Monday, October 22, 2012

The Positives of Protocols

Note: A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post on the importance of adding meaning to meetings and a number of steps educational leaders can take to do more of this.  I received a number of comments from readers, and I wanted to build on that post by touching on what is an enormously important part of meeting facilitation: the engagement activity.

Plenty of meetings run like this: Everyone arrives, the meeting organizer speaks, he or she asks for questions, everyone leaves.  While this general structure may be common and may even be a fine way to hold some gatherings, it is missing a necessary piece, the engagement protocol.  As meeting organizers, we can get into the habit of assuming all participants are coming to a meeting with their minds on what we will be discussing.  After all, if we’ve spent the last few days building the agenda and running through the important points, clearly the subject must be on everyone’s mind. 

Of course, while it would be wonderful if that were true, we know deep down that it is far from it.  So, it falls on us to make sure that when we do meet, all of our participants are on the same page.  For that reason alone, the importance of an engagement activity with a meaningful protocol can’t be overstated.  Interestingly, if we think about meetings we’ve facilitated and/or organized recently, those engagement activities may be totally absent.  Paradoxically, we regularly expect our teachers to provide some sort of engagement activity at the start of each meeting with their students.  Shouldn’t we be doing the same?

Protocols and engagement activities are fairly easy to design and with a few key rules in mind, can take meetings from “mindless” to “meaningful.”  Here are a few quick tips for positive protocol production:
  •      Keep engagement activities and the protocols used short and sweet.  Successful activities can be as straightforward as a five minute “pair/share” on the topic of the meeting to a lengthier twenty minute activity such as the protocol I recently created (see picture below).  Make use of the 25% rule: Your engagement activity should last no longer than 25% of the allotted meeting time, and realistically, engagement activities should not last more than thirty minutes.  Beyond that, they become a meeting unto themselves.

  •       The protocol used should take participants from a general state of mind to one that is focused on the meeting topic.  Therefore, strong protocols should begin by focusing on a question, idea, or thought process that can appeal to everyone in the room, regardless of their frame of mind.  The protocol should end by placing all participants in a mindset that prepares them to focus on the meeting’s objective(s).  In the protocol pictured above, I began by asking participants to go to the picture that best represented their personality.  Then I drilled down to having them stand by the picture that best represented their thoughts on the state of contemporary public education.  Finally, they moved to the picture that best represented their thoughts on New York State’s new Professional Evaluation system.  Can you guess what the focus of the meeting was going to be?
  •       Use your objectives to design the “personality” of the engagement activity.  Protocols and the activities they are used for can be incredibly upbeat, intensely reserved, or seriously focused.  The topic of your meeting should set the mood of your engagement activity, and the protocol should direct participants to that state.  By nature of the design of “The Big Picture” protocol, the activity held a light tone despite the seriousness of the topic eventually discussed.  Sometimes, that’s exactly what you want. 
What’s great about engagement activities and their protocols is that there is no downside to incorporating them.  They can only help the flow of your meetings, and though their generation can be challenging, the data gathered from a focused meeting is enough to turn any non-believer into a practicing “protocolist.”  After all, in today’s world of education, we can’t afford to waste anyone’s time.  Every meeting we have has to be meaningful.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Adding Meaning to Your Meetings

If you’re an educational leader of some kind, you know meetings.  You’ve been in them, led them, and likely given/received feedback on them.  Depending on your history as a meeting facilitator and participant, they may or may not be an enjoyable part of your profession.  They can, however, be extremely rewarding, and they should, always, be extremely important to the needs of your building and district.  A wise person should have once said, “The difference between disorder and accomplishment is a purposeful meeting.”  While that might be simplifying matters just a tad, meetings can be the difference between a clear course and a rudderless ship.  With that in mind, use the tips below to allow for meetings that sail smoother.

·         Communicate Well.  The true purpose of any meeting should be communication.  With that in mind, a meeting can’t be successful if the components aren’t communicated prior.  A strong agenda is one of the most important parts of any meeting, whether committee, cabinet, or full faculty.  Agendas should be clear and concise and should accomplish three tasks:
o   Describe a topic
o   Identify the speaker/facilitator
o   Give a timeframe (note that the jury is out on this one; timeframes keep presenters and participants focused, but can backfire if time is extended and/or if meaningful conversation is cut short. . . include this only if you can keep to it).
A well written agenda also provides space for notations and next steps, and should never exceed a page.  If your agenda needs more than one page, you need more than one meeting.  Note that prior communication also extends to informing your audience about the date, time, and location of the meeting.  A good method to doing this is the 4-1-1 process.  Send an email out to staff 4 weeks or a month prior to the meeting providing the draft agenda and time/location details.  Send a reminder 1 week prior to the meeting date with the same time/location details and agenda (this provides an easy way to let your audience know if the agenda has been reworked or modified in some way).  Send a final one sentence reminder 1 day prior.  In this way, you have provided your staff with timely meeting information and documentation.

Here is a recent agenda for a meeting I facilitated.  Note one page design and decipherable topics.  I used a total time frame at the top since I knew there would be quite a bit of important discussion.  I also regularly notate which items have handouts to help participants organize their thinking (and materials).
·         Listen as Much as (if Not More Than) You Speak.  If you’re the lead facilitator in a meeting, your goal should be to be an information receiver as much, if not more than, an information giver.  We always have an internal audience in our head, but we don’t always have one that can provide us with views different than our own.  Meetings should prove to be learning opportunities for those facilitating just as much as for those participating.  While an inexact science, one method is to provide the same amount of time for discussion as was spent providing information to attendees on an agenda item.  This accomplishes two goals: First, it shows you are interested in what others have to say, and second, it makes the meeting much more interesting for you and your audience.

·         Prompt and Push.  One of the best parts about holding a meeting is that you can solicit input from those in attendance.  So, as much as possible, you should prompt your attendees to share their thoughts.  If actions are to be taken, push them to explore and experiment with these actions.  Note that once you begin to do this, your audience will expect you to take positive risks as well.  Being a lead learner also means being a model. 

·         Provide a Detailed Recap. . . Quickly.  Once the meeting physically ends, there is still an important meeting item to take care of: documentation.  Minutes for the meeting should be composed effectively and efficiently.  Detail should be provided without writing a novel, and turnaround time should be quick; realistically, no more than a day should pass without minutes being distributed.  If your schedule is too intense for this, do one of two things: Have rotating minute takers, or reschedule your meeting.  Since education is a busy business, most of your audience will forget meeting discussion very quickly.  Timely minutes show you are serious about what was discussed, and provide an anchor for discussion of next steps and the taking of action.  If you won’t be the minute-taker, make sure that the person responsible knows what the minutes should look like and what they should include.  Communication is only as good as how it is communicated.

Here is a section of minutes from the same meeting as the agenda above.  Items are descriptive without being unwieldy, and I make it a habit of mentioning participants by name where they were involved (hence the redacted segments).

In today’s educational sphere, meetings aren’t going anywhere.  But, that doesn’t have to be seen as a negative.  If facilitated effectively, even the smallest gathering of professionals can have a gigantic positive impact.  Gatherings should always equal growth.