path toward completion.
Question #2 succeeds in getting participants to focus on specifics. At the end of the meeting, the training program has been fleshed out and a decision can be made on the next steps for full implementation.
That is the power of a Focused Conversation. When it’s done by a trained facilitator, participants are engaged, heard and part of the final decisions. It can be used by itself or as part of other types of meetings.
Not everyone reading this has a budget to hire a facilitator or to attend a training to learn it themselves. That, however, does not mean that you cannot take advantage of some of the techniques. The best facilitators spend hours in preparation for meetings. Take a page from them—preparation is the most powerful way to impact the outcome of a meeting. Plan your questions in advance. Make sure they are open-ended; the best ones begin with the word ‘what.” Make sure they are designed to get participants to hone in on what you want to discuss or resolve. Then analyze each question to determine if the answers will bring you closer to action or will create a further delay.
There are many varieties of Focused Conversations. You can have one with a group, with just one other person and with yourself using paper and pen. The most important consideration is how to formulate the kinds of questions that will most quickly bring you to action. Whether that action is in the form of a decision made or a list of steps that need to be taken, either transforms a conversation or meeting from a waste of time to time well spent.