Meeting prep less pain more gain

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” 

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
- Peter Drucker

The two quotes shown above by Peter Drucker may be instructive in helping us to understand how to use the advice given in lengthy tomes written on how one should prepare properly for meetings. We are instructed to issue agendas ahead of time, following up on action items, keeping minutes, etc.

We note a vast difference between the practices employed in our various client organizations. Some work at a frenetic pace with people jumping from one meeting to the next without a break; others appear to be far more organized. In some organizations the norm (a group habit) is to employ lengthy standardized checklists, which call for extensive pre-meeting, in-meeting and post-meeting “rules and regulations”.

When elaborate meeting preparations have become the organizational norm, astute managers intuitively know that they are doing things “right” instead of doing the “right things”. On the other hand we have seen the opposite: where there is no preparation and people simply show up at meetings, maybe on time, maybe not. Invariably when one asks about meeting effectiveness in these cultures there is an outpouring of frustration and complaint at the waste of productivity that occurs in meetings.

The reality is that the workplace has changed; the pace of activity in organizations has increased with people rushing from meeting to meeting. Meetings are getting shorter and are often done virtually. We also have much better technology allowing us to exchange information more quickly and effectively. This creates a challenge: we know we should be doing a better job at preparing for and running meetings, and yet we have less time to do so and intuitively know the “by the book method” is not a practical solution.

Using rigid standards for all meetings is misguided. Versatility is recognized as a valuable leadership skill. We need to be versatile in how we run our meetings. After all, as much as we hate to admit it, meetings are where true creativity in organizations needs to occur. Typically meetings are where we make important decisions and deal with important problems. In your organization, just how well do you generate creativity, make sound, timely decisions and solve problems?

A way of employing versatility is to use a simple framework and adapt it to the situation. We call it The Three “P”s. Keeping things simple, but making sure The Three “P”s are covered is the secret to better meetings.

1. Purpose: What you would like to get out of your meeting. The purpose must be stated as an outcome, not a process at the beginning of the meeting. Thus, “reviewing the product development plan” does not cut it as a purpose. “A high level documented plan of the website redesign” does. Ensuring that the purpose is stated as an outcome drives a goal orientation. It also provides a point of reference at the end of the meeting that can be used to assess whether the meeting was successful or not. Our experience suggests that being able to do this is very difficult for most people. Have a look at the goals for the last few meetings you attended, if they were stated at all.

2. Process: keeping things simple and adjusting the process to the purpose of the meeting is a skill that drives huge increases in productivity. There are some basics that apply to most meetings:

  • When solving difficult problems, start with divergent thinking (brainstorming for example), then move on to convergent thinking (analyzing and grouping ideas, and creating plans). Then make sure decisions are made and not needlessly deferred.
  • Use the Team Accelerator Index: periodically evaluate your team in areas such as goal setting & alignment, assigning responsibility, handling conflict and making decisions at the end of the meeting. This creates an environment of continuous improvement (how many badly run meetings do you attend on a regular basis with no discussion at the end of the value of the meeting?)
  • Use a “Parking Lot” in the meeting to catch good ideas and actions that come up as discussion points, but don’t relate to the purpose of the meeting. Using this technique helps keep the meeting on track and at the same time captures good ideas for further consideration later.
  • Create a norm of discussing “Benefits & Concerns” (“Bs and Cs”) at the end of meetings: a quick check-in with the team to see what worked (Benefits) and what could be improved upon next time (Concerns). Once this practice becomes a norm it becomes obvious when this step can be skipped. For example: very standard status meetings that are productive have been in place for a long time and have been fine tuned to be as effective as they possibly can be. A “golden rule” that we employ as part of the B’s and C’s process at the end of the meeting is a check back to see if the desired outcome specified under Purpose has been produced. If it has not, a short discussion is held and actions are identified to improve on this meeting, creating a culture of continuous learning.
  • You may also want to check out our article, Treat Meetings As an Ongoing Process, Not Isolated Events, for further ideas on establishing more productive meetings that can help your organization become more effective in executing its strategy.

3. Preparation: adjust pre-planning effort to fit the requirements of the meeting.

  • Many people like to have time to reflect prior to a meeting and to understand why they’re attending it. When we survey our clients, there are invariably people who find that establishing purpose and process on the spot in the meeting is very uncomfortable. They contribute much better to the discussion if they have some time to mull over the issues in their minds before the meeting. What one finds is that often participants spend a large portion of a meeting just trying to figure out exactly what they are trying to accomplish.
  • If you’re having a quick meeting: send out a brief email with the proposed Purpose, Process and Preparation in the body of the email. Attach any documents that should be looked over before the meeting. Mention other prework that would make the meeting more productive.
  • If you’re having a longer meeting, (e.g. a half-day strategy meeting): adjust the amount of time you spend putting together a good communication. It should provide the right content to make the meeting a success. You probably need much more content than you would for a 45-minute meeting to touch base on how to address who is going to attend the next product development meeting. You may consider preparing a detailed outline as shown in the example below.

We have built this system into our organization as a standard; for all meetings the organizer has to deal with The Three “P”s in a manner that is most appropriate to their management style and the demands of the meeting. This can be as simple as 3 bullets in a quick email to meeting participants or a much more detailed planning document.

The Three “P”s System establishes a flexible approach that maintains high standards of interaction at all levels in the organization. Our experience shows that teams that employ the methods described in this article can reduce meeting times by up to 30% and produce better results.

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   About the Author

Max is the CEO of Belbin North America. He brings a depth of knowledge and experience from his career in general management and consulting in North America, England, Europe and Asia. Max has assisted CEOs and senior leaders within client organizations with the design and implementation of Interaction Planning processes, team based organizational development programs and Lean Six Sigma initiatives.