Meeting preparation: Building the foundations for success
Meeting preparation is pivotal to organisational success. In this article, we explore the process of meeting preparation, to guide leaders on how to prepare for meetings.
Benjamin Franklin said it best when he quipped, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Preparation is vital - it holds the keys to success. Meetings are no exception, and yet meeting preparation is often an area of weakness for enterprises.
Without thorough preparation, we are not setting ourselves up to succeed. Yet, the default in modern business seems to be to underplay the importance of meeting preparation. In fact, a recent study commissioned by Sherpany found that 92% of European leaders face challenges in decision-making, with more than a quarter citing a lack of preparation as the cause.
Thankfully there are some simple steps that we can put in place to address the issue of poor meeting preparation. In fact, we have developed an entire framework to help leaders to master the process of meeting management, of which preparation is a fundamental building block.
In this article, we will explore the process of meeting preparation, to guide leaders on how to prepare for a meeting, and even providing a free checklist that can be used to guide the process in the future.
Why is meeting preparation so important?
The success of any business meeting is determined before it has begun. If each participant has failed to take the time to adequately prepare, there is little chance that the meeting will be a success - and even if it is, then it will be suboptimal. Meeting preparation is at the centre of meeting success, and needs to be treated as such.
Think of meeting preparation as digging the foundations for a house. In the absence of foundations, any house that is built will surely crumble, or at least be unsafe. With solid foundations, the house will instead stand and endure. Much like the foundations for a house, meeting preparation isn’t visible - and this makes it easily moved down leaders’ list of priorities.
This is curious, as a study of employees’ feelings towards meetings actually found that participants look forward to meetings more when they are adequately prepared for them.1 So what explains this disconnect? Why do so many participants fail to prepare for meetings, despite its negative impact on individual enjoyment?
Many leaders cite a lack of time as an explanation, but this is only part of the story. There is also often a lack of motivation among leaders to invest time in meeting preparation. This is partly because the benefits of meeting preparation aren’t always immediate - but the issue can also be cultural. After all, why should I invest my precious time in preparing for meetings if everyone else is going to arrive unprepared? Why is there a need to prepare if the meeting lead is simply going to read from their slides? Meeting preparation needs to be championed, at an organisational level, as the gateway to enhanced individual performance. In order for this to happen, meeting preparation needs to be as clear and straightforward as possible.
Thankfully, unlike digging foundations, meeting preparation needn’t be labour intensive, and can be done systematically for every meeting, no matter the size or shape. In the next section we explore the steps you should take to prepare for a meeting.
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How to prepare for a meeting: Step-by-step overview
Meeting preparation doesn’t need to be an onerous task, yet without structure it can often seem like an administrative task that fails to rank in our list of priorities. By following a number of simple steps, you can make meeting preparation a part of your regular routine and ensure that you arrive at every meeting fully prepared and ready to achieve.
The steps you should follow ahead of each meeting are:
1. Ensure that the meeting has a clear need
While this might sound like the responsibility of a meeting organiser, it is also incumbent upon meeting participants to check that a meeting is really necessary. When you are invited to a meeting, the first thing you should consider is whether meeting is really the most effective means of achieving the desired outcomes and objectives. Could these be achieved asynchronously? Is there a more effective solution? If so, you should feel empowered to push back and raise your concerns to the meeting organiser. Be sure to do this early to minimise wasted time and effort on the part of other meeting participants.
2. Determine meeting objectives
Every meeting should have clear objectives. In order for you to prepare effectively as a meeting participant, the objectives of the meeting should be crystal clear and should inform the work you do ahead of the meeting to give the meeting the optimal chances of success. If you are unclear on the objectives of the meeting, then be sure to clarify with the meeting organiser as soon as possible so that fruitful meeting preparation can take place.
3. Review and contribute to the meeting agenda
Once you are clear on the objectives of the meeting, you should turn your attention to the meeting agenda. At this stage, you should evaluate the agenda against the objectives of the meeting and decide whether any additional items need to be added in order to achieve them. Meeting participants should feel empowered to contribute to the meeting agenda - after all, your presence is requested because your expertise is required, and contributing this knowledge begins in the meeting preparation phase.
4. Read all meeting materials
Perhaps one of the more obvious steps in meeting preparation is to read all materials in advance of the meeting. However, this is a common pain point among leaders around the world: other meeting participants arriving unprepared. This is a key reason why less than 12% of leaders believe that their meetings produce decisions of strategic importance.2 Provided that meeting materials are distributed in a timely manner, there is little excuse for failing to review all documentation ahead of the meeting. Blocking out time in your diary to fully prepare is vital here, as we all know how quickly our calendars fill up.
Less than 12% of leaders believe that their meetings produce decisions of strategic importance.
5. Ask any questions ahead of time
Waiting until the meeting starts to ask questions is a recipe for meeting preparation failure. This wastes valuable meeting time by entering into discussions that could’ve been had asynchronously before the meeting began. In fact, in a recent study it was found that 22% of executives acknowledge an inability to exchange views on topics before meetings. Asking clarifying questions ahead of time is therefore a vital step in effective meeting preparation. It is important to ask these questions in a public forum so that other meeting participants can see the conversations as they develop. This ensures that questions are only asked once.
6. Be clear on who is leading each agenda item
If your presence has been requested at a meeting, then it’s clear that your expertise is needed. It could be that you are required to lead one of the items on the agenda, and if this is the case then you need to know this in advance so that you can prepare. By clarifying who will lead each agenda item before the meeting begins, you ensure that each discussion is well led and is clearly focussed on achieving the objectives.
7. Anticipate any blockers
A key component of effective meeting preparation is to anticipate any obstacles, such as missing information or conflicting strategic priorities, that stand in the way. Waiting until the meeting begins to raise these is far too late, as precious meeting time will be wasted attempting to resolve issues that could have potentially been avoided if they were raised in advance. Furthermore, in some cases, blockers might render the meeting unnecessary or pointless. Therefore, once you have reviewed the agenda and meeting materials, it is imperative that any problems you foresee are communicated as early as possible.
8. Consider desired outcomes and actions
As a meeting participant, you should arrive at each meeting with a clear view of what the desired outcomes and actions might be. This will help you to make thoughtful contributions to discussions, and ensure that the meeting remains outcome-oriented throughout. While in many cases the specifics of outcomes and actions will be determined by the content of discussions, this doesn’t prohibit you from considering what the shape of these might look like as you prepare for the meeting.
9. Avoid back-to-back meetings
Finally, making sure that you have adequate time to prepare for each meeting is essential. One simple way of doing this is to avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings in your diary. While this can be difficult - and sometimes impossible - to avoid, blocking out dedicated preparation time in your calendar ahead of each meeting is an effective way of making sure you have time to dig the necessary foundations. This also allows for time to reflect upon the discussions and decisions of the previous meeting before moving on to the next.
Meeting preparation: Pivotal to meeting success
As you can see, meeting preparation is a vital part of the meeting management process - and is no single individual’s responsibility. Every participant must take equal ownership for their meeting preparation, and in doing so, contributes to the foundations upon which a sturdy meeting can be built.
Through a number of simple steps, leaders can carve out the necessary time to invest in adequate meeting preparation, and start achieving more through their meetings.
Download our free Meeting Preparation Checklist now to begin optimising your meetings - from the earliest stage.
Meeting Preparation Checklist
1 ‘Employees’ feelings about more meetings: An overt analysis and recommendations for improving meetings.’, Allen, J. A., Sands, S. J., Mueller, S. L., Frear, K. A., Mudd, M., & Rogelberg, S. G., Management Research Review, 2012.
2 ‘Stop Wasting Valuable Time’, M. Makins, HBR, 2004.