I have been reflecting on what makes a great meeting. With some vanity and hubris, I hearby state that I I run kick-ass meetings. Not all the time, I admit. But often enough that I have received positive feedback on my meetings from others. How often do people tell you that you run great meetings? Not a complement that comes up often.
Here are a few things that I have learned through experience:
- Define your meeting’s objective.
- Invite the right people – and only the right people – to your meeting.
- Prepare an agenda.
- Facilitate strongly.
- Everyone participates.
- Take great notes.
- Follow up afterwards.
Let’s look at these one by one.
1. Define Your Meeting’s Objective
It is amazing how often meetings don’t have objectives, particularly recurring meetings. Even your “weekly update” meeting needs to have a real objective, and “updating” isn’t an objective. If your meeting doesn’t have a objective, send an email with your updates and gift people back the time. The meeting’s objective needs to be compelling and require a meeting of the minds to achieve. State it up front, in the meeting’s title, in the agenda, at the start of the meeting. Make sure people stick to the objective of the meeting.
What is the objective of the dreaded Weekly Update? To work through issues that are preventing the participants from achieving something they are working on together.
What? Working on together? But it’s a team update – my team members have individual projects, they aren’t working on anything together. Fine, then don’t have a team update, have individual updates. But we like spending time together. Ok, then have a team lunch and catch up on personal stuff. Or do the dirty work to help you figure out what makes you a team and make working on those things your objective.
2. Invite Only the Right People
How do you determine the right people? Look at your objective and ask yourself who needs to contribute to that objective. This is a hard one because people want to be included, especially when they hear about how great your meetings are. Or people may want to skip the meeting either because they are resistant to hearing the discussion that will arise at the meeting or because they are too important to make time for the meeting.
We see this often with executive sponsor project updates. Either the sponsor wants to include the whole project team in the meeting, which means that too many people have opinions and the meeting doesn’t stay focused; or they want to delegate the meeting to the project manager, which undermines the meeting objective, which is resolving issues that the PM can’t resolve on their own, or enrolling the sponsor in getting the project back on the rails because the PM hasn’t been able to keep it on the rails.
3. Prepare an Agenda
What to put on the agenda? It comes from your objective. And it starts with your objective. State the objective at the start of the meeting. Then review the rest of your agenda, which includes topics that will help you achieve that objective. Then move through the agenda, leaving time at the end to recap any decisions and next steps.
It amazes me how often meeting arrangers don’t do this. Even I am guilty of it sometimes. Not having an agenda leaves your meeting open to scope creep; invariably someone will jump in with a sideshow topic that derails your meeting. It also makes it too easy to miss your objective.
4. Facilitate Strongly
A strong facilitator starts and ends the meeting on time, leads the participants through the agenda, restates and calls out decisions and issues, calls for decisions as needed, and “parks” any topics that distract the meeting from the objective. I want to focus on two aspects that are two sides to the same coin: calling for decisions and parking distractions.
Calling for decisions occurs when conversation has been going in circles for a while without getting anywhere. You want to allow space for people to talk through issues, but there reaches a point where people get lost in the discussion. A strong facilitator states what they see: “It seems like all the necessary information is on the table. What’s the decision?” That gives the participants a chance to reflect – is all the information on the table? Maybe it’s not, maybe someone has been holding back until then end, and this signals them that they need to speak up now. And it calls for a decision so you can move on to the next agenda topic. How strongly you do this depends on how the conversation is going and how much one person is trying to dominate the conversation.
I can’t state enough the need to “park” topics that distract from the meeting objective. Inevitably side-topics will come up; that’s natural. Some side-topics come up because they pop into participants’ brains while they are problem-solving. Some side-topics come up because people brought their own agenda items to the meeting without telling you. It doesn’t really matter why these things come up, the important thing is to recognize them so the participant feels heard, and then to park them for future discussion at the end of the meeting or in a separate meeting, if necessary.
5. Everyone participates.
Everyone in the room has a purpose for being there that relates to achieving the objective of the meeting. So everyone needs to participate.
As a facilitator, you can encourage this in two ways: first, by structuring the meeting to be participative; and second, by calling on people to participate.
How do you structure a meeting to be participative? Lower the amount of presentation and increase the number of open-ended questions that you ask. Delegate areas of presentation – for example, if you discuss financial aspects at the meeting, coach a junior member of the team to lead that part of the discussion. A great chance for you to spend time mentoring them and a great learning opportunity for them.
But sometimes you as a facilitator will need to call on people to participate. You can do this by catching someone’s eye and nodding them into the conversation. You can do this overtly by asking, “Joe, what do you think?” or “Joe, what are the financial implications to this that we need to take into consideration?” You can walk through a process step by step, asking each person to describe their area’s role in the process and any issues they experience. You can poll the room.
If someone declines to participate repeatedly, have a discussion with them outside the room, reiterate the objective of the meeting, and point out that they haven’t been participating, and ask why they aren’t helping with that objective. Do they really contribute to achieving that objective? If so, they need to participate during the meeting.
6. Take Great Notes
Great notes give you a record of decisions that were made during the meeting, risks that were identified, next steps that were agreed upon. They are helpful later when someone says, “I don’t remember agreeing to that.”
Here’s a trick to taking good notes: open your meeting agenda on your laptop, save as “Meeting Notes,” and take your notes right on your agenda. Just before the meeting starts, change the list of invitees to attendees, and indicate the people who didn’t attend. Then take notes under each topic, labeling them as discussion points, decision, risk, next steps as you go along. Highlight the decisions and next steps so you can recap them at the very end of the meeting, just before you decide whether you need a follow-up meeting to achieve the objective.
After the meeting ends, clean up your notes and send them out that day (or, if the meeting lasted late into the day, the next day).
If you struggle with facilitating and note-taking simultaneously, assign someone else in the room to take notes. And make sure they understand exactly what you want them to do or else you’ll end up with, as I did once, a list of the topics that were discussed without the decisions or who made them.
7. Follow Up Afterwards
Great meetings also happen because of what you do outside the meeting. Follow up on the Next Steps. If you needed to schedule a separate meeting to continue to meet the objective, reach out to participants ahead of time to get them back on board. If someone you were worried wouldn’t participate did, reach out to them and tell them how their participation contributed to the discussion.
Running a great meeting requires work, but it’s worth it because life is too short to spend time in unproductive meetings.