Types of business meeting
It’s important to recognise that not all business meetings are the same. They can have a variety of objectives and lend themselves to a wealth of different formats. Understanding the specific needs of participants and catering for them with distinct meeting types is more effective than simply blocking out unstructured time for every different business conversation.
Of course, the particular set of meeting types you come to rely on in your own business will be specific to you, but some general formats to experiment with include the following:
Meetings to review progress on pre-agreed goals or regular business data should be quick and formulaic, so that participants know exactly what to expect and what to prepare. Avoid these quick check-ins devolving into protracted discussions of specific issues by scheduling time for more in-depth problem-solving meetings at a later stage – you can’t survey the terrain and get into the weeds at the same time.
Here, the meeting is used as a tool to reach a decision or produce a solution to a problem. A longer format is preferred, with more time both to present detailed information and to canvas differing opinions on the way forward. A clear goal and participant preparation is essential here, and it’s important to keep in mind that multiple sessions may be required to reach the desired outcome, with time in between to retrieve more information or do further thinking on the topic at hand.
Here, the format opens up even further. Participants should be encouraged to bring their own perspectives to the table. It can be useful to open the floor to hear from everyone involved and then to adapt the structure to generate maximum creative interaction. You might start the meeting with an open floor, and then decide to break the meeting down into discussion groups who return at the end to share what has been learned.
These are the most varied and creative of meeting types, with the primary objective not being operational or strategic, but cultural. Think group lunches, organised activities or semi-spontaneous meet-ups to facilitate unstructured discussion. While such meetings won’t necessarily produce an immediate business outcome, executing them well can do wonders for business culture and team cohesion, which has major flow-on benefits.
How to run a successful meeting
So, you’ve determined the most appropriate meeting format for your situation. But what are the key areas of focus for ensuring value? Here are seven tips for getting the most out of everyone’s time.
1. Set clear goals (in the invitation email!)
Does your meeting need an agenda? In 99% of cases, the answer will be yes. Lack of clear direction is one of the primary reasons why business meetings can become unproductive. The original intention becomes lost among tangents and unrelated discussions. Don’t let these distractions creep in. Ensure that, before every meeting, you take the time to draw up a clear objective and the relevant discussion points.
Such an objective can often be best phrased as a question. Spending the time to find this question before a meeting can be beneficial for your thinking on a given issue, regardless of how the actual meeting goes.
Ideally, you can send this information out to participants in your invitation email, as part of a business meeting planning checklist. That way, they too can prepare the relevant information. You’ll know you should’ve prepared more when the only outcome of your meeting is that the participants retreat to their desks to retrieve information that they could have brought with them in the first place.
Providing pre-meeting agendas also gives your participants an opportunity to collaborate before the meeting even begins, by suggesting modifications to its contents or adding new discussion points. As will be discussed later, the right technology is key for this to work effectively.
2. Invite the right people
Ensuring the right people are around the table (or in the video call) is crucial for keeping the discussion focused. It can also be a sensitive subject, with some personalities accustomed to being included in every conversation, regardless of their expertise or connection to the topic at hand.
On the other hand, it’s also true that many people can be unconsciously sidelined or underrepresented when it comes to group discussion. Double-check your own biases to ensure not only that every competent participant has a place, but also that they feel the psychological safety necessary to make that most of that place. The key to achieving this last step rests in setting the appropriate tone.
3. Mind the tone
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of running a successful business meeting is the atmosphere of the meeting itself. Do your meetings tend to devolve into a one-person show, with all other participants passively listening? Are you sure everyone feels comfortable enough to speak up and participate? If not, you could be losing out on crucial insights from insufficiently engaged participants.
This is especially relevant given the unusually stressful times we have all been living through. It’s more likely that participants will come to meetings already under pressure, anxious or distracted. Developing your emotional intelligence is crucial for accommodating whatever might be brought to the table by participants.
You may have mastered the technical aspects of your business and consider yourself an able administrator. But how comfortable are you exercising the soft skills essential for bringing people together? These are crucial tools for improving meeting quality.
4. Be humble and questioning
It can be easy to assume that, as the chair, it’s your job to present information and give directives. Entertaining ambiguity and admitting uncertainty are not the traditional hallmarks of a competent leader.
But our notions of what makes an effective leader are changing. In particular, embracing humility and opening oneself to asking and receiving questions facilitates much deeper discussion of the issues at hand than a traditional directive-based management style.
Don’t shy away from revealing what you don’t know in a meeting. Modelling curious humility is a great way to encourage further participation from others, as they too come to feel comfortable exploring the unknown.
5. Embrace technology
There is a whole array of tools and technologies to help facilitate more productive meetings. Of course, most of us now use technology to include remote workers in our meetings. But you can go beyond this to include apps that facilitate shared agenda-setting before meetings and even improve the inclusivity and transparency of group discussions.
Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater, has aggressively pursued technology to enhance the ideas-sharing potential of his meetings. His Ted Talk on the subject can provide some powerful inspiration for how you can do the same.
6. Punctuality – respect people’s time
Setting and adhering to clear start and end times is an oft-overlooked fundamental that can subtly affect your meetings over the long term.
If your meetings generally start late, participants will learn to arrive after the scheduled start, slowing down the process further. At the other end, if your meetings run over time, you can be sure that your participants’ attention will be siphoned away back to their own work. That, or they will have to leave before you’ve been able to cover everything you wanted. In both cases, maintaining a culture of punctuality protects your business’s productivity.
A variety of strategies can be used to limit meeting times. One approach is to hold short meetings standing up, rather than sitting down. That way, nobody has the temptation to settle into a comfy seat and waffle or let their attention wander. On the contrary, participants remain conscious of the value of each other’s time (and foot comfort).
7. End with action
You can have the most inspiring, open discussion, but if it doesn’t lead to any concrete outcomes, it’s about as valuable as a chat around the water cooler. Both you and the scribe should be attentive to the actions that emerge from discussion and ensure that, whenever such an action is discussed, it is promptly recorded and assigned a responsible party and a deadline. These should be summarised again at the end of the meeting and sent out to all participants in writing, as a follow-up to the business meeting invitation email. That way, everybody walks away with a sense of both purpose and accountability.
Facilitating group discussion is an art that takes time to master. The best preparation in the world can’t account for every issue that may arise. However, by attending to each of the above-mentioned areas and considering the appropriate format for the desired discussion, your meetings can be stepping stones to powerful action, rather than dead weights that drag your participants down. Good luck!