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When a meeting is successful, you can feel the energy in the air.
Most of the advice about running a successful meeting centers on the agenda; but, in truth, a successful meeting starts earlier, with a clear analysis of the situation and great communication. According to some research, executives judge only about a third of meetings to be successful. Those successful meetings were defined by good situation data, clearly outlined , and participants who understood what was wanted and when.
Understanding the Situation
Most meetings are held in response to a situation but not all situations require a meeting.
One of your first decisions is whether the situation is too time sensitive for a meeting; an email or phone call is generally faster. You also need to know who the situation is a problem for and why.
If the situation is a problem for you alone and one you can handle on your own, then a meeting is unnecessary—perhaps a one-on-one conversation would correct the situation or perhaps you could delegate. If a meeting is necessary, knowing who is affected enables you to invite meeting participants who have a stake in finding a solution.
A What-If analysis may be helpful in determining why you should hold a meeting. What if you ignore the situation? What are the immediate and long-term consequences? Other forms of can help you narrow down the root causes of the situation to help the meeting move forward to solutions.
TIP: Make sure the meeting is the most efficient way to get done what needs to get done.
Agendas tell people why they are meeting, essential information that should be provided ahead of time. Knowing the “why” lets participants prepare and ensures that the meeting will stay on track, rather than wandering off into side conversations and issues. As one executive stated in The New York Times, “It’s very important to me to focus people and to keep them focus, and not just get in the room and talk about who won the Knicks game last night.”
As the leader of the meeting, you should encourage participation without letting anyone hog the meeting or feel ignored. That’s one reason why the size of the meeting is so important. According to research at Wharton, the optimum meeting size varies from 5 to 12, depending on the task, the people involved, and the prior experience of the individual in working as a team.
Your meeting should have a goal: turning around a situation, solving a problem, moving a project or program forward. When everyone is clear about both the situation and the goal, the meeting has a recognizable point.
Communication covers a range of possibilities, from a face-to-face meeting to videoconferencing, webinars, or conference calls. Communication using technology requires sensitivity to differences in time zones, the willingness to invest in high-quality systems, and training for participants who may not be technologically savvy. But in a world of remote workers, this form of communication definitely has a place. In addition, the prevalence of technology may necessitate rules about taking cell phone calls during the meeting or playing with laptop computers.
To achieve a successful meeting, keep the following communication caveats in mind:
- The more information you can provide participants ahead of the meeting, the better they will understand the situation—but avoid overwhelming them. Again, focus is essential.
- Once you call a meeting, you are inviting the ideas of other people who may have an entirely different perspective on the situation, problem, or root causes. Listen.
- Group analysis of a problem may reveal more potential causes and responses. Therefore, your goal may change during the meeting. Be flexible.
- Flexibility extends to the end time. While avoiding meetings that drag on and on, you do want everyone to have a chance to speak.
- Backward progress occurs when talking replaces action, requiring yet another meeting. As the meeting leader, you are responsible for keeping the participants on track and moving forward.
- The end of the meeting is only the beginning of communication. By sending out timely meeting minutes and keeping in touch with participants, you ensure that the proposed actions actually take place.
TIP: Successful meetings are respectful dialogs that result in an action plan.
Your participants should balance people who execute actions with those who generate ideas and balance takers and risk avoiders. Those who take action and evaluate risk also need to feel safe from finger-pointing or blaming if the proposed action fails, although properly executed.
To decide on action, every successful meeting needs an agreed decision making process. Perhaps you, as the meeting leader, will make the ultimate decision and will need time to evaluate options before any action is taken. Perhaps you and the other meeting participants prefer majority vote or group consensus. If the decision making process is made clear before the meeting begins (even as part of the agenda), everyone will leave the meeting feeling heard and a clear outcome will be easier to achieve.
Before the meeting adjourns, everyone should understand next actions and their individual role. They should know where to seek help, whom to follow up with, and expected due dates. They need the information and resources to make happen what needs to happen when it needs to happen.
TIP: As the end of a successful meeting, people feel that something was accomplished and their participation was valued.
Successful meetings are necessary and efficient; they have an agenda and stick to it; they engage people and keep them engaged; and they end with an action plan that everyone understands.