What are we solving for?

Do your meetings go off on tangents so that two hours later you’ve covered a wide swath of territory but made no decisions? Do you find yourself at cross purposes with teammates getting frustrated that you can’t seem to figure out why you’re fighting? Does your team run off to get things done and only discover later that you had different visions of what needed to be done and now you’re back at square one?

These are incredibly common problems and frequent contributors to the over-population of meetings in your calendar. When you aren’t disciplined about what you’re talking about, you need a much longer meeting (mostly so everyone can hear themselves talk). When you don’t make a decision, you need to have another meeting. When you misinterpret directions and have to rework the proposed solutions, you’re into meeting hell as everyone needs time to defend their approach.

Instead of spiraling into meetings madness, use the magic words: What are we solving for? Then use this disciplined structure to move through your list of issues at a much better clip.

I’m going to use the term “Page” to describe the different lists that you need. I’m an old fashioned flip charter, but you can use a white board, smart board, web sharing tool—whatever floats your boat. The only important thing is that all participants in the meeting can see it–so a pad of paper or a laptop isn’t sufficient.

  1. Page 1: The Long List. Start with your first agenda item and develop a long list of issues that team members think need to be addressed to bring that issue to resolution. Use a brainstorming approach. Don’t discuss the items, just get them quickly documented.
  2. Page 2: The Short List. Triage the long list down to the highest priority issues that can be addressed in that meeting. If something is high priority, but you can’t solve for it with the people in the room or with the data you have, don’t waste time on it. (See #12)
  3. Take the short list and put it in priority order. Number each item 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.
  4. Page 3: Issue #1. For the first item, stop and ask “What are we solving for?” As the different aspects of the issue are described, capture them on Page 3.
  5. Now order those sub-issues based on which needs to be solved first. Label each sub-item: A, B, C, etc.
  6. Page 4: The No-fly Zone: Then ask “What are we not solving for here?” Write those down too because someone will inevitably start trying to address the very thing you said you weren’t trying to solve for. Keep a Taser handy for those moments. (kidding!)
  7. As you dig into the list of sub-issues, keep track of what you’re solving for. “Ok, we’re starting by talking about what our completion date needs to be. That’s 1A.”
  8. Work away on 1A until it’s resolved and the outcome is documented OR until another question prevents you from coming to a conclusion. If the interdependent issue is already documented, then say “we’re moving to 1B and we’ll come back to 1A.” If not, write a new question on the list and call it 1A-i. Re-label 1A as 1Aii
  9. Page 5: The Outcome List. When 1Ai is resolved, write the outcome on a fresh list—your action, decision, outcome list.
  10. Now return to 1A (or 1Aii) and solve for it. Write that answer on your outcome list.
  11. Re-direct any attempts to drag the conversation into another topic. Firmly and nicely say “we agreed to solve for 1A first.”
  12. Page 6: The Parking Lot. For important but tangential issues that emerge during the conversation or for issues you can’t resolve in the room, start a sixth list of issues for later. That’s your parking lot.
  13. At the end of the meeting, collect and sort out your lists. Create a clean copy of the long list, the short list, each issue list, the outcome list, and the parking lot.
  14. Distribute all the lists to team members and use them to set the agenda for your next meeting.

It’s total micro-management: those on the team who love structure will be purring, those who despise structure will be growling. That said, it’s the only way to address your wandering, convoluted meetings and start getting things moving.  At the end of the first meeting, you might only have solved for one thing.  But actually solving for one thing is better than covering everything but coming to no decision.

Further Reading

Why Decision Making is not so Simple

Can your Team Make Decisions?

I Beg (You) to Differ