Last month, an advisor on our new Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) project advisory committee told us that our in-person kick-off meeting was the best he had ever attended. Inspired by his encouragement, we share below our top 11 recommendations for lively and productive advisory committee meetings. We think the recommendations may be particularly useful for large advisory committees; for example, our current project has 7 team members and 12 advisors, including partners and external evaluator.
Overall values: These recommendations derive from the view that the fundamental reason you bring your advisors long distances is to hear their thoughts in detail, preferably in animated discussions that you can learn from. We also presume that you value equity, in that you don’t want a few chatty people to dominate. Lastly, we assume that there’s an explicit benefit in the advisors getting to know each other, anticipating an ongoing virtual relationship beyond the first in-person meeting.
These values play out in the following recommendations:
- Don’t spend any time reminding advisors of what the project entails. This is a waste of precious discussion time and annoying to those who did their homework. Instead, give them the proposal and/or other orientation materials at least two weeks before the meeting, and tell them in bold lettering in the email that you’re going to assume they’ve read them, and that the first ice-breaker will be to get their feedback. With this approach, we got 100% of advisors doing this homework, which allowed us to hit the ground running.
- Before the meeting, send out not just the advisors’ bios but a couple of sentences on their key contributions to the project (you can usually draw this from your proposal). This will help them get to know each other’s relevant expertise, which is a core value that supports good discussions during the meeting and beyond. It also means they can feel confident striking up conversations during the breaks or other informal discussion times. Your advisors are talented individuals and will really enjoy talking together if you make it easy for them.
- Don’t do frivolous ice-breakers. These may be fun, but are not the best use of your precious time. Instead, have the ice-breaker be to pair with someone they don’t know yet, and take turns sharing something that struck them as they read the proposal (e.g., a strength or a concern). We asked them to do this for six minutes, and then brought the full group back together and asked people to share one strength or concern they had heard during the pair-share.
- Early on in the meeting, have the advisors experience the project’s main deliverable in some way. This might be an exhibit mockup, a video, or an activity that gets them to take the role of learner in your project. This grounds them in the realities of what you’re planning, gives them something concrete to respond to, gives them a flavor of your innovation, and stimulates creativity and humor. In our project, we simulated a peer coaching situation and asked the advisors to give feedback to a hypothetical educator whose video they had just viewed. They were amazed by how challenging the task was to do, and this led to solid grounding for the design task to follow.
- Have each advisor give a three-minute presentation on some related aspect of their own work, so that everyone can glimpse the assets they bring to the project. Let them prepare this ahead of time, and emphasize that it’s only three minutes long, just enough to share a few insights from some related work they’ve done. Tell them that Powerpoint slides are quite unnecessary – but if they really want some, the maximum is two, and they should be sent well before the meeting starts so that they’re all pre-loaded when a panel starts. At our meeting we organized four 45-minute panels, each consisting of three to five advisors with similar kinds of expertise, and clustered by topic, (e.g., STEM in libraries, scaling up, or technology tools for learning). Even with the presentations running slightly long, most of the 45-minute panel was given to discussion, and the non-presenting advisors quickly stepped into the role of asking questions of the panelists and also sharing their own thoughts. The conversation was lively and needed facilitation just to keep track of who wanted to speak. We recognize that this entire process takes a big chunk of the advisory meeting, but we scattered the panels throughout the meeting, and they were very popular and led to high-quality discussion. Also, it is the only time the committee is divergent and can pollinate the process with their background experiences; thereafter, every meeting will be of the form “What should we do next on our own project?” Finally, this gives advisors a chance to be in the limelight in a dignified way, so the dynamic later in the meeting becomes less about them trying to find an excuse to talk about themselves, and more about them knowing each other’s expertise and encouraging each other to weigh in at appropriate moments (e.g., Hey Laura, how did you deal with this in your work?”).
- Split your advisors into groups and ask them to undertake a few authentic design tasks that your team is actually struggling with. This gives you valuable information and also makes them feel that they’re on the front lines with you. We typically include two design tasks over the course of a two-day meeting: one that is designing some aspect of the program (e.g. how would you tweak this afterschool program to work with our new target audience?), and one that is designing some aspect of the research (e.g., Is this evaluation plan realistic, or how might we create an embedded assessment of the learning?). We give them about an hour for each, and we mix up the groups and mix in a few team members to keep it interesting.
- Never ask one person from each small group to report out their lists of discussed points. This kind of comprehensive reading from a long list takes a lot of time and tends to be mind-numbing for everyone. (“Ok, team, did I miss anything we discussed?”) Instead, keep the reporting time quite short and use a “popcorn” strategy with the whole group: “Who would like to share one interesting thing you heard or thought of in your group?” This keeps it lively and elicits only the points your advisors are most energized by. The full gory details of the small-group discussion can be captured in writing by a team member (one allocated to each small group) for future analysis if you really want that level of detail, without anyone having to read it tediously to the full group.
- At the start of the second day, allow 30 minutes to let them share their dreams and reflections from the first day. This is a particularly rich time to glean good reflections as well as any concerns, and to make sure they don’t start feeling distant from the discussion. Kathy McLean taught me this one.
- To mark the end of all the allocated times, use a timer with a gentle sound that everyone can hear. We used a harp sound, which isn’t obnoxious but is clear. This signals to the speaker or the group that the time is up, without anyone taking it personally. You can make a joke about it, but use it because otherwise your high-energy meeting will start falling behind your agenda and your stress levels will be obvious. For simplicity, we allocate someone from the team to take this responsibility throughout.
- Facilitate with equity in mind, just as you would with a group of youth. If some people are still dominating, ask for a perspective from anyone who hasn’t spoken yet, and make a joke about how you have excellent wait time. Have excellent wait time.
- Give advisors an opportunity to share out their final thoughts and suggestions. We gave them five minutes of silence to think and prepare their thoughts, and then one minute each to share their final thoughts. It was perfect: pithy and thoughtful.
In general, we try to mix up formats and keep advisors active, to avoid boredom and passivity. We only rarely use formats where most people sit silently most of the time (e.g., whole-group discussion; whole-group turn-taking). Instead, we make frequent use of formats where everyone gets lots of opportunities to speak: (e.g., small-groups followed by brief “popcorn” sharing out of a few top-of-mind points; think-pair-share sequences).
Finally, for the virtual meetings beyond that first in-person meeting, we ask our advisors to set aside 90 minutes roughly three times a year for a videoconference (zoom) meeting. Prior to that meeting, we send some concrete materials that reflect our development process (mockups, draft articles, etc.), and the usual alert that we’ll assume they’ve read them and will start with hearing their responses. This approach (frequent short zoom meetings) works better for us than longer annual meetings because our advisors stay closer to the work and can give frequent pithy feedback. They already know each other (and will likely remember those three-minute presentations), and are used to stepping up. This year we plan to experiment with some time in break-out rooms on zoom for small-group discussions, again with a team member in each small group to take detailed notes.
For more details on our project, go to mmsa.org/projects/acres, or contact us know if you have other suggestions for great advisory meetings.