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Jonathan Levene is a Boston-based executive coach specializing in the leadership development of high-tech entrepreneurs, executives, and mid-level managers in engineering, product management, and marketing. He helps clients with deep technical and content knowledge to successfully navigate fast-paced, complex, and cross-functional leadership challenges to reach their full potential and gain competitive advantage. Jonathan is also an entrepreneur and 14-year veteran of product development organizations in small and mid-size high-tech companies. Through prior roles in engineering, product management, sales, marketing, and business development, he has led cross-functional teams to drive top-line growth through bringing new products and services to market. His consulting clients have included GE, IBM, Kaiser Permanente, and GNC, among others. Jonathan has served as an executive coach at Harvard Business School’s Program for Leadership Development. He holds a BSc and MEng from MIT, an MBA from Babson College, and a Graduate Certificate in Executive Coaching from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. Jonathan has posted 2 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

7 Ways to Kill Your Big Decision-Making Meeting

05.24.2014
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Critical decision-making meetings can easily run off the rails when many key stakeholders are present. Here are 7 ways to guarantee yours will fail.

We’ve all sat through our share of poorly-run meetings. But when a critical decision needs to be made involving many key stakeholders, a poorly-run meeting is twice as painful: not only is everyone’s time wasted, but there’s often the cost of delaying the decision. Common examples include setting priorities for the next round of product development, committing resources to a project, selecting an architecture, or purchasing technology.

The more at stake, the easier it is for your big decision-making meeting to go nowhere – especially if many people are in the room or challenging personalities are involved. Here are 7 ways to guarantee nothing happens:

  1. Let the agenda evolve on its own. By not setting an agenda in advance or getting buy-in for it at the outset of a meeting, you’ll let digressions take hold and divert focus from the issues at hand. Creating an agenda and asking for permission to keep to it is an effective way to keep others from changing the topic – and avoid making you appear controlling when attempting to pull the conversation back.
  2. Avoid goal-setting and motivating for action. Often, the problem to address or the goal to achieve is unstated or unclear in decision-making meetings. Even if you think people understand what it is, without stating it you’ll maximize the likelihood that people will interpret the problem or goal differently. Instead, clearly frame the issue and the consequences of inaction, helping to ensure that other organizational priorities won’t erode any sense of urgency to act.
  3. Keep decision-making criteria unstated. It’s easy to jump into discussing potential solutions, and if you ensure no explicit debate or consensus on the decision-making criteria, everyone will have their own. Often the debate around one solution or another is really about what criteria matter most. Separate the debate over criteria from the debate over solutions in order to avoid the need to evaluate a multitude of irrelevant options and waste precious time.
  4. Don’t structure the evaluation. Without a systematic way of evaluating options, such as a table that is filled out sequentially, people will jump to the more attention-grabbing insights that occur to them – which may include what is riskiest, sexiest, or what furthers their own political interests. Instead, systematically direct attention to evaluating each dimension of an option. This will ensure that the conversation is focused on what matters.
  5. Ignore the politics at play prior to the meeting. Without understanding in advance where key stakeholders will be leaning during the meeting, or with whom these stakeholders are aligned and why, you’ll keep the meeting a surprise and limit your ability to respond. The reality is that key stakeholders often begin forming opinions about high-stakes issues before a decision-making meeting is called – often by informally discussing between themselves. Seek to understand in one-on-one meetings how each option will impact each stakeholder’s interests, as well as where they are leaning, and you’ll reduce the likelihood that the meeting is hijacked and taken in an unexpected direction.
  6. Passively listen during the discussion. Active listening (such as periodically summarizing the points made, directing questions, or visually contrasting key issues on a whiteboard) is a way of subtly giving direction and movement to a meeting. It also demonstrates to others that the meeting owner is engaged and in control. By passively listening to what others have to say, you invite digressions at key points in the meeting, require others to make sense of the meeting on their own, and give others the option of where and how to proceed.
  7. End without action items. We all know that action items play an important role in meetings: they lead to action, and therefore productivity. But if subtly used, they can also influence perception. End the meeting by asking the key stakeholders where they want to go from here. If they state what the next steps will be, and you help ensure clear accountability, it will create the perception that the actions were collective. If no consensus is forming, you can always summarize your take on which option appeared to be preferred by the group and ask if there are any objections to going with it.

High-profile decision-making meetings aren’t easy to run, but they can be a major driver of team agility and productivity when facilitated well. Your colleagues will take notice and begin to see you as the point person any time a divisive but critical action needs to be taken.

Published at DZone with permission of its author, Jonathan Levene.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)