“Our lives are not totally random. We make commitments, we cause things to happen.” – Wendy Wasserstein (1990)

We’ve said before that you should always have a plan before attending a scheduled meeting. Your plan should include a specific personal goal (e.g., “I will leave the meeting with an agreement from Jeff on the new product”) as well as ideas about how to attain that goal (e.g., “I’ll make him a quick, logical argument — and if he doesn’t go for that, I’ll remind him of the favor he owes me”).

If you approach your meetings with this kind of goal orientation, you will probably never be disappointed. Even if you don’t achieve the specific goal you aimed at, you will get in some useful practice or gain some knowledge that will be helpful in the future.

If you go into a meeting without goals, your experience of it will depend entirely on other people and the goals they have.

So plan your meetings in advance. Set specific, personal goals. Determine sensible strategies to achieve them.

When you are running a meeting, you have to do all those things and something more: You have to make sure that the meeting provides an opportunity for everyone else to benefit. Planning a meeting with only your own goals in mind can result in failure, especially if those who attend fail to plan too.

I relearned that lesson late this summer in rural France, where my partner and I ran a meeting that achieved one of our own goals (we wanted to find out how much attending executives knew about the business, how capable they were, etc.) but was roundly disliked by most of the participants. Part of the problem was the decision to abandon — at the last moment — the planned agenda for a looser structure that we hoped would stimulate more activity and ideas. It seemed like a good idea at the time (as they say).

It failed because most of the attendees were expecting to be shown, told, and given certain things — which they did not get. Their expectations, stirred up by the printed agenda, went unmet.

In retrospect, it’s clear that the meeting could have both accomplished our goals and pleased the attendees if we had planned the agenda more carefully and stuck to it. And, perhaps just as important, we should have reiterated the purpose of the meeting at the outset — and resold the attendees on the importance of what they were about to hear.

Also, we might have asked them what they expected to learn in order to make sure that their expectations — even if they were different from ours — were addressed if not entirely satisfied.

In the future, I’ll follow this procedure when calling a meeting:

1. Figure out the objectives. (What is my goal? What goals should attendees establish for themselves?)

2. Translate those objectives into benefits. (Why will achieving the goals be good?)

3. Restate those goals and benefits at the beginning of the meeting.

4. Ask at the beginning of the meeting whether there are any objectives that need to be added to the agenda.

5. Before closing the meeting, make sure everyone has had an opportunity to work toward his objective.