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Setting the Expectations

You’ve set the purpose, interviewed the participants, and finalized the list of attendees. You now have one more crucial task in preparing participants for the meeting. You need to help them understand what will be expected of them and what can they expect in terms of their ownership of the meeting decisions and actions.

Their Preparation for the Meeting

A meeting may not be able to meet its purpose without the participants having completed some homework prior to the start of the meeting. You can learn about exactly what that pre-work should be based on your interviews with the sponsor and the various participants. As you survey these people about their roles and personal objectives, pay attention to assumptions they may have about what has taken place prior to the meeting. Learn what the participants are expected to know. This may lead to homework concerning:

  • Reading to do—Shorten your meetings and keep them focused by having attendees complete any lengthy reading prior to the meeting. Don’t allow meetings to be used for reading and reviewing detailed documents; extensive reading kills focus and momentum. Require reading a priori and use the meeting for making participatory decisions about the material.
  • Materials to bring—If the group is expected to make strategic decisions about the upcoming release of a product, be sure that someone has data about what has been defined so far, what has been completed to date, what the effort was concerning that work, and what the known risks and issues are related to the work ahead.
  • Questionnaires to complete—Some meetings need feedback from the participants even before they arrive at the meeting; make sure participants know this, complete it, and provide it.
  • Presentation materials to prepare—For individual contributors, such as subject matter experts, who need to present group-wide, high-level material, encourage the use of brief, focused presentations. Support the presentation with materials (handouts, wall charts, posted files) that can be used for reference guidance in subsequent decision processes. If the material is not expected to be used as a guide later in the meeting, question its applicability to the purpose of the meeting.

Their Role in the Meeting

The meeting purpose isn’t the only thing that shapes an attendee’s participation. Prior to the meeting, help participants learn the work of their meeting role by addressing:

  • The subject matter expertise—Each participant should be very clear about the expertise he brings to a meeting. This means arriving equipped with information in his area of expertise that can guide the team as it converges on team decisions.
  • The time commitment—A well-run, highly collaborative meeting relies on full participation by all attendees. Make sure all participants understand the time commitment they face, especially for very large strategy meetings, Release Planning meetings, or retrospectives. Discourage "in/out" behavior. When attendees are coming in and out of a meeting, this does more than just distract the other participants; it makes a statement that the transient participants find the meeting less important than other work they are doing. (For participants who have to time slice their involvement, bring the question to the other meeting participants about the impact on the meeting’s purpose. Team members should then decide how the meeting should proceed.)
  • The "machinery" of a collaborative meeting—When teams rely on collaboration for decision making, they are expected to engage fully in all information gathering, processing, and consensus checks. This requires participants to stay focused throughout the meeting and to believe in the power of the team to make the best decisions. And this requires that you ensure that they are well schooled in tools and processes for consensus building and consensus checking.
  • The scope of their authority—In some collaborative meetings, teams may be making the final set of decisions that drive the next actions in a project. However, some meetings are meant to have a team create a recommendation to another individual or another team. In these situations, you should help set expectations prior to the meeting about the team’s scope of authority. Will the team own the decision? Are they just being consultative? Will they be asked to facilitate others in making the decision?

The Potential Consequences

When looking at a meeting purpose and the roles of the attendees, find out whether the meeting may bring up potentially negative consequences to someone in the meeting. Knowing this information in advance can help you manage the discomfort or dysfunctions that may arise due to difficult revelations or decisions that come to light:

  • Is the team in a go/no go for the next phase of the project?
  • Are resources being reallocated due to missed deadlines?
  • Is there discord among the business owners that could cancel the project?
  • Are there concerns about the role of the architect?
  • Has the QA team been targeted for outsourcing?

When you discover these consequences, determine how they may come out in the meeting and who specifically may be impacted. Develop an agenda that clearly manages the flow of information toward these decisions. Apply a more engaged facilitative role, as in a Forming mode. Ensure that the right attendees are engaged in the meeting to deal with the decisions and the actions that these decisions bring about.

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