I’m a big believer in following a standardized meeting process. Knowing that most meetings follow the same basic flow makes them easier to plan.
It also makes it easier for participants to follow because they recognize the pattern and know what they are supposed to do during each process step.
When teaching people how to plan meetings, I walk them through the seven steps every meeting should follow.
Back in the day, I put these steps on the back of my business card so that people might have a quick reference. Then one day I realized, why not just boil down the process even further to something people don’t need an aid to remember.
So instead of talking steps, I began suggesting that meetings have three phases: beginning, middle, and end. You can’t get easier to remember than that, can you? Each phase adds value. If the meeting leader skips or short-changes a phase, problems ensue.
When you are planning a meeting or find yourself in one that doesn’t have any structure, pull it together by organizing it into three phases.
The beginning of a meeting sets the stage. It helps participants understand the purpose of the meeting, the objectives that will be accomplished, the plan for achieving those objectives, and what’s personally expected of them. It also mentally prepares them for action.
Let’s say you pull together a group to figure out why a series of shipments have left the warehouse with at least one item missing from the order. You open by saying, “Thanks for coming. Recently we’ve had a spike in complaints about incomplete orders, and . . .” Before you can finish your introductory comments, Fred says, “As you know we’ve had a lot of turnover in the warehouse. I’ve only got two guys with more than a year of experience working back there. It’s a crew of newbies.” The discussion moves on from there.
If that’s the way your meeting starts—and many do—you’re in trouble. The only common grounding that people have is that there is a concern about incomplete orders. They don’t know what your goals are for the meeting. They don’t have the plan for achieving those goals. They don’t have enough background.
A weak beginning creates chaos. Without a solid foundation on which to build, people take the conversation off in every imaginable direction. There may well be lots of talk, but little progress, because there is no focus.
When conversations meander, participants question the leader’s ability to control the meeting. Heroes don’t have to work nearly as hard to control the conversation, because they set things up properly in the first place.
There is plenty to accomplish in the beginning. Here are the items on my checklist:
- Welcome people.
- Explain the purpose.
- Share the proposed objectives/goals.
- Lay out the plan (aka agenda).
- Make introductions.
- Warm up their brains
- Focus their attention.
- Provide any useful logistical information.
- Set some ground rules.
The middle of the meeting is for doing what you came to do. It usually consumes more than 80 percent of the total meeting time. Often the action during the middle alternates between expansion and contraction. Let me explain what I mean.
Let’s say you’ve come together to address concerns about employee morale. You can imagine the middle of the meeting stepping through a series of questions:
- What are employees upset about? (Expansive conversation meant to get all the possibilities on the table.)
- Which complaints are most serious? (Contracting the conversation so that the group can focus on one issue at a time.)
- What do we think is causing the most serious complaint? (Expansion, identifying potential root causes.)
- Which cause is having the greatest effect? (Contraction)
- What ideas do we have for addressing this issue? (Expansion)
- Which should we pursue? (Contraction)
You get the idea. There are obviously many versions of what happens in the middle, but this is one common format that I like, because it ultimately leads to action.
Here’s a more complete list of what could be on the to-do list for the middle:
- Make a decision.
- Solve a problem.
- Generate ideas.
- Provide information.
- Gather data.
When planning the middle, it’s helpful to know what challenges you’ll need to overcome. Throughout many years of planning, leading, and participating in meetings, I’ve learned some valuable lessons about the middle. There are four you should commit to memory.
Lesson one: Participants only care about the middle. They want to get down to business, often without doing the necessary preparations that should be part of the meeting’s beginning. It’s like letting a dog off its leash. The minute it knows it’s free, off it goes like a rocket. The meeting participants will do the same, unless you are ready to help them adequately prepare before diving into the work.
Lesson two: Knowing what you want to do and how you are going to do it are two different things. Many planners don’t include enough details for how to accomplish the objectives they’ve set for the middle of the meeting. They might know that they want to generate ideas, but haven’t figured out how to do so. A meeting plan isn’t ready for action until you can answer all the how questions.
Lesson three: People veer off track. Sticking to the plan is always a challenge. One of the many things a meeting hero needs to focus her energy on during the middle of the meeting is helping people stay on the path that’s been set forth by your plan.
Lesson four: If the middle is too big and complicated, participants will become lost, tired, and demoralized. The world is full of big, overwhelming problems. Heroes love solving these kinds of problems, but even heroes can’t solve them all at once. They tackle them in bite-size pieces. And that’s what you are going to do. Keep the middle manageable and understandable.
At the end of the meeting, there are several critical goals to accomplish. First, be sure everyone’s clear about what happened during the meeting. The last thing you need is for half the room to leave thinking an agreement has been reached, and the other half leaves thinking things are yet to be finalized. No good can come from that.
A second goal is that people who have committed to do something are clear about what they are supposed to do. It also helps to make sure they know that everyone else knows what they promised. If it’s a little vague, you set yourself up for disappointment when people don’t follow through. They also may waste time and money doing something they weren’t asked to do.
Goal number three is to evaluate the meeting. Determining what worked and what did not is the best way to ensure meetings, in general, get better.
Finally, make sure people know that you appreciated their time and effort. The end is a time to say thank you and reinforce good meeting behaviors.
Each Phase Plays a Role in Your Meeting’s Success
While the middle takes up most of the time, the beginning and end are both tremendously important. You need to pay equal attention to all three.
Use the phases to plan your meeting. Use them to help people understand the meeting’s structure. Use them to keep things on track.
Note: The descriptions of the three phases were pulled straight from my book, Meeting Hero. If you like what you learned and how the information was presented, download a copy of your own and learn everything you need to know to run better meetings.