Holding Effective Attendee-Driven Meetings

The format of a meeting is shaped by the attendees, meeting goals, and type of work that needs to be done. A presentation to a Fortune 500 board of directors might have a detailed agenda and slide deck that’s been rehearsed and polished down to the precise number of minutes available, whereas a weekly check-in with your team might have a loose agenda and be open to extending the time if needed.

For certain types of meetings, we’ve found treating the meeting a bit more like a small unconference is highly effective.

What We’ve Done

I have two great examples of this attendee-driven approach in practice.

The team coordination meeting

We used this approach to keep our long-term detailed design process running smoothly on a large ERP rewrite project. The complexity of the application gave us a continuous stream of work: moving forward on new feature designs, feedback from design reviews, and feedback from user testing of delivered features.

Our team maintained a prioritized checklist of the things we needed to cover together. The Dev Lead, Design Lead, and I (the Delivery Lead) set a regular cadence to meet: one hour, twice per week. We’d review the top things on the list quickly to settle on priorities for our time, and then work through as many as we could in the time we had.

The format worked well for us because it required minimal preparation outside the list and the notes we already had. It also kept us moving forward on the important work we needed to do.

The best practices meeting

The second example is a quarterly meeting that we’ve recently started holding as an opportunity for the Delivery Leads in our two offices to learn from each other. We wanted to spend some time discussing project practices, tools, challenges, experiences, and professional development topics.

Brittany Hunter set up a Google document of topic ideas which we could edit and moderated our first best practices meeting. We first voted on topics, then set a 30-minute time limit for the topic at the top of our list. When we hit the time limit, we decided whether we wanted to add an extension (10-15 minutes) or move on to the next topic. We had a lot of great conversation and carried the topics we didn’t cover to the next meeting.

Why We Liked This Approach

We’ve appreciated the shared ownership of topics and the ease of facilitating. Attendees can advocate for topics that are important to them and take ownership of the topic once the meeting is underway, and facilitating only requires a little whiteboard space and a timer.

This approach involves everyone without placing too much burden on any one person, which makes it a great way to avoid both types of pre-meeting dread (“Crap, another meeting where I have to do everything,” and “Crap, another meeting where nothing I care about gets done.”).

It’s also easy to tune meeting duration and frequency to keep up with the contents of our work list.

Where It Works & Where It Doesn’t

Don’t count on running all of your future meetings this way. In my experience, this type of meeting works well when:

  • There’s a high-level topic that needs continuous attention.
  • The work is important, but most of it isn’t urgent.
  • It is part of a process with a regular cadence.
  • The meeting is more of a conversation or working session, and less of a presentation.
  • There are a relatively small number (< 10) of motivated and engaged attendees.

On the contrary, running your meeting as an unconference might not work well if:

  • The meeting’s purpose is to share specific information–more of a presentation.
  • There is an set agenda that needs to be followed–attendees have expectations.
  • There is a specific, focused decision that needs to be made, possibly urgently.

Using Attendee-Drive Meetings Effectively

Here’s an outline for setting up an effective unconference-style meeting:

  1. Set up a time to meet and make sure everyone understands the purpose.
  2. Share a working document of an agenda for collaborative contributions (Google doc, Basecamp checklist, etc.).
  3. List topics on the board at the start of the meeting and have the person who proposed each topic give a quick overview.
  4. Dot vote, or use priorities from a collaboratively-built agenda.
  5. Take the top item, set a reasonable time limit, and go.
  6. When you hit the limit, ask whether the topic needs more time.
  7. Be sure to make time for breaks.
  8. Roll any topics that don’t get covered to the next meeting, if you’re planning one.