How To Institute Proactive Meetings & Workshops
One of the most important and often neglected aspects of business today is communication. It's also one of the biggest contributors to failure within large and small businesses alike. Effective communications are like any other aspects of a business and work better when they're well planned.
Effective communications start with effective meetings and, in today's fast-paced world, time is of the essence. In order to avoid wasting time, we should focus on getting the best results in the shortest possible time frame.
This can best be achieved by observing one of the cornerstone principles of life and business, namely, the 5 P's.
Proper preparation prevents poor performance
Applying this process will improve the outcome of any task you tackle.
Meetings can be held for a variety of purposes. Whether it's to launch a new product, discuss the new employee benefits or organize a sales conference, every meeting requires thoughtful planning and advance preparation.
The old scenario of, "Oh, quickly Jane, get everyone together for a staff meeting. I need to tell the employees about this new superannuation package," generally results in a hastily convened meeting where:
- Not all of the staff are present.
- The staff isn't ready to ask questions.
- The material is poorly presented using a notepad or just delivered verbally and in an ad hoc fashion.
- The meeting lasts longer than expected, making people late for other appointments and, when someone does ask a question, it's not properly answered leaving everyone anxious, annoyed and thinking, "that didn't go well."
An effective meeting has an outcome (i.e. a desired result) and leaves the participants satisfied with the process that led to that outcome. To plan and execute a successful meeting, it's important to understand the basic components.
The first question you should ask yourself is:
"Is this meeting really necessary?"
As we discussed in the section "Effective Time Management" (and especially bearing in mind the cost of conducting a meeting in relation to the gains that will be made as a result of its outcomes), other questions you should ask are:
"Is this the best use of the time available right now?"
"Why do we want to meet?
Is a meeting the best way to meet that objective?"
If the answer to these questions is "YES", then plan the meeting, taking into account the following components.
Basic Components of a Meeting
A comprehensive list of components of a successful meeting includes:
- An objective that defines the purpose of the meeting
- An expectation of what's to occur by the end of the meeting
- A reasonable cost for the expected benefit
- A list of attendees
- An appropriate physical environment
- A clear definition of participants' roles and responsibilities
- An agenda and advance preparation of materials
- A distinction between content and process
- Presentation skills to inform, influence or motivate participants
- A trusting and open environment that welcomes and values all participants' contributions
- A clear understanding of where the power and authority reside
- Facilitation of all the actions to manage the successful progress of the agenda
- Win-Win approaches to decision-making
- Pacing the meeting to keep it on track
- A means to determine, track and assign actions as they have been itemized
- Follow-up after the meeting to ensure the tasks are completed.
Content of a meeting
The objective, the expectation, the materials providing information for the meeting and the action items are all components of the content, which is what the meeting is all about. The following list details these items:
- The objective must be clearly stated and communicated to all participants: Why are we assembled here? Is it for a budget meeting, to solve a problem, to address some conflict issues or to convey information?
- The expectation must be something attainable: a minimum level of new product knowledge, a list of final job candidates or a decision to change suppliers.
- The information available for the meeting must be accurate and available as it may be the foundation for any decision-making during the meeting.
- The action items are the next step to arise as a result of any decision made and they must be assigned before the end of the meeting.
The agenda, presentations, approaches to decision-making, pacing and follow-up are all components of process; they determine how the meeting is controlled. How the meeting is conducted is important to reaching the objective, determining the quality of the outcome and satisfying the participants.
- Develop the agenda together with key participants in the meeting. Think of what overall outcome you want from the meeting and what activities need to occur to reach that outcome.
- In the agenda, state the overall outcome that you want from the meeting and design the agenda so that participants get involved early by having something for them to do right away (thus ensuring that they arrive on time).
- Next to each major topic include the type of action needed, the type of output expected (decision, vote, action assigned to someone) and time estimates for addressing each topic.
- Presentations. How is the information to be presented? This will vary depending on the nature of the meeting. It could be one person talking, a team lecture, a white board or flip chart, Microsoft PowerPoint slide or a video or internet presentation.
- Methods used for solving problems and making decisions (for meetings other than straight presentations of information). Brain Storming or Mind Mapping are excellent tools to engage the creative spirit of all participants in open conversation and problem solving.
- For example, the decision-making process will affect whether or not a meeting in which decisions have been made have a win-win outcome. Some decision-making methods such as voting have win-lose outcomes; others, such as riots have lose-lose outcomes. A collective decision achieved through discussion and co-operation to problem solving constitutes the win-win approach.
- Pacing (keeping a meeting on track) demonstrates respect for the participants and maintains the energy in a meeting. One component of trust is ending the meeting at the appointed time.
- Follow-up. This is perhaps the most important process of the meeting itself. During the meeting assign action steps to the required individuals, allocate a time period, and then make sure that you FOLLOW UP.
Providing the objective, expectation and information required for a meeting to all participants well in advance of the meeting is always a good idea. It gives participants an opportunity to think about the issues, read and absorb information and make meaningful contributions during the meeting that will assist with building better relationships within the organization.
Who should be invited to the meeting? Identifying participants, assigning clear roles and responsibilities for each, establishing trust and openness and outlining a clear understanding of who has authority in the meeting are all critical components of determining the participants who will contribute to the meeting?
Selecting participants involves addressing issues of inclusion, exclusion, influence, attitude, trust and control. Here are some considerations:
- Identifying participants sounds obvious, but the wrong choices can derail a meeting. Some advance thinking can help you avoid the potential problems. Do you need a full committee for a particular meeting, or are certain members key to this subject? Do you have the right expertise in the room for the situation at hand?
- Identifying clear roles and responsibilities for each person should be easy if you have chosen the participants well. Make sure roles and responsibilities are clearly understood before the meeting begins.
- Trust and openness are necessary for any productive exchange to take place in a meeting. Your track record as a facilitator (or your lack of a negative track record if this is your first meeting) is an important factor in establishing trust and openness in a meeting.
- A clear understanding of who has authority in the meeting is required for any action, resolution or decision to occur. Getting to the right decision is useless if those who make it do not have the authority to execute it. This is information that should be clearly communicated to all participants.
The physical environment of a meeting will have a significant impact on the outcome and is often an underrated component in the success of a meeting. The environment helps to set the scene for successful interaction, focus and pacing. Location, seating, audio-visual and electronic aids, arrangements for break times, refreshments and an absence of interruptions and distractions all impact on the success.
- Location sets the scene for a meeting and communicates to the participants how formal (or casual) and how important a meeting will be. Choose a location based upon the tone and function of a meeting: idea generation may occur more readily in a relaxed, low-key setting; a crisis management meeting may need to be in an organization's head office in order to put decisions into effect instantly.
- Seating arrangements impact how people interact and where the energy in a meeting is concentrated. Options include circular, oval, rectangular, semicircular and small groups around tables.
- Audio-visual and electronic aids often add clarity, break up lecture formats, or introduce material best presented visually. They're used more and more frequently as awareness about different learning styles has migrated from the classroom to the meeting room.
- Details as small as break arrangements can affect the productivity of a meeting. Establish protocols by announcing break arrangements. In a two-hour meeting, for example, no formal break may be scheduled but participants may excuse themselves for restroom breaks or to refill coffee cups at any time.
- The provision of refreshments will also affect productivity and the perceptions of participants. Caffeine, water and alcohol will produce different levels of attention in participants. Decide what's suitable for your meeting.
Interruptions and distractions should be avoided or kept to a minimum to keep the meeting on track and focused. Mobile phones and pagers should all be turned off before the commencement of a meeting.
There are five common types of meetings that we will be discussing in this section:
- Project Scheduling And Management
Some meetings will have multiple purposes. For example, a sales conference may present new products, therefore you might want to solicit sales representatives' input in order to develop a marketing plan and build enthusiasm and team morale.
The primary purpose of Informative Meetings is to educate. This includes information on new products and competitor's products, training meetings for sales, service and new technologies, procedures for the office or changes in superannuation and employee medical benefits.
Some issues to be considered in planning a successful informative meeting include:
- Differing levels of pre-meeting knowledge mastered by participants.
- Different learning styles of participants.
- Unequal benefits to participants of mastering new material. Learning a new sales technique will be more helpful in sales territories not dominated by a competitor than in those where one competitor predominates.
- The need to tailor the information transfer to the specific audience for this meeting.
Methods to consider utilizing in an informative meeting include the following:
- Pre-meeting handouts
- Lectures and presentations
- Visual aids
- Role plays
Team Building Meetings have a primary purpose of building or rebuilding group focus, momentum, morale and enthusiasm. Examples include staff meetings; meetings called during or after a merger, acquisition or downsizing; meetings after a key employee leaves an organization or rewarding exceptional service and performance.
Issues to be considered in planning a team-building meeting include:
- Understanding the concerns of group members so appropriate incentives are offered.
- Identifying and overcoming barriers for successful team building.
- Ensuring incentives offered do not create unintended consequences.
- Ensuring your ability to deliver promised incentives.
- Ensuring clarity of expectations, processes and rewards.
Methods to consider utilizing in a team-building meeting include:
- Exercises rewarding group over individual effort.
- Activities that bond team members.
- Open discussion asking for grievances, obstacles and complaints.
- Presentations of team expectations and rewards.
The primary purpose of Negotiation Meetings is finding a mutually satisfactory outcome. They include union contracts, joint ventures, vendor disputes and purchase and outsourcing contracts, to name but a few.
Issues to be considered in planning a negotiating meeting include:
- Clarifying negotiating authority of participants.
- Establishing trust.
- Calculating fallback positions.
- Obtaining access to decision-makers not present.
Methods to consider utilizing in a negotiating meeting include:
- Proposal presentation and review.
- Offer and counter offer.
- Strategize and bluff.
Project scheduling and management meetings
The primary purpose of project scheduling and management meetings is keeping projects on target, on time and within budget. Projects encompass new product development, new product launch, software development, new marketing strategies, staff development programs, or installing a performance evaluation.
Issues to be considered in planning a project scheduling and management meeting include:
- Identifying functions and players affected by changes that might result from the meeting.
- Understanding capacity and resource constraints.
- Understanding performance factors.
- Understanding cost factors.
- Identifying individual agendas that may interfere with successful negotiation.
- Ensuring buy-in by all participants.
Failure to ensure buy-in, the full trust and participation of each participant, leads to meeting failure. A participant may promise efforts she or he will not make or an outcome in which she or he has neither ownership nor confidence. Take the time to identify barriers to buy-in and resolve them before the meeting.
Methods to consider in a project scheduling and management meeting include:
- Status reporting on the progress of each step or process.
- Test run analysis to measure performance under a simulated or live 'road test'.
- Benchmark review of progress against preset criteria.
- Specifications change request, review or analysis based on client or user feedback.
- Schedule delay review to ascertain if lost time can be made up.
- Risk analysis of future obstacles.
The primary purpose of Problem-Solving Meetings is to fix something that isn't working. This can be for a wide variety of reasons and include a product defect, a client relationship, an ethical dilemma or an ineffective marketing campaign. Problem-solving meetings may address one or more of the following steps: problem identification, analysis, solution criteria development, alternative solution generation, evaluation and decision-making.
Issues to be considered in planning a problem-solving meeting include:
- Identifying steps that can be completed during the meeting.
- Choosing suitable approaches to each step undertaken.
- Assigning problem ownership.
- Identifying steps that will have to be done outside of the meeting, such as research.
Methods to consider utilizing in a problem-solving meeting, depending on the steps to be undertaken in this particular meeting, may include presentation of symptoms, possible causes and alternative solutions.
The following table is a guide to assist you in preparing for different kinds of meetings with different kinds of outcomes, content and processes, but these share one common criterion: does the benefit of this meeting exceed its cost?
- Is this meeting necessary? Then make it count!
- Successful meetings require thoughtful planning and advance preparation.
- Successful meetings have a positive result and its participants are satisfied with the process of reaching that result.
- Success depends upon managing the content, process, participants and environment utilized in the meeting.
- Distribute the meeting agenda at least 24 hours before the meeting.
- In the agenda, state the overall outcome that you want from the meeting.
- Establish Ground Rules for Meetings. Four powerful ground rules are: participate, achieve focus, maintain momentum and reach closure.
- To make your presentation effective, remember to tailor the material to suit your audience.
- Without trust and openness, participants may feel the meeting has a predetermined outcome.
- One of the most difficult facilitation tasks is time management -time seems to run out before tasks are completed. Therefore, the biggest challenge is keeping momentum to keep the process moving.
- Evaluation of the Meeting Process. It's amazing how often people will complain about a meeting being a complete waste of time - but they only say so after the meeting! Get their feedback during the meeting so you can improve the meeting process there and then. Evaluating a meeting only at the end is usually too late to do anything about participants' feedback.
- Evaluating the Overall Meeting. Leave 5-10 minutes at the end to evaluate the effectiveness of the meeting. Don't overlook this important stage of the meeting.
- Closing Meetings. Always end meetings on time and attempt to end on a positive note.
- At the end of a meeting, review actions and assignments and set the time for the next meeting. Ask each person whether or not he or she will be able to attend (so as to confirm their commitment).
- Follow-up. This is perhaps the most important part of the meeting itself. Allocate tasks and agreed time periods and make sure that you FOLLOW UP!