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Running a good meeting.

Photo by Jud Mackrill on Unsplash

Running a meeting is an art form. I don’t know anyone who actively enjoys meetings, and I often find myself in meetings which feel like a waste of time. But I’ve also been able to turn projects around just by running a few good meetings. Because meetings are social rituals, and we primates thrive on social rituals.

Purpose

Firstly – define very clearly what the purpose of the meeting is, and whether a meeting really is the best way to achieve that purpose. Usually, a meeting is not a great way to explore new opportunities, solve problems, or even reach decisions. Workshops or other collaborative frameworks are much more efficient – the format invites much more interaction, and they are much better suited to situations where both the process and outcome could change.

In find meetings best suited to situations where a group of people (who don’t normally work together) need to create a shared understanding and (perhaps) confirm decisions.
Another useful scenario is where one party holds information, and needs to broadcast that information to a group.
More generally, a meeting is useful where you can work through a predictable series of topics, and the discussion is limited to a few individuals (in a business setting, that is – I’ve seen meetings in political groups, creative consortia etc. which work well in a much looser setting).

It’s worth explicitly thinking about what a “successful” meeting outcome would be. For instance, “this meeting will have been a success if person X agrees to fund our next phase”, or, “this meeting will be successful if everyone understands and agrees that the situation is x“.

Attendance

Next, decide who should attend, what their interests are, and how they tend to act in meetings. Often, there will be one or two attendees who are key, and understanding their interaction patterns will be a big part of creating a successful meeting. Sometimes, these are the most senior people who attend, but those senior people will often base their opinion on a trusted advisor.
I once stepped into a project that was seriously behind the planned milestones, and looked like it was going to exceed budget. We organised a meeting with the customer to agree next steps; the decision maker was a director-level executive. We knew that he was generally confused and angry about the project, but trusted a programme director to advise on next steps. The programme director, in turn, trusted her two technical and delivery leads. To make the meeting a succcess, we had to get all 4 on side – not just the director.

Once you’ve identified the key influencers in the meeting, it’s worth thinking about their communication style. I know there are lots of personality type theories; for this purpose, I have a simple 2-dimensional model.

Big picture

Some people – including many senior folk – prefer to understand the big picture first, before diving into the detail. In my experience, most senior executives fall into this category. It’s not that they don’t value the detail, but they are interested in the “so what”. They are likely to lose interest unless you phrase the conversation in terms of “big picture” concerns, and they may appear unpredictable as a result.

As a result, it’s worth structuring your agenda topics “top down”: the agenda item should be the conclusion or the question. The conversation should go from conclusion to no more than 3 “because”, “despite”, “as a result of” points; each of those points can then be built up in more detail.

Consider the following hypothetical situation: you want to communicate the likelihood your project is going to overrun, due to a new regulatory requirement.

Your agenda item might be: Project likely to overrun by 5 weeks.
Once you reach that agenda point, you might start with the following:
“The project is likely to overrun by 5 weeks. This is because the government has changed the regulatory requirements. The project is other wise on track; we have looked at ways to mitigate the regulation changes but cannot find a credible option.”
Someone who cares about the big picture can now decide whether to pay attention to the rest of this topic, because you’ve told them up front what’s happening and why.
The trap many people fall into is have an agenda topic along the lines of “Regulatory changes”, and to start that conversation with a detailed outline of the legal requirements before reaching the impact on the project. To someone who cares about the big picture, by the time you reach the “so what” (the project will be delayed), they’ve switched off.

Detail-oriented

At the other end of the spectrum there are people who are focused on the detail, and prefer to build up their understanding “bottom up”. Meetings are usually not great places for exploring a lot of detail, but often the real substance of an issue can be found in complex, subtle details.

One great way to include details in a meeting is to use visualizations. For project progress, burndown/burnup charts, or defect counts, or progress towards milestones can show a lot of information, covering a lot of detail, without needing to discuss every item. I typically find the right level of abstraction to be: what does the most senior person care about, plus one level of detail below that.
For instance, on the project that was at risk, the senior stakeholder cared about “when will it be finished, how much will it cost, and how many agreed features will be missing?”. So we drew up a chart that showed “features delivered”, “features remaining” and “bugs” over time. We accepted (and agreed with the hands-on client team) that some of those numbers were very approximate, but good enough to show the overall trend. We used that graph in our ongoing meetings as the common “now we talk about detail” agenda item.

Substance

Next, we talk about decision making and emphasis. Some people focus very heavily on the substance. When buying a car, they’ll focus on the measurable, tangible qualities of the car (rather than the trustworthiness of the sales person). When talking about a meal at a restaurant, they might discuss the quality of the ingredients, the skill in preparation, or describe the decor (rather than how the meal tasted, or how it felt to be in that restaurant).

When running meetings with people who focus on substance, it helps to stay focused on tangible, and ideally measurable, facts. They will often see success as “the thing we agreed to do has been done”, or “we have 5 things to do and everyone knows what they are”.

Relationship

I’ve struggled to find a better word than “relationship” here – but people who focus on the relationship aspect will use meetings to assess the interactions between people, their confidence levels. They may consider a meeting successful if people formed a better relationship during the meeting. At a more challenging level, they may also judge meetings by the way they personally are treated, and if they feel personally slighted, they will consider the meeting a failure no matter what the outcome.
I once attended a meeting with a very senior colleague who was focused on relationships. It went extremely well – we achieved all the aims we had set out to, and got approval for a large project. My colleague, however, told me in the taxi back that we couldn’t work with those people, that they were not good partners and that we should back out – because he hadn’t been offered a cup of coffee at the start of the meeting.
Annoyingly, he was right – the project never got off the ground…

Combinations!

It’s a very simple model, but by trying to place people on the “big picture/detail” and “substance/relationship” axes, you can prepare your meeting in a way that will appeal to the key stakeholders.

The point of the diagram above, though is to show that most people have preferences along both axes. Most senior executives I’ve met are “big picture” people, and a large number have a preference for “relationships”.

In structuring a meeting for someone who values “big picture/relationships”, it’s important to remember you cannot persuade them with facts alone – you have to create relationships of trust. I do this by focusing on transparency – by being open and owning up to things that aren’t so great, I try to show that I’m a trustworthy person. I also make sure I remember what they care about, and make it a part of every encounter. One of my clients was very focused on relationships, and in one meeting he explained he had a strategic objective to move his hosting setup to a new cloud provider; even though that wasn’t part of our remit, I made sure to include a check-in on every agenda.

People who value “big picture/substance” are often intellectually demanding. It’s important to be on top of your material, and to have a clear structure to your agenda. One of my first jobs was in a management consulting firm, and my boss (or rather my boss’s boss’s boss) was a classic of this type. He was intellectually curious, and his “big picture” dramatically exceeded my own ability to imagine. My first meeting with him was chaos – he kept moving the goal posts, and kept asking questions until I ran out of answers, then moved to the next topic, usually far off the agenda.
I figured out how to run a good meeting with him – we’d start by explicitly agreeing on the purpose of the meeting, and then for each agenda item, we’d agree what we were trying to achieve. This kept the meetings on track.

Agenda

The agenda is actually the most important part of the meeting – it’s how you express what you are trying to achieve with the meeting, and it’s the main tool you have to keep things on track.

The exact format of the agenda isn’t super important – I’m quite fond of a presentation which can combine both the agenda and the information required for the discussion. I have settled on the following format:

  • Introduction: date, place, meeting name, start time, end time
  • Attendees: names and contact details for all attendees
  • Meeting purpose: a brief summary of the purpose for the meeting
  • Topic 1: subject, allotted time, topic type (presentation, discussion, confirmation), owner
  • Topic 1 supporting information
  • Topic 2…n
  • Summary: restate meeting purpose to verify it was achieved. Next steps/actions.

It’s usually best to have the most engaging topics as early in the agenda as possible – demos, decisions, significant changes to plans, etc. This means people are less likely to have got distracted, or called out for other meetings.

Timeliness

Running a meeting to time is a real skill – but it really matters. When I worked in a management consulting firm, every meeting room had a clock on the wall; it wasn’t uncommon for someone to remark on the billable hours every meeting cost. For senior attendees, every minute of their day is booked, and your meeting is just one of the hundred other things they could be doing. So run meeting to schedule, and finish early if you possibly can.

That means that you should make sure every agenda item has an allotted time slot, and you should make sure no item exceeds their time slot. If you get to 10 minutes from the end of the meeting and you are worried you’re going over time, step in and do a time check; ask what the options are.

Actions

Finally – meetings nearly always have some kind of outcome – actions, follow-ups, or meeting notes. Get them out the same day, while the meeting is fresh in everyone’s mind.

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