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How to Make Meetings Actually Awesome for You

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Want to run a meeting that is actually good for all involved? Do a bit of up front planning using PALO, suggests Ellen Leanse. 

By Ellen Leanse (Tech Veteran, Investor & Entrepreneur)

logo2-150x1501Here’s a question I wish I heard more often: “What would make this awesome for you?”

That question works well in many settings, but one where I don’t hear it enough is in business meetings. So often people file into a conference room, sit around a table, and spend the next hour of their busy day talking, letting things flow, or meeting to figure out why they are meeting – without moving to a specific outcome.

Worse yet, sometimes meeting participants act people are distracted, announce halfway in that they need to leave early, or interrupt the flow to ask where they can get a drink of water. The meeting is only warming up when somebody else needs the room. Nobody takes notes, or everyone takes notes, but nobody knows where to find them a week later.

It doesn’t take a meeting cost calculator to know that meetings are often a waste of time – and money. The problem is that most meetings begin without an “up front agreement” – a contract of sorts that gets everyone in accord on why they’re meeting and what happens after the meeting is done.

Too often, we don’t do the upfront work to effectively lead a meeting. We know we need to meet but we don’t consider the what we want to to change, what other people are seeking, and how we will activate next steps when the meeting ends.

If we could learn how to make meetings awesome and actionable for all participants we would become better leaders. Wouldn’t that make it awesome for you?

The purpose of this article is to give you a power tool that helps you build leadership by running better meetings. I’m going to run down a few techniques and suggestions that help you guide meetings in a new way. Plan on about five minutes to read it, two to skim. When you’re done you’ll want to schedule a meeting where you can test the tool, or a way to practice with a friend. I’m also going to ask if you liked the idea enough to tweet or comment with your feedback.

How does that sound?

I PALO’d you with that last paragraph. “PALO?,” you ask. Yes, PALO: PURPOSE, AGENDA, LOGISTICS, AND OUTCOME. The PALO is a technique coined by my friend Chip Doyle, an amazing sales coach and a mentor who has taught me a lot about belief systems, Transactional Analysis, language, and more.

The PALO is Chip’s device for getting meetings to achieve their real purpose – activating outcomes, or next steps – and here’s how it works.

Purpose

First, every meeting should begin with clarity on an agreed-to statement of PURPOSE: why the meeting needs to happen.

The Purpose may be to make a decision. To get everyone in the room to understand a customer or a product or a problem. To schedule a launch or even simply to “meet and greet.” The point is to know there’s a REASON to the meeting. Otherwise, there’s no need to meet. And the reason, or Purpose, must point to “what happens next” – what’s going to change or happen after that meeting.

When I wrote “The purpose of this article is to put you in charge…” I was letting you know that this article’s purpose is to empower you to know and do something different once you’ve read it.

Always begin a meeting by stating its Purpose. Go ahead and say “The purpose of this meeting is…” but you’ll soon learn many other ways of declaring your reason for a meeting before even if you don’t say “purpose.” For example:

“I hear you’re feeling stressed and I want to explore ways that help take the pressure off.” That’s a purpose stated without the word “purpose.”

Agenda

Next, the AGENDA. Chip does this by asking others in the room to say what they want to be sure is covered at the meeting. I couldn’t do that in writing, but if we were face to face I might have asked (after stating Purpose):

“What should we be sure we discuss to make that happen?” or “What do we need to resolve in the next hour?”  Even “What would make this awesome for you?” Then, give meeting participants a chance to state their essential items.

Move through this fast. Make sure people only say what they want to cover – not actually start discussing it. Often people start elaborating then and there (typical meeting digression!). Bring them back with a “First let’s nail the agenda. Then we’ll discuss.: Once everyone has spoken, add your agenda items to the list.

Logistics

Now, LOGISTICS: a highly underused part of the “up front agreement.” Logistics lay the ground rules on how the meeting will run, who does what, what’s expected of participants, and so forth. This is where you make sure everyone knows and buys in on start and stop times, commits to stay til the end, decides who captures notes and where they’ll store or share them, agrees to shut their laptops – things like that. Typical logistics banter goes something like this:

“Great. We have until 3 o’clock, a bit less than an hour. We’ll need ten minutes to go over next steps – Jerry, can you call time at 2:50? Can everyone stay til the end? Who can take notes and send them out afterward? We’ll store minutes in the project Box folder. I’ll make sure we stick to the agenda. Anything else we need to know before we get started?”

In some meetings logistics should cover practical realities, too: what people should do if they need a bio break (it’s disruptive when someone stops to ask where the restroom is), “close your laptops” policies (multitasking is the bane of effective meetings), or what time snacks will be delivered if you’re lucky enough to work at a place that delivers snacks at meetings (joke).

Outcome

And then we move to the big “O” of meeting planning, the part where it really gets awesome: the OUTCOME.

The Outcome is the reason we’re having a meeting. We should only meet if that meeting empowers participants to DO, CHANGE, or ACT ON something specific once the meeting ends.

“By the time we finish this meeting we’ll all know how to evacuate the building in an emergency. We’ll also sign up for one of the practice drills next week.”

“When we’re done we’ll agree to the owner of this project and when they’ll deliver a summary of next steps.” 

“At 2:50 Megan and I will ask for two partners who will help us plan the offsite, and have Stu tell us when he’ll deliver the roadmap with your action items in it.” 

“Once we’re done you’re going to know exactly how lead a great meeting, and how to remember it in one short acronym. And we’ll all commit to the date of a meeting where you’ll give it a try.”

How does that sound?

Leadership is an art and a practice, one built – like any practice – on small steps that build upon each other over time.  Running meetings that make people’s time feel well used, that result in clear next steps, and that leave everyone feeling that the meeting made a difference? Figure that out and the world will beat a path to your meeting room door.

Put the PALO to work at your next meeting. And please tweet or comment to let me know how it worked.

Would that make it awesome for you?

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About the guest blogger: Ellen Leanse (@chep2mhas worked in Silicon Valley for 30+ years, spanning Apple, Google, and Facebook app development. Her work in the US, Europe, Africa, and Latin America informs her views on tech’s impact on global change. Named one of tech’s top marketers and a Silicon Valley Woman of Influence, Ellen currently advises early-stage companies.