Group Process: A Meeting about Meetings

Tau Beta Pi hosts Engineering Futures Workshop

In ironic fashion, Tau Beta Pi hosted a meeting about the way we host meetings. In the Feb. 22nd session “Group Process: Planning and Conducting Effective Meetings,” a Tau Beta Pi Nationals representative known as Flip guided a group of eighteen attendees through the topic that plagues the meeting attendee’s existence.

After group introductions, the session began with a staged video clip of a “typical meeting:” the participants are interrupting each other, someone is late, and the equipment isn’t ready. The attendees discussed this scene they know well, pointing out the shortcomings that are common to meeting environments. 

Then, the session split into three groups to discuss the purpose behind meetings. They came up with the reasons you should have a meeting, who should be invited, and what other externalities need to be considered, such as the location. Flip also prodded attendees to think about the way their mini-meeting had functioned, and what weak points the six-person meetings may have shown.

The host summarized that meetings should only be created for decisions that need to be made as a group or processes that require a lot of feedback. He also advised sending out an agenda and handouts ahead of time to stay efficient and on-track. However, meetings are important for a high-performing group, and the session encouraged effective meetings, not fewer. “Research shows that effective teams meet more, not less,” said Flip.

Next, the session dove into agenda-building. This critical part of meeting planning is often overlooked, but it can give structure to an otherwise sidetrack-prone group. The first five minutes should be used for less-critical items, such as status updates. Next should come the “heart” of the meeting. Placing this item second reduces the chance of latecomers missing important agenda items. Following that, less critical items or a “B-list” of topics should be considered. All agenda items need to be assigned an informed time limit for the meeting to stay on track.

As far as enforcing that time limit, Flip recommends assigning a timekeeper for every meeting. Like all team roles, the timekeeper position should be rotated. “You don’t want one person to always be the bad guy,” he says. Other meeting roles include the facilitator and the note-taker. The facilitator should make sure that the topics remain on track and attempt to alleviate any conflict that occurs. The note-taker records the decisions the team reached and any action items distributed.

To deal with conflict or otherwise disruptive behavior, the session taught a technique called “tipping the baton.” This non-confrontational but effective method subtly steers the meeting back towards productive territory. Tangential conversations are a common problem: “You follow the topic until it dies and then you hope you can get back to the agenda,” says Flip of this type of disruptive behavior. There are other forms, as well. Disruption can manifest as cell phone rings, one individual commandeering the meeting, and interpersonal issues.

Tipping the baton is the name for a range of tactics used to refocus the group in this scenario. “Make it subtle, so we get the meeting back on track without anyone feeling offended,” says Flip. Some examples of this are, “Do we need to talk about (extraneous topic) right now or can we get back to (agenda item)?” or “Should we add this to the agenda for later discussion?” These comments, under the guise of soliciting input, remind everyone what they were supposed to be talking about and are a tool to interrupt disruptive conversations. Ignoring off-base or ad hominem statements made within the meeting can also be effective.

Somewhat humorously, the session wound down with some tips for closing a meeting. Phrasing questions such as “Is there anything else we need to cover today?” and “Have we finished the agenda?” offer a soft landing for the discussion and limit the non-productive conversation that can crop up when a meeting hasn’t lasted the full hour it was allotted.

As a final exercise, the session broke back out into three groups, this time with one being Tau Beta Pi members and remaining attendees split between the other two. The Tau Beta Pi group planned its next meeting, from agenda to food provisions. The other groups planned a meeting to address some common meeting issues discussed in the session, implementing the strategies Flip taught.

Tau Beta Pi plans to host an Engineering Futures workshop every spring. The events are free to attend and open to all on campus. Tau Beta Pi’s next community event will be a faculty talk held on the evening of March 26th hosted by Dr. Brenda Haven on the topic of propulsion.

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