A Checklist for Planning Your Next Big Meeting
by HBR Editors
In theory, everyone understands that preparation can make or break an important meeting. The more work you do before you walk into the room, the more productive and efficient you’ll be. But who has the time to properly prepare? Our checklist makes meeting prep quick and easy—be sure to print it out or save it for later. Each step is described in more detail below. Using the checklist and the principles behind it will ensure that you’ve covered all your bases—and that you won’t be wasting anyone’s time (including your own).
Identify the purpose of the meeting
Do you need to make a decision, solve a problem, rally the troops, or inform your team about a new initiative? Clarifying the purpose of your meeting is the first and most important planning step—this will drive all of the other elements of your prep.
Make sure you really need a meeting
Don’t pile on another meeting without thinking about other ways to accomplish your goal first. It’s better not to meet if:
you don’t have time to prepare
another method of communication would work just as well
you’re dealing with a sensitive topic or a personnel issue that would be better handled one-on-one
you need to solicit a number of individuals’ opinions
Develop a preliminary agenda
Lay out a sequence for the meeting. Plan time for a brief introduction to provide context, and for a discussion of next steps at the end. Decide how much time to devote to each item and what order makes sense. The longer your meeting, the harder it will be for people to remain focused, so it’s wise to underestimate how much your group can cover in the allotted time.
Select the right participants
Consider who can help you accomplish your goal and who will be affected by the meeting’s outcome. Identify key decision makers, people who are knowledgeable about (or have a stake in) the topic at hand, those who need to be informed in order to do their jobs, and anyone who will be required to implement decisions made. What about size? Keep problem solving meetings small (around 8 people). Include more people for brainstorming (as many as 18). If you’re providing updates or rallying the troops, be as inclusive as you want to be. But remember: time is money. Be conscious of the ripple effects your meeting can have on people’s time across the organization—and only invite those who absolutely have to be there.
Assign roles to participants
Giving participants a specific role to play can increase focus and engagement. Consider the following roles:
A facilitator guides the discussion, making sure all sides of the issue are raised (this is a good job for someone who is developing leadership skills and practicing neutrality).
A scribe captures key ideas and decisions and distributes notes (this gives shy people a way to participate.)
A timekeeper helps move the discussion along efficiently.
A contributor keeps the discussion lively and on track.
An expert shares knowledge on particular issues. One advantage: You can ask an expert to attend just part of the meeting, keeping their contribution focused.
Decide where and when to hold the meeting and confirm availability of the space
The meeting space helps to set the tone. Do you want your meeting to be informal and intimate? Choose a small room and set the chairs up in a circle. Formal and rigorous? A conference room will probably work best. Will participants be attending virtually? Make sure your equipment allows everyone to hear, participate, or see people in the room (if using video conference).
Send the invitation and preliminary agenda to key participants and stakeholders
Make sure attendees know the purpose of the meeting. Consider sending a personal invitation in addition to a calendar invite—or chatting in person with the invitee—If there’s a chance the invitation will go unnoticed or if you want to make sure that a key participant will attend.
Send any reports, pre-reading, or requests for materials that may require preparation from participants
Send out any pre-reading a day or two in advance of your meeting and make it clear that participants are expected to review materials before they arrive. Also, be prepared to highlight key takeaways from the reading for those who haven’t had time to comply.
Identify the decision-making process that will be used in the meeting
Choose a decision-making method ahead of time to ensure that you leave your meeting with a clear outcome.
Majority vote allows every voice to be heard and is generally viewed as fair—but be aware that it may be difficult for some to declare their opinion publicly
Group consensus allows participants to share their expertise and enhances the chance for buy-in from all parties.
Leader’s choice is usually the fastest approach, so is most appropriate in a crisis. The risk is that some ideas will go unheard. As a result, you may need to work harder to get skeptics on board, especially during implementation.
Identify, arrange for, and test any required equipment
Decide if you’ll be using collaboration or productivity tools (like GoogleDocs, a screen-sharing service, or an audio recording device) during your meeting. Confirm and check the meeting space and set up or test any necessary equipment ahead of time. This step seems like a no-brainer, but sometimes it’s hard to make time for logistical details—and you don’t want to waste any of your carefully planned meeting troubleshooting technology issues. If you’re struggling, ask for help from a colleague who’s used the equipment before (or enlist an IT services representative).
Finalize the agenda and distribute it to all participants
If the agenda has changed, distribute the final version to participants. Make sure you’re ready to lead the discussion for each agenda item or that you’ve assigned items to appropriate attendees.
Follow up with invitees in person, if appropriate
Check in with people who haven’t responded to your invitation or who need to be in the room in order to have a productive meeting. If you’ve assigned roles, verify that attendees understand the parts they will play.
Have you drafted and practiced your presentation, printed handouts, and taken care of any other last-minute details? Doing the work to prepare will boost your confidence and set you up for a successful meeting.