Making meetings work

by Mitzi Wyman

10 July 2019


Investing time in structuring meetings can pay dividends: Mitzi Wyman, Board Advisor at Wyman Associates reflects on her session at the Chair, Non-Executive & Lay member forum on 16 May in Central London

Poorly chaired meetings cost time, money and sap the life out of organisations. They demand resources that the NHS cannot afford to waste, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

At the recent HFMA Chair, Non-executive director and Lay member event (CNL), we explored the challenges created in today’s ‘always-on’ NHS. In an interactive session, participants shared with each other the fall-out created by the sense of urgency that permeates every aspect of the service.

Using the Thinking environment methodology, developed by Nancy Kline, I introduced the notion of ‘generative attention’ and how our failure to give each other quality attention, inhibits and diminishes our thinking. In our rush to tell someone what we already know, we fail to hear what it is they have to say and the opportunity for fresh thinking is lost; we don’t listen, we simply reload. This results in an addiction to certainty and a focus on the short-term, which keeps us locked in cycles of activity that simply rehash the past.

Good board behaviour demands diversity of thinking, equality, generative attention and agreement of no interruption. Together these conditions create environments where people can and do think for themselves. A good chair understands the importance of cultivating such a culture of respect as, to quote Peter Drucker: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’

Throughout the session the group practised techniques they could use to enhance the quality of their meetings, including:

Rounds: regardless of power differentials and hierarchical placement, everyone’s thinking matters because getting everyone’s best thinking produces best results. Rounds are one way to access the wisdom of the group. Here are the rules:

  1. Decide first the question that people will address in the round
  2. Determine the direction of the round (clockwise or counterclockwise)
  3. A volunteer must begin the round
  4. Once they have taken their turn, people are not allowed to speak again until the round is completed.

Don't interrupt: we practised open discussion – where anyone can speak in no particular order – with the proviso that no-one interrupts. This allows the speaker to think better and faster as it minimises the adrenaline that comes from crossfire and rush that is typical in meetings. Adrenaline is replaced with ease, which allows for better thinking. The rules are:

  1. Anyone can speak in no particular order.
  2. No-one tailgates the speaker.
  3. No-one interrupts and the person speaking stays true to their promise to be succinct.

Inevitably, open discussion diminishes in quality as usually 30% of the group begin to dominate. At that point the chair (or any participant) calls for a round, determines the question and the direction of the round. Someone then volunteers to be first.

Over coffee some asked about the time this approach will take. I assured them the investment of time pays dividends as people simply think better and we had only scratched the surface of what is possible. Also, when leaders model such behaviour, demonstrating respect for their colleagues, they free those who look to them to do the same.

Mitzi Wyman works with boards and executive teams. A former NHS non-executive director, she is a member of the HFMA and an advisor to boards and senior teams. She has trained extensively with Nancy Kline in the Thinking environment methodology.

She can be contacted at mitzi@mitziwyman.com

The next CNL event will be on 10 October in London