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End your meeting with clear decisions and a shared commitment

Clear decisions and a shared commitment enable you to be more effective after your meetings.

Written by: Elizabeth Doty (Are you the author?)

Years ago, I found myself sitting at a conference table, observing a client team that had just had an aha moment. About halfway through an hour-long discussion, they figured out the root cause of a customer service issue that was plaguing the business. But then they got caught up in the excitement of their discovery and lost track of the meeting agenda. As a result, when the leader prepared to ask the group for solutions, he noticed everyone sneaking glances at their laptops and phones. Time was up, and the team members began to make their apologies and trickle out of the room without making any decisions about how to solve the issue.

In my last few posts, I have argued that leaders need to set the tone in the first five minutes of their meetings and then actively design the middle to keep people energized and productive. These steps are critical, but they are not the whole story. Leaders also need to be thoughtful and deliberate about how they end meetings to ensure the team walks away with clear decisions and shared commitment to implementing the next steps.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. In many cases, participants do the difficult, creative work of diagnosing issues, analyzing problems, and brainstorming new ideas but don’t reap the fruits of their labor because they fail to translate insights into action. Or, with the end of the meeting looming—and team members needing to get to their next meeting, pick up kids from school, catch a train, and so on—leaders rush to devise a plan. They press people into commitments they have not had time to think through—and then can’t (or won’t) keep to.

Either of these mistakes can result in an endless cycle of meetings without solutions, leaving people feeling frustrated and cynical. Here are four strategies that can help leaders avoid these detrimental outcomes, and instead foster a sense of clarity and purpose.

Cue the close. According to Interaction Associates, a Boston-based company that has taught facilitation skills to executives for decades, meetings generally work best with an “open-narrow-close” sequence. The key to this strategy: to prepare for an effective close, leaders should “cue” the group to start narrowing the options, ideas, or solutions on the table, whether it means going from ten job candidates to three or selecting the top few messages pitched for a new brand campaign. The timing for this cue varies based on the desired meeting outcomes, but it is usually best to start narrowing about halfway through the allotted time. If the middle of the meeting is going well, this can mean asking, “What are the possible implications of this discussion, in terms of concrete actions that we could take?”

If the middle is not going well, the narrowing approach can also help. For example, if there is friction within the group, leaders can try helping participants to clarify the essence of the conflict by asking, “What are the main points of agreement so far? Where do we differ?” Or, if people seem withdrawn, leaders can consider asking something more evocative, such as, “What feels most important for the group to keep in mind going forward?”

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