The Basics of Designing & Facilitating Meetings

Here are some key questions to get you started in understanding and working with meeting design and facilitation.

What is Meeting Design and Facilitation?

Meeting Design is the deliberate act of planning and preparing for meetings ahead of time, which follows a process and includes certain key elements. Meeting Facilitation is the conscious act of guiding the meeting process so that it stays on course, to make sure everyone participates, and to reach the agreed-upon meeting goals.

What are the benefits of designing and facilitating meetings?

Over 25 million meetings take place every day in the United States, and probably several thousand take place daily at MIT. Organizations, departments, and groups can, in part, measure their efficiency and effectiveness by the success of their meetings.

To have successful meetings we can use common meeting tools and techniques to keep our conversations on track, make sure everyone has a chance to speak, and clarify how decisions will be made. But it is also through our meetings that we collectively decide what actions we will take to fulfill our mission. The character of our meetings, be they open and supportive or hierarchical and competitive, mirrors our organization or group culture.

By designing and facilitating our meetings more deliberately and systematically, we can achieve better thinking, more robust solutions to problems, and greater support for decisions. Moreover, we can begin to create the type of meetings (and in turn the type of organizations) that reflect the basic human values of mutual understanding, full participation in decisions, and support for each other's efforts and aspirations. (For more on working collaboratively with others, see our Working on Teams learning topic.)

What are some key ideas related to meeting design and facilitation?

A basic tenet of meeting design and facilitation is the idea that meeting process is distinct from the content of the meeting. Content is what gets talked about and decided. Process is how the discussion happens and how decisions are made. It's important to pay attention to both.

We can assign different roles in a meeting to help ensure the effectiveness of our meeting process. Having a designated facilitator responsible for managing the meeting process and a recorder who takes notes frees the rest of the meeting participants to focus on the content. For a list of some ways to be an effective recorder see Recording Tips.

Another key idea: Planning prior to a meeting and follow up after a meeting are of equal importance to what happens during the meeting.

What are the key elements in planning a meeting?

There are many things to consider when planning a meeting, including the purpose, participants and logistics. Two of the most important items to clarify when planning a meeting are the desired outcomes and the agenda. The desired outcomes are the tangible goals or objectives of the meeting. A good question to ask to help frame your desired outcomes is, "What do you want to walk out of the meeting with?" For some complex meetings, developing desired outcomes may be a lengthy process involving several people.

Once the desired outcomes are set, the agenda can be built. Agendas should include the content topics to be considered, the method for considering each topic, the time limit for the topic and the person responsible for the topic. Often, a specific topic will have a desired outcome so that everyone understands what is expected. For a more complete explanation of agendas and examples of desired outcomes, see our article How and why to use a Meeting Agenda.

What does a facilitator do during a meeting?

The person who takes on the role of facilitator is responsible for guiding the participants toward the desired outcomes by following the agenda. Good meeting design is the first step towards a successful meeting, but facilitators will use many techniques to keep the meeting moving, to include everyone in the conversation, and to handle difficult situations. First, facilitators need to explain the agenda and any special tools they may be planning to use, e.g., group brainstorming (see Brainstorming Guidelines). Facilitators will make sure ideas and proposals are not lost. They will remind people of the time and point out when the conversation gets off track.

Often the team or project leader is the one who facilitates meetings. Although they may not think of themselves as the facilitator, they should be attentive to the process of the meeting as well as the content. Even meeting participants can act in facilitative ways by asking a question or making a suggestion to get the meeting back on track or to draw out a person's idea.

What about follow up after a meeting is over?

At the end of a meeting, it is useful to list the tasks to be accomplished and to assign people to those tasks. This action list should be sent to all participants in the form of minutes along with a list of key decisions made and important information recorded at the meeting.

Where can I go for additional information?

Now that you have an overview, learn more about meeting design and facilitation by visiting Articles and Tools and Recommended Resources.