THE VALUE OF ENGAGEMENT: HOW TO SET UP AND FACILITATE AN EFFECTIVE PARTNERSHIP MEETING
Felicia Hurwitz and Joanne Pfleiderer | Mathematica (REL Mid-Atlantic)
The concept of “engagement”—using strategic, resourceful information to connect with people, and create meaningful interactions over time—gets a lot of attention these days, as organizations try to cut through a lot of noise and build relationships in a meaningful way. At the Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic (REL Mid-Atlantic), our mission includes creating collaborative partnerships with our stakeholders, which include school districts, state departments of education, teachers, principals, and others. To improve academic outcomes for students, our goals include ensuring that partners are fully engaged in the REL’s work so that they take positive actions to achieve their objectives. We’ve found that following a few key steps when setting up partnership meetings can ensure successful engagement, bringing stakeholders together to learn about, strategize, and tackle important issues. Here we describe recommendations, organized as a series of key questions and answers, for setting up meetings to engage members of a research-practice partnership effectively.
1. Why Hold A Partnership Meeting?
Stakeholders’ time is valuable—many organizations are trying to reduce the hours spent in meetings—so providing a compelling reason to meet is a critical first step for success. In our partnership meetings, we empower members to come together to discuss and develop common goals, including possible short- and long-term outcomes that motivate the use of REL Mid-Atlantic research and technical support. Make sure there is a valid reason to get together, and set a purpose for each meeting. For example, a partnership might decide to meet to discuss updates on a shared research project.
2. How Should We Determine a Meeting Topic?
First of all, name a meeting organizer to establish priorities for the meeting. The meeting organizer should seek out pressing issues in advance from members. Use a variety of channels to seek input–for example, send emails to the group or schedule individual phone conversations with partnership members. The end of a meeting is a good time to request suggestions for future gatherings. Select a topic that is of interest to the majority of members.
We’ve found that meeting topics of general interest include:
- Updates on a project that one or more members of the partnership are working on
- Discussion of a high priority challenge facing multiple members of the partnership (e.g., how stakeholders in different states and districts are addressing chronic absenteeism)
- A summary of what the research literature says about a topic of interest to all members in the partnership
Once a topic is identified, it’s time to promote the meeting! The organizer should develop an agenda, share it in advance, and ask for additions to it. Sending a calendar invitation to members can also promote interest and ensure that it is on everyone’s schedule. Ask the group to invite additional colleagues who might be interested in the topic as well.
3. What Strategies Help Ensure An Effective Meeting?
- Consider inviting an engaging guest speaker. Find an expert on the meeting topic and ask that person to do a short presentation and lead a discussion. The meeting organizer or another partnership member can prepare questions in advance and facilitate the dialogue to involve the group in active discussion.
- Make sure the right people attend. Include stakeholders who are interested and can take action in the future to address high-profile issues. Invite members to bring along other interested staff from their organization. The meeting organizer can reach out to partners in advance to help them decide whether to invite colleagues or other stakeholders. To generate a lively discussion, a range of people who are knowledgeable about and interested in a topic can help each other generate ideas. Consider the mix of roles represented and try to balance contributions from practitioners as well as researchers.
- Meet in person if possible, in a central location. Face-to-face conversation can enhance the quality of a meeting. The meeting content (discussion plans, presentations, etc.) should be both interesting and compelling enough to make travel worthwhile. In-person meetings of half a day work well when travel is required, while no more than two hours is a good length of time for virtual meetings.
- Appoint a note taker. Decide who will be taking notes and how you will share them after the meeting so everyone has access (for example, taking notes on a shared Google document or emailing minutes after the meeting). Allow attendees to suggest additions for the notes after they are circulated to make sure all important content is documented.
- Vary the meeting format. Many meetings are passive experiences where one or two people talk and everyone else listens. When introducing a discussion topic, consider giving everyone a few minutes as you start to share their top successes or challenges. Build in opportunities—for example, a series of three survey questions interspersed throughout the meeting—to energize the team. People also appreciate an opportunity to get out of their seats and move around—we have used a “gallery walk” at some REL meetings for participants to highlight and discuss relevant work on posters set up throughout the space.
- Host a dry run with presenters. The practice session can take place virtually. Make sure you have a meeting facilitator to run the presentation and discussion. Presenters should draft discussion prompts in advance to engage participants. Make sure each presenter knows how long you would like them to speak (i.e., 15 minutes, 30 minutes) as well as the time allotted for discussion. The facilitator should time each presentation and suggest cuts if the presenters take more than the allotted time during the dry run.
- Pay attention to the room set up. Make sure the meeting space accommodates group discussion. For example, have meeting participants sit around a table or across from each other. Avoid classroom-style setups where participants sit in chairs all facing the presenters. Find a space that is comfortable—for example, not too cramped, hot or cold, dark or bright.
- Make time for everyone to interact. Start with a chance for attendees to introduce themselves and their organizations, and include time, such as a coffee hour before or after the scheduled meeting, for networking—one of the most valuable and overlooked aspects of meetings. For meetings that are longer than 2 hours, build in time for short breaks (at least 15 minutes) so people can check their messages, use the restroom, etc.
4. How Can We Avoid Common Challenges?
- Be ready to redirect. If a presenter or participant gets off track, the meeting facilitator should be prepared to jump in and redirect the conversation. For example, the facilitator might ask a question that reorients the participants to the meeting goals, or suggest that an off-topic remark or question can be discussed during break.
- Be mindful of time. The facilitator should ensure that the presenter and participants stick to the times allotted in the agenda. Plan enough time during the Q and A to address questions during the meeting. In addition, consider holding up number cards to indicate the minutes left for the allotted presentation. the facilitator should help move things along, for example, by saying, “in the interest of time, let’s move on to the next topic” or “we have time for one more question about this.”
- Use engaging presentation materials. Be sure that PowerPoint slides are not too numerous or overwhelming. Too much text can make it hard for participants to focus on the content and the speaker. Use figures and graphics that are easy to read and visually appealing. Share any written materials (e.g., slides) with attendees after the meeting.
- Make sure your technology works impeccably. During the dry run, practice using projectors, remotes, laser pointers, and other devices. Make sure you have appropriate cables for connecting and charging laptops and other devices. Have a backup plan—i.e. paper handouts or presentation saved to a Google or thumb drive. Arrive early and arrange access to the meeting space for setup and practice. For virtual meetings, practice with the web conferencing tool in advance to make sure the content is visible to participants and presenters are audible.
5. What Should Happen At The End Of The Meeting?
Congratulations! You made it through a successful partnership meeting. Now it is time to plan for the future. Before everyone leaves, build in time for feedback. A short paper-and-pencil exit survey can be an easy way for everyone to provide anonymous input. Invite participants to share what they think worked well as well as what they think could be improved. Solicit ideas for topics and guest speakers to invite to upcoming meetings. Finally, send an email to attendees to thank them for attending and encourage continued discussion on the topic. Use this email as an opportunity to share meeting materials (e.g., presenter slides, meeting notes, and other resources that were shared or recommended) and solicit additional ideas that attendees come up with after the meeting adjourns.
NNERPP | EXTRA is a quarterly magazine produced by the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships | nnerpp.rice.edu