The other day, I got into a discussion with someone who declared that “There is no perfect meeting!” And, because of that, it’s foolish to think we can teach people to run better meetings. In a way, there’s some truth to the statement that there’s no one right way to run a perfect meeting:
- There are all manner of meeting types. A board meeting is different from a brainstorming meeting which is different from a staff meeting which is different from a sales meeting.
- Meetings have different objectives. Brainstorming is different than updating a project status or doing long-term strategic planning.
- A meeting with a small handful of employees is different than one with dozens or hundreds of people.
- A meeting with your boss’s boss is different than a meeting with your peers and teammates.
- A meeting with a bunch of introverts is different than one full of gregarious extroverts – which is different than a meeting that’s mixed between introverts and extroverts.
Normal, old ways to run meetings
Is there a perfect meeting facilitation technique that’s right for all those different scenarios? No, of course not. But rather than think about a perfect meeting technique, let’s think about having a toolbox of possible techniques to try at a meeting.
For starters, let’s remember that most people have very few tools in their meeting toolbox – if any. Why? Because most people have never learned how to run a good meeting. Most employees’ knowledge of running meetings is basically limited to “I do what I’ve seen other people do.” Of course this generation-after-generation approach would be great if the initial generation ran a great meeting, but that’s probably not true. As a result, we tend to see generation after generation of meetings that are, at best, mediocre or adequate. What’s in employees’ meeting toolbox today? Usually a pretty small set of tools:
- The visual presentation. A meeting where someone presents a presentation using a PowerPoint or a similar tool. The presenter walks through slides or handouts – typically just reading them to the group. While one person talks everyone else in the room watches and listens Questions are taken either during the presentation as that come up or after the presentation, all at the same time. This is often employed in small conference rooms, but is also the same basic format that forms the foundation of most conferences and big meeting gatherings.
- The update circle. A group of people sit around a table and report out on what they (or their teams) are doing. This may be accompanied by handouts or slides but tends to be a bit different than a meeting built around a larger presentation. People are often given a set amount of time – say, 10 minutes – to update the group on their activity.
- Who has ideas? Often we see this meeting start with the person leading it standing in front of a whiteboard or with a blank sheet of paper. It seems democratic; the meeting is basically just an invitation to the group to spew out ideas. And while there may be a declaration that “there are no bad ideas” this format tends to not produce many ideas and even fewer great ideas. It also tends to become a “goat rodeo” where one idea spurs a tangential conversation about that idea and then pushback against that idea and then a totally different conversation. In many cases, this format results in a meeting where no one wants to share or one person dominates the conversation – and that one person rarely has an amazing idea that merits all the time he or she takes. Typically invitations heard here: “Just shout out ideas!” or “We’re just going to go around the room.”
- Procedural meetings. By their very nature, these meetings usually have more structure. In fact, while other meetings may drift without an agenda, these meetings are frequently rooted in an agenda – and a regular, repeated one at that. We see these in council meetings as well as board meetings be they at a company, non-profit, or homeowners’ association. These procedural meetings are typically built on following prescribed procedures like Robert’s Rules of Order. While they usually have different parts within the larger whole of the meeting and those parts are governed by parliamentary procedure and votes, these parts still face the same pitfalls of that kind of meeting when it occurs on its own. For example, a procedural meeting may have a regular function where ideas and debate are opened; this basically looks just like the “Who has ideas?” format but with more structure. Someone may move to close debate and that motion may be seconded, but inevitably much of that debate time is spent rehashing the same arguments or simply listening to people who want to speak to hear themselves speak (even if they’re not really adding to the conversation).
Having been in those meetings, we can agree that while people have come to learn those formats and are ready to use them, they don’t produce good meetings. Think of a recent case where you sat at a table and the group “just went around the room” soliciting ideas. Was that a great meeting that produced a lot of ideas and a lot of great, actionable ideas? Or think about the last board meeting you were in. Despite the rigor of the agenda and the voting that was taking place, did you accomplish what you wanted to accomplish without spending an extra hour in the room?
The best meeting agenda template for the perfect meeting
Indeed, there is no one best meeting agenda template or style that will kill all of those birds with a single silver stone. But just as there are a lot of ways to do a meeting the wrong way, there are a lot of ways to do a meeting the right way.
If you have a toolbox with meeting techniques, consider what happens when you have a few more tools and those tools are newer, more modern, and more specialized than what you inherited in your toolbox.
And those techniques can be learned in a few hours – but they stay in your toolbox for years.
Not that this will fit in all cases, but I really like the brainstorming, problem-solving, and the resultant group engagement and agreement that comes out of Wise Crowds. It’s easy to learn, easy to teach, fast and flexible to set up, and nets great results. No, it’s not the best meeting agenda template ever. There are tons of cases where this format isn’t right – but there are lot of times when it will work much better than the few tired old standards that usually get pulled out of the toolbox. And the great thing is that one you understand how that tool works, it becomes easier to imagine your own riffs and adaptations to use that tool in slightly different ways for different meetings.
In the end, there is not one one-size-fits-all, best meeting agenda template or meeting format. But there are better formats and templates than most people know. We don’t expect people to just pick up engineering, medical, or finance know-how from other people in the office; no, we expect people will be trained in such things, increase their knowledge, and put new tools in their toolbox for those domains. So too for the managerial facet that is meetings; there’s no reason not to acquire a few more tools in your meeting toolbox when we know the ones that most people have produce the kind of meetings about which everyone complains.