Photo by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash

Run Meetings Like You’re in Kindergarten

Make Meetings More Equitable By Giving Everyone a Chance to Speak

Alicia Liu
Jun 6, 2018 · 4 min read

How many times have you sat in a meeting rolling your eyes as a fellow attendee delivered a soliloquy wholly irrelevant to the meeting?

Sometimes detours are necessary to provide background information or explore new ideas in a meeting. But often one person dominates the meeting with lengthy tangents, as everyone else discreetly checks their email. Not only is this phenomenon a primary reason people think meetings are useless and a waste of time, it also drains the creativity and energy that comes from working collaboratively in a group setting, as participants become bored and disengaged.

The promise of working as a team is that the sum is greater than the parts. This can only happen if each member has an opportunity to contribute. But all too often, meetings are dominated by the people who are most comfortable interjecting themselves into the conversation, and people who are skilled at talking ad lib at length. This imbalance isn’t usually due to some people just enjoying hearing themselves talk, it is more the consequence of having caucus-style meetings—meetings where anyone can say anything at any time. A “caucus score” is a measure of the attributes that someone has to do well or poorly in a caucus meeting, e.g. degree of comfort in interrupting someone else. The unintended consequence is people with high caucus scores drown out the quieter people who have something worth saying, but lack opportunity to do so.

Much advice is given to people on how to be more confident and assertive (essentially increasing their caucus score), but all that does is create more people who vie to dominate the meeting with their voice.

Instead, we should investigate how to structure meetings to prevent this scenario in the first place. Just because a group of people get along does not mean they will naturally have good meetings.

Good meetings don’t happen by chance.

Good meetings happen because of thoughtful preparation before the meeting, and skillful moderation during the meeting. A good meeting moderator gets the best ideas and decisions from the group by giving everyone an opportunity to participate, and making it safe to share.

The simplest way to do that is to just give everyone a chance to speak. Round robin sounds childish, but is a straight-forward and effective meeting strategy. The meeting moderator goes around and asks each participant if they have something to add. This can be done at the beginning of a meeting to collect agenda items, or at the end of a discussion topic to bring to light any remaining concerns, questions, or information that had not been shared in the discussion.

Round Robin is simple, but there are a couple of keys to making it work:

There is no penalty for passing. If it’s your turn and you don’t have anything to add, you can just pass. If you remember something after you pass, you can add it on the next round. The facilitator keeps going around until everyone has passed.

Unfortunately, the status quo in meetings is if you’re called on to say something, you feel like you have to say something, even if you don’t have anything new to add. We need to change meeting culture to make not saying anything consequence free. Think of it as doing your coworkers a favor by helping meetings run tight, by seconding what’s already been said. “I agree with Jennifer, pass” goes much faster than struggling to repeat what Jennifer said in your own words. Bonus: You have the opportunity to uplift your coworkers by seconding what they’ve already said.

Limit the amount of time each person has to talk. Round Robin is for each person to bring up the things they want to address, but the actual discussion does not happen during the Round Robin. The moderator needs to keep the Round Robins short and snappy: quickly note down each person’s topic or idea, so it can be addressed in the discussion following the Round Robin.

Example Meeting Agenda with Round Robins

An agenda for such a meeting could look like:

  • 3 minutes Round Robin to collect meeting agenda topics—usually there is already a meeting agenda, this is a way to collect additional topics that participants come to the meeting with, based on them having seen the agenda or read any preparatory material before the meeting.
  • 15 minutes discussion—the moderator can now be more effective at moderating the discussion. They know all the topics, and who had raised or seconded each topic, the moderator can assess how much time to give each topic and who to call upon to contribute on that topic. If there are too many topics, the moderator can also preemptively evaluate topics, and decide to table less relevant or less urgent topics for a separate discussion or follow up.
  • 2 minutes Round Robin to collect any questions, comments, and concerns that didn’t get a chance to be raised in the discussion.
  • 10 minutes wrap up—get the last round of questions and concerns addressed, or decide to follow up after the meeting. Bonus: End the meeting early if everything is addressed!

Try Round Robin, and have a happy meeting!

Counter Intuition

Personal blog on leadership, philosophy, behavior change, and technology.

Alicia Liu

Written by

Wanderer above the sea of fog // programmer beneath the sweat of brow

Counter Intuition

Personal blog on leadership, philosophy, behavior change, and technology.

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