The Purpose of Meetings

Can we define one set of purposes for all meetings? Surely there are different types of meetings? We have meetings for planning, for review of progress and/or performance, for updating staff, for personal appraisal and development, for problem solving. We have board meetings, budget meetings, sales meetings, design meetings, production meetings, supplier meetings. Do they not all have different purposes?

At a detail level they do, but good design does not begin at a detail level. Good design begins at a level which can see the overall pattern of meetings; their flow and connectedness, because, at this level, purposes become clearer and inefficiencies more obvious. At this level we can begin to see that all of the meetings we have are fundamentally about aligning the reality of what we are delivering to the reality of what is needed.
Sometimes this alignment is at different levels in the business, sometimes it is for different time horizons, sometimes it is for different aspects of the business (e.g., customers, employees, information, product, finances, image) but essentially each meeting is about aligning what we are doing with what is needed through a series of practical questions (and activities to address them):
  1. Do we really understand what is needed (currently and going forward) and does our stated intent reflect a good answer to fulfilling/exploiting the opportunities and challenges therein?
    • Understand the situation, its context, and its implications
    • Explore the issues and critical factors within the situation.
  2. Do all of our planned and scheduled achievements build up to ensure the effective delivery our stated intent?
    • Identify solutions to resolve issues and improve the situation
    • Establish goals; shared standards of success/achievement
    • Agree strategy and plan out steps for its realisation.
  3. Is actual current practice happening and interacting in a way which gives us confidence in the fulfilment of our planned and scheduled achievements?
    • Ensure teamwork: relationships/communication for success
    • Manage progress: review metrics and resolve deficiencies.
Purpose of Meeting - 4 box
The diagram above illustrates these three questions as the interfaces in a 2×2 grid linking the reality of our operational trajectory to the reality of a target which gives it meaning, through our continuously evolving expectations for both (in terms of our plans and understanding).
Different meetings may emphasise different parts of the diagram, depending on their needs at a particular time, but as can be seen from the diagram below, while the title and the content of the meeting may differ, the main purposes within each meeting are based on certain key meeting aims, which can be combined in different ways to achieve the necessary outcome.
An effective meeting, of whatever type, is essentially about adjusting things so that each of the above questions can be answered with a resounding ‘yes’. This same fact is true whether we are developing a five-year strategy for the business or changing the operational set-up on a machine; whether we are selling software to a new client, or setting annual objectives for an accountancy clerk.
The grid below illustrates the extent to which our meetings all try to achieve similar things: We may give them different names, and they will concern different subjects, and each will have a different focus and emphasis within it, but at a fundamental level the pattern of meetings is based around a small number of common elements – it is only the topic that is fundamentally different.
Types and purposes of meetings
Furthermore, this shift in alignment takes place in the minds and hearts of the attendees – in their beliefs, their knowledge and their attitudes. If everybody leaves the meeting of the same heart and mind as they entered it, then the meeting was a waste of time – either because it was unnecessary, or because it was ineffective.
Understanding this helps us to ensure that meetings of all types are focused and efficient. To the extent that what is actually happening in a meeting is concretely answering one of the three questions above for people (or actively turning ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ answers around to ‘yes’ answers) then the meeting is efficient. To the extent that the meeting has lost sight of these three questions, or is waffling around them in the absence of clear data, or is failing to actively change people’s thinking, then the meeting is inefficient.
So, the purpose of meetings is about aligning people’s hearts and minds on the answers to these three questions, but the next thing to consider is: What do we actually mean by ‘answer’?

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