How many times have you gone to a meeting where there was barely a coherent agenda, or none at all? Or one where it wasn’t clear to most of the people in attendance what they were needed there for? Chances are there was little meaningful discussion before you all disbanded, and that most of the information you covered couldn’t fit into a simple email.
While aggravating, these pointless meetings are avoidable. One way to run better meetings is to borrow a strategy familiar to most university instructors who are responsible for putting together a new curriculum each semester. It’s called “backward design,” and the idea is pretty simple: Start planning your meeting by thinking about the desired outcome, not the content itself. How do you want the people in the meeting to think or behave differently after the meeting is over, compared with how they were before?
Answer that first, and only then start thinking about what should go on the agenda. Here’s how.
Step 1: “Who?”
Start with the people who you need to switch up their approach in some form. They’re the ones who need to attend. If someone on your team can continue doing exactly what they’re already doing without impacting your overall success, then they don’t need to be in the meeting.
You may need people with particular expertise to help solve a problem. You might need to include someone with the authority to release resources for a project. If you’re unsure whether a particular person should be included, send them a brief note to ask their preference. This way, you minimize the risk of someone feeling excluded if you don’t give them a chance to attend.
Step 2: “How?”
Next, think through the structure of the meeting itself. You want to make sure you’ll have adequate time to produce the intended outcome among all the necessary attendees. So if there are key discussions that have to happen, make sure you schedule them for early in the meeting; don’t “open the floor” at the very end, after getting “announcements” out of the way first.
People often start meetings with several updates on other projects–frequently at a leisurely pace, because the meeting has just started. But by the time you get around to the really important business at hand, those crucial discussions get crammed into whatever time remains. And invariably, a few key stakeholders have to leave early and don’t get a chance to share their input. So lead with the important stuff first and share other announcements only at the end if there’s time.
Step 3: “What?”
Chances are people will need key information in order to participate effectively in the meeting. So once you’ve identified the attendees and the structure, summarize the material that’s going to be up for discussion, then distribute that ahead of time. Your goal isn’t to outline the meeting step by painstaking step, it’s just to make sure everyone begins on the same page. At a bare minimum, send around a brief overview (just a few sentences) of the information participants will need to weigh in, even if they can’t do more preparation than that.
The goal here is simply to make the meeting an active rather than passive experience. Too often, meeting organizers share reports, slide decks, and dense agendas that don’t ask participants to do anything other than sit back and absorb it all. That makes it hard for attendees to remember the details, let alone change take any meaningful actions afterward. So feel free to leave people with a packet of detailed information, but avoid the temptation to go through it all together. And if you have to give project updates, focus on the broad summary and let people interested in the fine details look through the more detailed materials on their own.
Finally, it’s up to organizers to keep everyone focused on the end-goal they’ve designed the meeting around in the first place. Meetings can get easily hijacked by people who belabor the point or veer off onto other topics. If anyone raises comments or objections that seem off-topic, just offer to meet with them individually afterward.
By starting with the end in mind, you’ll be more likely to hold meetings that actually accomplish what you want them to. As a side bonus, people might even enjoy coming to them.