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Hebert | Meetings that work

By Tom Hebert

Published on September 5, 2018 11:57AM

First a question. What book was the most important or memorable in your life? “Huckleberry Finn,” “Atlas Shrugged,” “The Color Purple,” “Lolita,” or a childhood book like “Charlotte’s Web” that sent your imagination flying?

Well, the book that transformed my life and career was a paperback, “How To Make Meetings Work,” by Michael Doyle and David Straus. It was first published in 1976 and republished in 1996. The back cover: “The interaction method is a new, tested way to stop wasting time and get things done at meetings.”

So, how did this book do what it did for me? From 1979 to 1987 I lived in Chattanooga working for the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal power corporation that serves a seven-state region.

Because I quickly figured out where I could make the best contribution, I put together a program to meet the various training needs of TVA’s Energy Use Divisions. This eventually became the Energy Conservation & Solar Institute, TVA’s think tank and center for innovation.

As time passed, I realized that most of the TVA meetings I attended didn’t work very well. They weren’t creative or collaborative, which would have lead to innovation and change. But, in 1983 I discovered in TVA’s technical library “How To Make Meetings Work.” So I started putting the book to work in the meetings I organized at the institute, and with other groups who met there.

Book in hand, I soon partnered with Mai Bell Hurley, one of the most powerful people in town. The result was Chattanooga Venture, a public/private partnership that in time turned Chattanooga into one of the most livable cities in America.

Later, in November 1986, I was asked to lead an inter-office team to develop TVA’s strategic plan. Which I did. Much of my success was the result of reading, and believing in, this book. I was a drama major.

Chapter 2 of “How To Make Meetings Work” begins, “When three or more people work together face to face we call this a meeting. What goes wrong at most meetings?”

The Five Ingredients of an Effective Meeting:

1. There must be a common focus on content.

2. There must be a common focus on process.

3. Someone must be responsible for maintaining the open and balanced conversational flow.

4. Someone must be responsible for protecting individuals from personal attack.

5. For the duration of the meeting everyone’s role and reasonability must be clearly defined and agreed upon.

The results that can emerge from good meetings are more productivity, creativity, efficiency, participation, and commitment.

The heart of the book’s “interaction method” is a second person at the front of the room. Working with the meeting’s leader, this “recorder” will capture the participant’s comments in full view on a tripod easel with a large pad of paper on it while the leader or chair keeps the meeting’s agenda moving forward by generating positive ideas, opinions, and agreement.

“As a meeting unfolds the recorder creates the group memory from what participants are saying; it becomes a powerful visual tool, a readymade instant replay, that helps members concentrate and see what is going on.”

The comments on the paper sheets should be taped to the wall as each one fills up. This becomes the group memory as the meeting rolls along and the basis for the group memo, which will be interesting to read — particularly if there is some humor.

Once the chairs are set in a semicircle (if possible) the easel with large pad and magic markers are in place, it’s best to begin a meeting by asking the participants what their expectations are. Then the meeting takes off with the recorder making accurate notes. Conclude the meeting by summarizing the highlights, including the actions to be taken as a result of the discussion. With good process and commitment the meeting will be a success with the participants actually looking forward to the next meeting.

From an August 2013 doctoral dissertation on the creation of Chattanooga Venture, “I knew someone had to stand up with a pad of paper, an easel and magic markers and get the group thinking out loud.”

From the book, the best-ever format for a meeting’s minutes:




What Happened:

Decisions/Action Items:

Next Steps:

Oh yes, the book costs about $7 on Amazon. But who’s going to buy the easel, pad and magic markers?

Tom Hebert is a writer and public policy consultant living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.


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