Our meetings degenerate into long discussions with no concrete outcomes

Our team meetings degenerate into long discussions with no concrete outcomes. How do I get everyone on track to conclusions and decisions, without seeming to cut off discussion people think is necessary?
Do your meetings start with a specific purpose and expected outcome? Discussion is good at the appropriate time: it's needed to work through issues, requirements, designs, or plans. But team meetings are ultimately supposed to yield action, and review meetings should yield conclusions about the state of what's being reviewed and next-step actions for those items. Here are some suggestions for using good meeting management tools to deal with this particular meeting problem.

First, consider using our Meeting Evaluation Guidelines to assess how well your meetings are working. Then look at how to use the agenda to set expectations better and pace the meeting. (See our Team Meeting Agenda guideline.) Define what you and the participants want from the meeting. What decisions need to be reached? What actions decided upon? Make those part of the meeting objectives. What discussion will be needed to reach those decisions and how much time should be allotted? Make them agenda items with specific timeslots.

Once you have established an effective agenda, work with the team to define as set of standards of behavior that all will live by. The team can find ways to police itself. For example, one ground rule some teams set is that anyone in the room can say "process check" at any time. That's an indication that this person thinks the meeting may have gone off track and wants the team to stop for a minute. "Should we really be discussing this item at this level of detail right now or do you guys need to take it off line?" "I thought we had said an objective of this meeting was to decide X. I don't see us getting there very quickly and we're coming up on the end of the timeslot. What should we do?" Establishing the process check ground rule up front should keep any invocation of it from being taken personally by anyone in the room. The team has permission to objectively help keep the meeting on track.

It's important to acknowledge that sometimes you just can't get to the decision after all. How might you tell in the meeting that the team actually doesn't have enough info to make a decision? Use that as a sanity checkpoint, a question to ask if the discussion seems to be going down a rat hole. Force the question: Should we keep going or should we adjourn so we can go get the missing information?

Are there particular people whose behaviors are causing the meeting to go into endless discussion? The solution to your meeting problem might involve talking to such a person one-on-one to sync up what you as the project manager are trying to accomplish in the meeting, and what this person needs to feel like an issue has been adequately covered. See our guideline on Personality Type Impacts on Team Interactions for insights on how different people prefer to process information and make decisions.

After a few meetings, and working out any kinks in the agenda and behaviors, conduct another evaluation. Did the meetings get better? Did more items get to resolution rather than lost in discussion? If not, review the latest assessment results with team and identify what additional issues need to be addressed.

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