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Book Summary: Meetings That Get Results – A Facilitator’s Guide to Building Better Meetings

Meetings That Get Results (2021) is a practical guide to the art of running more effective and efficient meetings. Designed for leaders tasked with facilitating meetings and group discussions, it emphasizes collaborative approaches to decision-making and problem-solving.

Book Summary: Meetings That Get Results - A Facilitator's Guide to Building Better Meetings

Content Summary

Introduction: Learn how to make your meetings more productive.
Effective leaders aren’t autocrats – they’re conductors.
Teams that ask themselves what they’re trying to achieve get better results.
Problem-solving is all about perspective.
Setting realistic expectations and staying impartial keeps meetings on track.
Distracted or silent participants make for unproductive meetings.
Creative approaches solve problems faster.
About the author
Video and Podcast


Productivity, Management, Leadership, Corporate Culture, Running Meetings and Presentations, Workplace Culture, Communication Skills

Introduction: Learn how to make your meetings more productive.

Meetings are a critical mechanism for clarifying the who, what, when, and how of work. In short, few businesses and organizations can get by without them.

Yet there’s nothing more frustrating than an unproductive meeting – except one that leads to another meeting. At their best, meetings make teams tick; at their worst, they waste everyone’s time.

Unfortunately, the people who are tasked with leading meetings often lack the training to run them well. That’s an oversight facilitation expert Terrence Metz wants to correct.

In these summaries, we’ll show you how to run meetings that are profitable and productive, get results, and – best of all – lead to fewer meetings down the road.

In these summaries, you’ll learn

  • why today’s leaders pose questions rather than providing answers;
  • what replacing a busted car tire can teach us about problem solving; and
  • how to encourage your team to look at issues from different perspectives.

Effective leaders aren’t autocrats – they’re conductors.

Today’s world is highly interconnected and diffuse – much more so than it was in the past. This has changed the way we think about leadership and expertise.

Before the industrial age, expertise was localized. A farmer, for example, knew a great deal about a small part of the world – his land. Leaders gathered and preserved such patchwork knowledge, making them stewards. Later, with industrialization, they became managers. They possessed specialized knowledge about the complex technical processes that made the world run and told everyone else what to do.

The digital age is different. Expertise is widely diffused and easy to access, but it can’t be stored in a single library or mind – it’s in the “cloud.”

That’s changed leaders’ roles. They’re no longer in the business of bossing other people around; their job is to help experts work together. In other words, they’re facilitators.

The key message here is: Effective leaders aren’t autocrats – they’re conductors.

The workplace has changed a lot over the last quarter-century.

In the late twentieth century, organizations were rigid hierarchies. At the top was the autocratic manager. His commands were relayed from one subordinate down to the next.

But now the emphasis has shifted: self-managing teams, it turns out, achieve more than individuals carrying out detailed instructions issued from on high.

Leadership is still vital, of course, but the role of leaders has also changed.

They’re no longer expected to micromanage every aspect of work processes. Instead, they facilitate the work of experts and help teams chart their own course toward organizational goals. They delegate for the same reason people go to hairdressers. You could cut your own hair, but the results are better when a professional is handling the scissors. In organizations, the best results come when leaders let the experts – their teams – do the trimming.

Of course, hair salons are much simpler operations than most companies: usually, folks make do with a single stylist. Organizations, by contrast, have to align dozens of teams, departments, and experts.

That alignment happens in meetings, which brings us back to this new breed of leaders. They don’t have all the answers, but they do take command of the questions. A bad meeting is a chaotic free-for-all that leads nowhere – in short, it’s a dissonant mess. A good meeting, on the other hand, is like a harmonious concerto. Individual instruments play their way through a piece with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Leaders, meanwhile, are like conductors – they guide this collaborative effort.

And that’s the art of facilitation. So how’s it done? Let’s find out!

Teams that ask themselves what they’re trying to achieve get better results.

Imagine two people share the same problem: they each need a new car. They agree on the criteria they’ll use to evaluate their purchases – appearance and efficiency.

So far, they’re on the same page. Yet they end up buying completely different vehicles. One chooses a flashy gas-guzzler; the other picks a less fashionable but cleaner hybrid. Despite agreeing on their priorities, they’ve ended up disagreeing about the solution to their problem. Why is this?

Chances are, they have different ideas about a car’s purpose. One wants a vehicle that looks good – maybe she wants to impress her colleagues. The other values getting from A to B as efficiently as possible.

Disagreements in meetings often have the same root cause: people don’t have a common purpose.

Here’s the key message: Teams that ask themselves what they’re trying to achieve get better results.

Meetings are opportunities to solve problems.

Most approaches to problem-solving, however, assume that those present agree on the purpose of their work. The question that needs answering, then, is a technical one: What are we going to do?

But you have to have a common sense of purpose to find the right solution. What are you trying to achieve? Facilitators ask their teams this question before they get lost in details – and disagreements.

Let’s look at an everyday problem to see why this is so important.

Say your favorite shirt has a frayed collar. It’s scratchy, and you’re embarrassed about how it looks, so you go to a shop, apply your preferences regarding brand, color, size, and price, and buy a new shirt.

Simple, right? Not quite. If you were picking a shirt for yourself, you’d already know its purpose. But imagine your father told you his old shirt has an embarrassing frayed collar. You ask him what brand he likes best, whether he wants short or long sleeves, and note down his size and preferred color. Armed with this knowledge, you head to the store.

He thanks you when you hand him the new medium, short-sleeved white shirt you’ve just bought, but there’s a problem: he can’t wear this golf shirt to his best friend’s fancy wedding! What went wrong? Simple: you forgot to ask about the purpose.

Replacing a shirt is an easy and relatively cheap fix. Teams in big organizations that make the same mistake, by contrast, can waste huge amounts of resources. In short, it pays to think about purpose!

Problem-solving is all about perspective.

You’re driving a hire car down a deserted road when the tire suddenly blows. You check the trunk: there’s a spare tire, but no jack. You check your phone. No signal.

What do you do? Well, it depends. If you see your issue as a “find-a-jack” problem, you might head down the road in search of a gas station. If you view it as a “access-the-axle” problem, by contrast, you might push the vehicle onto soft ground and dig a hole around the bad tire.

How you define a problem, in other words, determines how you go about solving it. And the more angles you look at it from, the more answers you’re likely to find.

The key message is this: Problem-solving is all about perspective.

How do you encourage your team to look at problems from different perspectives? Let’s explore two ways you can start doing just that.

The first technique is all about reframing problems.

Let’s say your team’s mission is to scale Mount Everest. A key part of the project is documenting the ascent, which opens up the following question: Should the group, or one individual, keep a diary?

This is a very narrow formulation of the issue, so what if you tried broadening it – by asking, for example, “How can we create a permanent record of our ascent?” This shifts the focus from the merits of diaries to the actual problem – documentation. From here, it’s a short step to other potential solutions, like using GoPro cameras or hiring a professional to film the expedition.

You can also try redirecting focus, or turning problems on their heads. Rather than asking, “How do we get all our supplies to 17,000 feet?” you can ask a question like, “How do we reduce our consumption so we don’t need so many supplies at 17,000 feet?”

The second technique is more literal than the first – it’s about looking at problems from the perspectives of the people involved in solving them. If you’re interested in what’s causing employees in IT to burn out so often, for instance, you should meet with both managers and the technicians in that department. The first group might emphasize better diet and earlier nights; the second, ergonomic furniture and extra resources. The best solution will likely build on both groups’ perspectives.

Setting realistic expectations and staying impartial keeps meetings on track.

Solving problems, as we’ve seen, is all about taking different views into account. When you look at an issue from multiple perspectives, you’re more likely to find useful answers.

That’s why meetings can be so effective: they put different people with different ways of seeing the world in the same room. Sometimes participants clash, however. They just can’t get on the same page.

Enter the facilitator. Your role in meetings isn’t to smooth over real differences and create a false sense of harmony – disagreement, after all, can be productive. You can be a referee, however.

The key message here is: Setting realistic expectations and staying impartial keeps meetings on track.

As a referee, it’s your job to challenge participants to supply evidence for their way of seeing things. That, ultimately, keeps the problem-solving process on track. The key is neutrality.

Take it from the pioneering research of the American psychologist Thomas Gordon. His work shows that the easiest way to get people to shut down is to judge their ideas. Let’s break that down.

When you tell people their ideas suck, they disconnect and zone out for the rest of the meeting. Praising their contributions to the sky doesn’t help, either. Why not? Simple: that also encourages them to shut down. If they feel that they’ve already proven their worth, they can go home “winners.” In other words, they don’t have an incentive to contribute to the rest of the meeting.

Worse, both negative and positive judgments alienate other members of the group. Shooting down one idea or cheerleading another doesn’t just discourage further contributions from the people who proposed them – it’s also an implicit judgment about those who support those ideas. Now you’ve lost even more participants. Judgmental facilitation, in other words, is a recipe for conflict.

So what’s the alternative? Well, start by taking a step back. It’s not for you to judge solutions – the team has to reach agreement. You can help them get there by urging participants to provide evidence backing their ideas and to explain their thinking. That’ll keep the ball rolling and move the conversation onto more neutral ground.

You can also preempt a lot of futile arguing by making it clear that consensus doesn’t mean everyone has to love the solution. That’s an impossibly high bar to clear, so set more realistic criteria. The team’s aim is to reach an agreement that every member can live with, even if it’s not everyone’s “favorite” idea.

Distracted or silent participants make for unproductive meetings.

Get everyone on the same page and your meetings won’t just be more productive – there’ll also be a lot less arguing. But how can you do that? It’s time to talk about ground rules.

These rules provide norms for the group’s behavior. They apply equally to everyone, which means they’re unbiased, and they help foster decorum and concentration. Best of all, they make it easier to solve problems quickly and efficiently.

So what kind of rules should you be using to structure your meetings? Let’s find out!

Here’s the key message: Distracted or silent participants make for unproductive meetings.

The first ground rule is the simplest. It states that all team members have to be here, now.

What that means is that everyone should be present – in mind and body. In other words, participants owe it to each other to be punctual and, once they’re in the room, to pay attention to one another.

It’s a good idea to hash out the details of this rule with your team, but here are a couple of ideas to get you started. First up: eliminate electronic distractions. You might agree that laptops should remain closed while others are talking, for example, or that everyone should switch their cell phones to vibrate. If participants have to take a call, encourage them to move into the hallway or someplace where their conversations won’t distract others.

Scientific research underscores why this rule is so important. Study after study has shown that “multitasking” is a myth – it basically means doing two or more things badly, rather than one thing well. One research paper even suggests that our IQs drop below those of chimpanzees when we’re distracted and flitting among different tasks!

If punctuality is an issue, try scheduling 50-minute meetings rather than one-hour meetings. Start at five minutes after the hour and finish five minutes before the hour – that will give everyone plenty of time to get from one meeting to the next.

The second ground rule states that silence implies consensus. As a facilitator, you’re trying to get your team on the same page. That can only happen if everyone voices their views – including disagreements. This rule, then, is about fostering a culture in which participants have a duty to share relevant content with their colleagues. If they fail to do this, it follows, they’ve forfeited their right to moan about what the team has agreed to do.

Creative approaches solve problems faster.

So far, we’ve discussed some approaches to making meetings more productive. But even the best meetings can feel like a waste of time if they’re too long. At some point, people need to start working.

How, then, can you streamline the problem-solving process and help your team reach a consensus on what needs doing as efficiently as possible?

Let’s wrap things up by looking at a tool that does just that: psychologist Edward de Bono’s thinking hats. These mental models give participants a visual cue to identify their current thinking, sharpening their focus and helping teammates quickly recognize the angle from which they’re approaching a problem. That saves time – and gets results.

The key message is this: Creative approaches solve problems faster.

Edward de Bono’s model divides creative thinking into different “styles,” each of which corresponds with a particular color of hat.

When teams look at a problem through all of these lenses, he argues, they get a 360-degree view of that problem. And the more you see of a problem, the more likely you are to identify solutions quickly.

So what are these hats? The first is the white hat, which stands for objectivity. When team members “wear” this hat, their aim is strictly to discuss facts. What do they, and the team, know? What’s missing – and how can they get that missing information?

Wearing the red hat, by contrast, is an opportunity for participants to share their opinions. The idea here is that emotions and gut reactions have their place, but they should be restricted to a particular phase of problem-solving rather than getting mixed up with things like fact-gathering.

Then there’s the yellow hat, which asks its wearers to focus only on the positives. Think of it as a chance to take stock of what the team has already achieved. The black hat, meanwhile, encourages wearers to be negative: their job is to find something wrong with every idea that’s presented. This is a great way of spotting issues and bugs early on – that is, before they get expensive.

Finally, there’s the blue hat. Blue stands for structure, and the wearer of this hat is in charge of keeping the conversation going, reminding participants of time constraints, and identifying what needs to happen next at the end of the meeting. Usually, this hat is worn by the facilitator, but others can also take a turn wearing it.

Of course, no one should wear the same hat at all times. As we saw earlier, the more perspectives there are, the more solutions you’re likely to find. Try assigning a hat to each team member or group, and then ask them to rotate. Combine this tool with the other techniques we’ve looked at and you’ll be amazed at how much more efficient meetings in your organization will become!


The key message in these summaries is that:

Today’s organizations aren’t top-down hierarchies like the companies of old – they’re collaborative and team-driven. That means leaders have to take on a new role: they have to facilitate the work of other experts. How? Well, it’s all a question of getting team members on the same page during meetings. That starts with setting ground rules to establish basic behavioral norms, and agreeing on the purpose of the team’s work. Throw in creative approaches to problem-solving and your meetings will be more productive than ever!

About the author

Terrence Metz expertly coaches and instructs professionals on how to lead meetings that produce clear and actionable results every time. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, he has spent more than 20,000 hours teaching the facilitation of planning, prioritizing, and problem-solving. He has taught professors at the Broad Institute (MIT and Harvard), Duke, University of Maryland, Purdue, Stanford, University of North Carolina, and many other universities—along with many of their best students.­

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