Effective Meetings: No News is Good News

Nothing irks me more than a meeting where the agenda consists of one or two people giving reports while everyone else snaps their gum and fiddles with their Blackberries. These meetings remind me of the townfolk gathering outside the telegraph office to hear Old Ben in his suspenders read a message from the next town over.  Really — is this the purpose of bringing great minds together?  To sit and listen to someone ‘read the news’ that could have easily been disseminated via email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and a bunch of other new social media that I don’t even know the names of yet?

Me, personally?  I think it’s a bad use of time and talent.  Meetings without a problem-solving purpose are a waste of time. Those with such a purpose can be extraordinarily fun, collegial, and productive. 

An Alternative

A few months ago, the Milwaukee Continuum of Care established a special work group to develop a Coordinated Entry system for the homeless services system, including shelters, transitional housing, and homeless prevention services.  Recognizing that work groups can quickly devolve into three people with no better alternative than to show up, the chair (Tim Baack) and I patched together a strategy that has really worked.  Here are some of the elements:

1.  Homework.

Work group members were asked to interview people in other cities about their coordinated entry (central intake) systems.  Someone interviewed the central intake program in Dayton, someone else called Kalamazoo, and so on.  Results were shared with the group in oral and written form.  This dispersed the responsibility for information-gathering and synthesis to the whole group. 

2.  Visioning

A visioning process is really about having everyone say what’s on their mind.  We did this early to try to surface some of the misgivings and apprehensions that shelter operators and others might have about a coordinated entry process.  When their concerns were recognized as legitimate by others, they became problems to solve rather than little land mines that would blow us up later.

3.  Decision List

We came up with a list of questions that had to be answered in order to establish Coordinated Entry.  Every work group member was asked to submit his/her answers to the chair so they could be recorded on a decision spreadsheet.  At each meeting, we tackle 2 or 3 questions, not closing the discussion until there is genuine agreement on the answer.  When a question is answered, we go on to the next, with no circling back (well, so far).  Having the decision list puts the end in sight – essentially when we answer the last question we will have designed the Coordinated Entry system.

4.  Cookies

The work group chair, Tim Baack of Pathfinders, sets the tone for the meeting with his preparation and his presence.  He is there to greet people as they arrive.  He has a fresh pot of coffee and a platter of cookies.  Agendas and meeting materials are at everyone’s place.  He is glad to see everyone and they feel welcome.  He guides the discussion but doesn’t rush it.  People are heard.  That’s huge.

When Coordinated Entry gets established, it will have a lot of fingerprints on it (and a few cookie crumbs). People will look back at the hard work they did and remember it as being challenging and energizing.  They’ll still go to the big meetings and listen to Old Ben read the latest telegram but they’ll be looking around the room for a problem to solve and some fun to have.