Just How DO You Prepare for an Effective Meeting?
By Dr. Tony Alessandra
The success of a meeting is directly related to the amount of time invested in preparation beforehand. Before planning the meeting, you should understand what type of meeting it will be. The type of meeting affects how many people attend, the structure of the meeting and the meeting objectives. Here are the basic types of meeting:
o Information exchange — information exchange meetings provide a forum for disseminating the same message to a large group of people. This is important when the information is controversial or complex, it has strong implications for attendees, or if it needs to be conveyed in person. A meeting to explain a new profit sharing policy would be an example of this type of meeting.
This type of meeting is also used for status meetings which generally feature progress reports on all projects under the scope of the attendees. These reports keep the group posted on the current status of projects it is responsible for. Information exchange meetings can be relatively large in attendance. The format typically includes formal presentations with questions and answers from other attendees. Audiovisual equipment may be required.
o Brainstorming— these sessions generally precede problem-solving meetings when it is important to generate alternative solutions. Participation of all attendees is critical and it is important to have a broad mix of attendees. Brainstorming sessions should not have more than seven attendees.
Prepare a meeting that people will enjoy.
o Problem solving — the objective here is to pool the knowledge, wisdom and experience of the attendees and to identify the best possible solution to the problem. In order to meet that objective each attendee needs to understand the problem and each participant should have a part to play in solving the problem. Brainstorming should be used to identify possibilities. Every participant should be encouraged to contribute. After a solution is agreed upon, it should be analyzed for weaknesses. Consider both the positive and negative aspects before taking action. These sessions should have no more than 5-7 participants and should be very informal and participative.
o Project planning — planning and implementation meetings are primarily held to determine logistics and responsibility allocations. They can be somewhat larger than a problem solving session. It is important to document decisions, action items and responsibilities.
o Training — training sessions are ideal when they are limited to 15-20 attendees, require participation and involvement, and give people a chance to learn from their peers.
Determining the Purpose of the Meeting
The meeting leader needs to recognize and fine-tune the specific purpose for the meeting. For instance, if the general topic is training needs, the manager might break it into more specific subtopics such as: identifying primary training needs for each department; determining which could be done in-house; establishing priorities; and developing a strategy for training. The process of fine-tuning the purpose might determine a need for more than one meeting.
Come into a meeting with a mindset of getting the job done, but enjoying yourself as well!!
The first question a meeting leader should be able to answer is, “Why are we having this meeting?” Until the meeting leader is completely clear about the purpose of the meeting, there is no way the meeting will be efficient and effective.
Setting Objectives for the Meeting
The meeting leader should have a written set of objectives for the meeting. These should be objectives that can only be accomplished by bringing together a group of people. If one person can accomplish the objectives, there’s no point in having a meeting. Here are some common objectives:
o More accurate information. Since messages become standardized in a meeting, management can ensure that everyone receives the same information in the same way. As companies grow and communication tends to get more complicated, this function of meetings becomes even more important. However, for simple messages which do not require interaction, memos are a much more cost effective method of distributing a standardized message.
o More effective coordination of activities. Meetings bring people together and help them understand how they fit within the company. Presenting the “big picture” helps each individual understand the importance of and how to implement change.
o Improving the flow of communication both upwards and downwards. Meetings connect top management with employees, allowing management to report on what the company has accomplished and to explain future changes. Employees have a chance to ask questions, seek clarification and understand the decision processes involved with changes. They may also offer suggestions and ideas for consideration by management.
o Facilitating the decision-making process. Attendees bring with them the pieces of information necessary to solve a problem. Once a solution is identified, those who will implement it should be present to add their ideas and suggestions.
o Training. Training meetings ensure more uniform training of employees and provide an interactive forum where participants can learn from each other.
o Building morale. The sense of teamwork is revitalized at meetings in an environment of purpose and commitment. Meetings provide an excellent forum for recognizing achievements of the group and individuals.
Planning the Meeting Agenda
The meeting agenda is the single most important component of meeting planning. A well thought out agenda distributed prior to the meeting will provide participants with purpose and direction. It prepares participants in advance and helps to create a solid structure for the meeting.
The meeting leader can ask participants to submit agenda items, if she wants to promote group involvement and avoid surprises at the meeting. A written agenda is useful, because it:
o Enables participants to come supplied with the right materials
o It provides a framework which supports the flow of the meeting and keeps a time frame for the discussion of each topic
o It keeps the group on track with a written reminder and focuses the group’s attention
o It lets all participants know who has been invited
Make sure the agenda is succinct and direct, but avoid making it too brief or vague. In general, keep the agenda and meeting short. It is better to schedule two or three shorter meetings and keep the number of items per meeting to five or six, than try to cover everything in one monster meeting.
The agenda should cover the following points:
o The date, start time and finish time (generally not more than two hours)
o Where the meeting will be held, and, if necessary, how to get there
o The topic and sub-areas to be covered, including a brief description of each
o A brief indication of the reason for the inclusion of each topic
o How much time will be allotted to each topic
o A list of participants
Each item on the agenda should be relevant to the purpose of the meeting. Ask yourself the following questions when considering whether or not to include an item:
o Does the item support one of the meeting objectives?
o Is the item of concern to all group members?
o Does the group have the authority to handle the issue?
o Is the subject appropriate to the level of the group?
o Does the group have all the data it needs to discuss the topic?
Unless you can answer “yes” to the first four of these questions, drop the topic. If you answered “no” to number five, refer it to a subcommittee or staff member for research. The topic can be added to the agenda once the necessary information has been gathered.
Additionally, the agenda should explain the meeting objectives and what questions and issues are likely to arise. If one item is of special interest to the group, it is often best to single it out for special mention in a covering note. Meeting leaders should consider identifying each item with: “For information,” “For discussion,” or “For decision” so that attendees are aware of the purpose of each.