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Unproductive meetings can cost companies millions

The cost of unproductive meetings can be very high. A study of salaries and benefits from unproductive meetings involving 16 members of one company’s information technology department over a year showed unproductive meetings were costing the company $1.6 million per year.

“That is astonishing to me,” says Janet Danforth, founding partner of Facilitator4hire Inc., who teaches facilitation skills, facilitates meetings and assesses candidates for the profession’s international certification, the certified professional facilitator (CPF). “But it is not unusual. Meetings that don’t achieve their purpose cost the company. In addition to frustration and anxiety, just plain old money is lost. It is a dollars-and-cents issue. Companies are now starting to recognize that when you bring people together in a collaborative environment, someone trained in basic facilitation skills should lead the meeting.”

Danforth, who is based in Westminster, S.C., and has provided meeting facilitation training for Mississippi companies such as Triton, an ATM manufacturer in Long Beach, is an advocate of the benefits of using a professional facilitator.

“There are a lot of people who call themselves facilitators,” Danforth says. “A lot of trainers call themselves facilitators and a lot of consultants call themselves facilitators. Consultants can use facilitation skills in what they do. Trainers can use facilitation skills in their training. But it doesn’t mean that they possess the skills of a professional facilitator to help a group of people achieve their objectives. An awfully lot of people are selling themselves as facilitators who aren’t. CPF is a good differentiator.

The CPF is a rigorous certification that requires a candidate to demonstrate a set of facilitator core competencies. There are now CPFs on five continents and 36 countries. Danforth says it is what someone should look at when hiring a facilitator to make sure they have facilitator core competencies.

“If you see CPF after a person’s name, they can be assured that person has gone through a rigorous test,” she says.

Staying neutral

Facilitators are trained to remain neutral on the topics being discussed. Especially on difficult issues like mergers and downsizing, it is important to bring in an outside facilitator who can remain objective. Someone who receives a paycheck can find it impossible to be neutral about downsizing. For other types of meetings, it might be best to use someone on staff trained in basic facilitation skills.

“More and more companies are training internal staff in basic facilitation skills to run collaborative meetings,” says Danforth. “Our company does meeting facilitation services for corporations, towns and government, and also goes in to teach people inside their organizations how to do what we do.”

Skills for running good meetings are perhaps still largely undervalued in the business world. Most courses for an MBA degree include a chapter on meeting facilitation. But Danforth says while people get introduced to the ideas, not enough time is spent to really teach people the skills.

Teamwork emphasis?

Meeting facilitation is particularly important with today’s emphasis on teamwork.

“Back when Americans started doing Total Quality, the approach was to do quality teams,” Danforth says. “I don’t think we really understood the cost of teaming, collaboration and bringing people together to achieve a business objective. In the past several years, businesses are finally looking at the cost of collaboration. What they are seeing is if you just throw people in a room, it is really hit or miss whether that group of people will have skills to achieve the purpose for which the meeting was called.”

One dominant person can take over the meeting so the group is unable to achieve its purpose. Or people can get off topic and begin to ramble so the goal of the meeting gets lost. Danforth says domination and the inability to remain focused on achievement of the purpose are the two biggest enemies to successful meetings.

Companies have now learned it is cost effective to provide professional meeting facilitation when a team is working to make decisions.

“What we are finding is that teams that come together to achieve a purpose or solve a problem oftentimes are more successful if there is someone in the room whose job it is to think of the processes the team would go through in order to get the job done ahead,” Danforth says. “The facilitator is actually neutral on meeting content. That is the biggest help the facilitator can be, neutrality on the business content. The people in the room were put there because of what they know about the content. So what we are learning, really, is teams can be more successful with some help.”

Danforth suggests that an agenda for a meeting is not enough. Instead, it is important that the meeting have a clearly stated purpose so everyone starts the meeting with the end result in mind.

“You know when you walk out the door what you are supposed to do or produce,” she says.

As a profession, professional meeting facilitation is relatively new. It has only been approximately since 1999 that core competencies have been in existence.

“For all intents and purposes, facilitation is a new profession, maybe 12 to 15 years old,” Danforth says. “Before that people often just referred to teamwork and other words to describe what they were trying to do.”

Reaping benefits

Doug Sholes, senior director of marketing and product management, Triton, says facilitator training done there is continuing to reap benefits years after the company learned the skills.

“Janet has trained most of our management team and sales people so it has become sort of systemic now especially if we have customers in or are in a meeting where a lot of multiple disciplines or departments are at the table where we need to manage the process,” Sholes says. “We rely on what we learned at Janet’s workshop. It is a tool we use on a regular basis. We do try to use that as our template.“

Chuck Ueltschey, manager of community services for Mississippi Power Company, agrees about the importance of using neutral outside facilitators in some cases.

“Facilitators have a difficult time facilitating their own work group,” says Ueltschey, who has been involved in meeting facilitation since 1990. “I don’t recommend it. It is better, in my opinion, to have a facilitator outside of the work group.

“A facilitator, in my opinion, should never influence the group on direction. They are there to keep the discussion going and come to a decision. A facilitator should be a neutral to the problem. It is quite inappropriate for the facilitator to give an opinion in the middle of a discussion. It is extremely difficult not to give an opinion especially if it is a heated discussion. It is difficult to stay neutral, but you just have to.”

Ueltschey says the facilitator can share something he has seen somewhere else, such as shared best practices. But that should not mean he is advocating people take action based on that. It is just, “Here is something someone else did.” That is passing on experience and not trying to influence the decision.

Ueltschey has gone through several different types of training programs, and has picked up a lot from other professional facilitators.

“Good facilitators have a tendency to borrow from each other,” Ueltschey says. “When I go to a meeting and find someone who does an exceptional job, I take notes and then I will try that. That is where people get a lot of their best material.”

One thing that is important is pre-planning for meetings. Sit down and discuss the objectives, how to go about achieving the objectives and decide who is assigned to what path. Build in some ground rules stating everyone gets to participate and addressing how conflicts can be solved.

“That is not the way most folks start,” he says. “I think it is more effective to sit down and pre-plan what you are going to do. That is where a facilitator can help quite a bit.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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