The 7 Questions You Need to Answer for Any Successful Meeting

The right questions to answer for effective meetings
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What you should do to ensure successful meetings

What is the one thing that wastes most of your time at work?

You might have said ‘emails’, you might even have said ‘that annoying colleague who always hangs around my desk’, but most likely you will have said ‘meetings’.

That is because most employees face meetings overload in their workplace, and arguably it is worst for executives who (according to the Harvard Business Review) spend an average of nearly 23 hours per week in meetings.

But crazy meeting schedules impact everyone in an organisation, and bad meetings are not just wasting people’s time, they are also losing money. Professor Steven Rogelberg conducted research showing that for a company of 5000+ employees, time misspent in meetings equated to around $25,000 per employee annually; that’s over $100 million per year in large companies.

So why do we have so many unproductive and ineffective meetings?

The secret (or common sense) behind running effective meetings

The problem is that most meetings just exist. Someone set them up, way back in the distant past, they entered a schedule and then people just attend them. No one stops to ask the right questions; those that will ensure a good meeting.

I have seen and continue to see this first-hand in the public, private and voluntary sectors. I have worked as a leader, managing things directly for organisations, and as a coach and facilitator, consulting back into these various spheres. Over the years, I have organised and attended countless meetings, from the very good to the very bad, and yes, sometimes I have been guilty of holding unnecessary meetings too.

Whether you are organising, facilitating, or attending a meeting, for it to be productive, you need to know the why, what, where, which, who, how and when of the meeting. Let’s explore that further by expanding these interrogatives and asking the essential questions. 

Why do you need the meeting?

The first and most important thing you must ascertain is why you need a meeting. 

Think about the meetings you attend. For each one, what is the reason for the meeting? Why does that meeting exist? If you cannot answer that question, I would suggest you either find a ‘why’ for going along, or you should remove yourself from the invitation list. 

Every meeting should have a defined purpose. If you are planning a meeting, you must know clearly why the meeting needs to take place and then properly communicate that to the relevant stakeholders. 

And that ‘why’ should not just be ‘to get the team together’ or ‘to help communication’. These reasons are too vague. The purpose needs to fulfil some need or solve a problem that you are facing. Don’t move on to the other questions until you have answered this question (or just don’t have the meeting).

What does success look like for the meeting?

Once you know why you want to hold a meeting, the next task is to define what success looks like; in other words, what do you want to achieve by the end of the meeting?

The why and the what are related but subtly different. For example, the reason for the meeting could be that it is a kick-off meeting, the first time everyone is getting together. That is the why. Success in this instance might be that everyone leaves the meeting having met all the team members and understanding everyone’s roles. That is the what.

How you define the outcome of the meeting then shapes the agenda. The agenda can be thought of as a mini action plan with the agenda items being the tasks required to get to the desired end-state.

Where is the best place for the meeting to take place?

Location is important. Where you hold the meeting and how that space is set up will have a large impact on the feel and flow of the gathering.

For example, if you meet in a large boardroom, with someone at the head of a huge table, people will naturally defer to that person. This is good for giving direction, but less good if you are wanting participation and creativity. For the latter, you might want to find a more neutral space with a variety of break-out areas and no imposed feeling of hierarchy. 

Be creative with your meeting space. Sometimes even changing the location of a regular gathering can help breathe new life into it. I am a great fan of getting outside whenever possible. For example, my favourite one-to-one meetings are walking meetings but I also run workshops and other types of meetings outdoors. 

Which type of meeting will create the right outcome?

The idea of a specific type of meeting is linked to the purpose and success of the meeting. Therefore, defining the kind of meeting will refine the why and the what, as well as inform your choice of location. Identifying the nature of the meeting with also help to scope the following questions covering the whowhatand when of the meeting.

There are lots of types of meetings but most fall into the following categories:

  • Briefing, information sharing or presenting. This is usually biased towards one-way communication of key data.
  • Decision-making. Here the purpose and outcome of the meeting are shaped by a specific decision or set of choices.
  • Problem-solving. In this case, it is a problem that is the focus of the meeting.  
  • Brainstorming, creativity, or innovation. These meetings are all about generating new ideas or approaches. 
  • Team building. Every team requires proactive effort to build them up, but the approach depends upon where they are in terms of team development
  • Kick-off or project start. Any new initiative should have a proper kick-off. 
  • Catch-up, check-in or status update. Most teams have these sorts of meetings, but these need to be well-disciplined to be effective. 
  • Planning, progress, and performance.  This covers many management functions such as event planning meetings, quarterly reports, and project progress updates. 
  • One-to-one. Person-to-person meetings can include interviews, coaching, mentoring, and performance meetings. These are just as important to plan as a large gathering.

Whom do you need at the meeting?

There is an art to identifying who you need in any given meeting. Too few people and you might not have the cognitive diversity, experience, or decision-making power to achieve your aim. Too many people and meetings can become bloated, over-long, and it will be hard to achieve consensus. 

Meetings take up people’s time, their most precious resource, so be ruthless. Only invite the people who really need to be there. And if that means people only attend certain agenda items and then leave, that’s fine. Don’t make people sit through things that are not relevant to them; they will not thank you for it. 

A good rule of thumb is the cocktail party rule. If you watch a room at a party, groups will rarely exceed eight people because this becomes a natural limit to inclusive conversations. Therefore meetings, particularly if you want to get a decision, should generally consist of fewer than 8 people. 

If you are wanting to brainstorm something you could push attendance closer to twenty people, although you will want chances to work in smaller groups during the workshop. And if you are just communicating information didactically then there is no real limit (it could be thousands). This approach can be remembered as the 8-18-1800 rule. In other words, 8 people for decisions, 18 for brainstorming, and 1800 for one-way communications.

How should you best run the meeting?

Effective meetings require leadership. The management style that you adopt depends upon the type of meeting and what you want to achieve. For example, if the aim is to pass on information, then the leadership style is likely to be more directive, as you tell people what to do. If you want new ideas, then your approach will be more facilitative, ensuring that everyone contributes and has a voice.

How you craft the agenda can also support the leadership approach you adopt, particularly if people see the agenda before the meeting (which should be the case in most instances). For example, if you want contributions from the team you can craft each section of the agenda accordingly. The first item might be a check-in where everyone has a few seconds to say how they are feeling and what they are thinking. The next item might break down the team into smaller discussion groups before bringing back the key points to the full group. The important thing is to consider the best format for achieving each element of the agenda and how it builds towards the aim you set in question two (the what).

When should the meeting take place, and for how long?

The answer to this question very much depends on the type of meeting you are planning and the exact end-state you want to achieve.

In terms of length, think about what you want to achieve. Meetings span everything from the 5-10 minute standing team meeting that might happen at the beginning of a day, to the whole day creative workshop which is designed to come up with new ideas. 

The scheduling of the meeting is then largely dependent upon the length. The longer the meeting, the longer the lead time you will need to give. The more people outside your immediate team that you want to have involved, and the more senior those people are, the further into the future you are going to need to plan. Going back to the previous example, you can call a quick stand-up meeting with only a few hours notice (if that), but an all-day workshop happening offsite is likely to need weeks (if not months) to schedule.

Before you have a meeting, ask these essential questions

In our work, we are inevitably going to spend many hours in meetings. Therefore, to ensure these are productive it is worth spending a few minutes answering these questions for each gathering you organise or attend:

  • Why do you need the meeting?
  • What does success look like for the meeting?
  • Where is the best place for the meeting to take place?
  • Which type of meeting will create the right outcome?
  • Whom do you need at the meeting?
  • How should you best run the meeting?
  • When should the meeting take place, and for how long?

And don’t stop asking these questions. What is true one week may not be true another week. Do not become a slave to a meeting schedule or make the meeting a habit you forget to challenge. 

Leadership is an opportunity to bring positive change, no matter where you are in an organisation. So, how can you improve your meeting culture today? This might require challenging the status quo – which can be difficult – but if you can find more effective, productive and time-efficient ways to meet, you will win friends in the end!

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