How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Closing my Meetings
Updated: Mar 24, 2020
In part 4 of our series on Facilitation in the Days of Social Distancing, we’re going to address Closing the Meeting.
Closing a meeting is often one of the most anxiety-producing stages in facilitation, and that has nothing to do with being remote! By its very nature, closing comes with the stress of running out of time and things potentially not getting done. Often, we know that our co-located meeting has ended when we see others huddled around the door of the conference room. In remote meetings, however, we don’t even get that visual clue, so proper closing becomes even more essential. Don’t let the last grain of sand falling through the hourglass be the sole signal that your meeting is over (BTW: if you are really using an hourglass to keep time in your facilitation, please send us a video! Then again, would someone who uses an hourglass own a cellphone or video camera? Would they even be reading this? This is getting existential. Time to move on).
Let’s walk you through the necessary components of closing, and highlight some ways you can do this effectively over the screens you (for now) call your team room.
So why the big fuss about closing? In every meeting, ‘closing the loop’ is extremely important for our participants. An open loop, also known as the Zeigarnik Effect (can we be sponsored by an psychological concept, is that a thing?), is the tendency of our brain to remember and focus on incomplete tasks more than it does on completed tasks. Open loops are like a mental work-in-progress (WIP). Too much WIP means that we stop being able to take in or process new information. Adding that to the already stressed systems we are dealing with right now is a recipe for disaster. So even if you’ve never closed a meeting well before, now is the time to start! By bringing proper closure to each meeting, we can help reduce the number of open loops. This seems even more important to everyone’s well-being in times when we can travel from one meeting to another without so much as getting out of our seat. In addition to all the other benefits to closing that we will name, it provides a very clear way to establish clear boundaries of where one ends and the next begins.
Our first and foremost recommendation around closing your meetings is a simple one: make sure you build in, and use, the time needed for you to close properly. This may seem obvious, but we have talked to dozens (and dozens) of facilitators who miss this one and their meetings suffer as a result. We know that designing and leaving space for an effective close can be difficult. It can be easy to get caught in the trap of giving the team just one more minute to reach their goal. But, one minute becomes five and before you know it, you’re out of sand.
There is no exact formula for determining the amount of time necessary for an effective close. It will vary depending on meeting duration, complexity, and size. In a 15-minute standup, for example, a 5 minute close would be absurd. Most likely, you would only need to allot a minute or less to close that session. But a two day leadership offsite, well that is probably going to need more real estate. As we walk through some of the elements of closing, you will start to get a sense of how much time you may need to close your upcoming meetings.
Beginning the Close
If you are following the recommendations we made here, and being clear about your meeting purpose and outcomes at the onset, then you are ready to circle back and complete one of the most essential components of the close - checking to see if you achieved them! Yes, really...and this is why it is hard for many of us. When we have not achieved what we set out to do, we usually already know it, and so actually asking seems like pouring salt into a wound. And yet, we must! As you begin your close, you want to restate the purpose so that participants have it clearly in their mind as you move to the next step.
Walk the Walls
To move towards the most useful answers to the questions “Did we achieve our outcomes?” and “Did we achieve our purpose?” we need to review what we did. We call this step Walking the Walls. Very often, by the time we reach the end of a meeting, and particularly if it has been a challenging one, we forget all that we have done. Our job as a facilitator is to give a quick recap. If this is a half-day session, it’s going to take longer than if it is a 15- or 30-minute session. In all cases, it is important, as it provides participants with the information to properly assess whether the outcomes and purpose have been met.
In a co-located meeting the mechanics of this step can take on many shapes. In service of focusing on remote meetings, we are going to keep it simple. You, as the facilitator, recap what was discussed throughout the meeting. Be clear about decisions that have been made. This is intended to be a high-level review, not a detailed revisiting of all content. It is essential for you to hold the process during this step. This is not the time to let go of the reins and turn it over to the participants. By now, there should have been many opportunities for them to share their opinions, this is not one of those times. Be strong!
Process Next Actions
If you’ve been in one of our bootcamps, you have watched us in action as we close parking lot items and issues, moving these into action items when called for. To ensure we are all on the same page - parking lot items are those questions or conversations that are not essential to meeting the purpose today, and issues are directly related to achieving our named purpose. In every meeting, in order to maintain trust, you must address each and every item in both categories before the meeting ends. But hold on before you get too frantic about the thought of that - addressing does not necessarily mean creating an action, and it certainly doesn’t mean opening up the conversation again in the closing minutes of the meeting. And yes, that does mean that the facilitation muscle you’ve been practicing could get a workout! Here is the process we have found to be most effective:
Read out the item - whether you read it, or someone else reads a post-it that they wrote, you need to take the process from here.
Ask “For whom is this still an issue?” and ask people to raise their hands (or speak out if no video). This is a key step because, very often, things raised earlier in meetings are either resolved, no longer relevant, or not important enough to do something about. Our experience tells us that all too often action items are created for items that no longer matter! If nobody raises their hand - tear it up! It’s done, and if it needs to it will come back to fight another day.
IF it is still alive, ask who wants to own the action item around it. Again, even if there were hands up in step 2, there isn’t always enough here for someone to be willing to sink their teeth into it. So, if no one volunteers to own it, rip up the post-it and LET IT GO. Yes! Let it go. It simply means there are too many other more important things to work on. Trust us, if there is no energy around an action, it won’t get done, no matter how many times you put a name and a date on it. (and don’t be fooled into taking it yourself, unless that is an appropriate action).
IF you get an owner, it’s now up to them - what does the Definition of Done (DoD) look like for this action item? If they’re owning it, they get to decide! Help them remember that it doesn’t need to be everything to completion. Perhaps it is just part of it, or the next step towards the greater goal. At times, it is simply a conversation - and that is an appropriate DoD! Taking one small step towards better is always more effective than offering to boil the ocean and doing nothing.
Ask them “By when will you complete this action?” Ideally, this is something that happens within the next week or so. If it is much longer, that’s a clue that they have taken on too much, and ask for the DoD to be reduced accordingly.
Rinse and Repeat. You can get through quite a number of action items in a short amount of time, provided you facilitate this well - this is not the time to re-open conversation. It can be useful to tell people that up-front: “We aren’t going to be re-opening any of these issues in this meeting, but we do want to ensure we have a plan to address them if they are still relevant.”
You might be asking yourself - what items?! We didn’t address this in the previous posts, and it is something you will need to think about. How you collect these will depend on the tool you are using, and the type of meeting, but it is important that you have a way to collect them, and that you let your participants know about the process up front. Ideas run from writing them on post it notes yourself as the meeting progresses (requires people to tell you) all the way to having virtual boards for parking lot and issues. Know that if you take the somewhere-in-the-middle road, and you don’t have constant visibility into the size of the PL or Issues board, you’ll need to check in to ensure you leave enough time at the end of your meeting to close properly.
Check on Purpose & Outcomes
Now that you’ve walked the wall, and processed action items, it’s time for the big reveal. Did you or did you not achieve what you set out to do? It’s important to remember that whether or not you have met your P&O’s, there is no need to beat yourself up. This is not a statement of good or bad - it is simply a statement of what is.
Acknowledging what is true in the moment is the way for us to determine the best move forward from here. If we got it all done, great - what’s next? And if we didn’t, great - what’s next? In either scenario, there is always a what’s next, and it is our role to help find the most useful next steps given what has been accomplished. So ask the questions - Did we achieve our outcomes? And Did we achieve our purpose? If you didn’t meet them, establish whether they are still relevant, and what you need to do to get back to them.
The next-to-last-step is to allow everyone in the meeting to find closure of some kind, so that they can effectively move on to the next thing in their day. We like to think of this as a bookend pair to the check-in. We open the meeting with a check-in, and we close the meeting with a check-out. This check-out provides people with an opportunity to close this particular loop. There are a lot of ways to do this. Here are a few ideas:
One word checkout - “Everyone, please offer one word to describe how you are leaving this meeting.”
Greatest takeway - “Everyone, please complete the sentence: ‘My greatest takeaway from this meeting is …’, with whatever can be said in a single breath.” (it’s important to include that guidance, and it has the added benefit of exercising the ‘bottomlining’ skill for everyone in your meeting!)
Completion statement - “In order to be complete for this meeting, I need to state the following:...” And you may want to put a time limit on this (30 seconds, 60 seconds, 2 minutes). This can flex with the time you have available, and offers the opportunity in meetings that are more complex to be heard more fully.
Appreciate the Hard Work
For better or worse, meetings are an essential element of innovation and forward-movement for organizations. And, if well facilitated, are hard work for the participants. As a facilitator, it is our responsibility to appreciate the willingness of our participants to engage in the process we have designed. Working with a talented facilitator can be a challenging and confronting affair. After all, great meetings are not without conflict. Letting the participants hear your appreciation can help them process why the conflict was important and may just have them see each other (and themselves) in a different light. This can sound as simple as “I know this meeting didn’t go as smoothly as we hoped, and I appreciate your willingness to stay committed to reaching the outcomes we discussed” or “We discovered some amazing new ideas in this time together, I want to thank you all for your dedication to working together to uncover some really innovative next steps.” If you come from a place of authenticity and integrity, you really can’t go wrong with this step.
And with that step complete, you’re done! You have made it through another meeting. Good or bad, it went the way it went and it’s time to move forward. As our wonderful colleague Leslie Riley says “With facilitation you either get a good meeting or a good story.” Whichever you got, we also hoped that you learned something along the way about facilitation, your team, or yourself. Now it’s time to kick off your after the meeting process. More to come on that tomorrow.
Until then, we hope your meetings have been going well and that our advice and direction has been useful so far. Let us know how things are going for you and what else would be useful as you navigate this all-online facilitation environment.