Every organization has the meetings it deserves. Poorly run sessions are a symptom of deeper cultural issues –inertia, control, perfectionism, and more. A culture of true collaboration is vital to get work done rather than wasting everyone’s time. Designing successful online meetings requires a clear method and intentionality, too.
In Stop the Meeting Madness, the authors share some alarming statics. 65% of executives say meetings stop them from finishing individual work, and 71% consider meetings unproductive and inefficient.
While I agree that most meetings are useless and a waste of time, productivity is not the full answer. Companies have been trying to make meetings more efficient for years without moving the needle. Focus on what the team wants to achieve together – the outcome rather than the process. Effective meeting design begins with the end in mind.
7 Meeting Principles to Design Successful Meetings
I wrote several articles on meetings, from getting rid of unnecessary ones to ways to increase participation and tips on making them more effective. In this post, I will focus on the design of the session, per se: to strategize why the meeting is necessary, the desired outcome and how to plan the flow itself.
Before I get into the process, I want to share some principles that are critical to designing successful online workshops or meetings. You can skip them and jump right into the process, but I suggest you spend a few minutes reading these design principles as they provide context to the how.
1. Begin with the end in mind
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey suggests beginning a project or task “with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination.” By applying this principle, you can design more productive meetings.
Start all your meetings with a clear outcome in mind, long before even scheduling them.
Define what success will look like. What do you want to achieve during the meeting and right after?
Write the agenda or outline in a verb form. Rather than listing points focus on actions and outcomes.
2. Define the Required Mindset: Focus or Flare?
There are different kinds of meetings; some require distilling information to drive to a conclusion or make a decision. Others are about exploring opportunities, coming up with new ideas, or asking the right questions.
The first requires Convergent Thinking – you want participants to focus. The latter, on the other hand, needs Divergent Thinking – people must flare and come up with new ideas or solutions.
Most executives are very well trained from an analytical perspective, but fail to come up with ideas. Bringing a ‘focus mindset’ to brainstorming will kill creativity, applying a flare mindset to decision-making will make it impossible for the team to land anywhere.
Avoid mixing both at the same time. On longer online workshops, create a break and change the mood and setting; design the context to help people switch their mindset. Read more about focus or flare.
3. Plan to Apply the 3 Types of Experiences
In face-to-face meetings, the default approach is to plan for large group activities. Now that most sessions are online, people fall in the trap of using breakout rooms for everything.
Varied activities keep people more engaged and active, creating successful meetings. Don’t just mix individual, small group, and full group activities; use them mindfully.
When addressing sensitive topics, it’s better to have people reflect on their own and then share with a partner or small group before speaking up in front of everyone. Large group activities are great for debriefing or when you need to align everyone on a particular topic.
Breakout groups are great for brainstorming, activities that require deep engagement (smaller teams are more effective), or when you need alternative solutions to choose from
4. Pre-work: the Meeting Starts Before People Get Together
Get people’s input ahead of the session; don’t build the agenda or design the outcome on your own. Give participants everything they need to prepare ahead of the meeting and don’t waste time sharing content that people can read beforehand.
Assigning pre-work can help set the mood for the meeting (i.e., watching an interesting video on the challenge at hand) or help people come prepared (i.e., complete an activity that will be discussed at the beginning of the session.
5. Define Clear Roles
Successful online meetings have clear roles; everyone knows why they should participate and what’s expected of them.
- Host: defines the meeting purpose and invites the right participants
- Facilitator: designs and guides the experience
- Observer: focuses on participation and language (verbal and non-verbal)
- Secretary: captures notes and distributes them
- Guests or Participants: actively contribute, share, discuss, and decide
Roles should rotate; every team member should play all of them from time to time. Some companies switch roles monthly, others every week.
6. Use both Synchronous and Asynchronous Activities
Successful online workshops or meetings are part of a broader experience, not a separate event. The real-time experience is the synchronous portion; the pre- and post-activities are a critical component to design successful meetings.
There’s also the in-between part that makes workshops more effective. You can divide a longer session into two parts, have people complete an experiment in between the two, and use the results to shape the content of the second session.
Synchronous and asynchronous activities support each other and maximize participation, helping teams achieve the desired outcome.
7. Manage the Meeting Flow
To increase participation and engagement, focus on designing the right experience. What’s the correct flow? Consider the time and mood. Do you need to go slow or fast? Do you need to launch the team before getting into a group activity?
Mix different types of activities to make it more exciting and manage people’s energy. For example, don’t leave the more demanding exercises for the end when people are drained. Combine individual, small group, and full-group activities to keep things interesting and switch up the interactions and participation.
Strategize and Plan the Online Meeting or Workshop
Before designing the actual virtual workshop or session, make sure you have a compelling reason to have a meeting. Spotify teams use a straightforward question to address this, “Is it really necessary to meet?”
The following template will help you answer that question. And, if the answer is yes, it will help the team clarify and align on why they’re getting together, to work as one.
Purpose: Why does this meeting exist? Focus on the impact it will create on the team or project. The purpose should inspire people to join the meeting. Providing an update, so everyone knows what’s happening is not a purpose, just an activity. Without a compelling purpose, the meeting shouldn’t happen.
Name: This is obvious, but something most people miss—words matter. If you want people to attend, start by using an interesting name. No one wants to join a meeting called “Weekly Status Team Meeting.”
Desired Outcome: What does success look like? What are the specific questions that we are trying to address? Identify clear outcomes, align the team, and don’t leave the (virtual) room without achieving what you planned for.
Mindset: What type of meeting is this, convergent or divergent? Do people need to focus or to flare?
Frequency and Duration: This point goes beyond clarifying the obvious. Reflect on what’s the right duration –divergent meetings require more time than convergent ones. If you can do something in 15 minutes, why have a 60-minutes meeting? Get rid of unnecessary meetings, but also aim for shorter, more effective ones, as I explain here.
Participants: What’s the minimum number of participants to make a great meeting? At Amazon, they apply the two-pizza team rule; they limit the number of attendees to those who can be fed with only two pizzas. Avoid inviting people for political reasons. An expert can join for a portion of the meeting to share something and then leave. There’s no need to invite two people who play the same functions unless necessary. After all, not being in the meeting doesn’t mean that people won’t find out what was decided or discussed.
Design the Flow of the Virtual Meeting or Workshop
I use SessionLab to create the outline for virtual workshops or sessions. This easy-to-use online tool is perfect for designing your workshops, collaborating with co-facilitators or clients, or co-designing meetings with your team members.
I highly recommend SessionLab (I have no affiliation with them); they have both free and paid versions. One of the main reasons I use it is that it allows me to design both multiple-day sessions and single sessions, but also to create my own templates that I can then customize to each project.
SessionLab uses a drag-and-drop feature making it easier than regular spreadsheets. You can create sections (“Groups”) and activities within each of them (“Blocks)
Most importantly, SessionLab allows you to not just organize different activities and assign a duration, but also to color-code categories (exercise, break, icebreakers, etc.) to quickly visualize the interaction mix of the session. You can customize both the category labels and their colors. In my case, the pre-existing categories are the ones I’ve been using for years. Also, I like to keep it simple.
One word of caution, though. The simplicity of this tool can be deceiving – I’ve seen a lot of people believe that just by dragging and dropping elements and assigning a duration, they’re actually designing a successful online meeting. You need to do more than just move pieces around.
First, consider the principles I shared at the beginning. Second, don’t jump into the actual session design if you haven’t completed the strategy part (using the template I shared or the one you want). Third, I always work with a low-resolution version (using post-its or a whiteboard before jumping into the tool); play around before creating the final design.
Building on that, even when I start working on SessionLab, I do various iterations. I want to create 2 or 3 drafts, let them decant, and then get back to it one or two days after and look at it through fresh eyes. I also share with my colleagues – even those who aren’t involved in a particular project – to get feedback.
The following is the process I use. It’s not the right way to do so, but my way. After having designed hundreds of workshops (online and in-person), I settled for this approach. The reason I’m sharing it, is because I observed a lot of people obsess with the time and jump into specifics too early.
1. Start with the flow.
Consider the overall dynamics, as I discussed before. In teams that are forming or need to be relaunched, I usually start with individual activities and then move on to work in partners, small groups, and finally, full-team discussions.
That’s one example. Another approach could be the typical: align on the problem, discover solutions, agree on the next steps (implementation, experiments, responsibilities).
Based on the flow you select, create a first draft. Create the key sections and give each a name. Then choose the right mix and order of activities (Theory, Exercise, Discussion/ Debrief, Icebreaker/ Energizer, Break). Don’t assign time or duration for now, just try to find a flow that makes sense and will keep people engaged.
For example, for a two-and-a-half hour workshop on Meeting Design (one of the 8 modules of the Build a Fearless Culture Program), I created the following Sections:
- Only meet when it’s necessary (intro to meetings, debrief on pre-work about the financial cost of current meetings, use the “Eliminate, Reduce, Optimize” matrix, debrief, etc.)
- Meeting Culture (the different type of meeting cultures, what works and what doesn’t, exercise on what meeting culture is yours, examples, debrief)
- Meeting Mindsets (focus or flare?, exercise: list your meetings and which require which mindset, can you mix both? debrief)
- Design for participation (insights, different elements, roles, exercise: redesign an existing meeting, teams share out and discussion, closing and wrap up of session).
Don’t forget the importance of taking breaks, especially during online meetings that can be very exhausting.
2. Assign Time:
Assign time for each section. Then, divide that time among each block. Review and iterate.
3. Specify each activity
In the first draft of my sessions I focus on the flow, not on the particular activity. I choose when I want to facilitate a group exercise, break the team into smaller groups, or share theory (insights, tools, etc.).
In this round I start designing and choosing the right activity. If I decided to have an icebreaker, I not only need to choose one that’s fun and engaging, but also needs to set the right mindset to launch the next activity.
I explore different options and then move on.
4. Review the time allocated to each activity
Once I’ve selected the specific activities, I review the duration I assigned initially. Does it make sense? Do I have enough time for that group exercise? Will I need more time to let the team debrief a complex topic?
Designing a successful online workshop requires making sacrifices. You can’t have it all, so decide what’s critical and what can be deleted. You either have to reassign time or replace an activity with one that’s simpler and requires less time.
Consider the impact (work with the end in mind) over what you like. Sometimes facilitators fall in love with an activity without realizing it’s stealing precious time from more valuables exercises. Be ready to kill your darlings.
5. Review the Flow
Take a break (ideally a day or more, if possible) and review the session. What’s missing? What can be eliminated?
Does the overall dynamic make sense? Share with your colleagues and get some feedback. Adjust as necessary
6. Adjust time/ duration. Again.
Do a last round to ensure that the time allocated to each section and block makes sense. Adjust as needed.
As the saying goes, hope for the best and plan for the worst. If one of the sections or activities goes longer than expected, what other items can you either shorten or kill? Be ready to think on your feet and make necessary adjustments during the live online meetings.
Sometimes you can create a new virtual session to finish an activity that couldn’t be addressed in the previous workshop. Alternatively, you can share the exercise and let people do it asynchronously. Others… well you just have to learn to live without it. Contingency planning is vital to make adjustments on the fly.
Designing successful online workshops and meetings requires both science and art. There’s a lot of research about what works and what doesn’t, as well as about how much time people can stay focused before they start losing engagement.
The most crucial decision is to only meet (virtually or in-person) when it’s really necessary. Begin with the end in mind. What’s the purpose of the meeting, and what do we want to achieve? Successful design requires centering around the user (the participants), not pleasing the person who called the meeting.
Try this method to design successful online meetings and let me know how it goes. If you want to transform your team or company meeting culture, reach out. Let’s talk about how we help organizations design meetings that people want to attend.