The art and science of great meetings—part one

You’ve called a meeting. Eight people are giving up two hours of their precious time. Do you:
  1. Fire off a quick agenda email the evening before the meeting
  2. Wing it and make up the agenda on the day
  3. Take time to carefully plan the meeting

Of course we all know that we should do C, but the reality is that far too many meetings are poorly planned, poorly run, and less effective than we want.  In this, the first of three articles on how to have great meetings, we focus on how to get a better return on investment by taking time to plan your meeting.

There are three components to planning a meeting: Topics, Outcomes, and Processes – TOP. Effective meeting preparation simply involves thinking through these three things. Think “putting on my TOP hat” before the meeting:

  • What Topics do we want to cover in the meeting?
  • What Outcomes do we want for each topic?
  • What Processes are going to be most appropriate to achieve the meeting outcomes?

Let’s assume we have a meeting and there are two topics to discuss – topic one is “how to more effectively use the customer database”; topic two is “allocation of the next quarter’s marketing budget”.  Each topic is a separate and distinct part of the same meeting.

For each topic it’s vital that a meeting outcome for the topic is defined.  For example, the meeting outcome for the topic “how to more effectively use the customer database” may be “to generate ideas for better use of the database”.  The meeting outcome for the “allocation of the next quarter’s budget” might be to “decide the split of the marketing budget”.

Notice that the meeting outcome is not the topic itself – it’s a subset of the topic.  This ensures that the discussion is focused, versus a rambling shambolic conversation over the whole topic.

Defining the meeting outcome for each topic is vitally important because it shapes how people engage in the meeting.  For example, people will engage very differently with regard to a meeting outcome of  “generating ideas” than they will in a meeting outcome of “decide the split of the marketing budget”. In the former you want people to be calibrated to think openly and creatively while in the latter you want them ready to critique and decide.  A clear outcome helps people bring a fit for purpose approach to the discussion.

In his book Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-MakingSam Kaner proposes seven useful types of topic outcomes:

  1. Share Information
  2. Advance Thinking
  3. Improve Communication
  4. Build Community
  5. Build Capacity
  6. Make Decisions
  7. Obtain Input

The outcome for our “generating ideas for better use of the database” example is an Obtain Input outcome.  The outcome for our  “decide the split of the marketing budget” example is a Make Decisions outcome.

Getting the Process Right

Defining the process of a meeting involves choosing the activities you are going to do to achieve the meeting outcome.  A very simple rule of thumb is to ask “how deep a dive is appropriate to take into the meeting topic?”  The answer to this question will help you define the appropriate processes you’ll use.

For example, with our meeting outcome of “generate ideas for better use of the database” you may decide that only a low level of participation is needed.  As such you might do a “go around” the table and harvest ideas from each person, which may just take 30 seconds per person.  If you want a deeper dive you may look at breaking into small groups to generate ideas and then reconvene to share and build on ideas.

Your thinking on how deep to dive will also be dependent on factors such as participants’ relevant expertise and experience, the risk and importance of the topic, and the expectation meeting participants have about what is an appropriate “dive” level.

After you have done your TOP hat thinking your agenda pretty much writes itself – it identifies the topics to be discussed, defines desired meeting outcomes for each topic, and the proposed processes to achieve the outcomes.

Your Pre-Meeting Checklist

Before the meeting, check that you have done the following:

  • Clearly identified the meeting topics
  • Defined meeting outcomes for each meeting topic
  • Identified the processes for achieving each meeting outcome based on encouraging an appropriate level of involvement
  • Thought through realistic time estimates for each process
  • Created an agenda and given it to people in advance
  • Thought about how to introduce the meeting and make people feel relaxed and welcome
  • Scheduled a ten-minute break if the meeting is going to last over two hours
  • Thought how to end the meeting in a way that gives people a sense of accomplishment and provides clarity as to next steps

Running effective meetings will boost your leadership reputation. Preparation is key.  In the next newsletter we’ll look at how to make your meeting hum once underway.

Nick Sceats


  • Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, by Sam Kaner
  • Assorted websites
  • Wisdom and experience of Catapult colleagues