Meetings are only as productive as you make them, and if you’re tasked with running a meeting there are certain do’s and don’ts of how to run business meetings that you’ll want to abide by.

No matter what the meeting is for, running a great business meeting takes time, preparation, and experience. For those that are not experienced running meetings, we have some tips for you. With the help of Dick Axelrod, here are a few useful tips on how to run your next business meeting.

About Dick Axelrod

Dick Axelrod

Dick Axelrod is among the world’s top OD practitioners, specializing in whole-system change. He and his wife, Emily, are the co-founders of The Axelrod Group, author of the award-winning book “Terms of Engagement: New Ways of Leading and Changing Organizations”, a keynote speaker, and has taught at American University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago. 

How can you prepare for leading business meetings?

Dick Axelrod: When it comes to running great business meetings, preparation is everything. Many meeting leaders give little or no thought to meeting design other than identifying the meeting agenda items for discussion, and as a result, meeting leaders and participants find themselves sleepwalking through meetings as their frustration mounts because:

  • They are not discussing the important issues
  • The wrong people are present,
  • They end up confused about what was decided as well as the next steps.

In preparing for your next meeting, it’s important to get the four meeting fundamentals right: Why, Where, What, and Whom.

Why Are You Meeting?

Dick Axelrod: Your meeting’s purpose is your meeting’s north star; continually focusing on it keeps you going in the right direction. Capture your meeting’s purpose in seven words or less.

  • What change are you hoping for as a result of this meeting?
  • What are you trying to create during this meeting?
  • Why is this meeting important to you?

Your answers might look like this: Provide internal customers timely, accurate engineering drawings.

Where Are You Meeting?

Covid-19 has changed the way we run business meetings. Here are some important considerations when meeting virtually. There are many virtual meeting platforms with a wide variety of tools built-in – PPT, video, polling, sharing screens, group chat, etc.

  • What platform will you be using?
  • Do you understand the platform’s capabilities?
  • Do you have technical support to run the platform so you are free to run the meeting?
  • How will you use the platform to reduce screen fatigue?

Your answers might look like this: Microsoft Teams works; Sarah will run Microsoft Teams during the meeting; we’ll take 10-minute breaks every hour; we’ll use polls to help us make decisions and PPTs to share data.

If you are meeting in the same physical location, physical space influences meeting dynamics. Answering the following questions will help you decide where to hold your meeting.

  • What changes must be made to the shape and feel of the room so the meeting space supports your purpose?
  • What kinds of seating arrangements will facilitate dialogue?
  • What kind of audio/visual support will you need?

Your answers might look like this: A conference room with natural light, whiteboards, round tables, and flexible seating.

What Are You Meeting About?

While your meeting’s purpose provides the overall reason for the meeting and helps you decide where you should meet, your meeting’s “what” identifies the specific topics that will help you achieve your meeting’s purpose.

  • What are the topics we need to discuss to achieve our purpose?
  • What kind of pre-work is necessary so that meeting participants are prepared to address the meeting topics?

Your answers might look like this: Review results of internal customer interviews conducted by team members; identify actions to improve timeliness and accuracy of engineering drawings.

With Whom Are You Meeting With?

Having the right crew is critical to your success. You will want a diverse crew capable of working together. This means people with:

  • Information
  • Authority
  • Responsibility
  • Different thinking styles
  • A likelihood of opposing perspectives

Your answers might look like this: Leadership Team members and their direct reports; 20 participants.

What are some tips on how business leaders can make meetings more effective? 

Dick Axelrod: We have found the Meeting Canoe to be an effective framework for improving Meetings. The Meeting Canoe is a system — a complete re-thinking of the design, execution, and follow-up of meetings. By using the Meeting Canoe, leaders, contributors, and facilitators transform their meetings into productive and engaging events.

The most dangerous times in canoeing occur when people enter and leave the canoe, so extra attention is required during these times. The same advice applies to meetings. Paying extra attention to the beginning and end of your meeting pays big dividends. As you work your way from the front to the back of the Meeting Canoe, here are important questions to consider as you design your meeting:

Meeting Canoe

WELCOME people.

How will you create a meeting environment where people feel welcome? 

Your answers might look like this: Prior to the meeting, send out a meeting invitation that includes the meeting agenda and pre-work; personally greet people as they enter.

CONNECT people to each other and the task.

  • How will you increase personal connections between meeting participants?
  • How will you connect people to the meeting’s purpose?

Your answers might look like this: Facilitate a paired discussion with participants about the following questions: Why is the timely delivery of engineering drawings important to you? What will success at today’s meeting require of you?

DISCOVER the way things are.

  • How will you help people make sense of the issue(s)?
  • How will you help people understand the current state? 

Your answers might look like this: In a presentation, participants will share internal customer interview results. In a group, participants will discuss the following: What does the data mean? What conditions give rise to these results?

  • ELICIT people’s dreams.
  • What conversations will allow future possibilities to emerge?
  • How will you incorporate the arts or a sense of play into your discussions to encourage creative thinking?

Your answers might look like this: In a group, participants will discuss: What would memorable internal customer service look like when it comes to the delivery of engineering drawings? Break the group into sub-groups; each sub-group creates a symbol of memorable internal customer service and shares with the rest of the group. Group discussion: What common themes are present in the symbols?

DECIDE on the next steps. 

In this step, meeting participants move from the world of possibility to concrete action by deciding on the next steps. The following are some things to consider:

  • What decisions must be made?
  • How will these decisions be made?

Your answers might look like this: In a group, participants will discuss: What steps can we agree upon now? Who will do what? The agreement means that everyone in the group can support the actions in the proposed next step.

ATTEND to the end.

  • How will you review key decisions and action steps?
  • How will you ensure that people know what is expected of them following the meeting?
  • How will you review your meeting?

Your answers might look like this: Review and record decisions made. Ask meeting participants responsible for the next steps to state their understanding of their actions following the meeting. Evaluation discussion: Was this meeting time well spent? What can we do to improve future meetings?

Putting time and attention into the design of your meetings is an investment that pays huge meeting effectiveness dividends. Consider the impact of using the Meeting Canoe at the Singapore Civil Service:

“The Meeting Canoe is a wonderful design tool, for meetings of all shapes and sizes. For those who have never designed a meeting before, they find it immensely useful and build their capability quite quickly, and the experienced ones appreciate the structure the canoe provides while giving them opportunities to still be flexible and artistic in the design. Thanks for creating this simple yet profound metaphor and process for how we can design and run meetings that are both engaging and productive.”

Douglas O’Loughlin, PhD
Senior Principal Consultant
Civil Service College, Singapore
business meeting

When running a meeting, how can you communicate expectations for those involved with the meeting?

Dick Axelrod: Meeting leaders can communicate expectations by sharing their answers to the question “why you are meeting”? with meeting participants prior to the meeting and again at the start of the meeting. Better yet, involve meeting participants in a discussion of your meeting’s Why based on your answers to that question. In this way, you create a common agreed-upon purpose for your meeting that meeting participants can support. The simple adage “People support what they help to create” applies to meetings. When meeting participants are involved in designing their meeting’s structure and process, they work towards the meeting’s success, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see the meeting move forward with a life of its own.

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