Like it or not, meetings are an essential part of any project communication plan. They can be an excellent way to create common knowledge and a shared understanding of a subject, or even to make group decisions. However, meetings may not always produce the desired outcomes. It is not uncommon to hear people complaining about a meeting that didn't add any value to the team.
A good meeting facilitator will know how to use several different tools, techniques and exercises to engage participants, and encourage idea generation, in order to produce the expected outcome. Some examples of tools are: brainstorming, storytelling, drawing, use of charts and visual aids, team dynamics, etc.
I could write hundreds of pages about tools and techniques for meeting facilitation, but we can find a vast amount of this information on the web. Instead, I dedicate this article to a topic that is relatively unexplored - meeting preparation. A well thought-out meeting agenda makes facilitation a lot easier. It also makes the discussion more pleasant, productive and useful to your audience.
Below are seven tips I frequently use, that you can try when planning your next meeting with clients.
1. Define the main goal of the meeting: Create a clear vision of what you would like to get out of this meeting. Ideally, try not to have too many goals for a single meeting. Stick to one or two, so that the meeting can be effective and not too tiring. Example of goals: set project priorities, define project direction, inform client of project changes, validate a concept or simply to set right expectations.
2. Create a clear and well defined structure of objectives: You can break down your main goal into smaller objectives. Note that you should create objectives that are clear and that can be verified whether achievable or not. Think of each objective as a block of time inside your agenda; this makes it easier to communicate structure, organize the topics in a logical order and keep discussion on-topic. Also, think about how you would define the success of each meeting block. For example: "I want to end this block with a validated idea", or “I want to leave this part of the meeting with a list of feedback”, or even “I want this block to produce a clear vision of the client’s fundamental needs”. When thinking about the content of each block and objective, you will have a better vision of the tool, exercise or dynamic to reach that objective.
3. Think about who your audience is: First, understand who is required for the meeting. This is usually based on either specific knowledge that is required for the discussion, or if a stakeholder is responsible for the validation you are looking for. Also, take into account the level of information each participant has about the project, and how familiar they are with the topic you want to discuss. Be sure you’ve saved some time to establish the context for all participants.
4. Never forget that you are constantly managing expectations: When creating your agenda, pay attention to the impact the content will have on your client's expectations. Think carefully about the level of detail you want to include in the discussion, and keep that in mind during the meeting. For example, a deep-dive into details up-front may alter their expectations for a given solution and close their minds to alternatives. You may want to explore different approaches to a problem as well, especially as you learn more as the project progresses. Also, be aware of Sayre's law, which states that:
So, if you notice your client is emotionally attached to a detail that you may not agree with, step aside and ask yourself if that detail is worth discussing at that moment. Is it a high value item? If not, you may avoid a deep discussion at that particular moment, and leave this topic to be discussed at another time.
5. Optimize your time, but be realistic: When defining the main goals and objectives, think about the time you have available. Evaluate the complexity of each topic or decision to be made, and what you want to achieve, so that you plan the time accordingly. Further, keep in mind that some topics may require more effort than others. For example, introducing a completely new concept and persuading your client may require much more time and effort than validating a concept that was previously introduced or is similar to a client's idea. Another tip to make efficient use of time is to keep in mind the "bike shed" effect when facilitating the meeting:
So, be aware of this if you notice the discussion is diverging from the main topic.
6. Present the structure of the meeting to yourself or to someone else before the meeting: The first thing you do when the meeting starts is to present the agenda to the participants. If you rehearse this with yourself (even if you do it mentally), you can review if the objectives are clear and if they are organized in a logical order. The right order will determine if your client understands the message you are trying to convey. You can also present the agenda to a colleague, so that they can give you feedback about things you may not have noticed.
7. Save some final minutes on your agenda: Try to leave some room at the end of your agenda, so that you can clarify any missing points at the end of your meeting. For instance, list actions to be done, and plan with the participants the topics to be discussed the next time you meet. This will definitely be a useful input in preparation for your next meeting.
I end this post hoping that these tips help you with planning and facilitating more effective discussions the next time you meet your clients.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.