I recently spoke on a panel about how to recover when a good online meeting goes bad. Of the 40-plus problems that audience members shared, very few involved technology. Most involved someone who derailed the group while everyone else sat by, apparently helpless to stop their meeting train from jumping the tracks. 

To correct these issues, the experts shared remarkably similar tips:

  1. Notice what's gone wrong.
  2. Name it. Intervene.
  3. Take a break and figure out what to do.
  4. Come back and get on track.

However, these steps work only if you know what the meeting is about, know how it's supposed to run, and have the authority and support needed to intervene. Those assumptions don't hold for many team meetings, which leaves otherwise good people sitting on their thumbs when things go bad.

You can fix that for your team by giving everyone on the team the skills and authority needed to make meetings valuable. The skills needed to lead good meetings come with training and practice. The responsibility for keeping meetings on track can be shared by everyone. Here's how.

1. Plan for common problems.

Identify the most common problems your team faces in meetings. For example, you might regularly experience:

  • Tech failures: Difficulty connecting, poor audio, etc.
  • Disorderly discourse: People talking over one another, getting off-topic, or arguing.
  • Unequal participation: Some people do all the talking, others rarely contribute.

2. Prepare an intervention.

Design an if-then intervention your team can use when the problem arises. This gives your team a fast, simple way to notice when your meeting is heading into rocky waters and quickly change course. For example:

  • A backup plan: If we have trouble connecting to the video meeting, then we'll use the phone conference line.
  • A visual signal: If someone looks like they're trying to talk but we can't hear them, then we'll hold up a card that reads, "You're muted."
  • A code word: If the conversation is going into the weeds, then we'll say "ELMO" ("Enough--let's move on").
  • An audio signal: If the conversation becomes tense and unproductive, then we'll ring a bell and take a moment in silence. To restart the conversation, we'll first identify what went wrong and what we each need so we can get back on track.
  • A feedback practice: If we need everyone's contribution and best thinking, then we'll run a "circle," during which each person speaks for 30 seconds on the topic and no one speaks a second time until all voices have been heard.

3. Practice your intervention.

Once you've identified your intervention, introduce it to your team and put it into practice. For example, after introducing the ELMO concept to your team, you could run a role-play exercise by asking two team members to talk about something fairly boring. The rest of the group watches, and when either talker veers off topic, the group calls out ELMO. Finish by applauding the role-playing pair and the group, because the courage to keep a group productive should be celebrated. 

4. Give permission. 

Now that you've introduced an intervention and practiced it, ask the group to use it. Going forward, everyone should agree that when you run into problems and someone intervenes, you will all work to get that meeting back on track. 

With this agreement, your group is giving one another permission to use the intervention. 

5. Put the group in charge of its own success.

Ultimately, you want useful interventions to become part of your culture--part of "the way meetings work around here." But this won't happen automatically. 

To give your healthy meeting habit a boost, try assigning one person in each meeting to be responsible for intervening. That person makes sure the bell gets rung, or that everyone speaks once before anyone speaks twice, or whatever your intervention is. 

Then, celebrate. In the first few weeks and months, take time to acknowledge those who've stepped up in meetings and helped you all do better. 

By following these steps to adopt a few simple if-then agreements, your team of good people can look forward to enjoying lots of good meetings.