How to have productive meetings

In many DSA chapters, small group meetings are how most of the work and decisions within the organization get made. As a chapter grows and new members are added into the groups, it is difficult to maintain the productive dynamic each meeting with the constant flux of members and differing expectations and experiences when it comes to group work. We’ve found that by adopting and promoting rules around how meetings are conducted is the most effective way at adding in new members while remaining productive. Here are some common problems to group work that we have encountered:

  • New members to a group don’t know the informal or formal rules for the conversation.
  • Blowhards waste time. Certain voices, typically male, often dominate informal conversations and prevent others from adding to the conversations while not adding all that much themselves frankly.
  • Some people, typically women, will take on all the work of the group when nobody else volunteers to do the work. These people get overworked, burn out and leave the group shortly afterwards.
  • People have shit to do. Meetings can meander and small digressions can turn into large time sucks that steal away valuable time from the group and prevent adequate discussion of all the relevant points.

There are several techniques to combat the above concerns. At first the methods suggested can feel stiff, but after a few minutes of working and playing with them and laughing at yourselves, the group can relax into knowing how the discussion will work. We had a meeting in a noisy bar once and we were able to get good work done using these rules! A well chaired meeting feels easy and productive to everyone involved, even if there is contention or tension about the issues at hand.

  • Write the rules out someplace that new members can refer to. If you largely adopt the recommendations put forth here, direct new members to read this page.
  • Every meeting should have a chairperson. The chair’s role is to enforce the rules that the group agrees to and to actively work to fight against the aforementioned problems. Each meeting should have a different chair so that everybody in the group has experience on both sides of the power relationship.
  • Every meeting should have an agenda. The chair should publish an agenda a few days before meeting and allow folks to request concrete slots of time. We’ve had success using a Google document for the agenda and folks requesting time via email or comments on the document. The document should contain the date and location of the meeting, contact information for the chair and the secretary, as well a detailed breakdown of the items to be covered during the meeting. Each item on the agenda should contain a estimated duration and there should be a estimated total duration for the meeting. If the discussion of an item is more short lived than expected, then the chair can use that time to let discussions of other items play out longer than their alloted time if they so choose. If the discussion of an item is longer than expected, the chair can end the discussion for the sake of keeping time. The level of detail in the agenda is variable and depends on the item and what best makes sense. It is the responsibility of the chair to make sure printed paper copies of the agenda are available to everyone attending the meeting. The chair may reject or shorten requests for time as they see fit.
  • Every meeting should have a secretary. The secretary’s role is to take notes during the meeting of what is said, though not necessarily by who. These notes should be electronic summaries of what was said and provided to the members of the group a few days after the meeting. The secretary should keep track of all action items during the meeting. If a task needs to be done outside of the meeting, the secretary should capture that task as an action item and keep a running list during the meeting. Members of the meeting should not volunteer for tasks until the end of the meeting, when a review of all action items is done and tasks are handed out. The chair should actively prevent any one member from taking on too much work and may resort to designating members of the group particular tasks to complete as makes sense.
  • During the meeting, no one should interrupt another person and the chair should take stack. Taking stack means to keep a running list of names of people who want to speak. To get on the stack, a person may raise their hand and the chair will silently acknowledge them and write their name down. When a person finishes speaking or is cut off by the chair, the next name on the stack is called. If a member wants the speaker to address a small point of contention or clarification, they may raise one finger and the speaker can call at them at the speaker’s leisure. For example, if someone has a question about a small detail like acronyms, dates or other facts, they should raise their finger. Likewise, if someone wants to directly refute or elaborate on a point made by the speaker, they should get on stack. The chair may raise their hand at any time and once acknowledged by anyone else add themselves to the stack.
  • If a chair enforces the rules unfairly, they should not be allowed to be chair again anytime soon. There is a fine line between the normal activities a chair must take to ensure a productive meeting and activities that serve only the chair’s interests.

Below is an example of an agenda that follows the guidelines from above:

NYC DSA – Planning Subcommittee Meeting  

Location: Empire State Building, Room 711

Date: Wedsneday, February 15th, 6pm

Chairperson of the Week: Leigh McChairPerson (thechair@gmail.com)

Secretary of the Week: Rick Notely (dassecretary@gmail.com)

  1. Approve agenda (5 minutes)
  • Amend and approve agenda.
  1. Introduce new members (7 minutes).
  • Everybody says hi, name, where you’re from
  • What Planning does and why we do it
  • How the discussion, the chair and the stack works
  1. Action Reports (7 minutes)
  • Reports back from last week’s actions and events. General review, both on an event level and DSA’s role.
  • How could Planning have made DSA’s presence flow better at these events?

   4. That One Big Event (20 minutes)

  • What are we doing and how are we going to do it?

   5. Hand out tasks (5 minutes)

  • Secretary will have been collecting them throughout the meeting.
  • Anybody who wants to do something in particular can volunteer to do that thing first.
  • Leftover tasks will be assigned equitably among members present.

   6. Next Meeting (<5 minutes)

  • Decide next meeting time and location.
  • Designate chair and secretary for next meeting.

   7. Subcommittee Break Out (as needed)

  • Subcommittees can break out to assign and coordinate tasks.

Total time: 50 minutes

 

A picture of the results of taking stack for a short meeting. A list of all participants names are on the left and the messy after results of taking stack are on the right.

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