Facilitating a successful collaboration meeting hinges on creating a space where people with different skills, roles, and responsibilities can come together to form a plan of action.
Distinct from department or team meetings where attendants enjoy shared knowledge and close social context, collaboration meetings are composed of attendants who don’t always work together. This may include a mix of people from separate teams, different companies, contractors, or other external stakeholders.
As you think about collaboration meeting formats, you need to anticipate the specific types of challenges you are looking to solve by bringing these people together, and plan ahead to keep the meeting on track with an agenda that works.
When should you run a collaboration meeting?
Collaboration in the workplace produces new products, services, insights and solutions by bringing together people with different perspectives.
Working backwards from there, it makes sense to run collaboration-specific meetings when you need to generate fresh ideas or respond to new challenges. This could be a one-time project kickoff, a monthly strategy session, or an ongoing emergency response committee.
Obviously they’re very different types of meetings, but each allows people with varied skill-sets to communicate directly across company boundaries to advance specific goals.
Collaboration meetings increase the speed of decision making by connecting all of the relevant parties and getting them to agree on decisions with mutual accountability.
At the recurring strategy session, for example, the gathered individuals talk through cross-company performance, hidden dependencies, and potential opportunities. With perspective from various positions across the company, the group converges on insights they could not produce in isolation.
With so many different types of people present, it’s essential to have a thoughtfully planned agenda to guide discussion.
The perfect collaboration meeting agenda
The best meetings of any kind are always the result of careful preparation. You want to be sure that you have taken care of all the pre-meeting essentials, which include:
- Booking a room
- Sending invitations
- Confirming attendant availability
- Sharing the agenda and other materials
Trying to facilitate a meeting without checking these boxes is playing with fire, especially when you are bringing together a diverse group of skills.
Sending invitations gives people a record of the meeting details (who, when, where), and will help you surface potential time-zone or scheduling conflicts among attendees.
An early invitation helps people organize life on their end so that they can be present and fully engaged come meeting time. Sending a reminder closer to the date is also a good idea, and you may be able to automate this process using a task management app.
Invitations are also used to start building context for the discussion. As you draft, reach out to other attendees for their input. Start collaboration early by getting the group involved on the agenda. Encourage them to be specific about the issues and questions they want raised.
In addition to another set of eyes, getting people’s input on the agenda shows them you are invested in their ideas. It’s also a fairly painless way to include contributions from people who “hate talking” in meetings.
Agenda Item #1: Lay ground rules for collaboration
Begin the meeting on time and greet people as they arrive, even if they are just logging on to a video conference. This is polite, but it’s also an important step towards creating a supportive environment.
Allow people to make introductions, especially if they are meeting for the first time. By acknowledging the presence of everyone who is joining the meeting, you can mitigate some of the social uncertainty that comes from collaborating directly or remotely with people from other spheres.
Before you dive into the meat of the discussion, make sure that you’ve established consistent group guidelines for:
- Discussion etiquette: Is there a shared sense of speaking rules and how to pose questions? Depending on the group, multiple individuals may be used to holding the floor.
- Web conference etiquette: Do people look into the camera when they are talking? Should people mute their audio when they are not talking?
- Meeting structure: Do people’s expectations of the meeting line up with what you have in mind?
If a group is familiar, you may need to spend a relatively small amount of time outlining the structure and etiquette of the collaboration meeting. Even so, you want to clearly establish the context and purposes of this specific meeting. To that end, make sure to:
- Explain the “why”: Provide sufficient background so that your colleagues understand how their work fits into the bigger picture, as well as any recent developments that may impact group decision making.
- Set clear goals: What does the group need to have accomplished by the end of the meeting? You want to be open to new ideas, but it’s important that people have a strong sense of the meeting’s immediate deliverables in order for them to contribute.
One last thing: Start the meeting on time, even if people are still trickling in.
Do what you can to acknowledge late-comers without disruption. It’s important to stick to the schedule because your ability to facilitate the agenda will determine the success of the meeting.
By letting late-comers set the pace, you don’t incentivize people to show up on time, kill the flow of the meeting, and jeopardize the outcome.
Agenda Item #2: Review follow through
With the ground rules and goals established, the next step is reviewing the action items the group agreed on last time. Did people follow through? Did the action items have their desired effect?
It’s extremely important to monitor the fate of collective decisions and hold individuals accountable for following through. People will start to question the utility of meetings when there are “no results,” or the “results don’t matter.”
Avoid this by budgeting in time to take stock of the impact the group’s work is having. In collaborative meetings, this is all the more important because the individual participants may not easily see the fruit of the labor.
For example, someone from the product or development team may have contributed knowledge that led to better experience for customer service . Unless you are sharing the efficacy of the group’s decisions, there’s a chance that one of your colleagues will mistake their productive suggestion for a case of “no results.”
Where you do have issues of accountability (people not following through, and so on), they need to be addressed. Making a follow-through review a routine part of your collaboration meeting agenda takes a lot of the “personal” emotions out of the event. There are no surprises.
Handling these events in a consistent way will prevent people from feeling unfairly blindsided by consequences and ensure that people who are following through aren’t incentivized to slack.
Agenda Item #3: Discuss key talking points
Now that you have reviewed the team’s performance of the prior action items, it is time to begin discussion of the key talking points the group has defined. Much of the success here depends on your preparations before the meeting.
Unless you have a compelling reason, I’d share these points with attendants ahead of time. That way, people have time to think about what they want to say and collect relevant information.
I also suggest gathering your colleagues’ input as you refine your list. Asking for talking points in your meeting invitation is good, but if it’s a boilerplate offer, consider reaching out to people individually as well.
When you ask, frame your request within the specific challenges the meeting seeks to solve. Even if they don’t have input per se, you have gotten them thinking about the issue from your perspective, and they may have fresh ideas come meeting time.
As for the scope of your talking points, standard meeting logic applies: don’t try to cover too much. Ideally, you can build a collective sense of priority, and whittle the list down to the essential elements that need the attention of the full group.
In order to track the discussion, there are a number of excellent collaboration tools and meeting templates you can use. These help you capture insights in clear notes, archive individual comments, and record follow through on action items.
Tips for productive collaborative discussion
- Fires first: Research, along with common sense and experience, suggests that the first items discussed receive an outsized share of time and attention. If you have burning issues, get those front and center.
- Mind the clock: The only way you can discuss each talking point is to keep the meeting moving at a steady pace.
- Transplant longer conversations: Postpone discussion of specific subjects when they go over time instead of cutting them off. Ask the relevant attendants to continue their meeting later and report back to the group. This allows the meeting to proceed and may help foster a relationship between people who should be working more closely.
- Keep conflict productive: Encourage people to be open to sharing and receiving pushback on their ideas. Maintain focus on the goals and purposes that you identified at the beginning of the meeting.
Don’t be afraid to continually reframe discussion so that it is directed toward the action items the group needs to create. Sometimes, just mentioning the time is enough to get people to refocus, especially if you have consistently ended meetings on time in the past.
Agenda Item #4: Agree on action items
In the final stage of the meeting, you want to turn the discussion of key points into concrete steps that your colleagues can take in order to advance the goals of the company.
By the end of this step, you want a list of action items that are:
- Assigned to specific individuals or groups
- Clear in objective
- Realistic in scope and timing
- Tied to specific metrics
Reaching action items with these qualities is challenging in any setting, and only more so when the group is pulled from different parts of the company, or different companies altogether.
The diverse backgrounds present in collaboration meetings tend to result in divergent explanations and solutions. Representatives from development and sales, for example, may have different diagnoses of what ails a struggling product.
When particularly thorny problems emerge in discussion and people can’t see eye to eye, it may not be something you can solve in the closing minutes of a meeting.
Take advantage of conflicting perspectives by assigning responsibilities to groups that cross departmental boundaries. This way, both parties have a shared interest in collaboration and cooperation moving forward. Conflict in the meeting can be a sign that individuals aren’t collaborating close enough — not that they can’t collaborate.
Keep track of commitments and be transparent. Using project management software lets everyone see what action items they are responsible for, which encourages follow through without direct management.
With the action items shared, the group’s work is done and you can end the meeting on time. If people have lingering concerns, open a forum for them to share, but don’t extend an otherwise timely meeting unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Predictability is important to your colleagues, who have to budget this meeting against their other responsibilities. Starting and ending on time shows respect, builds healthy routines, and is the only practical way to discuss everything you plan.
Don’t forget the most important part of every meeting
Before everyone exits or signs off, make sure to thank everyone for their time and contributions.
It sounds small, but you don’t necessarily know where people are coming from or where they are going. In collaborative meetings, people have different responsibilities and aren’t always as conscious of the challenges faced by those outside their sphere.
Whether or not a person looks back at this meeting in a good light can easily impact how they carry out the work they’ve agreed to do for the group. Thanking people and acknowledging their contributions is a zero-cost way to tilt the scales in a positive direction.