You are invited to a meeting and they expect you to contribute. If this is early in your career or you have not been to those meetings before, the invitation could leave you quite uncertain of how to make sure you at least meet expectations. Where to start?
The questions below can help you
- prepare to attend these meetings,
- shape your thoughts in the meeting and
- prepare to lead meetings.
Preparing for meetings always include looking through the agenda to understand the topics that will be discussed. If you have received pre-reading materials, read through those and note your thoughts and questions for each agenda item.
Three questions that can be helpful at meetings
1. What is the purpose of this topic or this discussion?
Maybe you can answer this to yourself by reading additional materials shared with you before the meeting. Maybe you can get an understanding by asking someone you know in the company who is involved with the project/issue to be discussed. Be careful to not share any privileged information with others if you were provided with information that is considered confidential. It would be good if you can frame in your own mind what you believe the purpose of this item on the agenda is. It will help you understand how you can help move that purpose forward during the meeting.
If you find yourself listening to the points being made and questions being raised in the meeting which do not seem to be related to the purpose that you have in your mind, ask the question. “Are we aiming to solve X or Y at this time?” If you have not been able to understand the purpose of the agenda item by the time the discussions take place, ask for clarification on the purpose of this item. Is it for information only? Is this topic on the agenda to drive decision-making? What decision are we trying to make at this meeting with this item?
If you are leading:
Be sure to let meeting attendees know ahead of time: What is the purpose of each agenda item? Take the guess work out of the group dynamics and be more efficient with your time together in the meeting by being clear on the purpose of each item on the agenda. [If something is FYI only, consider sending an email instead of having a meeting.]
2. From which perspectives should we be looking at this?
Consider as many perspectives as you can think of to cover each of the agenda items that will be discussed. Jot down your notes and questions for each perspective – how would this perspective impact the agenda topic?
It is not uncommon for new meeting attendees to be somewhat intimidated by strong opinions of other attendees and they often refrain from offering their own perspectives especially if that is different from those who already voiced different opinions or suggestions. The key is to step back from it (mentally) to look at who is in the meeting. Which function/group does the perspective just offered represent? The answer is often linked to the group that person works in or has been working in for a long time. It could also lay in the part of the organization that this person has worked in for a long time. One’s experiences at work tend to shape the perspectives one sees issues through. Just because there is a different set of perspectives being put on the table at the meeting, does not mean that yours is not valuable.
Frame your perspective and share it. For example: “Based on call-center feedback, I would suggest we reconsider adding XXX feature/functionality to avoid the top 3 issues that our customers currently seem to have with our product.” A path-forward decision could exclude your observation or suggestion after consideration, but that does not make your contribution unimportant. It was most likely a good aspect to review and consider before the final decision is made on how to proceed.
If you are leading:
Make sure you do draw out different perspectives during a meeting to consider and select the best way to proceed with a project. It improves the quality of your decision-making process when you have considered many different alternative perspectives.
3. What are our next steps from here?
Considering the agenda topics and looking at your notes about the purpose of the agenda items – what do you think each item would or might lead to? It is not always possible to accurately predict how a discussion might go at the meeting, but you could jot down some possible next steps. Then you can review your notes at the meeting and you would be in a great position to suggest a path forward after the discussion.
The next step could be anything ranging from doing nothing at this time, to more research is needed, to a small working group will figure out a solution and propose it at the next meeting, to let’s run a pilot or to let’s implement. It does happen though, that an agenda item is discussed even debated only to be left unfinished before the next agenda item is introduced. It behooves someone, ideally you, to ask this question to ensure clarity about the outcome of the discussion just had.
Your contribution at the meeting may be that you are the one who helps ensure that outcomes are clear, agreed by all and documented.
If you are leading:
Remember to avoid moving to the next agenda item before the decision has been captured and next steps are agreed and documented.
Being invited to join a meeting of experts and senior people may seem intimidating at first, but coming armed with your notes and thoughts in these key areas would help you feel more confident that you too have something to offer and contribute to making it a productive meeting!