For any meeting, the product (or outcome) is only part of the objective. Your purpose focuses the meeting. It communicates why the meeting is occurring and what each participant should expect. It sets the tone for the meeting. Even before the agenda, it should be the first thing your participants encounter. With it, you’re setting everyone up to reach consensus quickly and have a higher chance of preventing the dysfunction that can otherwise derail the success of an important meeting.

A true story of purpose

Fourteen years ago, in my first months an internal facilitator, I was asked to facilitate a series of meetings for two businesses that worked as a single, integrated unit. For a full century, these two groups had worked in tandem. Regulatory mandates were demanding the separation of the businesses, and it was causing unimaginable stress for everyone involved. I was new to the industry and didn’t fully understand its nuances.

The first meeting was the least successful meeting I’ve ever facilitated.

The second was one of my most.

The first purpose statement read:

To define the boundaries between the Transmission and Distribution (electric) systems.

The participant group included two people from finance and two people from the electric system business units. They knew that regulatory mandates were required. They did not have a choice about whether or not to attend the meeting. These people knew they had to separate the business and they knew how. But it was clear that trying to do it with them was a really bad idea. It didn’t take long for the senior executives to begin to argue. We ended the meeting without accomplishing much other than scheduling the next.

Between the first and second meetings, I took some time to rethink the purpose statement I included in the invitation. It was clear that I needed to modify our purpose:

To define the boundaries between the T&D systems and agree to an implementation plan by addressing the needs of all stakeholders including the Transmission, Distribution, Finance, Regulatory, Construction, and Operations business units.

This seemingly small change in the statement to include an agreement helped to align the participants on a purpose they could control. They could focus on the specific parts of the business that would be affected by the separation and on engaging stakeholders who could help to articulate related issues for each of those areas.

My first purpose statement was perfectly valid. It stated what the group needed to accomplish. But I had failed to capture the importance of encouraging these stakeholders to work together through the particular complexities and stresses of this situation. If I had stated this more insightful purpose from the start, I probably would not have needed to salvage the first meeting. Nonetheless, this session stands as one of the most impactful improvements I’ve made in my career.

Getting to purposeful outcomes

As we concluded the second meeting, my partner – who had assisted in developing and revising the purpose statements cheered. “We did it! They got a definition and implementation plan, and no one even raised their voices.” The session was a success! We had spent three hours wordsmithing that apparently simple statement. By going beyond the facts of the session to include beliefs and concerns, we changed the entire tenor of the meeting.

Think about “Heads, Hands and Heart” when drafting a purpose statement.

What will people have (Hands); what will they know (Head); and what will they believe (Hearts)?

The second session invitation included both the products and the purpose. First thing, the participants saw we were defining success as more than explaining Transmission versus Distribution. We were defining it by the ability to address their distinct needs as they implemented a newly separate business model.

The participants did not have to show up prepared for battle. They could come to the table ready to articulate what they needed to support the separation. Without any prompting from us, each business unit held preparation sessions before the meeting to articulate the definition, the necessary information, and a set of operating guidelines for the new model.

During the meeting, we engaged meeting facilitation best practices like setting ground rules, defining consensus, projecting real-time revisions to the definition, and using a flip chart to clarify issues that needed additional research. The central purpose supported all the efforts and reminded participants that success would include compromise.

Better Purpose Statement = Better Meeting

A good purpose statement makes for a more productive, less dysfunctional meeting. The ultimate success of this experience reshaped how I plan a session. Today, the best practice process involves:

  1. Draft the purpose statement
  2. List the products
  3. Develop the agenda
  4. Revisit the purpose to make sure it includes Heads, Hands, and Hearts

Carefully wording your purpose statement will help you reduce dysfunction in the meeting. Sticking to the Purpose of the meeting will help ensure your team accomplishes the products/deliverables they set out to accomplish. If you really do need to change your purpose mid-stream, review the new purpose with the group to ensure buy-in and that the right people are present.

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