Looking back over the past few years, I likely attended over a thousand meetings in the organisations I belonged to and worked for. Some of these meetings were dull and unproductive, and most were simply average. However, I also attended and organised meetings that were engaging, impactful and received very good feedback. Let’s look at the key ingredients of successful meetings and how to organise impactful meetings.
Impactful meetings have a purpose
Attending a meeting without purpose is like being on a plane that flies around in circles and goes nowhere. Nevertheless, many meetings lack a clear purpose, and not organising them would have made no impact on those attending and the larger organisation. Purpose is the foundation stone on which a successful meeting is carried out. Consider that the purpose of a meeting will define who will be attending. The meeting agenda and structure; will additionally be framed around the meeting’s intended purpose. Finally, having a clear purpose provides a goalpost through which meeting outcomes can be analysed.
The below list is not extensive and can provide some pointers as to what the purpose of a meeting could be:
– Agreement – In this case, attendees will need to agree on a course of action or one or more decisions by the end of the meeting. Such meetings will typically leave a lot of room for structured discussions between participants and involve sharing of information. Prior preparation may additionally be essential and expected of all attending.
– Relationship-building – These meetings may be more informal in terms of their content but can be even more structured than meetings of the previous type. This structure could include activities, gamification or even social activities like preparing a meal together. A key objective in these meetings will be to have everybody present feeling included and willing to share facts and stories about themselves.
– Ideation – In short, generating ideas and provoking the thought of everyone present. The agenda of this meeting may be relatively simple, consisting of round-table discussions or brainstorming exercises. Providing space for everybody to contribute is once again key. Ideas generated during these meetings may feature in future meetings aimed at reaching an agreement around them.
Proper preparation prevents poor meetings
Every meeting is an event, and any successful event must be carefully prepared and planned. This is especially true of online, or hybrid meetings where the organiser can’t just book a room and hope for the best. It is the responsibility of the meeting organiser to master the platform through which the meeting is conducted. It includes sharing links to attendees well in advance, knowing how to mute attendees, and how to share content. Another facet of a successful meeting is to distribute an agenda in advance. This both helps focus attention before and during the meeting; and also makes it easier to prepare specific points in advance.
Let’s remember that an impactful meeting requires preparation from those attending the meeting as well. I will never forget a meeting that I attended with the company CEO when I was on a graduate programme in 2013. Someone asked the CEO what his background was and in which parts of the company he had previously worked. This information was publicly available on the company’s website and in other publications. So the questioner missed a valuable opportunity to ask him a far more specific question instead. In fact, this meeting could have been better prepared. We started late; the meeting pace was haphazard and questions were rushed towards the end. While I was grateful for the opportunity, I wasn’t so thrilled to miss my flight back to Scotland as we finished half an hour later than planned.
Remember that time is the essence when chairing a meeting
It is sadly not uncommon for meetings to finish late, and without necessarily covering all points on the agenda. Late finishes may lead to organising more meetings to discuss what should have been covered in previous meetings. Time management can avoid this vicious circle through actions taken before and during the meeting.
Before the meeting, set specific times for each item on the agenda. Remember that these will need to be scaled according to the number of people attending. The more people attend, the longer a discussion may have to be to give everybody a chance to contribute. Another technique is to set specific checkpoints which have to be reached by a certain time. For example, deciding that a particular agenda point needs to be reached at or before 17h45. Setting conservative timings with inbuilt buffers in case things run over is another powerful time-management technique when planning a meeting.
During the meeting, the meeting chair should keep an eye on the clock and adjust the length of segments as needed if there is a risk of running later. Timekeeping can also be delegated to a meeting attendee which acts as a timekeeper and time attendees’ contributions. In meetings involving a lot of discussions, the chair should never hesitate to step in if discussions go off-topic and if the same point is repeatedly mentioned.
Ultimately, the burden of ensuring that a meeting starts and finished on time resides on its organiser and chair. The next time you organise or chair a meeting, don’t always involve yourself deeply in the discussions, keep your contributions germane and move things along to fulfil the meeting’s purpose and objectives.