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Whether you use Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting, or another virtual meeting platform, don’t blame the failure of your virtual meeting on technology. Why? Because you need to know what to do before you change how you do it.

Virtual meetings, Virtual meeting

Don’t Blame The Failure of Your Virtual Meeting on Technology

Just as an engineer wouldn’t attempt a complicated mathematical challenge on a calculator (or computer program) unless they first understood the process behind it, you, as the meeting leader or facilitator, shouldn’t attempt to lead a virtual meeting unless you know how to facilitate. In fact, once you know how to facilitate, most of today’s virtual meeting technology is user friendly. The point is, you need to understand what you’re doing, before you attempt to change how you’re doing it. (Consciousness before Competence!)

Even before Covid-19, people failed at leading meetings because they didn’t have an awareness of how to structure them, or know what techniques to use, to get more done faster. Those challenges have only intensified with the shift away from in-person encounters. To make matters worse, virtual meeting leaders are fumbling with electronic whiteboards, dominant personalities, and basic connectivity issues.

Where To Start?

Whether you’re teaching a class, organizing a league, or facilitating due diligence, your success depends on you knowing what to do, not how you do it. For example . . .

Teachers know what to include in a course syllabus. Once they do, it’s simple to vary how they get this information to their students, whether it’s online, oral, or print:

  • Course Description. …
  • Course Goals
  • Learner Outcomes
  • Course Method, Technique, and Activities
  • Grading Procedure
  • Policies. and Scheduling

If you are leading events, meetings, or workshops, knowing what to do to facilitate comes first. Only then can you modify and master how you do it. Regardless if you are meeting asynchronously, in person, or live online, do the following and become a sterling servant leader. Become both conscious and competent with what to do and you can invest less time worrying about how you do it.

Top Seven: What To Do for Better Virtual Meetings (Effectiveness)

  1. DONE

    Know what DONE looks like, carefully and clearly articulate your deliverable. Need we say more? (“Start with the end in mind.”—ok, we did)

  2. Prepared

    Inform participants in advance with written statements about meeting purpose, scope, deliverables, and simple agenda. Hard to imagine accepting a meeting without knowing these four items, but it happens all the time. At the very least, use our 50-minute meeting template for these items. If you cannot fill out the template within five minutes, you are probably not ready to lead the meeting.

  3. Neutrality

    Exhibit servant leadership skills and remain neutral. There is usually more than one right answer. The fastest way to get a group of people to go quiet on you is to opine what you think. If you have the answer, then don’t have the meeting. Additionally, if you want one single tip on how to become a better facilitator overnight, stop using the first-person singular terms “I” and “me” as in “I think . . .” or “Please give me . . .”

  4. Diversify

    Experiment. Innovate. Challenge the obvious for proof. Stir things up. Try something new. Few techniques work better than shifting Perspectives. What would a monastery do differently from the mafia to manage this situation (or, vice versa)? What would Apple (Steve Jobs) do different with this design than Microsoft (Bill Gates)? How about Mother Nature (homeostasis)?

  5. Assignments

    When asking for someone to be responsible for an assignment, never allow two people to share responsibility. One and only one, so that there is no finger pointing “But I thought Jake was working on it.” Additionally, do not ask “Who will do it?”. Rather, ask “Who will take responsibility for reporting back to the team on the status of this item?” Frequently, the volunteer does not do it but assigns it to some of their staff when the meeting is finished. You are promoting effectiveness, as having one person contact many, is more effective than having many people contact one.

  6. Open Issues

    Do not assign any single person big hairy issues that could result in one or more products or projects. Rather, treat your meeting output or “Parking Lot” item as input to subsequent sessions when enough time has been allowed for breaking down the big issues into manageable, and compartmentalized assignments. Content Management provides an excellent technique by structuring the next session to take the issue and explore the implications or why we should care. Next take each implication, one at a time, as ask ”What should we do about it?” Answers to the “recommendations” question provide substance for the follow-up assignments.

  7. Continuous Improvement

    Seek feedback and assessment about your preparedness, skills, and leadership for the meeting. We know from experience that conducting an open “Plus-Delta” yields mostly creature-comfort crap that doesn’t do you any good. You don’t control the temperature, lighting, or food quality. Culturally we are taught to be nice rather than kind. Therefore, no one tells you publicly that you said “Hum” 37 times in five minutes, because we are being nice. The kind thing to do is tell you, albeit privately, so use a Post-Its activity in person or a whiteboard template online so that people can leave notes for you, protecting you while maintaining anonymity.

Don't Blame The Failure of Your Virtual Meeting on Technology

What To Do for Faster Meetings (Efficiency)

Top Seven: What To Do for Faster Virtual Meetings (Efficiency)

  1. Distribute in advance

    Distribute your list of detailed questions that need responses to participants in advance. Optimally, by meeting time, this is not the first time a participant has heard a question to which you are seeking responses. You need to take time to properly prepare for meetings and so should participants. Meetings are too expensive to treat lackadaisically (a term you won’t find in many blogs because it is a nightmare to spell).

  2. Build a lexicon or glossary

    Control the operational definitions of terms being used. We don’t have time to argue about the difference between a goal and an objective or a Mission and a Vision. These definitions should have been determined before your meeting. When such terms do get used, we should all strive to have shared understanding about their meanings. For us by the way, objectives are SMART measurements and goals are directional and fuzzy (subjective), but that is not true for all cultures and there is no universal standard or answer.

  3. Explain the white space between the agenda items

    We call this contextual control. Be prepared to explain what agenda steps contribute. Why are they sequenced as such? What is the relationship among the agenda steps and with the deliverable? What do we need from each agenda step (ie, deliverable) that will get us out of here faster? Few events bog a meeting down faster than when someone sucks the oxygen out of the room and questions, “Now why are we doing this?”

  4. Use ground rules and carefully define consensus

    Not as the ideal state, rather as an agreed upon decision or position that every participant commits to support, even if it happens to be no one person’s favorite solution.

  5. Maintain disciplined punctuality and timing

    Enforce the ground rule “Be Here Now” to discourage electronic leashes. Keep virtual meeting participants in an audible mode (NOT muted) to prevent multi-tasking, since keyboard sounds are easily heard.

  6. Prevent scope creep

    Know your holarchy and the scope of the question you are asking. Meeting scope decomposes into the scope for each agenda step and decomposes further into the scope of each question or activity. Know precisely where you are, or anyone can take control. When participants ask questions, they shift their role from meeting participant to meeting designer. Ever hear the expression, “That person has their own agenda.”? You’ve all heard about scope creep and scope creep begins in poorly conducted meetings.

  7. Be kind but, NOT too nice

    Challenge participants to provide evidence and objective support for their arguments and claims. Consensus gets built around underlying causes, not overt symptoms.

Top Seven: What To Do for Transferring Ownership in Virtual Meetings (Mindfulness)

Don't Blame The Failure of Your Virtual Meeting on Technology

What To Do for Transferring Ownership (Mindfulness)

  1. Importance

    Develop a quantitative understanding about the importance of the meeting. What is at risk if we fail. How much money is being invested or how much FTP (full-time person) is committed? Look at the potential value of the product or project you are supporting. If it fails, what have we lost?

  2. Responsibility

    Stress their fiduciary responsibility. Your responsible for protecting the participants but they are responsible for volunteering content. It’s not your job to reach down their throat and pull it out of them. Your meeting not only provides an opportunity for them to speak, their role as professional adults implies, they have an obligation to speak. If they have pertinent information about the topic and do not mention it, shame on them. They are violating integrity and you cannot control their integrity.

  3. Warm-up

    Conduct some type of icebreaker, warm-up, or get-to-know-you-better activity even if it is a quick, one-question answer (eg, favorite vacation place?). Especially with your online communities, strive to permit and encourage more connections and relationship-building than you might in person. To this end, generously conduct breakout sessions, even if they are brief, so that everyone gets heard while also becoming more appreciated for who they are and what they can provide.

  4. Exploration

    Explore outliers and seek to understand reasons for going beyond groupthink. We have all learned, perhaps too well, that voting is not a higher quality method of decision-making. Voting yields bigger numbers, but not necessarily better results. Carefully craft a statement of purpose (WHY) and then separate your OPTIONS from your CRITERIA. Clarify your options (eg, Definitions Technique). Prioritize your criteria (eg, PowerBalls). Apply your prioritized criteria to your options (eg, Perceptual Map, Decision-Matrix, etc). Test your decision quality by asking “to what extent” the decision harmonizes and supports the purpose you started with.

  5. Alignment

    Have or distribute copies of the strategic stuff. Mission, Values, and Vision can help determine trade-offs during arguments. For example, we serve an industry where safety is paramount and safety provides a common appeal for resolving arguments. For them, the approach that appears riskier or more dangerous will lose every time. Additionally, you should have the business unit and product objectives readily available. After all, nobody wants more projects, and nobody wants more meetings. We meet and conduct lots of product development and process improvement projects because we want the results.

  6. Communications

    Conduct a Guardian of Change (ie, communications plan for the meeting results) activity when concluding your sessions. At the end of the meeting get everyone to agree on what they are going to tell their superiors and other stakeholders about what was accomplished (or not) during the session. It’s always a good idea to have participants sound like they were in the same meeting together. Especially with remote teams, where language skills are diverse and English may not be the primary language, determine the precise rhetoric participants should use so that superiors and stakeholders everywhere are receiving the same intended message.

  7. Hope

    Aim for outputs, hope for outcomes. You can only control what goes into the meeting and not what happens as a result of it.

Don't Blame The Failure of Your Virtual Meeting on TechnologyGood luck. Seriously, a little grace and karma never hurt a servant leader striving to conduct consensus-building group sessions.


Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.

Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.) #facilitationtraining

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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