If you ever need to hold a meeting and you want to make it a success, use the 40-20-40 continuum. Focus 40% of your attention for each meeting on preparation and getting everything right before you meet, then 20% of your attention on the meeting itself — the time you’re all together — and then spend 40% of your attention on the follow-through.
Get the preparation right and you will make the meetings you hold seem like magic. Here are a few ways that good preparation can pay itself back in spades.
1. Begin with the end in mind
When planning your meeting, start with the end in mind. Rather than waiting until halfway through a meeting to work out what you think the outcome should be, start there. You can even add this to the agenda, and as a chair, make sure it is part of your introduction. By being clearer from the outset, a lot of thinking will have been done before the meeting even gets under way.
Think about the meeting as a journey. The starting point is setting the scene: Introductions to one another, the topic and to the endpoint in mind. The middle stage is the exploration: Discussion, questioning and beginning to form some agreements. The end of a meeting should be where you are into decisions, actions and agreeing the next practical steps forward.
3. Schedule difficult agenda items immediately before breaks
When working out the agenda and meeting length, it is useful to schedule difficult agenda items immediately before breaks. This will hopefully keep things brief as it is a brave person who delays everyone’s lunch, and if things do get a little heated, the break offers time to calm everyone down.
4. Length — allow time for wiggle room
Make sure you are sensible, yet realistic, with the length of the meeting. If you are a disciplined chair, you can probably get it done in a shorter time than would be expected, though always allow time for wiggle room.
5. Control your Outlook, don’t let Outlook control your meetings
Meetings should rarely be exactly 30 minutes or 60 minutes long — the default times from Outlook — so make it 20 minutes or 45 minutes. It may only seem like ten minutes here and there, but ten minutes of proactive attention time is like gold dust.
6. Prepare — create the culture you need
Print agendas, bring background papers or information and use PowerPoint to provide a professional ‘feel’ and structure. Create a culture where preparation is absolutely expected. I did some interim management work where we were expected to have read all the papers in advance. As a result, the conversations were focused on opinions and actions rather than on clarifications or long explorations.
20% is the Meeting Itself
You have prepared meticulously and encouraged others to do the same. How do you ensure that the meeting is productive?
1. The welcome and the opening round
First, it is important to make people feel welcome. At the beginning of the meetings I chair, I usually ask people to contribute to an ‘opening round’, which consists of three or four questions:
- Your role (and where you work)
- Why you are here
- One thing that is going well (this can be professional or personal)
It is essential to correctly manage the pace of your meeting: Too brisk and people may feel as though they have not been heard, but too slow and it becomes all talk instead of making things happen.
3. If you have a problem, rehearse explaining it to a five-year-old
Always provide a window in the meeting to openly explore what the roadblocks are and if problems do arise, rehearse explaining them to a five-year-old. Thinking about things in simple terminology is much more likely to help you tweak your thinking to find a solution.
4. Steering the discussion
Ensure that decisions and actions are clarified as clearly as possible by making reference to the minutes during the meeting: “OK then folks, how should we capture this in the minutes?”
5. Create a safe space to make mistakes
Progress often comes from experimenting as much with what does not work as what does. Encourage experimentation and innovation, and think about how to do this as ‘safely’ as possible.
6. Public commitments
Tell everyone what will happen next and make sure everyone is clear on the next step, especially the steps that involve their actions. Ask participants to commit their actions to paper and share these either in pairs or with the group as a whole. This is a great way to hold people to account and ensure that everyone takes on their responsibilities.
7. Closing round — All’s well that ends well
This offers a few moments to turn people’s attention to reflecting on their involvement and begin planning ahead. I usually use the following questions:
- What have you enjoyed most about this meeting?
- Has anything surprised you during the meeting?
- What are you planning to do as a result of this meeting?
- What are you looking forward to?
The follow-through is not only an important point, it is the point — without it, meetings are meaningless. Here are some ways by which you can successfully follow meetings through:
1. Develop an action summary during the meeting itself
Do not leave a meeting until you and everyone else have a clear sense of the actions that need to be taken. This means having an action list. Use the meeting to gain clarity around what needs to be done and make sure there is a commitment to these actions from all involved.
2. The capture email
After the meeting, the capture email should be clear to read and clear on the detail of what is involved. Thank everyone for participating and include a complete and clear list of action points. Use the capture email as a way of being clear about who is now in charge and who actions should be directed towards.
3. Welcome requests for clarification
Clarity is key and its enemies are procrastination and stress. Your job is to create windows for clarification questions, either by follow up emails or just via regular check-ins with people. Offer support so the person does not feel foolish if he or she needs clarification.
4. Send follow-up emails
Follow-up emails are always useful. You could simply reattach the original action list or provide some updates to give an increased sense of momentum.
5. Set deadlines
Where possible, have a deadline. Deadlines produce rabbits out of hats. When delegating actions from meetings, do not be afraid to work under constraints that place people under tight deadlines. The action should be measurable not just by the deadline, but by the substance and its impact. Asking questions about the substance of the action can also be a great way to regularly renegotiate actions if a few weeks after a meeting, a different kind of action is now required.