Rethinking Meeting Preparation
We all run meetings like we know what we’re doing. We have been to so many meetings we just know how to run them. What we really know is how to model and perpetuate the poor habits and practices of our mentors and coaches, managers, and colleagues. In the era of collaboration software, our meetings need to be redesigned so they are driven through the collaboration environment in real-time, as the meeting takes place. Stop all the e-mails and document duplications, or even worse, handouts, and get people to engage in a collaborative way through a meeting environment that captures all of the content, the tasks, and the decisions in one view (not necessarily, as you will in one place read).
I’ve created an infographic to help people remember how to design a meeting in an organization using collaboration software—any collaboration software. You will find an equivalent collaboration space and meeting space in any product you have procured and deployed. Reimagine meetings using the technology you purchased in new and effective ways while updating your practices. You’ll find your meetings shorter, more engaging and you’ll probably gain some respect from colleagues when you gift them back time.
Lesson One offers a few pointers that expand on the process side of the infographic’s necessarily terse points.
Co-Create the Agenda. Involve people who are expected to participate in the meeting in the meeting design. Avoid wasting time in the meeting with agenda reviews or open calls for additional topics. If you design a meeting you will know what you want to accomplish and you will capture it on the agenda. This also helps eliminate those awkward meeting endings where everybody sits around waiting for somebody to add something or contribute something. A designed meeting has a designed end, and when you reach it, you adjourn and go back to work.
The agenda should include decisions that need to be made, information that needs to be shared or absorbed. The only things you cannot anticipate on an agenda are the questions or comments others will make or the value of decisions. Spend time capturing those in the meeting space in one place, and make sure attendees agree on them before leaving. By capturing actions and decisions in the meeting in a public, transparent way, you make clear what they mean and who is responsible for executing them.
Gather Links. Once the meeting space is created, populate it with gathered links to all of the material that will be discussed in the meeting. DO NOT duplicate files stored in other locations, nor create content in the meeting space that would be better associated with a project, process or task. Unless your meeting is a working team meeting for a particular project or task, you will likely be meeting to share information or gather feedback from people outside of the project or task structure. Point to relevant files where they live in the project or task collaborative space.
Run the meeting through the Meeting Space. Start the meeting by opening the meeting space. Load the agenda, not a PowerPoint presentation about the agenda. Don’t ask people to “provide slides” that someone spends time integrating into one giant presentation deck. The agenda should contain everything that is needed to run the meeting. Create it as a page in the meeting space, that way you won’t even be tempted to e-mail the agenda to anyone ahead of the meeting. When it’s someone’s turn to share, let them click on the appropriate links to share their information.
Use the Meeting Space as a Lens. Work should continue to take place in whatever workspaces hold the original content. If the meeting suggests something related to a particular project or task, don’t hold that discussion in the meeting space. Go directly to the appropriate collaboration space and start the conversation there, and then link back (or subscribe) to that discussion in the meeting space so you can monitor and interact with the discussion.
People often increase complexity through duplication, and that leads to complexity, which becomes lost time and meaningless effort. Expend effort to engage where the work is taking place. Then reference or subscribe to those conversations, so the meeting space becomes the holistic information lens through which people interested in a particular set of projects can access those topics.
Example: Weekly status meeting.
Weekly departmental status meetings focus on what the department is working on. The meeting is a time to share perspectives and make decisions. As a standing meeting, a status meeting should have a regular home (virtual meeting space). The meeting itself should offer no surprises, though it might well introduce good management techniques that introduce variety and novelty to keep people interested and learning in an environment usually spent talking about things they already know.
Status meetings should be the best designed meetings. They have regular attendees who already know each other and have worked together.
Let’s assume the team has already met at least once, in that way, the co-creation of the agenda initiates at the end of the current meeting. The last item on the agenda is “what’s on next week’s agenda.” That discussion should be captured on a future-dated agenda page. It need not be exhaustive at this point. All members should have read-write access to that page or post in order to continue to update it in anticipation of the next meeting. If there is a manager “responsible” for the meeting, he or she should actively engage people, through the agenda, regardless of those interactions being physical or virtual. The desired outcome: a fully formed agenda before the next meeting, completely populated with necessary links so people come prepared.
During the meeting, everything happens through the agenda. No need for minutes, because the agenda has already documented the meeting. The role of the scribe (or scribes) is to identify, capture and vet decisions, actions or questions that come out of the discussion. No one leaves with a private set of to-dos. Everything is public (at least to the group in attendance) and everything is agreed to before the meeting adjourns.
If a decision, action or question is related to a particular project, a discussion object or post is created in the relevant collaboration space related to that project. As a department meeting, a question about the annual review process is not part of the meeting environment; it is part of the annual review process environment, so ask the question there and make sure that question is reflected back into the meeting environment. That way people don’t need to look for questions or decisions made during a meeting and distributed out. The meeting remains a consolidation point for that information – again, not duplicated, just pointed to.
I’ve worked at software companies that develop collaboration products, and I’ve worked for and with enterprises large and small. When a collaboration environment is selected, IT usually just introduces it and focuses on training around functionality, without challenging people to update their practices. Even software companies that make this technology fail to use it effectively. It isn’t that hard. But you do need to design the meeting experience. Think of the software as a component in the design with certain features and then integrate those features into the meeting experience. And we all need to design meetings. Even if you aren’t using technology, taking these ideas into a more manual or more modestly automated environment still works.
The key to great meetings today is to engage with the meeting as a design problem. Don’t just let your history and experiences perpetuate the bad meeting habits you’ve experienced during your career. Unlike many things in the work environment, every person owns some part of the meeting experience. Take ownership and break the cycle of bad meetings that under-utilize your company’s collaboration software investment and waste your time.