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 (

Designing the Destination: 2 Hours to a Vision and Mission for Our Center


Pitch and Post worked well for generating the vision and mission for our new food systems center.

In my last post, I described how I used Think-Pair-Share in a 2-hour meeting to build trust and momentum among faculty who are creating a center on food systems at Arizona State University. In our second meeting (also 2 hours) we modified several tools introduced by Barefoot at the Leopold Leadership training last June to create vision and mission statements. Here’s what we did.

Meeting 2: Creating a collaboration space to draft vision and mission statements

At Meeting 2 we had some of the same faculty (veterans from Meeting 1) and a group of faculty who could not attend the initial meeting (rookies). In hindsight it would have been nice to redo the Think-Pair-Share exercise by pairing veterans and rookies and having the veterans “swear in” the rookies to the group. Note to self for next time.

The goal of Meeting 2 was to brainstorm a vision, and if time permitted, a mission for the center. To brainstorm the vision statement, we used a version of “Pitch and Post.” We divided the large group into subgroups of four and tasked each one to come up with a two-sentence vision statement for the food systems center. Each subgroup appointed a delegate who pitched the idea to the larger group. The other participants wrote their reactions on post-its and posted them on the written (paper or tablet) vision statement. Each subgroup took the feedback, synthesized it, and redrafted their vision statements. We then reran the Pitch and Post a second time. In the end we derived three very solid vision statements.

After this vision exercise, I charged the group with brainstorming a mission that would achieve the vision. We did this as a snowball activity. Pairs discussed and synthesized their top three activities that would achieve the center mission. These ranged from more organization to writing collaborative research proposals to funding conferences led by graduate students to changing the metrics for P&T evaluation to rewarding engagement and the translation of research into action. The pairs then paired up into groups of four and honed and culled until they had a set of their top three activities. Then we did this as a large group. In the end I left the meeting with a short list of top 12 most desired activities for the food systems center.

By the end, I had new insights about managing large faculty meetings.

Most important do’s and don’ts:

  • Don’t be afraid to deviate from the script: Think-Pair-Share and other Barefoot activities can be mixed and matched, co-opted for other purposes, and redesigned.
  • Make room for movement: Switch between pairs and groups of four midway through the meeting, or better, make the group reorganize into 2-3 different groups of four to discuss focus questions. Getting up and moving keeps interest levels up.
  • Appoint assistant coaches to help design and execute the meetings: The coaches were valuable notetakers and guidance counselors to faculty through the meeting process. Their participation led to better outcomes.
  • Don’t forget the food: Eating together builds community. Design these sorts of meetings at lunchtime and feed participants well.
  • Don’t fear execution imprecision: The second round of Pitch and Post in Meeting 2 was actually a complete accident (unplanned) but hitting the clutch and shifting gears on the fly paid off.
  • Don’t try to do too many games in one meeting: Explaining game rules and getting participants in the groove takes precious time and may ultimately get in the way of getting work done.
  • Don’t go in blind: Have a ballpark idea of your desired outcome — e.g., what that vision and mission should look like. Design your destination, be flexible, and prepare to listen in order to lead more effectively.

Share your best tips for leading faculty meetings in the comments below.

John Sabo, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is Associate Professor in the School of Life Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Director of Research Development at the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Follow him on Twitter @jlsaboASU.

Breaking Ice and Controlling the Mike: How I Got a Faculty Brainstorm to Work


In addition to meeting design, good food was essential to the success of our meeting.

One of the most daunting leadership roles I have recently confronted is directing large groups of faculty to brainstorm. Here is the situation in a nutshell. Arizona State University has deep talent across a broad range of disciplines in food systems research. My task was to organize this talent, build a team and design a campus center that better reflected how the whole of this talent was much more compelling than the sum of its talented parts.

To do this I invited a group of 12-18 faculty to sit down for two separate two-hour sessions and brainstorm to build this center from scratch. I was skeptical that the large group would produce results, especially in only two hours. I have been to too many bad organizational meetings where introductions take half or more of the precious meeting time. I knew I had to borrow some newly learned skills from the Barefoot part of our Leopold Leadership training last June. But which ones? And more importantly, would my adaptations go down in flames and hinder rather than propell the brainstorming process?

Here is what I rolled out from the Barefoot toolkit to pull this off:

Staffing and design

To help design and run the meeting, I created a coaching staff consisting of a postdoc with PhD-level experience in food systems; a proposal writer and business development specialist; and a contracts specialist with experience running large grants for multidisciplinary teams in the sustainable agriculture research space. This team was pivotal. We met three times and co-designed the content of the brainstorming meetings. My coaching staff designed a 5-minute survey to quickly synthesize faculty perceptions of: a) their own research in food systems; and b) the areas of food systems they thought ASU was strong in. We used the differences (contrasts) between the two sets of responses as a springboard for discussion.

Meeting 1: Introducing the idea of the center and building the team

The first meeting was attended by nearly 18 faculty, a few postdocs and a few graduate students. The participants represented ASU’s four valleywide campuses, so some of them commuted to make the meeting. The group was very diverse — from Justice Studies to Engineering, from Law to Biosciences, and everything in between. I knew I had to honor the value of faculty time — I had two hours of their day to work with and I had to make the best of it.

To do this, I used Think-Pair-Share as an ice breaker. The logic for using this brainstorming tool out of sequence, so to speak, was that I needed to build new relationships — between faculty from different units and campuses — and I needed to take the mike away from the “long talker” during introductions. You know who I am talking about. The goal of the Think-Pair-Share was this: 1) Think about a 1-2 sentence reaction to the survey results, 2) tell your partner your name, unit, research interest and “survey reaction,” and 3) your partner shares that info with the group as a whole which doubles as an introduction.

I have to admit I was nervous. Would this strategy work? When I rolled it out, I could see the disbelief in some of the participants eyes. “Really? You mean I can’t just sit here and peck on my phone while you drone on?” The initial reaction reminded me of suggesting a board game at a boring New Year’s Eve party.

There was hesitation and disbelief, initially. But the best part of this meeting was that almost everyone who was skeptical eventually thoroughly enjoyed the process of meeting a new faculty member and delivered thoughtful, succinct introductions of their partner and the information from the survey. The meeting kicked off with an effervescent start that didn’t quit bubbling through til the end. I had research deans come up to my coaching staff afterwards and tell us that our meeting was one of the best they had attended.

I think the key to success was: a) breaking up the monotony of introductions; b) taking away the mike from the “long talkers;” c) getting a big group to tackle the tasks at hand in pairs; and d) creating collective responsibility for achieving the meeting goals.

This experience taught me a lot about how to manage large faculty meetings effectively. The most important do’s and don’ts:

  • Grassroots is essential: Participants in a successful organizational meeting must feel that they have power to influence the outcomes of the meeting.
  • Break the ice and control the mike: Introductions are a waste of precious time, but breaking the ice is essential. Participants will in most cases follow the meeting rules and behave better when charged with telling the group about someone other than themselves and this will also serve as an ice breaker, saving precious time.
  • Don’t be afraid to deviate from the script: Think-Pair-Share and other Barefoot activities can be mixed and matched, co-opted for other purposes, and redesigned.
  • Don’t forget the food: This was a lunch meeting about food systems, after all. Sharing food is a natural way to build community and trust which will lead to better collaborations.

In my next post, I’ll describe how we built on the trust and momentum built in this first meeting to create a compelling vision and set of goals for our center. What are your best tips for leading faculty meetings? Leave a comment.

John Sabo, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is Associate Professor in the School of Life Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Director of Research Development at the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Follow him on Twitter @jlsaboASU.