Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Defining Objectives

In a meeting world where businesses are demanding real results, the meeting planner needs a new skill -- identifying the real objectives of their clients.

We've been facilitating collaborative meetings for corporate and association clients for over a decade. The first question we ask these clients is "What are you objectives?" This is just the beginning of the conversation.

What we discover more often than not is that our clients don't have a very clear vision for what they want to accomplish in their meetings. They want to "communicate" or they want to "be aligned", but they don't have a clear sense of what that is or how you could possibly tell if you had succeeded.

Helping our clients define their objectives is THE most important part of our consulting work. It is often invisible to the client. It is usually undervalued. It is frequently a frustrating process on both sides. Until you have a very clear understanding of what the participants will have in their hands and in their minds at the end of your meeting (that's my definition of an objective), it is impossible to design a process to make that happen!

So here is how that conversation might go. Let's ask our fictional client what their objectives are.

"We want to get these people together on these days in this city." Ok. That begins to give us some logistics to work with, but these are not objectives. WHY do you want to get these people together?

"We need to talk about this list of topics." This gives us some broad content areas. Great! We're making progress. Within those topics, however, what would you like the participants to create during the meeting?

"Well, we need to make some decisions/get some buy-in/get everyone on the same page!" This is good information. What kinds of decisions do you want this group to make?

"Oh, well, we need to get our priorities straight for the upcoming budgeting cycle." AHA! Now we're really getting somewhere! A list of priorities is a nice, tangible objective. It is concrete. The participants can have a copy of it in their hands. We can look for the list at the end of the session and tell whether or not we have accomplished this objective.

With this kind of objective in hand, we can now begin to explore a whole range of other topics with the client. What items might be on this list of priorities? What were the priorities for last year's budget? What internal and external factors will influence these priorities? How familiar are all of the participants with all of these influencing factors? Should we invite outside experts to share their perspectives on these factors? Should we explore the implications of having different sets of priorities -- how would the organization be different in different scenarios? How will this group make decisions -- is this a democracy or monarchy or something else altogether? What do the participants need to learn about each other and the outside world?

As meetings get evaluated more and more on the results they achieve, meeting planners need to become more familiar with the content and context of these meetings. The people sponsoring the meetings are professionals in their own discipline, but they need help to design and facilitate meetings that will accomplish their real objectives. The meeting planner needs to become a consultant, and it wouldn't hurt to find some professional consultants and facilitators to be part of your meeting design team.

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