Meeting Theory

In the toolbox of the policymaker or manager, the meeting is double-edged and sharp. It can cut the user or it can shape. Those who steep themselves in the theory are more likely to shape with the tool rather than be cut by it.

The meeting is part of the decision-making process. To make the best decision-making process, a small group of diversely informed individuals should aggregate their judgments and provide that wisdom to the decision-maker(s) charged with determining and setting forth the policy. This group should be formed to include the elements of diversity, independence, and decentralization. Meetings can be where people are asked to think about making decisions, are informed about decisions, or are asked to vote on a decision.

Executive decisions are usually the responsibility of an executive officer, and in that case, the group aspect of the process has to do with the research involved in understanding the situation and the concerns of those affected by the decision. A very proper use of the meeting format is for an executive to announce a decision. In no way should this announcement be deemed to be a request for confirmation of the decision. If the executive can articulate the value basis for the decision, this can be a powerful motivation for the decision to be executed appropriately. If an executive decision is presented for determination at a policy-making board meeting, the authority and credibility of the executive are compromised. In determining the agenda for board determination, the initial concern should be whether the decision is executive (operational) or policymaking. Preserving the integrity of executive decision-making should be a priority.

Where a decision is to be made by a vote (such as with a board), then each of the voters must make a decision (hopefully using a process involving a group) and then vote on the basis of that decision – the results of the vote constituting a group decision. Simply because the vote is to be given at a meeting does not mean that the decision should be made while at the meeting. The strength and viability of the meeting format are that the proceeding happens in front of all members present, is documented, and is capable of supporting the comparison of decision-making processes. Unfortunately and often meetings are used solely to compare conclusions (the result of decision-making processes), rather than comparing the processes to discover the reasons for conflicting determinations. In a group where the individuals can articulate values, the conflict of values can be discovered. Where the disagreement is caused by a difference in the decision-making procedure, often the difference (for example, knowledge not universally shared) can enable agreement where there was disagreement.

For a board member to engage in a proper group decision-making process before attending a meeting where votes will be counted, the member must have adequate time and information to properly engage and complete the group-decision making procedure. This means that there must not only be an agenda but also information distributed appropriately prior to the meeting. The best practice is to use a meeting packet and to make it clear that members should come to the meeting prepared.

Meeting time is expensive to a business, and it makes little sense for members to read reports to one another or ad-lib poorly considered oral reports. All reports should be in writing and distributed prior to the meeting in the meeting packet. Meetings should not be more than one-hour in length. It is better to have more than one meeting than to lose the attention of members.

With the use of a meeting packet, prepared members can use valuable meeting time to discuss different results in decision-making processes on decisions requiring a vote. The first review should be to ascertain what information was used and to make sure that all members had the same information. Given the same information, the next comparison should be that of values. This is difficult because of the need for members to articulate values, which is not easy to do. To be done in candor, it requires an atmosphere of integrity and trust. Meetings which feature surprise information or alliances based on factors not known to all members, undercut the integrity and trust necessary for effective meeting results.

Consensus is always a desirable result. Where there are differences in values, consensus may not be possible. In such cases, value differences will cause actions tending to increase the differences. In the vast majority of cases, where only conclusions are shared, consensus is difficult to achieve. On the other hand, if decision-making processes are compared, consensus is often obtained.

Best Practices

1. Do not present an executive decision to a policy-making group.

2. Provide a meeting packet containing an agenda, all information necessary for decision-making, and all reports.

3. Do not review information which has been presented in the meeting packet. Insist that members be prepared for the meeting.

4. Where members have differing decisions on an issue, the discussion should focus on comparing not the conclusions but the decision-making processes used to make the decisions. First, it should be confirmed that the decisions were made based on the same knowledge. Then the members should articulate the values that were the basis for making the decision.

5. All efforts should be made to achieve a consensus.

6. Meetings should not be longer than one hour.