My Quest for More Efficient Meetings: Tips from a Department Chair

As department chair, I found this voter gradient tool useful in preventing discussions from going long.

As department chair, I found this voting gradient tool useful in bringing discussions to a close in a timely manner.

Note from Pam: In his posts earlier this month, John Sabo described strategies for bringing together diverse faculty to draft a mission and vision for a new research center in limited time. Here, Leopold Leadership Fellow Karen Holl (2008) shares tips and a recent article about running regular meetings with faculty and lab groups effectively over the long term.

One of my pet peeves, and I’m guessing probably yours too, is needless and inefficient meetings. During my term as department chair, I made a strong effort to decide what topics really needed to discussed by the whole faculty. Many topics could be decided by smaller committees or made by executive decision, as long as I kept everyone informed and double-checked that there wasn’t major opposition (which there rarely was; I’m fortunate to be in a collegial department). When we did discuss topics as a group, I determined in advance what answer I needed out of the discussion and tried to design the most efficient plan to get to that endpoint.

I found a lot of tips in Sam Kaner’s 2011 book Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (Wiley & Sons) to be very helpful. I am a big fan of quickly brainstorming lists of ideas and then giving people a few votes of their top choices. That way, you spend time discussing the most promising ideas rather than one person’s pet project. I found that using a voting gradient tool like the one above was helpful when I thought it was time to cut off discussion. People rarely voted for #7, but they would have continued talking if it hadn’t been put to a vote.

Since I’m always looking for new ideas for limiting the number of meetings and putting participants’ time to best use, I read Jeff Grossman’s recent article on “Regrouping the Group Meeting” in the Chronicle of Higher Education with great interest. He focuses primarily on lab group meetings but a lot of the suggestions could apply to many other situations. Here are a few of his tips:

1. Agree on a meeting format. It’s important to have this discussion with regular participants so that the format meets their needs and they buy into the process.

2. Keep presentation time to a minimum and allow more time for discussion. I can’t tell you how many times I have been involved with working groups with many very busy people that start with long individual presentations. They often run over time limits, and the discussion time at the end is cut short. I wonder, “Why did we all travel here when we could have read X’s papers on this topic?” Group meeting time should be primarily used for discussion that engages the wealth of knowledge present, rather than “squandering the opportunity,” as Grossman says.

3. Have clear ground rules for staying on time and topic, and enforce them. I like Grossman’s suggestion of a gavel and a sheriff’s badge. I have found that a sand timer, which doubles as a talking stick, works well as an unobtrusive announcement that one’s time is up. Grossman suggests taking turns with the police person role.

4. Require presenters to have an “ask” of the group. I make a similar recommendation to my students to think about what specific feedback they want from our group and then tailor their presentation to the background information for that ask.

5. Allow time at the end for one-on-one meetings. This is a need I saw in my faculty meetings. Since it was the one time people knew they would see other faculty, folks were scrambling in the two minutes before and after the meeting to have important one-on-one discussions. In the future, I can see that scheduling time for that purpose could be quite useful and save time in the long run.

I encourage you to read Grossman’s article and John Sabo’s two recent posts on brainstorming meetings to develop mission and vision statements. What are your best tips for effective meetings? Leave a comment.

Karen Holl, a 2008 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz whose expertise is in restoration ecology (

One thought on “My Quest for More Efficient Meetings: Tips from a Department Chair

  1. This blog entry is encouraging: I appreciate the references cited. One thing I note is that of the seven possible votes, five provide consent. Noting that “more discussion” is seldom selected, does this skew the scale to consensus? The format and ground rules are fundamental yet often overlooked. Good thread of entries on this topic.

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