Short But Powerfully Participatory Meetings


The Diagnosis

You have 20 to 30 minutes to hold your regular team meeting. You’ve fallen into the bad practice of just having people report out. It has become an informational meeting where there’s not very much interaction. Some people may be paying attention for part of it but probably not all of it! You regularly run overtime. What do you do about it?

I’m going to give you five really good tips for creating a pithy (i.e., focused but short), powerfully, participatory meeting in 20 minutes.

I greatly acknowledge the participants of our recent ToP course who did this as a practice session where we asked, “What are our effective ways to use ToP lite?” (See blog banner above for a photo of results). This question was meant to think about how to use ToP methods that normally take one to two hours and shorten them up to 20 minutes. I modified and added to their ideas. Below is my embellished version! I have made sure you can use these tips even if you have no ToP training or experience.

The Remedy

1. Prepare!

Although your group will only be meeting for 20 minutes, you need to take at least 20 to 30 minutes beforehand to prepare for short meetings. Don’t waste everybody’s time. Do your homework:

  • Make sure the right people are invited.
  • Prepare the environment so the meeting space is clean, uncluttered and allows for movement of people.
  • Share your materials in advance – the agenda, the aims and the key question.
  • Make sure there’s water and a quick snack that they can eat standing up if needed.
  • Design a very short check-in

2. Focus!

  • Decide what the key question is for the meeting. The key question is the one and only question that if answered, would make everyone’s life go better.
  • Write out all of your questions that complement the key question in advance. Test all of your questions with somebody coming to the meeting if possible.
  • Make sure the aims or goals of the meeting are clear and visible.
  • Remind everyone of the narrow scope before the meeting and during the meeting as needed. Have a place to write down off-topic questions and thoughts. This is typically called the parking lot. Some people in my city of Portland, Oregon, like to call it the bike rack. You can ask a participant to put these extra ideas on a designated flip chart, whiteboard or PowerPoint slide so everyone knows those items will not be forgotten and be brought up at a future meeting.
  • You can break up your meeting topic into several smaller topics if needed. The first meeting might just be the fact gathering stage for making sure everyone has the right information. The second meeting might be what you’ve heard other people say about the problem and or do a SWOT
    (look it up – but it stands up strengths, weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis on the problem. The third meeting can be looking at potential solutions. And the fourth meeting can be formulating recommendations. That is essentially the ORID structure many of you have heard us talk about in ToP. Again you’ll see more on this in the resources section below. It’s good to get specialized training on ORID (formally known as the Focused Conversation Method) because it really is more complex and rich than you can ever imagine.

3. Norms!

If you have regular team meetings, ground rules or group norms for behaving well, can help keep the communication focused and respectful. One of your ground rules could actually say “everyone will hear and be heard” (source: ICA Associates). Another ground rule might be “we will agree to disagree when needed”. It might take a little bit more time at your first team meeting to form the norms accurately, but once you have them, every other meeting will go more smoothly and quickly. We have a good blog on setting ground rules. Look below in the resources section.


If your meeting is quite small in numbers i.e,. less than five people, you might have small post-it notes for people to brainstorm ideas. Everyone can gather around a small table, standing. They write ideas to a key question on several post-its notes, and then put them on the table for everyone to sort into like themes. If you have about 10 to 15 people, you might enjoy a short flip chart consensus technique that I’ve done a video on. Again look below in the resources.

You can ask people to brainstorm new ideas ahead of a time. Send them the questions in advance. Asked him to come up with Rita for ideas already written on a sticky notes, and then they can share them in the meeting. That illuminates the 10 minutes you might need for the brainstorming phase.

Some of you may have seen or used the sticky well. It certainly does speed up posting ideas and grouping them into like themes. More resources below.

5. Questions!

When you were trying to get people to focus, it’s always a good idea to ask open ended questions. We have a ton of resources on this but bottom line -think through your questions very carefully and stick to your script. I find when I don’t stick to my written questions, I will inevitably fall into the bad habit of asking closed questions. Believe me, it happens to all of us even when we are professional facilitators.

You might have noticed that the emphasis in the above points is to keep the meeting running quickly (emphasis on “short”.).. You might be wondering: How do these points help me with the “powerfully participative” part of the blog title? Here’s my answers: You engage people beforehand in helping you choose the key question for the meeting. You get them thinking ahead of time by sending them questions to answer in advance. At the meeting, you have visuals (PPT or beautifully hand written questions in large format) so they can keep thinking about the topic without getting distracted. You can ask someone to help you write down the parking lot items. You have them write on post-its notes so everyone can brainstorm answers to the question you raise. The open-ended questions ensures participation. You invite them over to a table to participate in a small group exercise or to the sticky wall. You conduct the whole meeting standing up for those who can! Perhaps you ask someone to provide the fun snack. You could ask everyone to do a one word check in or draw an emoticon of how they are doing today. all of this keeps everyone engaged and contributing.

Let me know what you think. What you would add to make your super short meetings “pithy and participatory”?!


Blog: The Facilitator’s Best Friend: ToP Methods and Sticky Walls

Blog: Creating Group Guidelines for Terrific Teamwork

Blog: Want to open the door of dialogue? Don’t use closed questions!

Video: Short Consensus Building Method

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.


  1. Bongani S on June 26, 2018 at 8:15 pm

    It is indeed a blessing to read these articles, to some extent I have applied some of the principles indicated on this article and other previous articles and all it does is wonders.

    Keep them coming and enlighten the upcoming talent.

  2. Joshua Stearns on June 29, 2018 at 2:29 pm

    Wondering how I might adopt these ideas to a weekly meeting where managers go over progress on their projects. There are a lot of ongoing projects, so this meeting can take an hour or more. But since not all managers really can use the information about how other people’s projects are coming, there is sort of a tendency to sit and wait until it is your turn to speak without really getting much value otherwise.

    • Elise Keith on August 29, 2018 at 9:28 pm

      Great article, Barbara (and nice website update!) Joshua – you might take a look at the real-time agenda technique. It incorporates many of the suggestions made above into a specific process and can be scaled up or down for different business scenarios. A bit about that here:

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