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Building Successful Meetings from the Start

Success in a meeting starts well before the meeting begins. It starts with the planning process. A few minutes of preparation can change the dynamics. You’ll be more comfortable and the meeting stands a much better chance of being successful.

“Every meeting is a better meeting if, at the beginning of the meeting, we all know why we are meeting,” says friend Kent Reilly, a successful consultant who has spent the last twenty years helping groups of people accomplish their meeting objectives.

It seems so simple, so why doesn’t it happen? Maybe people assume that task force members would all know the objectives? Or that a training program would, of course, have participants who knew why they were there.

Why Are You Calling This Meeting?

Why do we call meetings anyway? I guess it all got started with the old adage that two heads are better than one. Therefore three heads must be better than two, and so on.

The original thought is that when people are together, they can accomplish more than they might be able to alone. Is this always the case for your meetings? Can you accomplish more as a result of meeting?

The best place to start is by clarifying the purpose of the meeting. In its simplest form, the purpose answers the question, “What do I want people to do or think differently at the end of this time together?”

Take the Handlebar example. He had stated, in a letter to all of us, the purpose of the meeting—to review each committee’s annual budget guidelines and answer questions the committee chairs had. Nicely done. Unfortunately, once the meeting began, he seemed to forget all that and didn’t carry through on his well-stated purpose.

Clarifying the purpose will automatically force your meeting to be part of a solution to something, and that’s better than people feeling that having to go to the meeting is just another sign that the organization itself is “not too organized.”

What Do You Want People to Do Differently?

Purpose statements are active. They use verbs. They are moving in a direction. They help us accomplish the organization’s goals. They are not a list of topics to cover. When the purpose is well-stated, it allows us, as meeting leaders, facilitators, or participants, to make sure our meeting helps us make progress.

Here are some sample purpose statements:

This meeting will address what our department’s role will be in the restructured organization.

This meeting will help us to identify sales opportunities to develop proactively in the next quarter.

This meeting will help us plan individual business strategies, using the results of our recent customer survey.

This meeting is necessary to resolve outstanding issues from our last meeting.

The purpose of this meeting is self-education so that we can prepare ourselves for events that may impact us.

Stick to the Purpose

Once you’ve established the purpose, stick to it. That is the direction people prepare for. They will be better participants in your meeting if they are prepared. Your meeting will accomplish more, and you will build your credibility with the participants and within the organization.

Some meetings are meant to be informational; others will need to be more interactive. It is not always necessary to have a full-fledged, detailed agenda; some meetings are deliberately designed for the freewheeling give-and-take of ideas. But when you begin, your very first words should describe the expected results of the meeting. This is your agenda and your end point. This gives you and other participants a way to measure the meeting’s success. These expected results may be tangible, as in a written report; or intangible, such as new knowledge, motivation, or commitment.

If Handlebar had done this for our budget meeting, it might have sounded like this: “At the end of our time together, all committee chairs will understand their budget and procedures, know each other, know what their responsibilities are, and recognize who their resources are in the organization.”

Who Should Attend?

Would you believe that at least 50 percent of all attendees come to a meeting not knowing why they are there? They look around and say to themselves, “Well, I know why John might be here, and Karen. And I can guess at why I might be here, though I don’t know for sure. But why the heck would they invite Heather?” Not good. Often the person running the meeting looks around and thinks the same thing.

Whom should you invite? Invite those who can make a unique contribution to the meeting, or who have special expertise, or who carry official responsibility. Invite your decision makers. Also, since a meeting is a tool to help you accomplish something, you should invite a few of your own cheerleaders—those who can foster a positive attitude. People who can help you make progress—action people. You may want to invite those who would be responsible for implementing the decisions that are made in the meeting. Next steps will be easier to implement because these people will feel they have participated and been given an opportunity to provide some input.

Invite the right people and the meeting will “hum.”

The number of people that attend a meeting should be carefully considered, because it does impact your success. If you are holding a problem-solving meeting, then as few as five people will do. Your job is to be sure it’s the right five. Select them with an eye toward their ability to generate a diversity of ideas and their skill in troubleshooting.

If your goal is to review or present information and you want interaction, you should limit the group size to fewer than thirty. Once a group goes beyond thirty, the attendees feel relatively unconnected and, therefore, unimportant. Because of that, there will be very little participation.

There is only one type of meeting that truly benefits from the masses attending. When your objective is to motivate or inspire, the bigger the audience, the better! (See Chapter 16.) A larger group creates a special energy in conjunction with the speaker that can magnify the impact of the meeting.

Tell Them Why

We need to tell people why they are invited, but also what their roles are to be in the meeting. We should also give attendees enough of a sense of what we expect to accomplish. They should be apprised of the attendance list so that they will pretty much understand why all the invitees are there. When everyone knows who will be there and why they are meeting, participants can focus on accomplishing the purpose of the meeting and not spend all their time there trying to figure out the political ramifications.

Aim to have no bench sitters in your meetings—each participant should expect to have a specific role—even your “cheerleaders.”

Follow this principle: “Participation is the prerequisite to commitment.” It will save you time and help you to achieve your meeting objectives.

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