How to Plan a Successful Meeting

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Marvin Weisbord, Sandra Janoff, PhD

You have the most leverage on a meeting’s success before a single person walks into the room. We urge that every time you plan a meeting, you control as many factors as you can. The more you manage the conditions under which people meet, the less you will need to manage their meeting behavior. Fortunately, it is much easier to structure a meeting for success in advance than to worry about the motives and habits of people once they arrive. Here we will suggest what you could seek to control before the meeting.

If it’s your meeting, don’t hold it until you have the conditions right. If you run the meeting for someone else, don’t agree to do it unless you believe you will succeed. Here are guidelines to consider.

1. Know Your Role
If you are a group’s formal leader, the buck stops with you. You can fall into one of two traps: withholding what you know, hoping others will come around, and/or imposing your ideas without hearing any others.

To avoid either extreme, decide before going into the meeting where you stand and how open you are to other ideas. Prepare to say what you know and what you believe; in other words, be a “dependable authority” (Principle 9). There are other ways to think about your role. Our colleague Larry Porter, veteran of a thousand meetings, created a matrix of leader roles depending on the extent to which you (a) manage the meeting and (b) are involved in the content. He calls it “Facilitator Boundaries,” highlighting which aspects of the work are yours and what tasks you leave to others. (Larry maintains boundaries by addressing a group as “you” when he has no content responsibility and/or formal authority, and he uses “us” and “we” when he leads a group to which he belongs or heads.) Here are four possible roles:

Process Only (PO)—You have no management or content tasks. Your role is to observe and comment on how the group is doing.

Process and Meeting Management (PM)—You may be employed to manage a meeting without responsibility for its content. Participants provide information, analysis, conclusions, decisions, and action plans. Future Search facilitators and internal consultants typically take this role. The responsibility is for structure rather than content. If you use a particular meeting model, you advocate explicit structures within which to frame goals, time required, room setups, and formal subgroups. However, the content comes entirely from participants.

Process and Content (PC)—This is a typical role for experts hired, for example, to help a group plan a building, raise money, fix an environmental problem, or mount a public health campaign. In this case you have experience with solutions, interact with the group, and deliver your best advice. A person in authority runs the meeting, but you are on stage much of the time; and you will have great influence over goals, time frames, and agenda.

Process, Content, and Meeting Management (PMC)—In this role, usually, but not always, you are a member of the group and may have formal authority, too. In short, you assume a great deal of responsibility for process, content, and, therefore, outcomes. Larry’s advice, seconded by us, is that once you know your role, make it explicit to the others. You don’t want people to be surprised when you switch from soliciting ideas to adding your own two cents from the authority chair. This can be tricky, changing roles in midmeeting. The best anybody can do, in our opinion, is to (a) stay aware of your role, (b) tell people your intentions, and (c) let people know when you change hats.

2. Clarify the Purpose—for Yourself
Every meeting has a purpose. Does the purpose make sense to you? What will the output be? Is it achievable in the time you have? Whether you are a formal leader, content expert, or facilitator, you will get more if you know going in what product you want. Whether you plan for 10 people or 1,000, the first question to ask is “Why? What is required here? Information, decisions, solutions, action plans—any or all?” We make it a practice at the start of every meeting to check our understanding of the purpose against that of the participants.

3. Assure that Participants Are Equal to the Task
Get straight in your head that you cannot lead, facilitate, or manage your way out of a meeting when key people are missing. Your leadership style will never carry you that far no matter how much training you have. If action is called for, a decision required, a problem to be solved, commitments to be made, you waste everybody’s time acting without the actors, decision makers, and problem solvers.

Prior to any meeting, we check to see if the people are equal to the goal. If we control the invitation list, we want a mix of those with authority, expertise, information, resources, and need. If we don’t control the list, we check to see that those in charge can get the people needed to do the job. It is our responsibility to know that we can reach the goal in the time available with the people who show up. You need no special training to implement this guideline. Your motivation could be an unquenchable desire to succeed.

4. Use Subgroups to Differentiate and Integrate Views
Once we know a meeting’s purpose and time frames, we turn our attention to group size. Most small-group meetings require only one structure, a committee of the whole. If we work only in one group, differentiation occurs as each person speaks or when a show of hands is asked for. There are occasions, though, when we might ask for explicit subgroups—pairs, trios, quartets, eights, and so forth. You can differentiate groups by function, geography, experience, and a host of other criteria. You might do this to:

  • create differentiated perspectives (e.g., parents, teachers, students, and administrators in a school planning
  • give interest groups a chance to clarify their positions (e.g., when there are various solutions to a given
  • organize action groups differentiated by the tasks they undertake (e.g., when people divide complex
    plans into manageable projects).

Simply asking people to form small groups is not what we mean here. If you organize random groups, with no basis in similarities, differences, or preferences, you are not “differentiating.” You are just forming small groups. In our framework, we differentiate to integrate. Integration requires that people interact across boundaries of differences made explicit, seeking to build on all their resources and needs.

5. Plan to Have Each Group Report to the Whole
The number of small groups that can meet at once is infinite. If you have people talk in small groups and do nothing with their conversations, you are facilitating parallel meetings. You cannot advance the purposes of the whole unless everyone hears what the small groups have to say. We always plan for small groups to (a) report to each other and (b) talk over, question, or respond to what they hear from other groups. Each step takes time. The larger the group, the more time you need for each activity.

6. Allow Enough Time
Some goals take hours. Others take days. Time is your scarcest resource. When it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s also controllable. Match time to the goals by asking, “What needs to happen for this group to reach its goal? How long must I allocate to each step?” Whether the meeting lasts 3 hours or 3 days, your achievements are bounded by purpose, group size, and time available. Satisfy yourself that you have the three in balance.

If you want an implementable plan, you need to allocate time so that people can:

  • collect their thoughts,
  • differentiate their stakes,
  • integrate their ideas, and
  • make action commitments.

Ordinarily, all this takes days rather than hours. You may need several shorter meetings stretched over weeks or months. The more complex the task, the more people you may need. The more controversial the issue, the more time people need to differentiate their stakes. Until they do, they will have a hard time making integrated decisions. If you want content without commitment, you can limit input to experts and top dogs. If you want content with high commitment, don’t skimp on time for people to interact with the issues and each other.

7. Choose Healthy Working Conditions

Rooms. Choose your meeting room with care. Choose it to support participants’ health. Make it easy for people to hear, see, interact, and move around. Life in the 21st century is stressful enough without working in rooms certain to increase tension. Basement dungeon rooms are bad for your mental and physical health. People who embrace a notion that you can do better work in windowless spaces strike us as literally having lost touch with their senses. Not one of the thousands of people we have worked with ever complained they were distracted looking out the window!

When you have a choice opt for spaces with doors that open to outdoor patios or balconies. Give people breaks out of doors when weather and climate permit. Otherwise, set up meals and breaks in other rooms, allowing people a walk and a change of scenery. Indeed, many people use the environment explicitly to advance a meeting’s goals. Larry Dressler, for example, has held strategic planning meetings on the coast, “using the ocean and skyline as a metaphor for different aspects of strategic thinking.” Our colleague the late Gunnar Hjelholt, training a Danish oil tanker crew, ran a weeklong session in an inn adjacent to the shipyard, allowing trainees to visit their new ship as it was being built. When practical, we like to hold Future Search planning meetings in the room we will use, so that we know for sure how the space will work, and our steering committee can visualize what will take place.

Sound. Acoustics matter, too. In rooms with bare walls of wood, plastic, or metal and bare wooden dooors, sound bounces around like a ball on a squash court. Rooms with too-high ceilings boom with echoes, and people strain to hear each other. We feel fortunate when we can find carpeted rooms and ceilings that absorb sound instead of turning speech into noise. For large-group meetings, we ask for handheld cordless microphones that can be passed around like “talking sticks.” Indeed, such mikes offer people wonderful opportunities for self-managing.

Accessibility. In many countries, people are required by law to make restrooms and meeting rooms easy to use for those needing wheelchairs or with other disabilities. Required or not, we consider it essential that key spaces be accessible to all participants for the meetings we manage.

Sustainability. Finally, meetings mean little if inadvertently we destroy our shrinking planet. In recent years we have become aware of convenient ways to reduce our “footprint” on the Earth. Our colleague Ralph Copleman recommends many things you can control—reusable nametags; notepads and flipcharts made from recycled paper; ceramic coffee mugs; a recycling bin in the room. If you furnish a meeting room, check out “cradle-to-cradle” furniture, the components of which will be reused rather than trashed.

Excerpted from Don't Just Do Something, Stand There! , by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff. Copyright 2007 by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff. Permission to excerpt the material from this book is given by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. To purchase the book, visit

About the Author(s)

Marvin Weisbord is a fellow at the World Academy of Productivity Science and is the author of Organizational Diagnosis, Productive Workplaces Revisited, and Discovering Common Ground.
Sandra Janoff, PhD, is an international consultant, psychologist, and coauthor, with Marvin Weisbord, of Future Search: An Action Guide. Weisbord and Janoff are co-directors of the Future Search Network, a global volunteer service collaborative.