Who says the usual suspects all need to be in your meeting?
They don’t and shouldn’t be. It’s your meeting, and you decide who to invite.
The players matter, and your group’s ability to achieve the meeting objectives is heavily influenced by who is in the room (or on the call).
Approach your mission with people who clearly aren’t up to the task, and the odds of success drop precipitously. Assemble an amazing team, and the group’s prospects rise.
It’s time you started giving some serious thought about who to invite and then find the courage to make the right call.
In the perfect world, you would identify the skills, knowledge, or authority that needs to be in the meeting to complete your mission. You would invite only those people who have at least one of the qualifications. No more than you need. No fewer than what’s necessary to be successful.
The real world doesn’t always work this way. There are people you have to invite because they expect it and will make problems for you if you don’t.
There are people who are already part of the team who if you don’t bring them in are going to feel excluded—and rightly so—because that’s exactly what you intended to do.
A meeting hero bends reality while recognizing perfection is an elusive target. You may not always have every person you want, but your goal must be to get as close to the wish list as possible.
Sometimes getting who you want is easy
Getting who you want is easiest when you plan an ad hoc meeting. Because the meeting is for a specific purpose and may well be held only once, there aren’t necessarily people who are automatically the right people for this problem.
The best part of this situation is that it’s unlikely there are many people who will feel slighted if they aren’t invited. It’s an undefined situation. That means the players are also undefined.
In this case, you can focus on these two questions:
- What skills, knowledge, and authority do I need to solve this problem?
- Who is available to provide what I need?
In many cases, the second question is hard to answer, because we haven’t adequately answered the first. As a default, we use fuzzy requirements like, I better get someone from accounting so that they can speak to the numbers.
You are much more likely to get the right person if you could go to the head of accounting with the following request,
I am assembling a group of people to solve problem X. I need someone from accounting who specifically knows something about the process and is good at explaining numbers to people who aren’t accountants. Who do you recommend?
Your job is to be specific in defining the requirements. Let others who might be better judges of the best person to have in your meeting provide you with their recommendations.
If you already know who you want, extend the invitation. When you aren’t able to put a name to your need, ask someone who can.
While specialized knowledge or expertise is what you need for your meeting, you may also want to seek out more generalized skills that can add value in any meeting.
Start making a list of people who are good at the following, along with any other skills you find particularly helpful:
- divergent thinking
- uncovering and disarming political landmines
- converting random talk into concrete plans
- problem solving
Sometimes getting who you want is tough
The second scenario is when your mission involves something that people are familiar with and on learning of your meeting, some expect to be part of the process.
An example would be pulling together a group to do some planning. It could be annual plans for a department or perhaps longer-range plans for an organization.
There are plenty of people who would like to be part of this process. Invite them all, and you will have a meeting that is too big.
There are also some who would assume they should be part of the process simply because of their position.
Let’s say you own a company with 300 employees. You have seven people who report directly to you. This group is referred to as the Senior Leadership Team. Your idea is to convene a two-day, off-site meeting to work on a strategic plan.
Can you imagine anyone on the Senior Leadership Team who wouldn’t think he or she should be part of this process?
Of course not. They all think they should be there. After all, that is the kind of thing big shots do, and they are big shots. Therefore, they should be there.
Here’s the problem. Two team members aren’t good at this sort of thing. You hired them and appreciate their talents for implementing the plans that have been created.
They really are good executives. They just don’t have that vision thing you think would be helpful in this type of meeting.
Not only do these two lack the skills or interests that are needed for a great meeting, but in previous sessions, they have created problems.
They seem to be big fans of the status quo and are quick to come up with reasons why new ideas won’t work. You’ve seen this behavior drain the creative spirit out of a room and don’t want it to happen this time.
This is a sticky situation. Luckily, you are a meeting hero and thrive on these types of problems.
Apply these selection principles
Limiting who can attend your meeting is a tricky proposition. Doing it well instantly earns you an extra star on your superhero cape.
When deciding who to invite, there are at least five principles to keep in mind:
- Avoid the people you know will create problems.
- Bring in the best people who are available.
- Find people who can wear multiple hats.
- Watch out for politics.
- Consider some unlikely choices.
You won’t always be able to live up to each of these, but you should consider them all when making your invite decisions. Ignore them at your own peril.
Avoid known problem people
Imagine polling your coworkers with the following question:
Who are the three people you least like to see on the invite list of a meeting you will attend, and why do you feel that way about them?
My suspicion is that patterns will emerge, and you’ll quickly learn that a few people create most of the meeting problems in your organization.
Now it may be that some of these folks are good meeting participants but just happen to rub you the wrong way. If they only cause problems for you, then you might want to learn how to endure it and work with them.
But when there is widespread consensus, assume that it’s not you. It’s them. In these cases, your strategy must focus on keeping them as far from your meeting as you possibly can. It starts by not inviting them.
You need not make a big deal about it. Just don’t send them invitations. If you get lucky, they won’t even notice there was a meeting, or if they do, perhaps they won’t wonder why they weren’t included.
If you are less lucky, they may ask you why you didn’t invite them. And to that you can respond,
I was looking for people with specific skills and experience for this meeting and was able to find someone to fill each of the needs I identified.
If the person pushes for inclusion, you can say,
Thanks for offering. I’ve already got someone else who can bring to the meeting what you would contribute. I want to keep the group as small as possible so as not to waste the time of people who need not be there.
If you are feeling truly heroic, you could offer the person some direct feedback about why you didn’t invite him.
Personally, I’d save your superpowers for the meeting, but if you’ve got the desire to help this person change, you’re a better person than I am. Maybe you’ll make a difference.
Bring in stars
When I am setting off to tackle a really difficult problem, I want people who are the best and brightest. I want a room full of stars.
Just as it’s easy to identify the problem people, you may have noticed people who are really good in a meeting. Here’s what they do:
- Ask insightful questions.
- Make connections between disparate ideas.
- Offer novel ideas.
- Challenge in a respectful way.
- Listen intently.
- Demonstrate their flexibility.
- Bring out the best in others.
- Contribute to a congenial atmosphere.
If you can find these people, and they are available, you want them in your meeting.
If they aren’t available when you need them, seriously consider changing the meeting time in order to accommodate their schedules. You’ll be glad you did.
Get people who can play multiple roles
Generally, smaller groups are more productive than larger groups. Still, there needs to be enough people in the room to cover all the required skills, experiences, and perspectives.
The way you make sure you have everything you need and keep it as small as possible is to find people who meet more than one of the requirements on your wish list.
Let’s suppose you are working on a problem that involves dispatching service technicians. You start making a list of the folks you think you’ll need. It includes dispatchers, technicians, supervisors, and someone who can address software capabilities, because you’re fairly certain changes to the dispatching software will be proposed.
It turns out that there are three people from the information technology (IT) department who could address the software capabilities.
Because they can all provide the one thing you need them for, consider what else each might bring to the meeting. The one that meets the greatest number of needs gets the invite.
Watch out for politics
When creating my invite list, I always start with who I want.
Next, I consider those I have to invite. There are people whom, because of position or connections, better be invited or else they will make some real problems for you. Of course, inviting them might also create problems.
Meeting heroes act bravely. If they really don’t want the person in the meeting and have good reasons for it, they don’t issue the invite.
They aren’t stupid either. Sometimes the consequences of not inviting a particular person are so great, that not doing so isn’t a reasonable option.
In these cases, you do it and treat it like a constraint around which you will need to work.
Consider some unlikely choices
Sometimes I wonder if every department within an organization has a designated meeting person.
This is the person who gets the nod each time a generic meeting invite arrives for a representative from human resources (HR), accounts payable (A/P), or marketing.
When the usual suspects are always in the meeting, you get the usual answers.
Mix it up. Invite someone new. Bring in a person nobody would expect to be there.
Just make sure the person you invite knows the reason. You don’t want this person to feel unsure about her presence in the meeting.
Let’s think for a moment who might be an unlikely choice. Here are a few that come to mind:
- someone from outside the department
- someone from the front lines
- someone who knows little or nothing about what you are working on
- someone who is known to have strange ideas
When you bring in someone you normally wouldn’t consider, you increase your odds of creating these effects if:
- The person asks fundamental questions, which might uncover group assumptions that aren’t true.
- The person provides a perspective that nobody in the group would consider, like that of what customers actually say.
- The person tells some stories that help keep things real for the rest of the participants.
- The person tosses some goofy ideas or opinions into the mix, which spark a whole new direction for the group.
- The person is able to solve a problem that had the group stumped, because he wasn’t blinded by the assumptions everyone held as true.
Implement these strategies
The basic idea is simple. Be purposeful about who you invite to meetings.
Yes this is easier said than done, but remember, you aren’t going for perfect. Better will do just fine.
This post is an excerpt from my book, Meeting Hero. Pick up your copy today to learn how to plan and facilitate meetings that will finally show your coworkers that meetings aren’t a waste of their time. WARNING: When others recognize your meeting leadership skills, you’re going to be asked to lead a lot more meetings. But hey, that’s what meeting heroes do.