How much of your week do you spend in terrible meetings (and by terrible, I mean meetings with poor planning, unclear agenda, facile facilitation, and no clear outcome)?

I’m going to share eight things you can do to set your meetings up for success. This post includes the four things you can do before your meetings. The next post will cover the four things you can do during the meeting.

1. Set Meeting Ground Rules/Principles

Take the time to set ground rules or guiding principles for how your group is going to work together. This doesn’t need to be a long and drawn-out exercise. Even five minutes spent contracting on how people will show up is time well spent. You can try using these questions.

What are our expectations around:

  • Coming prepared? (How far in advance do we need materials? What happens if we don’t prepare? More on that here.)
  • Paying attention? (Are we cool with devices in the room? Is it ok to tune out?)
  • Listening? (What’s our standard for effective listening? You can borrow mine here.)
  • Having conflict? (What’s our obligation to add diverse perspectives? What are our conflict norms? More on that here.)
  • Decision-making? (How will we clarify the decision-owner? What’s allowed if you don’t own the decision? Check out my view on whether or not teams decide here.)

2. Build Your Next Agenda at the End of Each Meeting

Another reason meetings tend to suck is that too little thought goes into getting the right agenda. More often than not, I see administrative assistants setting agendas on behalf of their leaders. Those agendas are seldom packed with the most important items. Instead, they’re filled with topics raised by the squeaky wheel, transactional items the EA needs to push through, and a big chunk of roundtable time where heaven knows what melange of minutiae will arise.

Avoid the lackluster agenda by using a few moments at the end of each meeting to propose agenda items for the following meeting. Capture anything that was left unfinished in the current meeting. Add topics that needed more preparation. Throw in an emerging issue that you need some time exploring. Using five minutes at the end of your meeting to set the next agenda will yield better quality conversations in the future.

3. Assign an Item Sponsor

Another reason to set the agenda for your next meeting at the end of your current meeting is that it allows you to appoint an item sponsor for each item you’ll cover. This is probably the single most important strategy for improving your meetings. The item sponsor has a variety of responsibilities, including:

  • Framing the questions to be addressed in the meeting
  • Collecting, analyzing, synthesizing, and communicating the context and content required to inform the discussion
  • Preparing any guests to add value in the meeting by briefing them on what the team is looking for and coaching them on how to be successful
  • Facilitating the conversation in the meeting
  • Soliciting any feedback about the guests and disseminating it to them
  • Collecting the action items and follow-up and finding a spot to follow up on progress

Connecting the quality and value of an agenda item to an individual, rather than diluting the accountability across the whole team, really ups the stakes. How effectively someone plays the item sponsor role should be part of their performance management and a key indicator of the leadership potential.

4. Distribute a Primer

One of the responsibilities of the Item Sponsor is to curate and communicate the content and content required for an evidence-based discussion (did ya’ see that one in the bullets in #3?). Well, that communication comes in the form of a primer. I use the term primer, rather than pre-read because I want to move from the passive idea of skimming a document to the more active concept of priming yourself for the discussion, debate, and deliberation required in the meeting.

A primer should include a section on context (why are we talking about this) and on content (what are we talking about). In addition to the material you want people to read, the primer should include call-outs and questions that draw the readers’ attention to the questions that will be posed in the meeting.

When you’re setting your ground rules (see #1 above) you can decide how much lead time you need between distributing a primer and the meeting. Once you move to this approach, there should be a lot of heat both on the item sponsors for building effective primers and getting them out on time and on participants for reading the primers and coming prepared with some thoughts already formed.

Set Up for Success

Your meeting hasn’t even happened yet but, I promise you, if you’ve done these four things, there’s already an 80% chance that your meeting will be efficient, effective, and worth your time. In next week’s post, I’ll get into the heart of meeting facilitation and the things you can do to get to the heart of the issues and get out with clear marching orders. You’ll find a few related posts that deal with meeting shenanigans in the further reading section.

Further Reading

Dealing with the person who skips your meetings

Why you shouldn’t go to that meeting

Are you meeting at the wrong time?