By Aidah Ssebandake & Dina Pataki
Have you ever attended a meeting and thought “why am I here?” or by the end of a meeting thought “we have discussed everything but achieved nothing”? If you have, , chances are people attending meetings you lead have too! Sending the meeting request is easy but designing a meeting with a clear purpose can be a bit tricker.
We think a clear meeting purpose – and goal – is the starting point for a great meeting. And we have three tips to set you up for success.
Tip 1: Don’t assume you need a meeting
Before you even open your outlook calendar or scheduling assistant, you need to decide whether calling a meeting is necessary. Make a conscious effort to think about what your goal is. If it is simply to share information and keep people in the loop, you probably don’t need real-time communication. Instead, you could deliver your message via an email or through slack. You can even record a short video or voice message if you want people to pay attention. In our view, meetings are best reserved for activities that require real-time collaboration. Figure 1 shows some clear steps to follow when thinking about whether you really need a meeting. Going through this process will help you not only to make the right call on the necessity of the meeting but to clarify its purpose as well.
Tip 2: Don’t just define a purpose – define the desired outcome
Now that you have decided that a meeting is the most effective way to discuss the issue at hand, it’s time to get clear on what exactly you wish to achieve by the end of this meeting. Let’s call this goal the desired outcome of the meeting. There is a subtle but important difference between how one answers the question “What is the purpose of this meeting?” and “What is the desired outcome of this meeting”?
The distinction is best described through an example. What difference do you see between the two answers below?
Example 1 Question: What is the purpose of this meeting?
Answer: To discuss the budget
Example 2 Question: What is the desired outcome of this meeting?
Answer: To reach a finalised and approved budget by the end of the meeting
The answer in Example 1 might sound straight forward but it is relatively easy to “have a discussion about the budget” yet not make any progress. The goal is not specific enough, making it difficult to evaluate whether it was actually achieved by the end of the meeting. In contrast, the second answer (prompted by the question on the desired outcome) creates a more tangible goal and a clear meeting focus. For your next meetings, include a statement in the calendar invite (or the first 5 minutes of the meeting) that starts with: “The desired outcome of this meeting is to …”
With the clearly formulated purpose statement in mind, you can construct your meeting agenda more easily. One practical way to help guide attendees through the meeting is to list agenda items as questions. Sticking to our budget example, you could include questions like:
“Which changes, if any, should we make to the budget?”
“What cuts can we make to get the budget under £50k?”
Questions help attendees activate their problem-solving thinking, making them better equipped to prepare for the discussion and join the meeting with potential solutions. Make sure you place the desired outcome at the top of your meeting agenda and in the calendar invite, in the case of virtual meetings, so attendees can adequately prepare for the meeting.
Tip 3 – Get active agreement with your meeting purpose
You now have a clear goal-focused agenda that you shared amongst attendees before the meeting. Great. But this is no guarantee that everyone equally understands the meeting purpose when the meeting starts. Some might not have read the agenda, some might want to discuss other points and some are still finishing up an email from before.
This is why it is crucial to kick-off the meeting by restating the desired outcome and the planned agenda. Make sure everyone is on board with the plan – ask for visual or verbal confirmation, such as a nod, “yes” or thumbs up. You may want to ask people if they think the goal is realistic and achievable in the time – getting them to buy into the meeting objectives. You might also get people to say if there are any other things they have a burning desire to discuss or get done in the meeting. If they do, you are better off allowing them to mention it and then either building it into the agenda or explicitly parking it until another time.
Spending five minutes on clarifying the desired meeting outcome(s) and agenda will ensure that everyone is on the same page. Keep the agenda clearly visible either as a handout or, for virtual meetings, in the chat function or a shared document. Not only will the purpose of the meeting be clear from the start, but the agenda will also act as a point of reference to ensure that the meeting achieves its goals.
With our top three tips covered above, you are set to lead your next meeting with a clear purpose and direction. Just remember to:
- Really consider whether there needs to be a meeting at all. Can you solve the problem by shooting a quick email?
- Formulate the meeting purpose as “the desired outcome” and create an action orientated agenda with items formulated as questions. Share this with attendees prior to the meeting.
- Start the meeting by revisiting and getting buy in to the desired meeting outcome and agenda.