Conducting an effective group meeting is much more than simply gathering people and talking — with a limited amount of time and many different voices, how can we make sure that everyone walks out of the meeting room with an alignment reached?
Working as a Product Manager with a cross-functional team, I summarized what I learned into 9 steps that help conduct an effective group meeting.
Step 1 — Confirm if a meeting is needed, so nobody wastes their time.
There are many reasons to schedule a meeting. Some are recurring meetings scheduled for outdated reasons and now too “familiar” to be canceled. Some are scheduled because the organizers didn’t realize that the meetings can be simply avoided by a few Slack messages or emails. Some other ones are held because the alternative communication forms are less convenient for the organizers to receive a straight answer in time. While some reasons are valid, many others are not. A lot of meetings are unnecessary and a killer of productivity, trapping the organizers in a problem-solving illusion.
Organizing a meeting is like building a feature — before we jump into its details, validating if there’s an actual need of it is essential to its success. Ask yourself the following questions:
Is a face-to-face meeting really necessary? What would happen if the meeting wasn’t held? Can the problem be solved/discussion happen in a more efficient way? Once you have the answers to these questions, it’ll be pretty straightforward if a meeting is needed.
Step 2 — Include the RIGHT stakeholders.
I found this step surprisingly underemphasized in many best practices about organizing meetings. A lot of people have the experience where they sat through a meeting with no idea of why their presence was needed. Many times they neither were helpful to the discussion nor got much out of it.
Meeting organizers tend to over-invite people because they are afraid of uninvited stakeholders feeling left out, or they have an unclear/inaccurate understanding of some stakeholders’ roles or responsibilities for the discussed matter.
When organizing a meeting, include only the decision makers and important information providers of the specific discussion. An easy way to identify them is to consider if the meeting progress will be blocked due to their absence. If the answer is no, their presence is not required for the meeting.
If some stakeholders are not required but nice-to-have for the discussion, mark them as optional in the guest list, or inform them of the made decision/reached agreement after the meeting.
Step 3 — Before the meeting, explicitly define the goal & how to achieve it
Holding a meeting without a clear goal in mind is like starting a war without a comprehensive fighting plan. Defining a measurable goal with high clarity upfront helps you develop meaningful conversations around it. If you invite the team members to a meeting to “talk about the roadmap for next quarter”, be clear and let them know you plan to have “a high-level discussion about whether it is feasible to finish all the projects in the quarter and what are the Must-Haves”.
Having an explicit plan of how to achieve the meeting goal helps you conduct an organized meeting more efficiently within a given timeframe. Whether the meeting is for a presentation to get stakeholders’ buy-in or grooming the team for a new feature, walking into the room with an explicitly defined agenda will help you measure the progress and keep the conversations on track.
A good practice is to explicitly describe the goal and meeting plan/agenda in the calendar invite to inform the participants. This also helps them be better prepared for the meeting.
Step 4 — When the meeting starts, set clear expectations.
A meeting is also like a game, where the “players” need to play by the rules. Without being given clear expectations, the participants would likely interpret or ignore the “rules”, eventually leading to inefficiency and confusions and causing a mess.
Setting clear expectations when a meeting starts helps its participants understand their expected roles and responsibilities in the meeting. This ensures the meeting to go smoothly and efficiently. The participants are more likely to ask related questions and provide meaningful feedback when the organizers are clear about the “rules”. It’s also useful to start with “This meeting is for us to …” to remind everyone of the goal of the meeting.
Here’re some examples that are usually handy:
Step 5 — Be aware of the participants’ context level & start from there.
It’s frustrating to walk into a meeting and realize you’re not on the same context level with others. Now that you are in a dilemma where you would either be slowing down the discussion due to asking basic/low-quality questions, or stay quiet and confused throughout the meeting though you would have been able to provide insights if you know what the conversation is about.
If a meeting is a product or service, then its participants are the users. Knowing the context level your participants are on and starting from there allow you to design a meeting with more target content and a smoother & quicker dive into the deeper discussion.
Another tip that never hurts (and almost always helps) is to start a meeting with a brief mention of the background and current progress of the topic, which helps ease everyone into the specific discussion. This not only gives the participants more context of the discussion but also helps confirm that everyone agrees on the high level before jumping into the details then realizing there’s a fundamental disagreement.
Step 6 — Pausing constantly is a magical art.
We probably all have met a person who talks very fast and non-stop. They’re usually hard to follow, leaving us lost in an ocean of words after listening to them for a minute.
Pausing constantly is a magical art — it has the power of breaking big chunks of information down into smaller digestible pieces and giving people’s brains time to process what happened and react. It also helps the speaker organize and deliver their thoughts with more precision and strength.
Every time you finish a few sentences, pause for 2 seconds. Every time you finish a thought, stop and ask your audience “any questions” or “what do you think” to find out what feedback they have and ensure that it’s good to proceed.
Step 7 — Control the pace & reemphasize the expectations.
A group meeting can easily go off the track. Sometimes, the conversation is distracted by specific details from the main topic. Other times, some participants are too active that others don’t get a chance to speak. As participants get more and more engaged in the discussion, they are very likely to forget the expectations mentioned at the beginning.
Most time, the role of the meeting progress supervisor falls on the shoulder of the meeting conductor. Be observative, and when the direction of the discussion goes off, restate expectations to prevent it from going further off the topic/into the details or help it stay in the designed directions.
Step 8 — Summarize to confirm.
Time’s up, a decision’s made, and it’s your turn to summarize the meeting.
It’s difficult for people and unrealistic for you to expect them to remember everything that happened or was agreed on during the meeting. They might also have missed or misunderstood some important information.
To make sure everyone’s on the same page, confirm the made decisions, delegated tasks, agreed deadlines, and any required action from the participants before they walk out of the room, leaving no ambiguity or misunderstandings. This is also a good opportunity to ask everyone one last time if they have any questions that didn’t get out earlier.
Here’re some commonly used sentences as a summary at the end of a meeting:
One quick note — if an agreement or a decision is quickly reached in the meeting, it’s OKAY to end the meeting early. Being efficient is always appreciated and shows you value other people’s time.
Step 9 — Thank everyone & email to inform/remind.
Thank everyone for their presence & input at the end of the meeting! Let them know that you appreciate their time and help, and their feedback will be valued.
Also, directly pointing out what expectations they met well, such as “good job of thinking of voicing out your thoughts”, can be used to reward and encourage positive behaviors.
Within the 2 hours after the meeting, email all the stakeholders the summary to keep them informed/reminded of the meeting results and next steps. This can work as a good reminder for people to put notes on their calendars/to-do lists. You will also benefit from it when you follow up on the tasks later.
Working with a diverse team to reach a mutual goal is unbelievably amazing, but it can also become very stressful if the team can’t effectively communicate and move forward. Hope these pieces of advice are useful for you so you won’t learn them the hard way. :)