On this page: Learn how to run successful consulting meetings
All good meetings boil down to one type of outcome: someone decides what to do next.
We all have too many meetings. This is not new news.
But, as a consultant, meeting with clients is an important part of the process. After all, part of the definition of consulting is building trust so clients have the confidence to take action - and it's hard to do that if you never speak to them.
You're going to have client meetings. It's important to consider why.
What are you trying to achieve? What outcomes do you want?
IMO, there is only one outcome any meeting needs. Someone in the meeting has to take a decision that leads to something different happening.
There must be action.
If no-one does anything different... there was no point meeting in the first place.
There are different types of decisions. Different decision-makers. A consulting meeting could be to help with the big "one-way-door" (thanks, Jeff Bezos) decisions. Like "How should we approach annual price negotiations with our biggest customer?" or "When will we announce our headcount reduction programme?" or "Should we open an office in China?"
Or you might be in a meeting that needs lots of people to make a relatively simple decision that doesn't require a lot of thought. E.g., briefing a sales team on some new sales collateral they can now use - if they choose to.
That might look like a simple "informing" meeting, but they still all need to take the decision to use the new collateral. In other words - even though it's mostly about sharing information, it's still a meeting where a decision must lead to something different happening.
The question for you as a consultant then boils down to this: how do you set-up your client meetings so that people can take a decision that leads to something different happening?
How people make (good) decisions
First we need to think about how people take decisions. Four things are important here:
- Access to relevant information & expertise
- An appropriate framework for decision-making
- The decision-making environment
To take a decision you really only need 4. Confidence. We all know people who shoot from the hip and make confident, intuitive decisions. But I'm assuming you'd like your clients to make good decisions, and intuition (System One thinking) isn't usually the best way to make important decisions.
A good decision turns out to be the right choice in hindsight, requires an appropriate amount of effort & time to take, and can be implemented effectively. This is why having relevant information, applying that to an appropriate framework, and being in the right environment are all critical to good decision making.
Setting up your meeting for good decisions
The first step is to get crystal clear on the decision(s) to be taken and who is taking them. This could be one individual with the "D", or a group of people who need to decide that they'll do what's being asked of them.
Those decision-makers then need access to information & expertise that is relevant to the decision they are taking. Typically this comes from 3 places:
- Conversation in the room, with contributions from those with helpful knowledge
- Pre-prepared data, analysis or insights (the classic consulting deck)
- Work done in the room - e.g., brainstorms or breakouts during a workshop
It's easy for decision-makers to get lost if they don't have a framework to hang all this information around. They need a model to apply it to.
Most consultants have their set of go-to frameworks, models or razors to support decision-making. That's a whole topic in itself. For a successful meeting you need to be ready to guide people through an appropriate framework to help them make their decisions.
The information the decision-makers need and the frameworks they will use have a major influence on your own decisions about how to structure the meeting.
If the info is all pre-prepared analysis you'll most likely choose a more formal presentation style with some limited Q&A that you've prepared for. Most appropriate when there are lots of people needing to make a relatively simple decision each, like the sales team example we discussed earlier.
For complex issues you may need multiple workshops, where the client team work to gather, analyse, discuss and synthesise different pieces of information that the decision-maker can ultimately use. In that case, a mix of in-room experts, facilitators, and - of course - your beautiful slide deck all contribute.
With a good idea of how you'll structure the meeting you need to think about the environment. This includes time of day, who else is in the room, and the physical (or virtual) space the discussion is held in.
For big decisions consider giving the decision-maker more time and space - and shift their actual decision to the morning after. Don't pressure them to make big decisions against the clock, in the room. Like a roast turkey on Christmas Day, high quality, thought-provoking, discussions often need some time to "rest" so that the combination of ingredients, heat and time gets the perfect result.
The final part of the puzzle is confidence. Without confidence, decisions often go nowhere. They get re-opened, ignored, or even rejected. All that slows organisations down and renders your meeting ineffective.
Confidence comes from many sources but I see two elements as most important.
First is the emotional state of the decision-maker. Decisions can be driven by fear ("we must do this, or else...") or excitement ("what an opportunity!"). The way you set your meeting up, the narrative you use, and how you synthesise and present the information they'll use can influence that emotional state. As a consultant, it pays to do this consciously in a planned way.
Second is the extent to which options have been considered, and how well understood the consequences of those options are. Research shows that lasting confidence comes from a deep evaluation of all the options, including identifying potential unintended consequences and second-order effects.
To give true, lasting, confidence in a decision your meeting must provide opportunity for decision-makers to look hard at the options. Evaluate them rationally. Consider the potential unwanted effects. And weigh all that up to make their decision on the most likely best option.
They won't have certainty. But they can have clarity on what is probably the best option. And the confidence to accept the intended and unintended consequences of their choice.
What all this means in practice is you need to ask yourself 4 questions when you're preparing for a client meeting.
- What decisions are we helping them take, and who has the 'D'?
- What framework will help them review their options most effectively?
- What information do they need, and how can we best get them access to it?
- How can we use environment and narrative to give them confidence?
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