Building Operational Excellence

How to organise a meeting

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This is the second in a series of posts where I cover tips I’ve picked up that have helped me attend, organise and facilitate better meetings. The first post covered attending meetings. This second post will cover organising meetings.

Organising meetings can feel quite high stakes. If you’re anything like me, you start to feel all sorts of pressure to ensure that your meeting is a good use of people’s time and that you all come away achieving something. In extreme cases, this anxiety might actually just be about praying that somebody else turns up!

So, to help with organisation prep, in this post we’ll cover some of the basics like setting up a good invite, choosing who to invite and preparing the meeting schedule and props. 

How to set up your own invite

Your meeting really begins at the invite stage – it’s the perfect opportunity to set the right expectations about your meeting!

A well-written meeting invite that covers all the salient points will help your invitees be as prepared as possible, and therefore make your meeting more efficient. 

Here’s a few key pieces of information that I’ve included in a meeting invite. Note: you’ll likely not need to include all of the below, but you’ll definitely need some of them!

  • Date
    • Take care to check team calendars and key public holiday dates to make sure you’re not shooting yourself in the foot before you even start!
    • If you’re trying to arrange a meeting with lots of people, or your attendees have particularly packed calendars, finding a date (and time!) that works can be particularly traumatic. In these cases, I recommend being ruthless about prioritising exactly who you optimise the meeting date/time for depending on what you need. Unless most people or the key people can’t make the date/time you’ve picked, don’t waver. 
  • Start and end time
    • Something I like to do is start meetings at ten or quarter past and end them at ten or quarter to. This gives people who are rushing from meeting to meeting some in-between time to breathe, and reduces people arriving late quite substantially!
    • Think carefully about the duration of your meeting. Just because everyone in your company defaults to say, 60-minute meetings, doesn’t mean that you have to as well. Once you know what you want to accomplish in your meeting, think about how long it will really take. If it’s just a quick catchup, don’t be scared to make it a 15-minute or 30-minute meeting. Sometimes, the constraints of a shorter meeting actually forces everyone to be more productive – there’s no time for a ten minute chat at the start of the meeting if the meeting is only 15 minutes long!
  • Location (with directions if needed)
    • If you have very specific requirements…Maybe you need to host a large number of people, or maybe you absolutely need a room with a large screen – if you have specific requirements, always start from securing the meeting room thats right for you before worrying about whether attendees can do that day or not. It might be really difficult to get the right space but once you’ve secured it, you can ask people to be flexible.
    • If you don’t have specific requirements…If your meeting can literally take place anywhere, then you don’t have to worry about location. Instead, you need to worry about if people can attend. Secure the right people and worry about the room location later.
  • Objective/key aims of the meeting, or expected outputs
    • I feel like this is one of the most important pieces of information needed on an invite that is most frequently missed off. Giving attendees more context on why this meeting is worth their time and what you hope you’ll all get out of it is super useful, not just for attendees, but will also allow you to more crisply frame to yourself what the meeting should cover.
    • It should go without saying that if you’re struggling to put the key meeting objective into words, chances are you don’t really need the meeting.
  • Agenda
    • If appropriate, it can sometimes also be worth going a step further from the meeting objective and spelling out for your would-be attendees what you’re expecting to cover in the session.
    • I would generally tend to save this for longer, more structured meetings or workshops.
    • Sometimes it’s also useful to include timings for each agenda item, for example if you know some attendees may only want to attend certain parts of a workshop. If you’re adding timings, remember to always pad each timing out to cover people continually talking, lateness, veering off topic etc. Everything will take longer than you think.
  • Attendees and job titles
    • Again, this will likely not be appropriate for every meeting, but sometimes it’s useful to give more context on the other attendees. For example, I once arranged a workshop that spanned attendees from 3 different companies – in this instance, it was helpful for my attendees to know the names + job titles of the other attendees so they could prepare appropriately.
  • Pre-work
    • Is there anything you’d like the participants to prepare, read or do before the meeting?
    • I think this is one of the more under-utilised opportunities in meeting invites, as its often useful for attendees to come to the meeting with some prior knowledge, so that you can dive straight into the crux of a meeting rather than wasting time recapping information that they could have read beforehand.
    • If you do want to include any pre-reading or pre-working activities, be super clear and upfront in your invite about the expectation on the attendees to ensure they do what they need to. Don’t bury the information about the pre-read right at the end of the invite. 
    • Sometimes a subject line starting [Action Required] can really help here.

How to choose who to invite

In most cases, it may be relatively straightforward who to invite to a meeting. You need to sit down with Julie and Abdul to discuss designs for Project Unicorn, so you sent the invite to Julie and Abdul. Simple. 

But in some instances it might be less clear. You need to discuss designs for Project Unicorn, but who else from the design team needs to be involved? Should there be a representative from product and/or development? Soon, you’ve got a list 20 people deep and your small, informal catchup now involves a small army.

In the very first instance, there may be someone you can ask who can give you more insight into who is appropriate to invite. I once had a manager with an unerring instinct for exactly the right cast list for any type of meeting, so I’d always sense check my choices with him first.

But, if you’re unsure and there’s no other inputs to help make your decision, I’d recommend listing out:

  • Who are the decision-makers you need?
  • Who is doing the actual work?
  • Who needs to be kept informed?

Depending on the purpose of the meeting, you may need a combination of these groups of people. But in many instances, you won’t need everyone – for example, the people who only need to be kept informed can be sent meeting notes rather than having to be in the meeting itself.

A tactic I’ve employed is to in the first instance only invite the absolute crucial people, and then expand from there if needed, rather than invite everyone and hope most don’t turn up!

Especially if you’re planning larger meetings, it pays to be really clear about why every single person you’ve invited is on the list and what value they bring to the meeting.

Preparing for the meeting/workshop

So you’ve picked your attendees, crafted your invite and set the meeting objectives/agenda – next, its time to get into the details!

What shape + structure will your meeting have?

Or put another way, what activities will help you achieve the key objectives? 

Meetings can come in many flavours, but often we tend to default to just gathering in a room and speaking at each for the allotted time, until the meeting ends and nobody is really none the wiser as to what was achieved.

Spending some time thinking about the structure will make for a much more productive use of everyone’s time. There are plenty of resources sharing different types of meeting structures for different objectives, for example, Hyper Island’s excellent creative collaboration toolbox.

What materials do you need?

There are some key materials that crop up over and over as invaluable for a meeting or workshop (and I even keep a box of them to hand just in case!):

  • Different coloured post-its – invaluable for gathering inputs from your attendees and sticking them on the wall for grouping. Have a variety of colours to hand to use different coloured post-its to denote different things e.g. pink to label a grouping and yellow for the content inside the grouping.
  • Sticky dots – useful if you want participants to vote on things or mark where things are important
  • Selection of different types of pens – you might want to use colour of pen to denote different things e.g. questions and assumptions during a critique, so it’s useful to have a healthy variation of colour and thickness. Thick markers are really useful to allow writing to be read easily when its up on a wall, much more so than biros.
  • Flip charts or magic whiteboard – is wall space a problem? You might need some other way of writing things down, both of these are useful.
  • Blu-tack – for when your post-its are no longer sticky, or if there are other materials you want to have up on the wall
  • Refreshments – are your attendees going to be in your room for a while? Do you have budget for refreshments? Or even a way to get a jug of water and some cups. The little things are always appreciated!

Setting up the room

If you have a bunch of set-up to do (e.g. sticking things to walls, arranging furniture), I recommend if possible booking out your room for a timeslot before the real meeting starts, to give yourself some more breathing room to get set up properly. The last thing you want is for the first 10 mins of your actual meeting to be wasted on prep.

Same for any audio or visual set-up. If you’re going to be working with presenting something on a screen, microphones, connecting to other rooms etc, its definitely worth making sure all of this is working and set up how you want it before the meeting.

Do you need any other help?

A final thing to consider when preparing for your meeting is whether you need anyone else to help. Whether thats a note-taker, or someone to facilitate the discussion, or even someone who’s just keeping an eye on the time for you and motioning you when its time to move on, having another pair of hands and eyes on board can frequently be useful.

If you do identify you need someone else involved, ask them as early as possible and be clear about the expectations. You’ll probably need to meet them before your meeting to run through the plan and what you’re asking them to do.

And, please never feel silly about asking for help. I see so many meeting hosts who are running around trying to do everything when someone could have simply jumped in, taken some notes and made their life 10x easier.

Next time, I’ll be sharing some strategies for facilitating meetings. Please comment if you have any questions about this post, or to ask questions in preparation for the next!

Design lead, watermelon addict, Leuchtterm notebook obsessive. I just enjoy designing great experiences for people that just work, writing about my craft and connecting with designers everywhere. Find me on Instagram, Twitter and Google+.

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