Yesterday I sat in on a teleconference for leaders of a federal agency to review agency performance ratings.  I have nothing to say about the specifics of their goals or their performance.  Rather, I was interested in their meeting process and wanted to share a few thoughts about what worked and what didn’t, followed by some recommendations for anyone running a meeting of this type.

Preliminary to this meeting, designated program managers of the agency had rated the agency’s performance on a set of objectives, composed a brief narrative justification for each rating, and compiled appendices of additional background data.  Ultimately, these ratings (and perhaps the narratives) will be a part of the agency’s annual Performance Accountability Report (PAR) to Congress.  The ratings and justification materials were provided to an agency sub-committee for review and feedback.  The objective of the meeting was for the sub-committee members to report out on the results of their review.

Right from the start of the meeting it became clear that reviewers were concerned as much about the quality of the narratives as the accuracy of the ratings themselves.  In the very first report out, the reviewer focused specifically on what he thought was missing from the narrative, while the meeting organizer kept trying to explain that the narratives were not their focus.  Finally, 26 minutes into the meeting, someone asked for an explicit statement of the meeting objective and intended outputs.  Per the meeting organizer, the objective was to receive the sub-committee’s review of the ratings.  There followed, however, a lengthy discussion of the role of the narratives, and to what extent they would inform the final narrative included in the PAR.  Once it was verified that the narratives did indeed serve as the source for the PAR documentation, it was agreed that reviewers would comment on both the ratings and on the narratives.

Having established all that — and believe me, the better part of the first hour of this meeting was devoted to establishing all this — the meeting moved ahead well.  When I eventually signed off, they had settled on ratings and recommendations for 4-5 performance objective areas.  I ducked out during a fairly heated (but always professional) dispute over a specific rating.  I considered this a good sign — the meeting attendees were no longer struggling with meeting process, but focused instead on content.

In response to this teleconference, I wanted to provide a few tips to help people organize meetings of this sort to promote the best outcomes possible.  Being well prepared is the key to a successful and productive meeting.  Doing the right things before the meeting will allow everyone to focus exclusively on the topic at hand in the meeting.

Organizing a More Productive and Effective Meeting

  1. Designate a Meeting Coordinator, who is specifically responsible for organizing and coordinating all aspects of the meeting.  The Meeting Coordinator does way more than just schedule the meeting and invite participants.  The Meeting Coordinator ensures that all other necessary roles are assigned and designees understand their responsibilities.  The Meeting Coordinator sets the meeting objective, determines appropriate supporting documentation, composes and disseminates the agenda, assigns other meeting roles as appropriate, and ensures that everything goes off as planned.
  2. Assign a Meeting Facilitator.  This is the “emcee” of the meeting, and the person who leads the group through the agenda items.  Sometimes the Meeting Facilitator takes a very active role, leading specific agenda items and employing a range of group facilitation techniques to ensure the organization is getting the best thinking of all the members of the group.  Team leaders at all levels frequently function as Meeting Facilitators.  The Meeting Facilitator and Meeting Coordinator are often the same person, but it’s important to know the responsibilities of both roles.  In this particular meeting, the Meeting Facilitator mostly kept the meeting moving forward by summarizing the results of discussion for each objective and ensuring the group was in agreement about each rating.
  3. Assign other roles as needed.  This meeting included a notetaker.  Other meetings might include a timekeeper, a technical assistant (someone on call to assist with the A/V, computer, or telephony), and/or a “parking lot attendant” who keeps a list of unsettled items that will need to be addressed after the meeting.  Make sure these people have all the same information about the meeting that the Meeting Coordinator has.  In the meeting I attended, it seemed the notetaker wasn’t given a roster of meeting attendants in advance.
  4. Touch base with everyone to whom you’ve assigned a special role before the meeting.  Make sure they know what is expected of them.  For example, do you want your notetaker to transcribe everything said at the meeting, or just capture all final decisions and action items?  Do you anticipate the Meeting Facilitator will be moderating any long-standing debates?  Talk through any areas of concern so you are both prepared for them.
  5. Set a clear meeting objective.  The Meeting Coordinator and Meeting Facilitator should review the meeting objective together to make sure they have a mutual understanding of what they want to accomplish in the meeting.  State the objective in explicit and precise language and publicize it by including it in the meeting invitation and placing it at the top of the agenda.  Which reminds me . . .
  6. Set an agenda.  Write it on paper.  Include all your meeting management decisions (objective, the roles, the pre-reads, and the topics), so it’s clear to everyone how you plan to run this meeting.  Include “Agenda Review” as the very first agenda item to make sure you review expectations with all attendees.
  7. If you’re asking people to review the work of others, include the guidance provided to the others as part of the pre-read.  Knowing the guidance they were given is critical for evaluating their work.
  8. If your meeting is just one milestone in a long process to produce a grand final deliverable, provide attendees with an overview of the entire process, highlighting what step you’re on right now.  If meeting attendees will be involved in the entire project from start to finish, then a project task list or Gantt chart is fine.  But for many meetings and stakeholders, it’s better to produce a high-level flow chart with graphics and colors.  A simple picture is often the fastest way to help people understand how you got to this meeting, what you’re going to do with the meeting outputs, and where it’s all going to end up.
  9. Be prepared to adjust on the fly when appropriate.  In yesterday’s meeting, the Meeting Coordinator had a narrow view of what she expected from participants (feedback on ratings only), but I think the participants were right to push back and widen their scope to include a review of the narrative.  Good Meeting Coordinators and Facilitators must be able to recognize and accommodate in-the-moment improvements to their planned process.

For some people, the details of meeting preparation can be too tedious to bear.  I recommend these people recruit other team members or staff to help organize all the details.  There is no reason for the Meeting Coordinator to work in a vacuum.  Leveraging the combined intelligence of the organization both before the meeting and during will make your meeting more productive and can serve to improve team collaboration and effectiveness.