Rule #1: When you have called a meeting, do not go in with the attitude that you are going to lead it, dominate it, and ultimately deliver it to some predetermined goal or solution. Folks will know that about you, and, if they bother to show up at all, they will have gone out of their way to not prepare anything of value for it. Why bother?
What is needed is a good facilitator. Some companies hire or appoint dedicated facilitators. To me, that is a sign of broken internal leadership. A balanced, participative, inclusive, leader should be able to act in this function. You can help in getting the meeting off on the right foot. You can help steer it gently back on track when it strays. You can make sure everyone’s input is being sought. And you can ensure that all participants are willing to support the outcome. And doing all that does not exclude the possibility of you adding ideas to the meeting.
Set the meeting up for success. That begins when you send the invitation. Try this: be sure to use a cryptic title, provide no agenda or goals, schedule the meeting to span about 6 hours, and invite 10 different folks who have a mild or negligible need to attend, while omitting a couple of key folks. That oughta do it. Seriously, you don’t need to go overboard with the invite title. “Product planning” or “Problem discussion” doesn’t do quite the same trick as “Discuss reducing travel costs.” Just that alone will get folks thinking more about the meeting before they get there. As for the agenda, something as simple as this will help significantly:
“Please come prepared with your best 3 ideas for reducing our travel costs (no matter how outlandish). We will combine our ideas, brainstorm, and rank order to arrive at the best possibilities. Arrive on time.”Folks will arrive prepared and ready to go, and they will understand how far you expect the meeting to go. You’re not looking just to expose possibilities, and you’re not looking to fully implement solutions. You want to combine ideas into the best choices going forward.
I like the reminder about arriving on time. Although folks will tend to get accustomed to that and read over it, what they won’t ignore is your locking the conference room door 3 minutes after the meeting’s start time. You might sacrifice a little productivity by excluding someone the first time you do it, but it won’t happen much after that. In fact, in the invite, you might as well put, “Arrive on time. Door will be locked 3 minutes in.” And, if possible, avoid being late to your own meetings. Duh.
Who to invite? I love the old analogy with “chickens” and “pigs.” When considering the animals involved in serving you up a tasty bacon and eggs breakfast, the chicken is only involved or interested, but the pig is fully committed. Look at each invitee and determine if he is a chicken or a pig. Most of your pigs should be there, but sometimes one pig is fully capable of representing others. If you know that to truly be the case, keep the attendance down. For each chicken, your default treatment should be exclusion from the meeting, unless you feel that he might really have something positive to add, despite his interested status.
My experience is that you can easily identify the chickens in the room by looking to see who is checking their email on their iPad. Your chickens can always get a postmortem debrief or read the minutes. By the way, don’t forget to consider your own chicken or pig status. If you are a chicken, maybe someone else should be in there!
Next up... meeting duration, need for recurrence, and how to keep it focused.