Planning Meetings; Making them Effective

For many of us, our days consist of one meeting after another – perhaps one on one meetings, but in particular I am thinking here of team meetings, committee meetings, board meetings:  meetings where we are supposed to make a decision on a matter of policy or one or more action item.   As I note in Institutional Intelligence, I differ with Peter Drucker who says we need to meet less and get on with it.  I differ; we do need to meet to learn together, to decide together and then to hold one another accountable for what we have learned and what we agreed to do.

Meetings are part of the job; and they are part of what it means to be an organization.   But, not all meetings are good meetings – productive, fruitful and encouraging.  As a rule if they are effective it depends on two things:  first, a good chair or moderator – absolutely essential.   A good meeting only works if it is well chaired.   And second, the right agenda for this group and for this meeting.

Recently I was asked by one of my correspondents if I have a “playbook” for structuring meetings.   What a good question.   I had to confess to myself that I did not have such a playbook. I am not sure who does, but here are some thoughts/observations that might be helpful – here is a go at a playbook

First, before we even get started:  be very clear what this group – let’s say a board or committee – has responsibility for.   No one should have any doubt on where the authority or responsibility begins and ends for this

particular committee or board.  Can this group make policy or action decisions?  And if so, of what category?  Do not waste time with an agenda that does not belong here.   Also, be sure to know if this is an advisory committee or an executive committee.   In my situation, the President’s Cabinet – myself and the VPs – we have an advisory committee.   But, that is the default; as a rule, we function with discussion that is meant to foster good decisions. 

Second, keep the agenda such that the meeting will not be longer than three hours.   Two hours is better.    If, for example, I have an all-day cabinet retreat – myself and our vice presidents will go away for the day – then I break the day into 90 minute to 2 hour segments.   Same with the Board of Governors where I serve as president:   two hour segments and ideally only 90 minute segments to the working day.  We are most productive when our focused time is within a two-hour time frame.  I will be so bold to say that longer is never needed.   If you need more time, then wait until another day; but as a rule I wonder:  what more can be said?  What more can be offered to the issue at hand.  And if the concern is that this meeting has a long list of agenda items . . .then you need to schedule another meeting.   None of us have the emotional and social energy to sustain a meeting longer than 3 hours and for maximum effectiveness, not much more than 2 hours.

Third, make sure that every meeting has at least one agenda item that has you feeling – yes, I use the word “feeling” intentionally – that something got done and we have moved things forward.  A decision has been made, a policy has been approved, an issue has been resolved.    You will often have items that need to be tabled because more information is needed or you were not able to come to consensus.   But, keep those at a minimum: come into the meeting with everyone having the background information in hand for the action items on the agenda.  Two, perhaps three items on the agenda and at least one that has weight – the significance of such we all know that we met, we discussed and we made a decision that will impact the mission of the organization.

Fourth, let people be the minority without derailing the issue at hand or have veto power on the agenda item.   Be strong enough as a group that any one of you can be outvoted; and be gracious about that.  The moderator recognizes that the issue has been adequately discussed; a vote is taken.   The majority rule.   Not complicated.   And no one goes away hurt or offended.   Occasionally the issue on the agenda might be so mission critical that the group and the moderator feel strongly that without a higher level of support the action should not carry.  But that is the exception; otherwise, nothing happens and routinely someone – and typically it is always the same person – insists on getting their way. 

Fifth:  you have to have minutes or notes.   Unless it is a board of trustees or a church board, these do not likely need to be formal minutes.   But you do need to have someone who is taking notes of what happened and what actions were taken.  They can be brief and even in bullet point form.  But you have to have them and then circulate them and give those present a chance to confirm that this is indeed what happened in the meeting.  Again, this is not a diary of the meeting; it is a record of the action items – what we agreed to and who agreed to do what coming out of the meeting. 

Finally, a good meeting is always about communication.   It is about providing information and updates so that those in the room are in the know.   Ask the question – a good question:   what does this group need to know so that they are adequately informed and then able to do their specific jobs within the organization?   Thus, for example my report of Governors includes action items for their consideration.  But it also includes updates with information – developments:  what do those on the Board need to have an awareness of so that they are (1) informed so that they can do their work as trustees; and (2) so they are encouraged?   But something to remember:  less can be more.   Do not understate or withhold information.  Of course not.  But when you are bringing an update be clear and concise.   If fellow committee members have questions, they can ask for more.   Give them what they need and no more . . . avoid the temptation to go on and on and on . . . 

So, there is my take from 40 years of attending meetings.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.