As featured in the Law Society’s InsideOut magazine – July 2022 edition
How do we run good meetings? There has been much focus recently on the quality of business meetings, but organisations rarely train their people to lead them. Not all managers model how to lead good meetings.
Most of us learn the hard way, including by becoming savvy at identifying what we think will be a waste-of-time meeting. So how do we do it? This article puts together the quality ingredients that make a good meeting. These ingredients are common to all meetings: the ones led by in-house lawyers, the business meetings in-house lawyers attend, and the legal department’s internal meetings.
Each meeting needs a mission
To be productive, a meeting must have a mission, and that mission must be clearly expressed to all participants. A mission is, in essence, one or a combination of the following purposes:
- Cascading information (inform we will be supporting a new department/project, for example).
- Gather inputs and discuss (Who dealt with a similar case in the past? What were the lessons learnt?).
- Brainstorm as a team (e.g., we need to develop a new proposal for the management team).
- Make decisions (e.g., we need to allocate workstreams and agree on deliverables).
We’ll have a better meeting if people are aligned on a purpose and know their expected contributions in advance. For example, say Sophie enters the meeting thinking the team will go into brainstorming mode while James thinks he will hear all about a new organisation set-up. We are using meeting time to shift mindsets and align expectations. We could have aligned expectations upfront, mitigated unnecessary frustration, and made better use of meeting time.
Clearly stating the purpose of the meeting at the opening is ensuring all participants are aligned on why we are meeting.
Then it needs preparation
Preparing for a productive meeting includes:
- Being fully briefed about each topic.
- Ensuring the meeting has an agenda or a structure, each agenda item has an owner or sponsor, and the time allocated to each point is realistic. Unstructured time is part of the structure. If the meeting is long, coffee breaks and chatting time are building components of that meeting. Leaving space for healthy disagreement is also part of the structure.
- Testing technology upfront if the set-up is technology-reliant, such as when the format foresees hybrid participation and some participants will join virtually. A meeting needs to be efficient to be productive.
- Considering what we aim to achieve for each item or takeaway. Prior consideration does not mean, of course, pre-determining the outcome; we enter a meeting ready to listen—and hearing others is what makes the meeting useful.
- Contemplating how to get feedback at the end of the meeting (say, using a form, an app, or three-minute feedback chat at the table) to ensure we hear how our participants experienced the meeting.
The more thorough the preparation, the more focused the meeting.
Now, is everyone contributing?
Once the purpose of the meeting is clear to all participants and the meeting has been prepared, there needs to be participation for a meeting to be successful. A meeting is called because different experiences, contributions, perspectives, and skills are needed.
Participation is cultivated when meetings are people-focused rather than documents-led. For example, say a meeting has been called to discuss a report, but there is no asking what each participant thinks about the findings. People are not encouraged to contribute and comment but to listen and take notes.
Big performance meetings with 95 slide presentation decks also rarely get participants actively involved; their set-up is not the one of focus on dialogue. You can foster participation by constructing your agenda around questions to ask rather than items to present.
For example, instead of meeting on “External legal spend cutting,” you could design your agenda, asking: “How can we reduce our external legal spend by 15%?”
Shall we boost engagement by assigning roles?
When the context allows, we can increase engagement by setting up roles in advance. Planned contributions may be expertise-driven but also be based on generic roles, like being the host of the meeting on rotation.
We can pre-assign the task of wrapping up and circulating action points at the end of the meeting. We may also introduce new roles, such as acting as the challenger of specific arguments or serving as the timekeeper to ensure participants stay on track.
When a meeting is about everyone and includes everyone, usually everyone participates. Some indicators that we are running inclusive meetings include:
- Improved communication (people talk).
- Reaching a meaningful action plan at the end, and
- The participants leaving the meeting feeling energised.
How is the mood in the room?
Good planning and execution make meetings productive, efficient, and useful. But how about making meetings enjoyable and bringing in a quality dimension to our meeting time? For a meeting to be enjoyable, the mood in the room needs to play its part.
Should fun be a recurrent ingredient for better meetings? Depending on the context, most of the time, a sense of humour and fun can be added—and maintained over time.
For example, we can warm up the room by asking people to share their proudest moment of the week, either at home or in the office. We can kick off our meeting with a mini quiz on unusual department facts. We can get our participants to play brain-writing—asking each to write down their ideas on a post-it note and then passing them on to someone else, who adds new ideas. This repeats for a few rounds until the outcome becomes material for discussion. And the question could be Item One on the agenda but could also be this: How can we make our next meeting a better meeting?