Great Meetings: Design Tight and Run Loose

"Design tight and run loose." This is a one-liner that has the potential to save a lot of meetings from disaster, and a maxim I constantly keep in front of me when I'm working with groups.

What does it mean? It means you have a thoughtful, detailed plan, but you hold it loosely.  Still confused? If you're planning and facilitating a meeting, here are some tips:

Set aside time to build a relevant agenda, but be willing to stray from it. Have you ever been part of a meeting where someone says, "Well, we'll have to put that under 'new business.' I can see you are bleeding out over there, but we haven't allotted time for that." 

Plan for eventualities (like conflict or disagreement) without worrying about them. Some of us go into meetings hoping there won't be any surprises (or worried there might be), but without a plan to handle them if there are! This is the "design tight" part. What might surface in this meeting that's hard, uncomfortable, or unforeseen? How will you allow for that--even encourage it? What will you do if there truly is not time to stop and address it?

Train yourself to make realistic guesses about how long agenda items will take. You'll never get this 100% right. This is where facilitation is much more of an art than a science. But you can get better at it by noticing what happens in other meetings you're in and making your own notes while you're a participant or member in meetings.  This will help your "tight design" be closer to accurate, reflecting the reality of the group instead of just your own agenda.

In some ways, it's easier to design tight than to run loose. Anyone can sit down and write down a bunch of times and agenda items on a piece of paper. But it takes practice (and faith!) to be present to the group, managing the interactions according to what's most useful and relevant in the moment. I like the jazz metaphor--you've got to know the score before you improvise. The discipline make the improvisation possible. And the improvisation helps you keep loving the discipline.