On average, 30-60% of our working time is spent in meetings. A basic building block for working with others, meetings are one of the most frequent ways that we get things done together. Recently several clients asked for my advice about how to improve their meetings. I began writing this post to answer their questions, and discovered just how much I take for granted about designing and facilitating effective meetings. Since this is such a broad topic, this is the first of several posts to help you optimize your investment in meetings.
This is not your usual list of meeting dos and don’ts such as:
- Have an objective and an agenda
- Stick to a schedule – Start and end on time
- Ban personal technology – Ask people to silence their devices
- Establish ground rules
- Solicit participation
While important, these are simply “basic meeting hygiene” tips; they don’t set you up for consistently effective meetings. By effective I mean meetings that accomplish their purpose and desired outcomes, and where the participants have had a positive experience and feel that their time and energy were well invested.
The key to holding effective meetings is to use a robust repeatable process, without which your investment is at risk. Meetings are one of the most basic business processes, and a component of many organizational processes. Like all business processes, if you design in quality, you are more likely to get a quality outcome.
Right now you may be saying to yourself, “What’s the big deal? I plan and lead meetings all the time. There’s nothing difficult about this.” I agree that it’s not difficult. But it does take careful planning and consistent attention before, during, and after the meeting. Now ask yourself, at how many meetings do you hear others remark, “That was a good meeting. We accomplished what we set out to do and we used our time well.”
How Well Do You Plan and Facilitate Meetings?
Take a quick assessment:
For each question below, score yourself using the following scale:
Never = 1
Rarely = 2
Sometimes = 3
Often = 4
Always = 5
- When I plan a meeting I start by thinking through the outcomes that are important. “What will be different because we met?”
- Before establishing a meeting agenda I understand what other meeting participants think is important to accomplish.
- When I plan a meeting I take the time to think through each individual segment of work (the agenda items), who needs to participate in which ways, what time each item might take, and how to facilitate each conversation.
- I create a logical flow and put things in an order that allows agenda items to build on each other.
- In the meetings I lead we complete all the agenda items.
- Participants understand and complete the pre-work needed for the meeting to be effective.
- When we start our meetings everyone understands why we’re there and what we need to accomplish; participants are aligned.
- For each agenda item we clarify why it’s on the agenda, what we need to accomplish, and how we will do that.
- Each participant in the meeting understands their role for each agenda item.
- When we need to make a decision, we take the time to clarify the issues, hear each other, and develop options that arise from listening before making a decision.
- When making a decision, meeting participants understand their roles and how the decision will be made.
- At the end of the meeting, before running out of the room, we review what we did, the next steps, and if/when we plan to meet again.
(Here’s a pdf version of the assessment: Meeting Planning and Facilitation Assessment )
How did you do? If you answered 1= never, 2=rarely, or 3=sometimes to any of these questions, keep reading. You can easily improve the quality of your meetings. If most of your answers were 4 or 5, then congratulations, you are doing the basics well. You may still pick up a few good ideas below.
The 5 Components of Planning and Leading an Effective Meeting
Once it starts, every meeting has three basic segments – a beginning, a middle, and an end. However, there are two other critical segments – planning before the meeting and follow-up after the meeting. Without a good plan to start with, the meeting itself will take more time than needed and likely not accomplish its goals. And without follow-up much of the work doesn’t actually reach fruition. Sadly, it’s not over when the meeting itself ends.
Process Flow for Effective Meetings:
|Before||Plan and design the entire meeting and the individual parts|
|Beginning||Orient the participants to the meeting content and process|
|Middle||Conduct the work of the meeting|
|End||Complete and close|
Below is an overview of each of these 5 process steps. Read through everything, or focus on the steps where the assessment shows your most opportunities for improvement.
1. Plan and design the meeting
- Clarify the purpose and desired outcomes
- Design an agenda to achieve the purpose and desired outcomes
- Consider who will be there, and who needs to participate to ensure effectiveness and minimize the chances of needing to revisit the discussion later
- Sequence the agenda items in a complete logical order that makes effective use of time
- Think through the time needed to adequately cover each agenda item / meeting segment – Most things take longer than planned and the more people who participate in the discussion the longer it’s likely to take
- Plan for each agenda item – Pre-Work: The leader of each agenda item must communicate what needs to be completed so that participants are prepared to complete the work of that segment
The greater the number of people participating in a specific meeting and / or the longer the meeting is scheduled to last the more time is needed to prepare and design an effective meeting. Depending on the content of the agenda, planning activities for some meetings may take a short time, while others may take as much as 2 or 3 times the actual length of the meeting.
2. Orient participants to the meeting process and content
- Set the tone
- Clarify the overall purpose and specific desired outcomes
- Review the agenda
- Clarify roles and any ground rules
- Help people connect to each other and the content of the meeting
Everyone comes to a meeting with expectations, and there is a good chance that they are all different. When you send information in advance, not everyone reads it, and even if they do people probably interpret it differently. Without orienting participants to the meeting in general and each agenda item specifically, each participant will bring their preconceived notions. Taking the time at the beginning to orient participants increases the chance that they are pointed in the same direction. This decreases the time needed for the meeting and minimizes the chance for wrong turns taken along the way.
A few minutes to get people “into the room,” connected to each other, and familiar with the content of the meeting supports the group to work well together. My friend and colleague Betsy calls this “connection before content”. It was not always comfortable for me to start this way, yet I have learned just how important it is.
3. Conduct the main work of the meeting
- Just as the meeting has a beginning, middle, and end, each agenda segment should follow the same pattern – frame the agenda segment, conduct the work of the segment, and summarize what was accomplished and any next steps.
- The “middle”, conducting the work of the agenda item, is where the main design and facilitation is needed because informational segments require a different approach than option development or decision making. Matching your approach to the purpose of the segment is critical.
I recommend the following process for completing each of the main agenda segments of a meeting:
|Process Steps for Each Agenda Topic|
|1. Framing the agenda topic||Beginning|
|2. Sharing data||Middle|
|3. Making meaning of the data|
|4. Deciding on action|
Some agenda segments may move quickly through the above steps and others will take more time in the middle stage. Agenda items whose purpose is information sharing may not need steps 3 and 4, though be sure to set aside time for questions and comments – a form of meaning making.
Stay tuned for a future post when I discuss this sub-process in more detail including what to look and listen for in each of these steps.
4. Complete and Close
- Clarify what was accomplished
- Review action items and next steps
- Evaluate the meeting
- Schedule any follow-up meetings
- Thank the participants, and formally end the meeting
We often give this step short shrift, because working on the middle part of the agenda seems to be most important. However, when we don’t complete and close properly, participants leave with a sense of incompleteness. Summarizing accomplishments, action items, and next steps completes the work. Good closure allows participants to have a sense of completion, which permits them to move on more easily to whatever is next.
Remember to evaluate the meeting. Even a short evaluation allows the group to learn about what worked and what needs improvement for the next meeting. It also communicates the importance of meetings as a learning process, where continuous improvement is valued.
Calendaring can be one of the most challenging parts of getting a group together. Doing this while people are together can save a lot of time and raise coordination issues that are missed when handled offline.
- Prepare and send notes
- Communicate to those who did not attend
- Follow-up to ensure completion of action items
This step differs for each type of meeting, and every meeting needs some kind of follow-up.
Give This Process a Try
Now you can see why I said at the beginning that there is more to designing and facilitating effective meetings than many people realize. It’s a lot like riding a bike, playing tennis, or participating in any sport – once you become good at it, you forget how many individual moves there are.
If your meetings are not achieving your expectations, implement the 5 step process described in this post and you’ll experience significant improvement. Make even a few changes and you’ll notice a difference. Start with planning and design, and work your way through the process. You don’t have to do it all at once – that would be overwhelming. Start slowly and pay attention to the results. Work your way through the entire process and see what a difference using a consistent process makes. I’m interested to hear how it goes, and what questions you have.
Stay tuned for future posts on special topics such as decision making, facilitation, and other useful tools. And if you have something you’d like to read more about, please drop me a note.