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By Ruth E. Stegeman, assistant dean, College of Community and Public Service, and director for Community Engagement at Grand Valley State University

According to an urban legend from the Zeeland, Mich.-based office furniture company Herman Miller, there was a time when employees were required to scan their IDs when entering a meeting room. Once the scanner had privately logged each participant’s salary, a monitor in the room displayed the meeting’s total cost in wages as the minutes ticked by.

Take a minute to do the math on the last meeting you were — was it worth the cost? I recently attended a meeting of 20 people for an hour with an estimated price tag of over $1,000. Nothing was accomplished and nothing memorable was shared. I wondered: had a screen displayed our total cost, would we have been more efficient?

Bad meetings, the stuff of Dilbert cartoons, are common. Participants want to know the basics: Why are we here? Why am I here? Why are you here? Are we just going to talk or will we really move our agenda forward? Anticipating these and other questions, one of my favorite meeting tools is the five Ps, which I use to prepare whether facilitating a one-hour small group meeting or a two-day strategic planning session with 30 people. You’ll find the five Ps in The Secrets of Facilitation, where Michael Wilkinson urges his readers to “know your 5 Ps” and details the process for thinking them though.

Purpose. Why are we coming together? What issue will we tackle?

Product. What is the deliverable? When we walk out the door, what do we want to be decided, done, or different than before the meeting began?

Participants. Given our purpose and product, who should attend? Who has the knowledge, skills, and influence to address the topic?

Probable issues. What might keep us from delivering our product? Are any of our participants soreheads—ornery folks who will insist on their way? Does this group have a history of “going down the rat hole”? What might we do to keep the process moving? How might the facilitator frame the group’s practices—their way of being together—that will address such issues up front?

Process. Now that we’ve explored all of the above, how might we design an approach, agenda, or way forward that will get us where we need to go?

As the facilitator, your thinking through each of these items will guide your invite list, the development of your agenda, and your communication before and during the meeting. As you will want to share your thinking with your group, write your purpose in one clear sentence and then list a couple products you hope to achieve. You may send these out in advance or simply begin the meeting by stating them and checking for agreement. Consensus on the proposed meeting purpose and product helps the group self-monitor and authorizes the facilitator to call people back together when they stray off topic. If you are the facilitator for a larger group, especially one that asks people to contribute a significant amount of time, it’s wise to meet with a subset of the participants to think together about each the first four Ps and then design the process to reflect them.

A few more Ps to consider. On occasion, I include another P, Premise. One’s premise asks about the assumptions, often unarticulated, underlying the purpose. In addition, thinking about the Payoff for the participants helps you anticipate their question, “Why am I here?” What aspect of the meeting will speak to the participants’ values, needs, and interests?

Every meeting will bring an element of surprise, something for which the facilitator has not prepared, but planning with the five Ps helps us host for the best possible meeting, one worthy of the time invested, whether the salary meter is running on the monitor or only in your head.

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    gertiecranker says

    Good article. I like to include staffing costs in planning and organizing a meeting: an important meeting requires hours of research, organization, and secretarial support: I often say it’s like preparing for a musical concert or a stage show, as far as preparation is concerned. Add those costs into the mix! I knew I had been successful when one of our Board members said, “According to our meeting cost analysis, we’ve spent $1500 on a $200 budget item. Could we move on?”

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