Ground Rules for Effective Meetings & Strategic Planning Offsites
Why are meeting ground rules important?
Without ground rules, meetings may become less effective and potentially more frustrating if your team is not aligned around a set of expectations.
While having a clear strategic planning agenda for each meeting is a great starting point to keep your team on track, it is also important that your strategic planning facilitator (whether internal or external) shares a set of ground rules to support the team to meet the desired meeting outcomes.
Clear and specific ground rules support effective team building, decision making, and strategic thinking, and they will also help each participant understand what is expected of them.
While ground rules can be logistical or behavioral, focusing on the latter will be more beneficial for building a strong meeting culture that supports follow-through and implementation of the ideas your team develops within meetings. Therefore, these ground rules can help your meetings remain purposeful and productive, rather than disorganized and stressful.
While there is no one correct set of ground rules for meetings to be applied to every organization in every setting, we at SME Strategy have developed a set of ground rules to guide our strategic planning facilitators and clients through the strategic planning process, stakeholder engagement sessions, and management training programs
Here are the 12 ground rules that we use when facilitating strategic planning sessions and beyond:
1. Test Assumptions and Inferences
In most group settings, misunderstandings are inevitable, sometimes resulting in confusion, frustration, or defensiveness. By discouraging reactivity and encouraging thoughtful reflection, participants can start to ask each other clarifying questions such as “what did you mean by that?” in order to foster constructive conversations and understanding.
2. Share all relevant information
If meeting participants don’t have all of the essential or relevant information to move the discussion forward, there may be confusion or friction.
We recommend putting “all of the cards on the table”, because if critical information is not available and everyone is not sharing their full perspectives, the team won't make their best decision possible or achieve its full potential.
3. Discuss the un-discussable
If difficult conversations are avoided or glossed over, these issues or problems will most certainly come up in the future.
During important meetings, do NOT avoid critical conversations, even if they are challenging, but DO focus on facts and information. Discussing challenges in a systemic rather than personal way will bring an added level of productivity to these conversations.
4. Use specific examples, not generalizations
When we use absolute or general phrases like “always” or “never”, especially when addressing conflict or difficult topics, it may trigger defensiveness and stop groups from getting to the heart of an issue. Instead, use specific examples that highlight the impact of individual circumstances of situations.
For example, instead of saying:
“John never responds to my emails and I find this frustrating”,
try something like:
“I sent John an email last Monday requesting information about our project timeline, but I did not get a response. The impact was that I was unable to move forward without this information”.
5. Explain reasoning and intent
When asking critical questions of team members, or proposing new ideas, it helps to be intentional with wording. Phrases like “I’m asking this because” or “I’ve learned something new that I’d like to share” may help to guide a productive conversation.
When asking a leading question, have participants consider whether they are aiming for a better and deeper outcome, or trying to trap someone and make themselves look good or seem ‘right’. While it’s ok to ask probing questions to seek greater clarity, make sure it’s done with the intention of moving the group’s dialogue forward.
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6. Focus on interests, not positions
Conflicts can arise when making decisions in meetings if individuals are advocating for their personal position versus collective group interests.
By making an agreement to focus on group interests rather than individual positions, it can help participants to ask themselves “what can we collectively get out of this?” and to begin focusing on finding solutions that will help the group move forward.
At SME Strategy, we like to remind meeting participants that the focus is on the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back of the jersey.
7. Combine advocacy with inquiry
Sometimes we can become set in our opinions and beliefs and forget to look outside of ourselves, our biases, and our assumptions. This can cause us to become blind to information that may be helpful or solutions that may be innovative.
By focusing on both advocacy and inquiry, individuals are encouraged to ask questions to get to the heart of important issues versus proving a point or arguing for their perspective. This helps individuals challenge themselves and others, while remaining open to new perspectives that may elevate the organization to the next level.
8. Design next steps to test disagreements
Meetings are time-bound, and sometimes disagreements cannot be resolved within these boundaries. If this occurs, it is important to determine the next steps to move forward rather than dropping the conversation.
If a disagreement arises that is taking too long to resolve within the meeting, ask yourselves “What do we need to do next to find a resolution?” This might look like booking a follow up meeting, researching additional information, booking a team workshop, scheduling a conflict resolution session, or otherwise.
9. Make decisions that reflect commitment
Many teams discuss actions and next steps during meetings, but don’t end up following through on them because they may not have been specific enough, lacked a due date, or had an individual accountable for them.
If your team agrees that an action needs to be taken following the meeting, setting a clear deliverable with a person who is accountable for completing it by a specific date will foster accountability and follow through. If you believe in something and put your name next to it, you’ll be more likely to do it.
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10. Utilize a “Parking Lot”
Oftentimes, meetings can go off track when related discussion topics spiral into “rabbit holes”. Sometimes this information is important or even urgent, but not relevant to the current agenda.
Having a designated parking lot to add these discussion topics to will help to ensure it’s not forgotten, while returning the team’s focus to the current strategy meeting agenda. This also helps to ensure that your team feels heard and so that important issues are not brushed over.
Tip: If you end a meeting with items on the parking lot, make sure you have a forum to review or discuss those items.
11. Encourage equity of voice & engagement (in-person or online)
In many groups there are individuals who are outspoken, quiet or reserved, and those who fall in between, along a spectrum. There may also be cultural differences that lead to some individuals being comfortable volunteering their opinions and others waiting until they are asked for their thoughts.
Encouraging equity of voice and engagement means being aware of individuals that may be oversharing while supporting others that have information and opinions to share as well.
It also means that participants are not talking over people, interrupting them, or having side conversations that distract from the main speaker.
To encourage team engagement and equity of voice throughout the session, it is helpful to have a strategy facilitator, whether internally or externally, who will actively bring individuals into the discussions. Equally important, this facilitator will help to guide those who may monopolize the conversations by referring to ground rules as needed throughout the session.
12. Co-create a safe space
Where one person might feel a meeting is a safe space for them to speak up, another may not. It is impossible to assume or impose a safe space for discussion.
Safe spaces are not automatic, and they take effort and awareness to build. Instead, it is important for all of the team members, alongside the meeting strategic planning consultant to work together to co-create or foster a safe space.
When working together to be more inclusive, new ideas and innovation will often emerge as a result.
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