Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Team Meeting Series: Ground Rules

Actions to take: Work with your team to decide on ground rules for your weekly meetings. Add concrete actions to describe what it looks like to follow those rules. Ask for commitment from your team to follow the rules. Review your rules periodically.

This is a post in a short series about running your team meetings, i.e. the regularly scheduled meeting with all of your direct reports in attendance. Many of the lessons apply to other meetings, but team meetings are the focus.

Ground rules in meetings get a bad rap. For good reason, frankly. It seems that, at best, the rules are a bunch of empty words that mean nothing and waste space at the top of the agenda sheet. At worst, ground rules are another bludgeon with which your petty boss can hit you over the head. 

In fact, ground rules can be an effective tool in keeping your team on task during your meeting. They tell your team how the meeting will go, what is expected of them as attendees, and, if you can believe it, help your team feel more like a cohesive group. Ground rules can do all this, but only when crafted correctly. Here's how to do it.

Over the course of two or perhaps three team meetings, set aside 20 minutes per meeting for the "ground rules development" agenda item. First, you will explain why ground rules are helpful and start a brainstorming session. Next, you will discuss the rules and add context for them. Last, you will decide on the rules and finalize them as a team. While this may sound run-of-the mill, it is how you go about these steps that will transform your ground rules from empty words to meaningful instructions.

Kick off this agenda item by explaining why ground rules are useful and worthwhile for your team to develop. Use the information from throughout this post and your own thoughts to write this intro. Then, jump into an active brainstorming session. Directly ask questions like, "What rules would help us have the most effective meetings?" When someone suggests a short rule like "Participate fully," ask them to describe what they are picturing. Take notes on everything, ideally on a whiteboard where everyone can see it. Get your team to generate plenty of ideas, and make sure everyone contributes at least one thought during the brainstorming session.

The next step is where you really set your ground rules apart. It is imperative that you discuss concrete actions to accomplish your rules. You laid the groundwork during the brainstorming session. Now, formalize those thoughts. For instance, one rule might be, "Respect time." Great rule to start with. What does it look like? What is expected of someone who is "respecting time?" If I were writing it, the full rule might read: "Respect time: We start the meeting on time and we finish on time. We do our best to keep agenda items within the time allotted. That means tabling important conversations when we need to move on, avoid rambling or repeating points back and forth, and waiting until after the meeting for discussions that only impact one or two members of the team.

When you define actions associated with your rules, you give them meaning. Without these actions, each individual can interpret the rule as widely as they like. Or, more likely, they can give the rules no thought at all and will act the same way they do for ever other meeting. Meetings, on the whole, are terrible, pointless affairs. We don't want people acting in our meetings the same way they do in those meetings. Well-crafted ground rules signal to your attendees, "This meeting is not like the meetings you are used to. We have expectations." The specific actions will guide attendee's behavior, and they won't be surprised when you give feedback to keep them in line with those actions.

You must do this work as a team. Do not write up these rules alone in your office. If you present them fully formed to your team, that is a fast way to get a reputation as a dictatorial boss who doesn't care what others think. Brainstorm, discuss, and decide on rules together. It is fine to massage/tweak some of the language on your own between meetings. But do not do the majority of the work alone. When you set ground rules, you are setting norms for the group. If a boss writes up the rules on their own, the rules are their norms. The meeting is about how they expect people to act. When a team works on the rules together, the rules are our norms. The meeting is about how we expect people to act.

The last step in setting ground rules is to explicitly request commitment from your team. Say something like this: "Once we have settled on ground rules, I am asking each of you to commit to following these rules. These rules are our playbook for how to operate and engage with each other during this meeting. I am going to assume silence means there are no objections. If you are not 100% on board for every rule we create and the wording we use, speak up before we finalize them." When you do this, you will get more engagement in the rule creation because people will have something on the line. It is no longer a theoretical discussion—the words have real consequences for the people in the meeting.

Review ground rules one month after implementation (assuming weekly meetings), then on a quarterly basis. You are checking on two things: 1) are we living up to our rules, and 2) are the rules living up to what we need them to do? As with the creation of the rules, do this review as a team. Ask the group: "How well are we adhering to these rules? Are there any rules we are neglecting? If so, what concrete steps can we take to fix the problem? Are there any rules that don't do much and should be removed or rewritten?" 

It is amazing how often effective management boils down to "set clear expectations." We've seen it already in the team meetings series, with the post about topic purpose. Average bosses use ground rules performatively. Their rules don't do much of anything. Better bosses recognize ground rules as a tool for setting expectations. Their rules help the team understand how the meeting will go and how to be an effective participant.

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