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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Waller

6 Simple Ingredients for Productive, Effective Meetings

How do we run our meetings? Are they seen as 60 minutes of unavoidable suffering, a place where ideas go to die? Or are they focused, targeted, and even (gasp!) useful?

I’ve used a lot of checklists over the years to help me streamline my meetings and make them as productive and painless as possible. It’s safe to say that I’ve led some really great meetings and some really crappy meetings. Amazing learning experiences in either case.

There are a lot of frameworks out there, but let me tell you about the one that I’ve settled on — the one that really seems to cover all the bases and make the most intuitive sense. I call it the 6 P’s, and you may have seen something similar. But, for the number of times that I have a coaching discussion on the topic, it’s clear that the approach to running effective meetings isn’t something that most people have seen before.

The 6 P’s of awesome meetings

6 P’s is just shorthand for a checklist to reflect on as you set up and prepare for a meeting. I wanted to say “important” meeting here, but the reality is that every meeting can be better by taking the 6 P’s into account. Here’s what they look like:

The cool thing about the structure here is that you can see some logical relationships for each of the six factors as you look top-to-bottom and left-to-right. The coolest thing, though, is that these factors are just fancy dressing for six basic question words: why, who, what, when, where, and how.

Let’s dive in and make our next meeting awesome.

1. Purpose

Never, ever have a meeting without deeply asking the question of “why do we need to have this meeting?” Is it even necessary? Meetings are a great tool, but they’re just that — a tool. They can create accountability, remove roadblocks, solve a problem, and on and on. But they can also waste time and build resentment.

Let’s face it, meetings are overused. As a first stop on this checklist, begin with the end in mind. What is the desired outcome, the thing that really matters? Generally, a meeting should either lead to a decision (direction) or an action (motion). Once you have the outcome and purpose in mind, check in on whether a meeting is really the best approach.

2. People

Who needs to be there? Be ruthless about who really adds value to the meeting. If the list of invitees is full of people who are just there as an FYI, take them off. And find a better way to update them, like sending the meeting minutes by email. If there are people you’ve invited just to make yourself look busy, take them off. And find a better way to show your progress on what matters.

Similarly, be ruthless about who needs to be invited that isn’t. Is someone important off the list because they have a dissenting view or because they draw out conversations? If their input really matters, your job is to be a stronger facilitator and step up. Is someone important off the list because they might be “too senior”? Check with that person about whether it’s really worth their time, making it clear what you need from them. And remember that they can still say no.

Finally, make sure that people have assigned roles. You are probably the chair, but there needs to be one (and only one) person who is leading the meeting. There should also be someone who is taking notes or minutes. Think about other roles that you need, e.g. devil’s advocate, and set the expectation ahead of time to them. Rotate where possible.

3. Preparation

Preparation is one of the highest ROI tasks to take in effective meetings for a lot of reasons. It gets the ball rolling early, maximizes focus in the meeting, sets a tone of proactivity, and gets you thinking about what really matters.

What can be done ahead of time, outside the meeting, so that the time inside the meeting is well-spent? What data is needed as an input and can be sent out as a pre-read? Are expectations clear on what needs to be done ahead of time, before the meeting? If you’re driving toward a decision, what information will you need to problem solve? If you’re driving toward an action, what options will you need to clarify?

4. Pace

“When should we meet?” seems like a bit of a throwaway question, but there’s a rich chance to test what’s working and not working here. Meetings are full of inertia — we get set on a path of meeting every Tuesday for 60 minutes and that just becomes the norm, the status quo. Ask: are we meeting too often or not enough? Can meetings be shorter or do they need to be longer?

One of the most effective productivity hacks I see my startup CEOs try is cutting all their meeting times in half. It forces some pace into the process, some focus on the outcomes that really matter. You’d be amazed at how much more you can get done in a 15-minute meeting than a 30-minute meeting when people know that time matters.

PS, when you’re scheduling the time for the meeting, solve for three people max. The two or three people that really, truly need to be there. More than that and you’re pulling your hair out trying to accommodate everyone.

5. Place

Where do we need to be? In today’s world, a lot of meetings are remote, with dispersed teams. As more parts of the world come out of lockdown, through, the return of the conference room is inevitable. Check in on this simple question: what location and format is going to be best for solving what we’re trying to solve? Sometimes in-person is best. Sometimes Zoom works great. And even with the virtual option, you can play with webinars or breakout rooms to make the medium fit for purpose.

Whatever you decide, the key step here is in making sure everything is prepared. Check the connection ahead of time. Do a dry run. Make sure you have the projector, whiteboard, sticky notes, whatever you need.

6. Process

This final “P” is almost as important as the first. How will you run the meeting in the most productive and effective way? Team and group norms are important here. Everyone talks, and if they don’t you can throw them a question or ask “What do you think?” Nobody talks for too long, and if you see it becoming a problem then set a rule upfront that each person only has X minutes to talk. Be deliberate about setting norms and rules that support how the team works best.

You might bristle at the thought of an agenda, but if you’re going to bring multiple people together to work toward a common goal for a finite time (i.e. meeting), structure is your friend. Do you have a clear, prioritized agenda?

The best agendas aren’t overly complex with times down to the minute, nor are they too simple. Have enough information so that everyone knows the major topics of the meeting as well the objectives or outputs and who’s driving the discussion for each.

Best practices: kick off with some kind of one-by-one check-in, give an overview of the agenda to set expectations, and begin with updates on any past action items and progress. Then just go topic-by-topic and close out with actions, accountability, and next steps. You can and should send the agenda out beforehand, but the really important part is how you run the agenda during the meeting. Don’t be afraid to “release” the agenda if it becomes clear that it won’t serve the desired outcome.

Bringing it all together

This checklist is just that — a checklist. Look through and see how it could work for you, but don’t be afraid to cut out what doesn’t fit or add what’s missing. To recap:

  • Purpose, why have this meeting?

  • People, who needs to be there?

  • Preparation, what pre-work is needed?

  • Pace, when should we meet?

  • Place, where do we need to be?

  • Process, how will it run effectively?

If you really want to prioritize your effort, focus on the bookends of “purpose” and “process” first. Purpose is critical because it defines the outcome and sets the focus for everything you do from there. Process is critical because not every team or meeting is the same. It takes deliberate thought, time, and experience to settle on how to best run a meeting.

Start at what matters and give this approach a shot. Think about the meetings you’ve led recently. How did they compare to the 6 P’s? What worked and what didn’t? And, based on that, what are you going to do differently next time?

Good luck on your journey.

Originally published in The Startup

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