Leadership, planning, Teamwork

Meetings Revisited

Recently a friend observed, “Sometimes all we do in a meeting planned to produce useful output is just talk”.  It reminded me of an article I wrote a long time ago on the subject with some specific pointers.  They still sound useful after fifteen years.


Start with a planning mind map or list. The first branch to place on your map is the reason for holding the meeting in the first place. Imagine the meeting as a finished entity. What happened? What results were accomplished? What are the next steps? If you don’t find immediate answers to these questions, consider why you are holding the meeting at all. There may be better ways to deal with the issue at hand. Perhaps you need to speak to one person, not an entire group. Perhaps the meeting could be better accomplished by a telephone conference call or an online conference, particularly if the participants live in different cities. If your main purpose is to convey information, it might be better to simply send a memo.  If you are making an important announcement, why not throw a party? Before you call the meeting, decide the appropriateness of holding it at all.


If you are going to proceed, compare a meeting to a theatrical presentation. There is action in three parts of the theater, — backstage, main stage and in the lobby following the show. The backstage effort, — the gathering of the props, the rehearsal of the scene, the preparation of the program are going to determine the overall success of the performance.  Start your visual map with a branch that includes the participants. Follow by mapping the agenda items. Put them down as fast as they come to you in random order and get them all down on the page.  Look at which items are simple and straightforward, which are controversial,  and which involve the whole group.  Look at who should report on the various issues and who might present the topics.

Now it is time to order this raw material and put it into a clearer order and time frame. Decide on the duration of the meeting. Confirm who needs to attend.  Decide on the order of the items on the agenda.  It is well to warm up on non-controversial items and place the most contentious issue in the middle. It is also a good idea to follow the controversial issue with a neutral one, or deliberately delay decisions on the items following the controversial issues, so that opponents won’t use the remainder of the meeting to seek revenge for past action and kill each other off.

Decide on the resources that you will need for the meeting. Do you need a projector or flip chart? Do you need background papers or other references?  Insofar as possible, send the agenda and its attached documents to the participants well in advance of the date.  Encourage participants to read all reference materials in advance.  Otherwise you are going to convene a meeting of readers, whose faces will never rise during the meeting because they are buried in reference documents. How can there possibly be any useful contribution on any issue if the meeting is the first time people know anything about it?

Now it is time to move to center stage. Choose your meeting room carefully.  If possible, get a room with good natural light. Pay attention to ventilation and temperature because these are vital to the energy of the people attending the meeting. It is important to bar interruptions. Deactivate the phone in the room and ensure cell phones are in a bucket in the centre of the table..  Place a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door.

Provide the proper materials.  Make sure that any additional printouts and reference materials are available for each participant. Have a flip chart with markers of the appropriate size at the ready. If you really want to stimulate the participants, provide them with bright markers and highlighters. If money is no object, equip the room with an electronic white board.


“I’ve been on a calendar, but never on time.

— Marilyn Monroe

Start the meeting promptly.  Don’t penalize those who arrived on time by waiting for the latecomers.  Don’t interrupt the proceedings to acknowledge the latecomers and bring them up to date. You’re simply reinforcing their tardy behaviour and making it acceptable.

If you are the chairman, it is your responsibility to control the process.  Your meeting agenda  is a constant reminder of the material that you have to cover. You will need to worry less about the talkative participant who will have always plenty to say when you have the big picture in front of you. If you are smart, you may have already asked the most garrulous or the most bothersome member of the group to take notes. Balance participation by inviting the quieter ones to comment. Often their contributions will be more worthwhile than those of the chatty types. Summarize the proceedings as you go. Emphasize the positive and show appreciation for all contributions.


Use the briefest possible format outlining results – avoid summarizing the discussion unless points made will be useful at a later date.  What is to be done? Who will do it? When will it be done? Don’t provide any more content than necessary.  You want participants to spend their time on the necessary follow-up, not on reading.


Evaluate each meeting.  What went right? What went wrong? Who participated? Who was silent throughout? What feedback did you receive? Be prepared to spend time following up with participants who have concerns arising from the meeting. Be prepared to hear from those who said little during the meeting because something was probably upsetting them.

Last, but not least, keep good records.  Visual maps provide excellent recall of what happened and can be reviewed quickly. If you have a number of memos and minutes for an organization, a committee or a department, consider keeping the documents in a three ring binder rather than in flat files. That way it will be easier to retrieve the documents you need.


  The last meeting’s minutes always provide the starting point for the next.  Start the cycle by reviewing your previous map agenda and minutes and see where you stand on the issues which were addressed. Some matters may have been delayed and need to get back on the agenda.  Some need review. Some persons need to be commended for their achievements.  Others need to be reminded of reports that should be made. Using this process as your planning tool will really get your show on the road.

effectiveness, Learning, Reflection

What we want

I am preparing for a long meeting of an organization where I am an active volunteer and reading preparation materials in advance.  Because we work with children and vulnerable adults we undergo something described as Sexual Misconduct Training.

That title here is a good example of a misnomer – and it also reflects an error in thinking. Rather than making something that we don’t want go away, we need to focus on the desired result – a safe and caring place for everyone demonstrated by behaviour that is defined, understood and practised.  As it stands, the title sounds like training in the exact thing that we don’t want.

Rather than fixing problems, focusing on a desired outcome is a good plan for both training descriptions and strategy formation.

board orientation, effectiveness, Reflection

Orientation – For better or worse

boardYou may hope I didn’t really mean Bored Orientation. For better or worse many of us who sit on volunteer boards have experienced an orientation session recently. There are some things I really like about the process — and some that I would prefer were handled differently.

A changeover in volunteer personnel can be exciting and there are many ways to accomplish integrating new and continuing members of boards. One way that happened last year was to be taken to a posh club’s private dining room for breakfast and to get the lowdown on how everything works. The more recent session was more conventional. It went somewhat better than I anticipated. At least this actual one was not as bizarre as the one depicted in BBC’s wonderful spoof, W1A.

The first plus on entering the room was the setup. The meetings regularly take place in a large room to accommodate the more than forty participants. Usually the room configuration looks something like this:

People can neither see each other nor much on the screen above the heads of the chairman. So perhaps a good start for any orientation meeting would respond to this preference:

Does the room setup work relate to the meeting’s purpose? Can the participants all see and hear one another?

But instead, this time the room looked something like this:

There were actually two large tables to seat four people on both sides of the room with a large aisle in the middle. Welcome back to high school. We were in a classroom with the teacher up front — to be instructed as newcomers — even though some of us had been actively involved in the organization for two to four years; fewer than a third were coming for the first time. But there was little likelihood that there would be an attempt to find out what anyone already knew. My preference :

Does this meeting require my presence and what is my role? Am I a new learner or a mentor? What do people know already?

The introductions at least rated an A. The facilitator asked us to rise from our chairs. We then learned about the geographic areas we represented by walking along a continuum or treating the room’s four corners like a map — moving around based on the color of our socks, or where we lived, or where we were born, or where we lived the longest, and what we saw as our highest priority for the organization. This gave us a quick orientation to the diversity. It met my preference:

For introductions, do something to see the range and diversity of participants that makes a visual impression. Just saying names won’t work for most of us.

Another introduction trick I like for a smaller group is to ask people to state two lies and one truth about themselves and let others guess which is correct.

My own would be:

a) I jumped out of an airplane.

b) A Zulu chief spilled coffee on my living room carpet.

c) I sang a solo on the stage of a national arts centre.

(if you read to the end you can find out the real answers!).

The next time you meet the person introduced in this way, it will be easier to remember their true fact than their first and last names.Therefore my preference:

Whether you have a large or small group, make introductions entertaining and fun.

But then things went downhill as we started what is known in a orientation as a “read-along” — rather like a sing-along but without the noise. There was text on the screen with a heading like “Significant Decisions”. Knowing the history of any organization is vital. But we don’t agree to serve on volunteer boards just to make significant decisions. We serve to change the world for the better. My preference:

In an orientation session a passionate story of changed lives encourages us to dream of a better future. Text headings or summaries combined with reading aloud assumes participants are illiterate. If the text is too dense or too small, perhaps we are.

There was a good exception to this format when a lawyer introduced us to the organization’s statutes. The wording was on the screen in a typeface actually large enough to read. She commented on the content very briefly and told us where to look for it later if we needed to: My preference:

Keep the focus on the big picture that you want people to take away and provide the detailed references in a handout. And don’t let the handout compete for attention in the session iteself.

Then we received a diagram explaining the organizational structure. Here is its shape with the titles slightly amended.

I found this very puzzling. The organization’s members seem to have some ability to push up — or back. Top down is probably accurate. It’s the slanted line that I don’t understand. But no one questioned what the diagram meant — including me. The next slide contained a suggestion that both the two should work collaboratively. But this diagram has a line that divides the two and it looks as though we are on a teeter-totter. My preference:

Test a diagram in advance to see if it conveys the meaning you intend.

Next came the expected org charts. The images on one of them didn’t match the handout and it must have been a last minute inspiration to do something graphic — it was the only thing vaguely ressembling a picture all day. Parts of the chart were colored and they flew in on the screen but the words were too small to read. So was the text on the handout without a high powered magnifying glass. My preference.

Check anything mounted on a big screen or handout for readability. And forget special effects, which distract from your message.

Next — Departmental presentations. What we saw on the big screen were personnel names — and telephone extensions. I didn’t need to phone anyone right then and I was not likely to use the handout in the future as a telephone book. My preference:

Avoid cutting and pasting something from a staff directory and calling it a presentation.

Here was another opportunity missed for the directors to speak passionately about the importance of the work they do — and to tell their stories. It’s the classic case of sharing features when what we need to hear about is benefits.And how about a quick online visit to Facebook and Twitter rather than being told that the organization has these sites ? My preference:

Show — instead of tell — whenever possible.

The last section before lunch dealt with our role as members of the board. That seemed promising. Were we going to hear from a continuing member about the satisfaction and opportunities in this kind of volunteer work? But no. Instead we had another read-along about current organizational mission, vision and values.

The topic might have been the most important reason for the day — so its agenda placement was puzzling. The graphics assigned roles of leadership, implementation and governance — in that order — to leader, staff and board members respectively.

While a leader has a role to play — presumably leading those who are already keen to follow because they have a stake in the outome — it raises the question of what governance really is. Are board members simply keepers of the flame or do they have a larger role to play in determining the organization’s future? My preference:

Explore what organizational leadership really involves. It’s something for a leaders, board members and staff to determine collaboratively. The orientation meeting could begin that conversation. Every meeting that follows needs to have it on the agenda.

I have served on volunteer boards of various sizes for more than twenty years. Sorting out these three issues is the most important thing we do — working on the business as opposed to working in the business. But we were moved onward to more mundane suggestions about how we were to behave — “show up, read the background materials, vote”. We then saw the meeting schedule for the year. My preference:

If the right people get elected or appointed — and that does mean “if “— these expectations are so basic to the process that we should assume they are there already. We need to leave commited and inspired!

Time for lunch. . . .

(a) FALSE I didn’t jump out of an airplane — but one of my sons did. b) TRUE. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a Zulu Chief, isited Canada in 1963 for an international conference and was also photographed by the famous portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh; the coffee spill was totally accidental. b) FALSE. I sang in a massed choir.)

character, Leadership, purpose, Reflection

Salvation through Cleaning

The morning’s Globe and Mail offers some strange advice in its business section this morning.  “Clean Home, Clear Corporate Minds”  shows how far an MBA can take you from the real world and it makes me so glad I never thought of pursuing one. The article starts with the experience of a business executive who takes a break from her regular duties to travel to Montreal from San Fransciso to scrub floors, wipe desktops – and horror of horrors, clean toilets. This experience produces an “aha” moment of oneness with the universe and sends her back to Califormia productive and raring to go.

Well duh.  Had she ever thought of doing cleaning at home? Probably not.  Of course working for Zenith Cleaning as a volunteer meant she had to don a uniform and actually enter a restaurant wearing it. (I wondered if the uniform involved denim and whether she had exchanged it for her own jeans costing $200 and up. – but maybe not)  The experience of wondering if people would reject her on the basis of how she looked made her feel humble and suddenly there was an epiphany. Cleaning was a way to mindfulness.

The company founder and CEO agrees that “cleaning is as much a spiritual service as a physical act” – and has created a side business ” inviting executives to come to Montreal and work alongside his professional cleaning crews” and join them as “pilgrims”..  I guess the feckless executives could save their companies money by doing the same tasks on their own turf – but apparently they need training in using unnamed cleaning tools – (sponges? dustcloths?) – as well as operating vacuums and mops.  Sounds as though these guys and gals don’t get home much to watch the hired help – or perhaps spouses.

The article goes on to note that promoting mindfulness in the workplace is not limited to Zenith Cleaning but is also followed by Google, Apple, Deutsche Bank and General Mills – who “bring in speakers, including Buddhist monks”  – though the purpose is to improve productivity as much as relieving stress or quieting minds.  Meditation and yoga are also encouraged. An associate professor of strategy and leadership at McGill’s business school notes that people are looking for “deeper purpose beyond profit in their lives and their work”. Spirituality without religion rules. Zenith Cleaning’s founder notes that he had a conversion.  “I think I would be in investment banking and doing something very normal –

Stop right there.  Investment banking isn’t something very normal at all. If that’s what he learned at the business school that invites him back every year to speak, he’s been badly served by the thousands of dollars he’s spent on his own education. That kind of world view is one of the things that makes us so completely messed up.

But it’s telling that all this language – purpose, pilgrims, caring, meditation, humilty, spiritual awakening – have all been co-opted from the world of religions – along with the favorite business buzz-word, “mission”.   We are confusing two worlds that are pretty much opposed. Did the business schools ever think of inviting anyone from the faith tradtion that formed the basis of capitalism at its inception?  The space they are trying to fill shows the world of post Christendom does have needs that are not being met in a very effective way.

but it’s also a pretty firm indictment of communities of faith in their inabiity to compete with the religion of business with their new dogma  apostles and disciples. No one even thought of asking them.  I spent the past weekend with Phyllis Tickle – a self-described “uppity woman” who travels the world with some interesting insights as to where Christendom in particular is headed. She says it’s in the middle of one of its every five hundred year rummage sales and no one is quite sure where it will land. It may be down but its history shows this pattern of coming back changed but not out.   Nevertheless, religions – and Christendom in particular –  better speed up their determination to recapture the ownership of some of this language and thinking by owning it with more insights than we are seeing from the business schools.


character, Pausing, Reflection, remembering

Terrorism here and there

I am struck this morning by two New York Times headlines in the daily news feed which I read every day. Scrolling down, I read “2 Die, Including Gunman in Shootout in Washington State High School” and “Two California Officers are Killed in Rampage“.  Five needless deaths. Much higher up in the list of news items is speculation about the motivation of the Canadian terrorist who invaded our House of Parliament this week. One needless death, three injured – and one probably necessary death there.  But what makes it different is to label it as TERRORISM.

I’ve lived in the US and love the country – but we Canadians really are somewhat different. My day of the Canadian shooting started as usual.  I had the radio on and was driving in the car when it happened this past Wednesday.  It was too early for breaking news.  I went to a morning meeting, went out to lunch with a friend, and had a short meeting with a team I am involved with.  I drove back home without the radio on, and then decided to hop on the subway to the Apple Store in one of Toronto’s biggest shopping malls to see if they had Iphone6  in stock.  I’d acquired a hearing enhancement device and the controller can be an Iphone – how cool is that! The Apple Store already had a long line-up for the limited number of the phones arriving daily – but the helpful guy at the door suggested the store on the ground floor might have one if I went with a payment plan.  Since I was going that route, and they had one phone left,  I was all set.

The process took about an hour while they tried to up-sell me on several things I didn’t want or need. I finally left to catch the subway just before evening rush hour.  I came home, checked a few emails and answered some, did a little bit of monkeying with my phone to set up voicemail and checked out a couple of the new features.  By then it was nearly 6:00 pm, so I poured a glass of wine and sat down to watch BBC America on PBS.  This was when I learned of the events in my capital city.

I have to confess that I switched immediately to a Canadian network and got caught up. The story is tragic.  It is still not clear whether the perpetrator was a terrorist sent by others or someone whose mind was deeply muddled by a mixture of dreadful ideology, isolation and misdirected anger. Like all countries we have such individuals but so far we are not all perpetually frightened. It’s comforting to have political leaders who hug each other the next day before getting back to partisan positions – but they get back to work. The headlines of the daily paper and the articles show degrees of media obsession as always we but tolerate it and get one with our lives.The news was out but no one felt they need to comment – I doubt that all the people I met were as unconnected with the news as I was.  We accept both that the world has changed – and that it hasn’t.  One of my sons and I were locked in Tower of London for a few hours in the ’70s days of Irish terrorism- but everyone remained calm.  We once lived across from a high school when a crazed teen came and killed another student.  We’ve lived through the FLQ crisis. We’ve lived through Sars.  People got killed – people got sick – people died – but not everybody did.

We live in a beautful and free world that can turn perilous. Millions don’t and live in real peril all the time.  The challenge for us is to live in both worlds without giving way to perpetual fear and hysteria.


effectiveness, Leadership, Learning, Sample Tools, vision, visual mapping

Not necessarily digital

I was told last evening to keep my presentation short. In other words, the fewer words the better. I knew that there was an overly-tight agenda.  I had doodled a few words in the morning but I didn’t know if there would be a projector. So rather than taking the time to create a slideshow, I used the photocopier.

If I were more confident I would draw this while speaking. Doing it this way though means that people have a take-away. The principle is that what we remember what we see better than what we hear. This is the doodle and an approximation of the script:


It’s the year 2020.  The leaders have a vision.  They see us with 225 people in the parish church every Sunday (compared to 150 now) a balanced budget  about $150,000 higher – and the place full of people.   They went to our parent body over here on the right. (I held up a copy of the full proposal)  The diocese has similar goals and they have money to help.  So they did – the carrot is money for new staff. We will expand from one-full time and two-half-time people to three full-time and two half-time.  That’s a big jump in a single year.  The stick is accountability.  That comes with a coach who guides us for the seven years.  He helped us clarify what we want to do – which is to:

  • Have more members
  • Have more money
  • Make our parishioners disciples who reach out –  and by their example welcome and nourish others. That’s our mission.

Our next budget reflects these goals along with a road map for 2014.  The road map, called a work plan, describes what to do, who does it and when.Each goal has its own swim lane.  We report to the coach every quarter.  The last doodle bottom right is the org chart. (I held the real one up). It shows all the key players.  You are on the edge supporting the inner circle along with your working groups.  I’ve attached a sample of the 2013 work plan so you can see how it’s laid out.  We’re still improving the one for 2014. I’ll send it to you in digital format to save paper.

Even though I couldn’t spell accountability correctly, the points got made – in 273 words.  While this is a specific context, you can adapt the pattern to your own needs.  Try a word count on a typical written report and compare. It’s not what you write or say that matters,  The real test is whether anyone hears, reads, gets it or remembers.

Creating, Creativity, Education, Learning, Reflection

The Next MOOC Adventure

This one is a Coursera course called Creativity, Innovation and Change.  Compared with Jazz Improvisation, where I was well out of my league and alas never completed the course, though I would like to return to it after some upgrading of my basic knowledge – and Song Writing, where I was much more attuned to the work and really enjoyed composing a song from scratch, this one in part of a territory that is familiar as well.  But I am always interested in learning how others view creating.

The first week’s assignment includes the creation of a Life Ring – a visual presentation of roles and responsibilities – with a view to getting them down to a manageable number based on passion and priorities.  The centre is to delineate a passion or driving force.  I like the graphic image of the course itself – which shows a mixture of organic and man made features so that became the centre.  And the obvious way for me to create such a map was with the use of VisiMap.

Creative Design (2)

You can look at a full size version here

The course is just getting underway.  So if you need to go to class in September, it looks as though this one would be more than worthwhile.