Create Meetings That Don’t Suck
Most of us hate meetings, because the typical meeting is a poorly organized waste of time. It doesn’t have to be this way! With a little preparation and a light structure, you can have very effective meetings.
Here is a link to a Google Doc worksheet that will help you prepare to run a meeting.
Make a copy of the document, and use it to help you design meetings that don’t suck. Below is an overview of how to use the worksheet.
Purpose – the why and the results of the meeting
Most meetings quickly turn into a somewhat random discussion of topics that are more interesting than important. This happens when the participants don’t know why the meeting is being held and what the group should accomplish during the meeting. A purpose is critical to answer the questions, “why are we here?” and, “as a group, what should we accomplish by the end of this meeting?” When the meeting organizer and the attendees know why they are there and what they need to deliver, it focuses the group. When determining the purpose, think about your intentions and those of the attendees.
Here are some examples:
Get on the same page about our business model by completing a Lean Canvas that everyone understands.
Understand the most effective ways to move our business forward by creating a prioritized list of opportunities to pursue and obstacles to mitigate.
Get the founding team on the same page by completing a Company OS
Participants and What’s In It for Them
Have you been in a meeting that went nowhere because there were too many people in the meeting or nothing was decided because the right people weren’t there? When you know why you’re meeting and want you want to accomplish, you can answer the question “who do we need to help us successfully accomplish the purpose of this meeting?” As you think about who is in the meeting, also consider what value they will get from attending. When the meeting is only valuable to the organizer, everyone else will likely feel like it was a waste of time. Attendees will be engaged when they personally benefit from attending. Keep their perspective in mind while making sure you achieve what you want in the meeting.
The agenda provides the structure of the meeting. It allows the group to stay on track. That focus is critical to make sure the group creates the desired results and archives the meeting’s purpose. The format of the agenda may seem a little odd at first. The structure helps to ensure the meeting moves toward the desired end result, while giving the participants the space to bring their wisdom and opinions to the meeting.
When planning the agenda, first think about the meeting’s purpose and the results you want from the meeting. Next, break the meeting into increments. Start by filling out the outcome column of the agenda. Often agenda items will build on the outcomes of the previous agenda items. It’s in this building of outcomes that allows the group to construct the final results of the meeting and reach the meeting’s purpose.
Here are some examples of Outcomes:
Once you’ve broken down the agenda into outcomes, for each outcome think about a prompting question you can ask that will move the group toward the desired outcome. You may be asking, why word them as a question? It’s subtle, using a question as the topic sets the tone that you’re inviting the group to share their data, emotions, ideas, etc in coming to a decision. The goal is for the group to use their creativity to answer the question, rather than just doing what you ask of them. Word the questions in a way that will drive toward the outcome, without stating the outcome. Here are some examples:
Having time limits on each section is critical to moving the meeting forward. Groups have the most energy and engagement at the beginning of a meeting. If you don’t have time boxes or you don’t hold the group to them, it will be natural to spend most of your time on the first few agenda items and then run out of time for the last items. Have you been to a meeting where there was a bunch of debate followed by a very hasty decision? That’s typically the result of poor time management. Now that you have the desired outcomes, and the prompting questions, think about how much time the group will need to answer each topic question. You’ll want to make sure there is enough time to answer the topic question well enough to move on to the next agenda item, but don’t spend so much time that you run out of time at the end of the meeting. Finding this balance isn’t always easy. Do your best to put some time pressure on the group, while leaving enough space to meet the purpose of the meeting. When in doubt, drop an agenda item rather than squeezing time out of all the other agenda items.
Here is the final agenda example with timings:
Scope of Authority (optional)
The final consideration is what decision-making power does the meeting group have. This is optional because in most meetings this isn’t a contentious issue. For some meetings, though, this can be a big issue. If you feel tension or confusion around what decisions can be made by the group, work to establish the decision-making authority of the group and make it clear to the attendees when the meeting starts. If it’s really contentious, make sure there is space at the beginning and end of the agenda to handle any discussion.
I want to appreciate Jean Tabaka and Rachel Weston Rowell for teaching me so much about how to prepare and run effective meetings. If you want to learn more about meeting facilitation I highly recommend Jean’s book Collaboration Explained.