As a Business Analyst, we are constantly organizing and facilitating meetings of various sizes to progress through the SDM (System Development Methodology) for a project. It is important that all project stakeholders understand what to expect from subsequent meetings in order to be prepared. Ground rules are generally discussed during the kickoff meeting, documented (and stored in a shared location?), and then displayed moving forward.
Are ground rules needed for every meeting? Not necessarily. It is safe to say that ground rules aren’t needed if you are having a one-on-one with someone you know, who is someone you have worked with in the past, and he/she knows your facilitation methods. One-off meetings are another scenario where ground rules may not be needed. Use a gut check and determine if ground rules need to be created prior to the meeting. If the meeting is with unfamiliar faces, then an established set of ground rules will allow the meeting to progress smoothly without disrespecting each other's views on the topic.
But where do we start?
The Buy In
Prior to establishing the set of ground rules, it is important to get Management buy in. Communication is needed between the Business Analyst and Management in order to discuss the purpose of ground rules. The support from managers who are responsible for each project stakeholder will help enforce rules if there are rule violations. The managers can support you in a time of need when something needs to be escalated to them at some point during a project's life cycle. Make it clear to the managers that the ground rules will provide a structure to the meetings, encourage participation, and support the company core values.
Advancement in technology has aided the modern workplace with mobility, employee efficiency and collaboration, and increased security. People are working smarter rather than harder than their previous counterparts. This is great for the employee as well as the employer. Employees can work remotely from the office setting to complete their work through video conferencing or teleconferencing.
However, there are times when technology may get in the way. Especially in an environment associated with a meeting. We have all been in the position of a facilitator when we attempt to actively engage each participant. Meanwhile each participant in the meeting is on his/her laptop performing tasks not associated with the meeting topic, or on their cell phones browsing social media apps, or they are eying the lunch special at their favorite restaurant. Communication is a two-way street and when participants are not actively listening then the purpose of the meeting is lost.
To correct this, the facilitator must set ground rules in advance of the meeting. The rule can be simple: Phones and laptops may be brought, but must remain off or closed unless needed. Ultimately, the facilitator and scribe should really be the only meeting attendees using devices during this time.
How many times have you been in a meeting and arguments are occurring over a topic or a meeting participant has a highly negative opinion of an idea? People are often categorized as extroverts and introverts. Extroverts enjoy meetings because they are used as a pathway for their voice to be heard. Introverts dislike meetings because they are noisy and their ideas are often misunderstood or ignored. Creating a "Safe Zone" avoids one person domineering a meeting and allows for free flow thinking and idea generating.
The purpose of any meeting, especially initial research sessions and requirement gathering sessions for projects, is to convey your thoughts and ideas to a group. The group in turn asks questions and then more ideas are generated. Essentially brainstorming ideas and solutions together. People must respect each other's ideas and opinions. Clarifying questions are welcome, but judgmental questions are not allowed. Interruptions must be avoided when someone is speaking and actively listen to the speaker in order to fully comprehend what is expressed by the speaker.
Staying on Topic and Be on Time
Time is valuable. Respect the meeting time and arrive to the meeting on time. I prefer to allow everyone to leave a meeting at least 5 minutes early to allow the participants time to get to their next meeting. If someone arrives late to a meeting, then leaving early is no longer an option and in most cases the meeting has already started. This causes disruption and valuable time is lost.
If you are the facilitator create an agenda and stick to the allotted times for the topics. Assign a time keeper in every meeting. Avoid stealing time from each speaker and to make sure all topics are discussed.
Open It Up for Discussion
As the facilitator, you set the ground rules, however, it is easier to enforce the rules when everyone agrees to do so. Open the rules up for discussion. This is an important step for reoccurring meetings, but may be necessary for a single meeting as well. It is probable that others may have their own rule they would like added or need clarification on the rules already defined. If the stakeholders feel they have more of a buy in to the process it is much easier as the facilitator to hold everyone accountable.
Document and Display the Rules
Documenting the ground rules is important. It reminds meeting attendees what is expected of them. There may be times where someone will forget the ground rules and he/she may need a place of reference. Ground Rules can be documented on the agenda, in a central repository, displayed on a white board in the room, in the email invitation, or even displayed on a giant sized Post-It note in the room. The rules should be visible to act as a reminder to those participating in the meeting.
Enforcing the Rules
As the facilitator, you don't need to become the “ruled police” to enforce the rules. Everyone is responsible for their own actions. Since everyone has agreed to the rules, it is necessary to have a unanimous group mentality to make sure the rules are not violated. As a facilitator, you will need to be conscious when a violation is occurring and you may even need to intervene. If the frequency of the violation is low (once or twice during a meeting) then there may not be an issue, but if the frequency increases then enforcement must occur. The action taken may be as simple as restating the rules. Remind everyone of the "Safe Zone”. If a violation is frequently occurring or very distracting, then a direct one-on-one discussion may be necessary. Private discussions may be difficult and stressful, but remember it is important that everyone feels respected and safe to discuss ideas freely.
In the end, ground rules create efficient meetings and respectful environments where it is possible that quiet voices can be heard and share their ideas and it harnesses the strong voices to become active listeners.