Why using protocols can improve your meetings

Innovation; Research
​​​Using protocols can improve your meetings

Have you facilitated or attended meetings where you hear too much from a select few? Or where decisions never seem to get made? Or where your colleagues are simply not engaged? These challenges at meetings are common experiences and they can make managing meetings very difficult.

Research shows that the most commonly identified challenges in meetings are:
  • steering away from the intended subject
  • no goals or agenda
  • too lengthy
  • poor or inadequate preparation
  • inconclusive
  • ineffective leadership
  • time wasting.
So what strategies can we use to facilitate productive and collaborative meetings?

One approach is to use protocols.  Protocols help us to establish transparency and support learning amongst our colleagues.  They help us to clarify our own views and those of others, and play an important role in developing a culture that values collective decision-making. When used effectively, protocols increase equity, promote meaningful participation and can create workplaces where the power to assess outcomes and to take action to improve them is distributed throughout the organisation. This is called 'distributed facilitative leadership'.

Investing in the development of distributed facilitative leadership in your organisation setting means working to ensure that there are people throughout your organisation who know how to:
  • gather colleagues together with a purpose
  • establish effective ground rules
  • enforce ground rules by identifying behaviours consistent and inconsistent with them
  • enable colleagues to share information freely with one another
  • help colleagues to appreciate and attend to others' perspectives
  • help colleagues make a collective commitment to the decisions they take.
Here are some suggested protocols and strategies that could improve the management of your meetings and give you a good chance of growing a culture of distributed facilitative leadership in your organisation.

Openings to a meeting are critical, and need to be considered carefully. Often we assume that we can launch into an agenda without warm-up because colleagues are familiar with one another. Opening strategies such as introductions and norm-setting should never be missed when meeting formally with colleagues.

Introductions get people connected straight away to one another and to the content of the meeting. People who speak early in a meeting a more likely to contribute later on and avoid prolonged silence, rather than those who do not make an early contribution. Introductions also develop a presence of distributed intelligence amongst the group and symbolise collective knowledge. A suggested activity could be 'clearing', where for 5-10 minutes group members say what things are most on their mind, or 'pair share', where group members share with a partner their past experiences related to the goal or content of the meeting and share their discussion with the wider group.

Norms are the behavioural guidelines that signify ways of being together and learning from one another. Norms are always present in a group context, but most of the time they haven't been made explicit by facilitators. Making collective decisions about how we expect individual group members or colleagues to behave and interact with one another is critical to building transparency within a group and to limit unproductive behaviours. Norms might include beginning and ending times, attendance, active and attentive listening, giving everyone opportunity to speak, respect for diversity of opinions, confidentiality where necessary and safety within the room, phones on silent, discussing issues and not people, role of chair person. A process of developing collectively agreed protocols could be:
  • brainstorming of all possible norms together
  • discussing and synthesising the brainstorming to tease out individual deliberations in a transparent way
  • reaching consensus and support from all members across the group, and affirming of the list of norms
  • reviewing and reflecting on norms from time to time within the group.
Closing is a critical aspect of facilitating a meeting, and can be done in a simple way. Closing ensures that the learning and discussion had within the agenda will carry through into educators' work life. A productive way to do this is to use the 'All-purpose Go-Round' protocol, to draw together group members' perceptions and ideas about the discussion and to take the time to specify what they have learnt. Three useful questions to guide this could be:
  • What have you learnt?
  • What difference will this makes to your work?
  • What steps will you take to make the most of this learning?
The use of protocols in your meetings can go a long way to developing a sense of participation,trust and to ensuring equity amongst the group. It can mean more than just productive meeting time, it can lead to the development of a culture of distributed facilitative leadership and a professional community of practice.

Information in this article was based on: