group sitting around a table meeting

The 4 P’s of Effective Meeting Planning

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What does it look like for you when a meeting is unsuccessful?

For me, unsuccessful meeting are the ones that seem to lack purpose, direction, and productivity.  They’re the ones in which you get distracted because they don’t seem important enough to be happening, or the ones that seem incredibly important but aren’t run in a way that leads to any outcomes. In short, they lack the necessary components of effective meeting planning.

In a lifetime of participating and leading meetings, I’ve seen it all. And I understand why people dread meetings. But I also understanding that meetings are necessary, and can in fact be incredibly important ways of getting work done. I’ve developed practices that have helped me improve my meeting planning process, and often share them with folks who are trying to troubleshoot meetings that feel wrong.

The Four P’s of Successful Meeting Planning are an overarching checklist you can follow to ensure that your meeting is set up for success before you step into the room or turn on Zoom. They work for any variety of meeting – from a huge conference to a neighborhood picnic – because they are adaptable guideposts rather than stringent rules.

Effective Meeting Planning #1: PURPOSE

Your meeting needs to have a clearly defined purpose that explains why you are gathering together. This P is often taken for granted as folks assume that staff meetings need to happen because staff need to meet, or that planning teams need to gather to plan. 

But ask yourself – WHY do staff need to meet? WHY do planning groups need to be in the same place to plan? You may be surprised to find that not all of the meetings you are hosting (or attending) have a well-defined purpose.  Without that purpose, meetings can feel monotonous, boring, or even useless.

As Priya Parker says in her excellent book, The Art of Gathering, “a category is not a purpose.”

Challenge yourself to get specific about the purpose of your meeting before you put it together. For example, if a staff meeting is needed to keep up office morale, then morale-building will need to be an intentional part of your agenda. If it is needed because staff have a particular project going on that needs to have everyone’s attention, then that project should be articulated in your purpose and plan.  Go beyond “we meet just to meet” and the first step in more intentional planning will lead to all of the others.

Effective Meeting Planning #2: PLAN

If you have ever stepped into a meeting that had no clear agenda and watched folks try to get something done, you know why a PLAN is my second priority for effective meeting planning. A plan is like the directions you need when driving to a new location – without it, you are wandering, making wrong turns, and likely covering the same ground too many times.

There are people who resist rigid agendas, who think that free-flowing conversation can open more doors. I get that, but there’s a fine line between flexibility and disorganization. I like to situate free-flowing conversation within a goal-oriented framework.

A plan should include both the WHAT and the HOW of a meeting. The WHAT includes the topics that you need to cover; the HOW includes how you are going to cover them. We often leave out the how and find ourselves grasping for structure in the middle of our meeting.

Instead, think about the most effective way to cover each topic or question that needs to be addressed and lay that out in your agenda. Consider:

  • Is the topic best covered as a presentation by someone highly in-the-know, as a facilitated dialogue around a thorny issue, or through an exercise or activity?
  • Does the topic require a vote, consensus, or visioning?
  • How much time do you need for the topic? Can this timing be flexible?

I get that you might feel rigid in laying out this specific agenda, but I promise you that a well-planned agenda with room for flexibility is more desirable than a flexible agenda with no planning. You can change your plan, for sure, but at least you have one to get you started.

It’s like what I say about ice breakers – if you enter into them feeling cheesy and insecure, that’s how they’ll come off; but if you enter into any activity with a clear reason for why you are doing it, your participants will respond better.

effective meeting planning includes ways for participants to contributre, such as through a sticky note exercise
A sticky note exercise can give participants a clear way to contribute

Effective Meeting Planning #3: PARTICIPATION

Building on the need for a plan, the HOW of your meeting should include thoughtful consideration for how attendees are going to be invited to participate. Unless your meeting is clearly a unidirectional delivery of information, there is no reason why anyone who attends shouldn’t be invited to participate in some way.

The key here is being clear about how participants can contribute. “Opening the floor” for comments or discussion can only go so far, particularly if attendees are less confident or feel isolated, or if the issue is contentious. Likewise, opening the floor with no structured guidelines can actually create the opportunity for some voices to be heard while others are silenced.

Structured participatory activities or guided discussions can be transformative for any group. Suddenly, there are clear guidelines around how an individual is welcomed to contribute. There are so many ways to do this – guided brainstorms, online voting tools, bringing in a trained facilitator or mediator, small group break-outs with specific reporting directions – and more. The key is using the right activity or structure for the goal you want to accomplish and facilitating it with confidence.

Which brings us to the last P …

Effective Meeting Planning #4: PROGRESS

In my opinion, the measurement of whether a meeting was successful can be answered with one simple question: “Did you make progress?” Answering that question effectively is all about defining what progress will mean for your group ahead of time, and then revisiting the question of progress as you wrap up your meeting.

If you have set a clear purpose for your meeting (see #1) then defining progress should be easy. The decision you needed to make is made (or a new decision point has been defined), staff have had an opportunity to hear more about a new project, students have learned a key concept you wanted to convey, etc.

But there is also another component to “progress” for most meetings – defining next steps. In most cases, one meeting isn’t the end of a conversation. Effective meeting planning means having a vision for how you will end this meeting and look toward the next phase of the project, conversation, or effort. Defining progress means not only what you want to accomplish at this meeting, but how you are going to continue making progress after the meeting.

Some strategies for tracking and planning for progress include:

  • revising the purpose of the meeting before you close to collectively decide if it was met;
  • identifying a set of tasks that need to be accomplished after the meeting and noting who will take them on;
  • outlining a product that needs to come out of the meeting and deciding how it will be accomplished;
  • reflecting on what was learned during the meeting and how that new learning will be used.

Best of all, articulating the progress that you have made can have a huge impact on participant buy-in and morale. After all, wouldn’t you feel better leaving a meeting in which you felt you made progress than one in which you felt you were spinning your wheels?

Testing out the 4 P’s

One of the simplest ways to test out the Four P’s of Effective Meeting Planning is to try them out on a meeting in which you participated recently. Can you articulate the purpose, plan, participation strategies, and progress made in that meeting? If so, great – you participated in an effective meeting! If not, what was missing? How would you change that meeting if you were to host it in the future?

Then, after applying the framework in retrospect, try applying to a meeting that you are planning for the future. How does thinking about these four components change your approach to the meeting?

As always, if a second opinion could be helpful, don’t hesitate to reach out to me for a meeting planning consult. Not everyone loves meetings; I’d love to help you love yours more 😊

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