Planning for Effective Meetings

effective meetings

Jonathan Babcock has written a couple interesting articles on preparing for a review meeting. He touches on a couple generic “good ideas” and explores one critical idea in more detail. We focus on that detail – helping participants be prepared to participate – in this article. His articles, and this topic in general are useful to anyone who runs meetings that require participation from attendees – business analysts, product managers, and project managers, for example.

Meeting Planning Articles

We’ve created a bundle of articles at nexus about how to plan and run effective meetings. The bundle includes both of Jonathan’s articles, as well as one of our own on making meetings more effective and a Business Week article on how Google runs meetings.

The bundle is open for collaboration, so other nexus users may add other articles on the topic. You don’t have to be a registered user at nexus to read the articles, so click on over and check them out. Then take a couple minutes to register and rate or review the articles – because the seconds you spend vetting these articles will save others minutes when they are researching in the future.

Summarizing the Main Prep-Points

Jonathan’s main prep points include

  • Distributing the material early enough for participants to review and provide feedback
  • Circulating an agenda in advance
  • Reserve the meeting room & equipment
  • Request confirmation of attendance or delegation where appropriate

The other articles include the following prep points

  • Defining the goals and deliverables of the meeting up front to set expectations
  • Assigning a note-taker or scribe for the meeting

Unprepared Participants

Jonathan raises an interesting issue – when, in spite of your prep work, people fail to prepare for the meeting, what should you do? This is a tough one. If you start with the assumption that only people who need to be in the meeting are actually invited to the meeting, this issue becomes critically important. In many organizations, too many people attend meetings. They are certainly wasting their own time, and often end up wasting everyone’s time. If you are culturally obligated to invite superfluous people to the meetings, that’s unfortunate, but don’t worry about making sure they are prepared. Focus on the people who need to be there and be prepared.

Jonathan writes his advice specifically for requirements specification review meetings – where people’s input is critically important. The issues and advice apply to any of a number of collaborative or approval meetings. They can be generally described as meetings where multiple people need the information, should provide input, and ultimately must agree on the outcome of the meeting.

Don’t Do This

Sometimes you, and everyone else in the meeting needs to take the efficiency hit of dragging along the folks who didn’t do their homework. If you have to, you have to. After the meeting, talk privately with the person who let everyone down, and work together to prevent it from happening in the future.

Don’t attack the person publicly in the meeting. Don’t slam your notebook closed and declare the meeting to be over because someone had something more important to do. That would be just as unprofessional as it was to discover that people were unprepared for the meeting. Maybe that person did have something more important to do. The problem truly isn’t that they were unprepared, the problem is that you didn’t know about it in advance, and couldn’t respond appropriately.

That’s the crux of the issue, and the reason that Jonathan’s advice is good.

Do This Instead

Touch base with the attendees before the meeting. Make sure that everyone who needs to be prepared is prepared. If someone needs to bring materials, make sure they have them ready to go. Work with them to get them completed if you need to. Reschedule the meeting if you need to. Carry on with the meeting, and deal with the missing contributions if that is what is appropriate. You can’t do everyone’s job for them – but you can do your job for everyone. The meeting attendees are implicitly relying upon you to not waste their time. And since it is your meeting, if someone you are relying upon is failing to deliver, it is your responsibility to adapt.

Jonathan offers a couple suggestions to get attendees to prepare for the meeting. His first suggestion is to get their inputs so that you can incorporate them into the agenda. This is a good approach, because it helps attendees develop a sense of ownership in the agenda. Even if they don’t modify the agenda, they are taking some ownership in what you have put together by acknowledging and accepting it.

Jonathan also suggests letting attendees know that you will cancel or reschedule the meeting if you don’t have their inputs a day or two in advance of the meeting. We would approach this with a slightly lighter touch, but we like the base idea. When there are inputs that would crater the meeting if they were absent, work with the contributors to assure that they will have those inputs ready. If they can’t get them done in time, work with them to reschedule the meeting (before the meeting begins) so that you can carry out the meeting with their inputs.

Often, meetings get derailed when people who are “too busy” are simply not conversant with the material to be covered. They don’t have the background they need, or a deep enough understanding to be effective in the meeting. The classic example is a decision maker who needs to know the context for making decisions. When everyone else in the meeting has the context, you’re wasting their time getting the decision maker up to speed during the meeting. Work with that attendee to find a time to help them review before the meeting, or reschedule the meeting, or ask them not to attend it at all. If you have a one hour meeting with seven people, you’re wasting six hours (across the team) by going over the material again to get the laggard up to speed. Wouldn’t it be better to spend two hours in a one-on-one with that person before the group gets together?

To quote Jonathan:

Worst of all, whether it’s completely fair or not, the productivity of a Business Analyst’s meetings are seen as a direct reflection on the his/her organizational and interpersonal skills.

Other Approaches

Craig Brown offers a couple tips in the comments on Jonathan’s second article. He suggests meeting with the leaders in advance of the meeting, and also providing them with printed versions of the materials before the meeting. Craig suggests letting the leaders know that you will collect their “marked up” versions of the documents [before] the meeting. I’ve seen this be very effective with upper managers and decision makers. There’s something about marking up a print-out that engages these folks.

Maybe they are less comfortable with electronic documents (although that is becoming less true every day, and varies from company to company). I suspect that marking up a paper copy allows someone to “scan” more effectively, cross-reference with other documents, and put things in context better. Often the “decision makers” are in a unique position of having fewer details and more context. Giving them an alternative medium for reviewing the docs may help them to put things in perspective more effectively.

What approaches would you suggest?

2 thoughts on “Planning for Effective Meetings

  1. Scott,

    Thanks for taking visiting, and for the additional commentary in your post.

    My team at work has identified Meeting management as a key area where we can improve our overall effectiveness as BA’s, so I’ve been evaluating “best practices” as well as some less conventional ways to run effective meetings and establish some standards.

    I’ll definitely give Nexus a look for additional information.

    Congrats on the project, by the way. I’ve been following your progress throughout. Looks like it will be a great reference.

  2. Thanks, Jonathan!

    I really like that you’re turning your necessity and insights into content that can be shared with everyone else. This is the kind of stuff that we can all benefit from, and I look forward to the rest of your articles. Feel free to add them to nexus (and include them in the bundle) if you want!

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