It seems like meetings are a fact of life for most people. There are meetings to gauge the status of a project, meetings to build team relationships, and even meetings about how to organize more meetings! Regardless of what kind of meeting you’re having, there are a few things to keep in mind to make sure a meeting is successful (and doesn’t waste people’s time).
Using a meeting I held last week with technologists from around the world as the example, let’s look at what it takes to run a successful meeting. Much of this is replicatable, and some of it was pure magic.
First and foremost, all meetings require some preparation. Even a short status meeting requires the participants prepare to offer their update. If they think about it in advance, that update will be succinct and on point. If they don’t, they’ll probably ramble and forget important bits. The longer and more critical the meeting, the more time is required to prepare for it.
For a two-day face-to-face kick-off meeting, preparation took the form of five one-hour calls and several one-on-one side calls over the course of two months. There was also a Slack channel, a mailing list, and a Google doc for the participants to engage with outside the calls. During the prep work, the participants did five things:
- Determined who the critical, absolutely-must-be-there participants were for the meeting.
- Clearly articulated what they wanted out of the meeting.
- Developed a reading list of materials so that everyone coming into the meeting had a common baseline of knowledge.
- Drafted the agenda and topic assignments.
- Frankly discussed the personalities and communication styles of several of the participants to make sure everyone engaged in a constructive manner.
Having clear goals is both common sense and critical, and being crystal clear on how people react in different communication scenarios sets everyone up for success.
Having a person whose sole job is to keep the conversation on point and all participants engaged without getting caught up in developing the solution is a significant component of a successful meeting. That said, having that person be knowledgeable enough about the topic of the meeting to be able to identify patterns in the discussion and repeat them back to the group is an even bigger deal.
A facilitator helps establish the process by which participants engage and can see when it’s time to move from one topic to the next. They let the technologists do their thing and focus on the meeting as a whole and understand enough to drive towards the desired outcomes. In the case of this in-person meeting, I was the facilitator and I did not care what the outcome was, exactly. The technology wasn’t, for me, the important thing. My goal was to make sure the group came up with a proposal that we could share with others and build on in future meetings.
By the end of the meeting, we actually had two proposals, which we all considered success beyond our wildest dreams.
Writing and Reading Time
When you have a variety of complex ideas floating around, it’s necessary to allow people time to actually think. Amazon meetings are somewhat famous for starting with 10 minutes of reading time. In the case of this face-to-face, we spent part of one morning writing down the proposals that existed across various flip charts around the room. Some meeting organizers tend to have that part assigned as homework. By making that part of the meeting, however, we had correction and validation happen in real-time while fresh in everyone’s minds.
We then spent some of the afternoon just reading. The participants had split into two teams, one for each proposal, and the reading time allowed them to consider the other team’s proposal. Each proposal benefited from this discussion and resulting clarification to the text.
Knowing When to Stop
The purpose of the meeting was to come up with at least one proposal for how to move forward. We were not trying to build a solution; we wanted a proposal that, after more people had a chance to consider the new idea as it might apply to their environment, would lead us to a solution.
Given that, it was important to know when to stop the conversation. Part of our prep work was determining what we wanted out of the meeting. We also knew going into the meeting that we didn’t have a representative sample of stakeholders in the room. And that was fine; had the meeting been any larger, we would not have gotten as much done! Instead, we accepted that we would stop when we had a well-defined proposal (or when we ran out of time).
When the meeting ended, the two proposals each had gaps and areas the team glossed over, and yet the excitement that we had something worth sharing was palpable.
Reporting on Progress
If there is no write-up of a meeting, did it really happen? Making sure that the outcomes are fully documented and shared is necessary to bring the stakeholders that were not in the room along with the ideas. If this face-to-face meeting failed in anything, it was in making sure that the people outside the room fully understood how we got to the proposals we did. It was obvious to the participants because they’d been there, markers and flip charts in hand, but it didn’t quite come across to others who only saw the proposals and not why THOSE proposals.
Fortunately, that’s a solvable problem, but it is one that could have been avoided had the post-meeting write-up been more clear. The Curse of Knowledge strikes again!
Not every meeting requires hours and hours of prep work, though I maintain that every meeting requires at least some if you want it to be successful. Similarly, not every meeting requires a person whose sole job is facilitation. Making sure someone runs the meeting, though, is still necessary.
Meetings do not have to be a waste of time. With clear goals, enough prep, and making sure someone’s focus is on organization, meetings can be efficient, effective, and satisfying.
Thank you for reading my post! Please leave a comment if you found it useful. If you want to start your own blog or improve your writing, you might be interested in another effort I’m spinning up, The Writer’s Comfort Zone.
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