Four questions to ask before you plan your next meeting

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Good meetings need to be designed, whether they are virtual or face-to-face.

Zoom fatigue has become an office buzzword, and with good reason. Video conference calls (on Zoom, Google Meets, or various other platforms) with groups big and small, for 10 hours a day, with few breaks in between — it’s exhausting. And then there’s the video cocktail hour with friends or coworkers to cap off the day.

It’s easy to be critical of the format, but of course many leaders had to stand up their new virtual meetings quickly and are naturally experiencing hits and misses. And conversations that might have happened informally in the office now have to be scheduled as meetings, leading to calendar overload. Some conversations are more productive than others, often because they build on the ability of a virtual meeting to engage more perspectives. Others are awful: mind-numbing monologues during which no one can tell who is engaged and who is doing their laundry.

As we have seen in so many other arenas, the coronavirus pandemic is highlighting a problem that already existed: Meetings need to be better. How often do you show up for a call because it is on your calendar, without really knowing the purpose or your role? And even when a meeting has a clear purpose and agenda, the group may not have the information they need or a framework for making decisions.

As we have seen in so many other arenas, the coronavirus pandemic is highlighting a problem that already existed: Meetings need to be better.

One way out of this situation — whether online meetings predominate for the foreseeable future or we transition more quickly back to face-to-face — is to recognize that all meetings need to be actively designed. Yes, it helps to have an agenda and to use check-ins, breakouts, or the coolest whiteboard app, but there are many more options available. And even a small investment in meeting design can help you engage your participants, facilitate creativity and collaboration, improve the quality of decisions, and promote motivation and accountability.

The key is to step back and think like the “architect” of your meeting, to use the term preferred by my colleague Rick Lent, author of Leading Great Meetings. To get started, consider these four questions.

1. Why are we gathering? Designing the right structure depends on your purpose — whether it is a one-time event or a recurring meeting. Think about the opportunity or need that led you to connect this particular group: It might be developing a plan, solving a problem, evaluating a risk, deepening relationships, or some combination of the above. Then ask yourself, does this need to be real-time? Although live conversations are great for quick back-and-forth and high-intensity conversations, asynchronous chats via Slack, Microsoft Teams, or other tools can allow for more relaxed, ad hoc gathering of ideas or feedback, with automatic documentation. Once you have clarified the purpose for yourself, put it into the meeting invitation so people are more prepared to focus when they arrive.

2. Who needs to be here? As a general rule, invite those who have something to contribute to the purpose, have a key role in decisions, or will be affected by the outcome. Then consider the tone that will help these individuals contribute their best work. As Dick and Emily Axelrod outline in their 2014 book, Let’s Stop Meeting Like This, how people engage depends on how welcome and comfortable they feel. Here you can get creative. For example, most people need some sort of a “meeting warm-up” to settle in, especially in a virtual setting where it can be difficult to feel connected. I like to pose questions in chat for people to respond to as they arrive, such as, “Given our focus on branding today, which company do you most admire for its customer focus?” Ideally, your warm-up will both have a social element and relate to the meeting topic.

3. What conversation needs to happen? Fulfilling your meeting’s purpose will require effort from all participants; otherwise, you would not need a meeting. This is why Rick Lent advises describing the “work” your group needs to do together to achieve its goal. Do you need to reconcile different perspectives on your strategy? More fully consider a new risk the management team has been ignoring? Generate more creative ideas for the new product launch? Envision the conversation that will best advance the meeting’s purpose, then design the meeting to enable that conversation.

4. How might we create the conditions for that conversation? Now comes the fun part, where you think through the actual flow of the meeting. Generally, you want to focus most of the time on the conversation you identified in #3 above. But rather than just having an agenda, the Axelrods advise thinking of meetings as a “canoe” with various segments, which come together to form a sturdy vessel (with points at either end representing the beginning and the closing).

First, consider the inputs. What does your group need to be able to dig into the conversation at hand? Is it a pre-read? Relevant data? A field trip? Whatever you choose will set the tone and focus. In a virtual meeting, you are constrained in how much material you can show at once, so you may want to have everyone in a shared document space or forward materials in advance that everyone can have handy.

Second, plan the activity. Too often, leaders simply state the agenda topic and participants start to talk — an approach that makes tangents inevitable. It is the leader’s job to think about how broadly he or she can open the topic to draw out people’s unique contributions and commitment without overwhelming them with too many options or inviting them into a decision that, in reality, others own. The key is to clearly frame how the group might best engage to achieve your stated goal. It might be a question or discussion prompt, such as, “Joe and Tamara have proposed different views on our strategy. Why don’t we list the pros and cons of each?” As you get more comfortable, you might try a more structured activity, such as 1-2-4-All. In this technique, people think for a few minutes on their own, then share ideas with a partner, then debrief with a group of four, and finally, discuss as a large group.

Third, summarize the output of your activity and, if relevant, set up the next one. In the example above, after the group has debated Joe’s and Tamara’s perspectives, you can propose a vote. You should also carve out time for a formal wrap-up. Meetings often run right up to the end time (or go over, and people start to drop off), which can leave things dangling. Keep an eye on the clock to avoid this outcome. The Axelrods advise taking the time to acknowledge contributions, clarify next steps, and reflect on the meeting itself. Taking five minutes to debrief will build a habit of continuous improvement and mutual accountability. For example, one group I worked with noticed that they were avoiding making certain decisions week after week. They designated someone to flag these decisions to hold the team accountable.

People’s motivation is highest when they experience forward momentum, or progress toward a meaningful goal. By intentionally designing your meetings, you can help your team shift from viewing meetings as obstacles to viewing them as engaging conversations in which progress accelerates — because they are working toward a defined goal with the right people, in a productive way, with the information they need to do it well.

Elizabeth Doty

Elizabeth Doty is a former lab fellow of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and founder of Leadership Momentum, a consultancy that focuses on the practical challenges of keeping organizational commitments.


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