Five steps to design an effective collaborative meeting

Long before I had any professional experience or training as a facilitator, I often found myself in the position of needing to organize meetings that engaged participants on a deeply collaborative level. 

Sometimes, these meetings took place within an organization where I was asked to bring together leaders with vastly different perspectives and programmatic experience to discuss future strategic directions. Often, they were meetings with partners, politicians, and community members to co-create a shared vision or — even more daunting — resolve issues where there was a high degree of conflict.

Can you relate?

If your work focuses on creating social or environmental change, my guess is that you’ve been there too. As the challenges that we face become increasingly complex, we need to rely on collaboration as a tool to strategize, generate innovative solutions, and, yes, even engage with conflict.

But when the stakes are higher than a routine Monday morning staff meeting, where do you begin? How do you design a collaborative meeting that achieves results, engages the right people, and encourages participation?

The biggest mistake that I see made time and time again is this: the first thing to be created is the agenda.

It makes sense why this happens. You have a group of people that you want to gather together. You have a date and a time that you want to gather them. Now, what are you going to do with them? And merrily you go, creating an agenda to answer that question.

I want to offer a different way to approach your next collaborative meeting. 

In my experience, effective collaborative meetings result from good meeting design and preparation. There are five steps that I use with my clients before we ever get into the nuts and bolts of the agenda. I’m sharing these with you today (plus a free tool!) to make planning your next collaborative meeting even easier.

1. Define the purpose. 

In collaborative efforts, meeting purposes often center around using dialogue to reach a decision, generating new ideas or ways of thinking, building relationships that allows for something new to be created. Additionally, you want to consider what is important about doing this work now? What makes it imperative that a group of people invest time and energy in this work?

2. Determine the desired outcomes.

At the end of the meeting, how will you know that the meeting has been a success? I like to talk about outcomes with my clients in three domains: head, heart, and hands. How will your meeting shift what your participants know? (Head) How will your meeting shift what your participants feel? (Heart) What tangible products will help your participants take action? (Hands)

3. Identify the stakeholders who are essential for success.

Look back at your meeting’s purpose. Who — whether adversary or ally — could influence the outcome of your work? Who will be most committed to and responsible for taking action? Who else needs to be engaged? And who needs to be kept informed, but not necessarily participate in the meeting? Be clear about identifying who absolutely needs to attend and who only needs to be aware of the meeting and it’s outcome. 

4. Craft a clear and powerful invitation.

Your invitation should help people understand the reason for the meeting and how they will benefit from attending. Additionally, follow-through with personal invitations to your participants letting them know how they uniquely contribute and why they are needed there

5. Design a high-level approach to the meeting.

With all of these elements in place and in mind, now you can begin to think about the processes that you will use to move your group toward action. How will you build dialogue that achieves your meeting's purpose? What design elements need to be considered in order to achieve head, heart, and hand outcomes? How will ensure that stakeholders remain engaged? These are the questions that will ultimate lead to a robust and well-planned agenda.

I’ve created an interactive worksheet to help you walk through these steps in a thoughtful, intentional way.

Each step comes with a prompt or diagram aimed at helping you align your meeting with the ultimate impact that you’re wanting to create. Bringing people together to collaborate on the most complex issues of our time is an extremely important job -- and one that I want to help you succeed at. Grab it. Use it. Share it.