How many hours have you spent stuck in mind-numbing meetings where the conversation is so mired in the weeds that you have to amuse yourself by coloring in the holes in the D’s and R’s and O’s on a brochure on your desk? Really…that many? Yikes.
(I’m grateful to the real estate agents in our neighborhood who provide a steady stream of notepads for me to color in.)
While it might be painfully boring, if it’s not your meeting, you might feel that you have no control over the agenda and that resignation to your tedious fate is the only option. It’s not. There are many ways you can nudge a meeting in a more valuable direction. Let’s talk about the different varieties of low-value conversations and then I’ll give you some approaches to shift the conversation to something more valuable.
I have written before about the five dimensions you can use to assess the value of a meeting. You can even complete my fun Weed-o-Meter assessment (it’s better to laugh than cry, right?!?). Let’s go through each dimension so I can provide targeted questions depending on the issue.
Now versus Later
The most valuable conversations are focused on things you can change. The things you can change are in the future (unless you have a time-traveling DeLorean). Too much time focused on the present reinforces a reactive, fire-fighting culture. Worse, too much time focused on last month or last quarter reinforces a judgmental, passive culture. You want as much of your meeting time focused on the future as possible (even if that is reflecting on what happened last quarter to guide what you’ll do differently next quarter).
If you find your team talking too much about the past and neglecting the future, try these pivots:
“Where from here?”
“What did we learn?”
“What do we still have to solve for?”
Notice that these are very short questions. The best nudges are exactly that, nudges. You’re not trying to side-swipe anyone by going on and on. Being pedantic or snooty about it will only create defensiveness. Keep it short and sweet.
How versus What
It’s amazing how often teams try to workshop problems on the spot. Someone identifies an issue and folks just can’t help themselves, they start trying to solve it. There are many pitfalls with this approach, not the least of which is that solutions brainstormed in the moment tend to be based on many opinions and little evidence. Also, usually, only two or three people in the room have enough context to contribute while the others return to filling in O’s and D’s. A better approach is to spend time talking about what needs to be solved and what good solutions would look like and leave figuring out how to another forum.
If your team has rushed into the phonebooth and donned their superhero solution capes, try refocusing the conversation with one of these:
“What do we want done?” “What would be a good outcome?”
“What makes this important?” “Who are the key stakeholders?”
“Who could do this?” “What context could we provide?”
Information versus Insight
Another common pitfall of meetings is their propensity to get sucked into reams of raw information without ever generating insight about what the data mean. You look at sales figures, or engagement survey results, or competitive trends, but it’s all just about what is and not about why it is, what it means, or how it could change. Getting a meeting focused on insight helps you go from what, to so what, and now what.
“How does x relate to y?” “What is the common cause between x and y?”
“What is the trend?”
“What’s causing this?”
“How might this look differently if…”
“If that’s true, what do we need to do?”
Peripheral versus Core
Another habit that is sure to drive you to the doodle pad is the tendency of meetings to devolve into talking about peripheral issues rather than the substance of the decisions that need to be made. That might be talking about small decisions that can only be made after the big ones are set, or it might be debating over matters or style or personal preference (wordsmithing by committee, anyone?). Great meetings stick to core issues and answer the priority questions in the right order. If the tail is wagging the dog in your meeting, try:
“What do we have to answer first?”
“Before we talk about the communication content, what do we want people to know, think, feel, and do differently?”
“Who is the most appropriate person to own these detailed decisions?”
Individual versus Collective
Finally, you might lose your nut if your meeting devolves into a conversation between two team members while everyone else just spectates. (To be fair, this is less hard on the neck now that we’re mostly online. In a room, you’re craning from one side to the other like watching Wimbledon.) If your meeting time has simply become a convenience for people who can’t be bothered to address their mutual issues in a more appropriate forum, you’re going to want to intervene. The most valuable use of meeting time is on issues of collective relevance. See if you can encourage those with:
“What help would you like from us on that?”
“Who owns that issue?” “Do we need to have input on that?”
“What would be most valuable for us to discuss while we’re all together?”
On this last dimension, one of the best ways to steer your meetings toward collective issues and away from glorified concurrent one-on-one meetings with the boss is to recommend agenda items in advance. I’m always shocked to learn that team members fail to suggest agenda items and then complain that the meeting was useless. Duh.
If you’re wasting time in meetings with discussions that add little value, don’t sit back. Use these questions to direct the team’s attention to the high-value questions. Your teammates will thank you.
Do you have other suggestions for pivot questions… let’s hear ‘em in the comments! And if you try any, let us know how it goes!