One Question to Improve Every Meeting

I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings. Who hasn’t?

Most of that time was spent doing one of two things: 1) wondering what karmic debt caused me to be there or 2) praying for catastrophic internet failure.

Sometimes both. Anything to make it stop so I could get back to doing my actual work.

Bad Meetings are Universal

Across the board, my clients routinely complain of too many meetings. More to the point, too many meetings that don’t seem to lead anywhere other than more and more meetings.

Everyone from every industry has at least a handful of stories about the countless hours spent in meetings that are too long, too frequent, and too ineffective.

I have a theory that about 100% of people running meetings think they’re crushing it and about 97% of people attending those meetings would disagree.

Every time I think it’s just my curmudgeon streak and those numbers are too high, I sit through another meeting that seems to say “hold my beer” to all those that came before.

For example, just last week I attended a meeting that should have resulted in assigning actionable next steps to committee members and instead devolved into a discussion of when we might discuss the discussion of the steps.

And that’s a fairly mild example. A friend of mine shared a story recently about what should have been a “home stretch” meeting for a project. Instead, it veered off a cliff when the whim of one manager undid months of work, completely eliminating profit margins in the process. It should have been a moment of pride and accomplishment for the team. On the contrary, it resulted in hours of arguably unnecessary work and successfully elevated ineffectiveness as the value of the day. Worst of all, she took in stride, resigned to the fact that this is simply how things work under the current leadership.

We Learn A Lot from Bad Meetings

Not necessarily good lessons, but we do learn a lot from bad meetings.

For example, we learn what the bare minimum threshold is for participation.

We learn how to covertly do other work so the time isn’t fully wasted.

And, we learn to do our work despite the meeting.

This lesson is perhaps the most devastating of all because it reinforces that sense of resignation, much like the story above, that time is not valued, priorities are not honored, and the goalposts can shift at a moment’s notice, changing the trajectory of our plans and likely resulting in more and more meetings that leave less and less time to make meaningful progress.

Meetings Aren’t the Problem

Let me say it again, meetings aren’t the problem. They’re still one of our best tools for collaboration and have the potential to drive progress.

Meetings themselves aren’t the problem, just the ineffective and unnecessary ones. And there’s one thing that bad meetings all seem to have in common: a lack of purpose and direction.

That’s a problem we can solve! How? By asking one simple question.

One question that, when answered thoughtfully, has the power to transform any meeting.

One simple question that works every time. Every meeting. Every. Single. Time.

It’s a bold statement, I know. And, it’s one I wholeheartedly believe in and stand behind. Here it is:

“What will be different as a result of this meeting?”

Simple, right? It should be. Scalable systems rely on foundational simplicity. And when you think of improving the multitude of meetings that blanket your calendar, you’ve met the official definition of scalable.

Improve one. Replicate the result with another. Scale the system and watch your calendar begin to open up, your projects make sustainable progress, and your teams rediscover a spark that only momentum can deliver.

Why Does It Work?

When you ask yourself what will be different as a result of your next meeting, three things begin to happen.

1. You organize better. When you clarify the purpose of the meeting, it makes the job of planning and leading infinitely easier.

2. You invite better. Clarifying the purpose helps you pinpoint exactly who needs to be in attendance in order to achieve the goal. No more, no less. You’re asking people to trade you their time in exchange for progress. Make sure they are needed.

3. You plan better. Understanding the purpose and the people helps you accurately complete your meeting math. This is the time allotted to each item on your agenda so you can flow seamlessly from information gathering to discussion to decision without running out of time and thus needing to schedule more meetings.

Finding the Flow

The answer to what will be different because of this meeting, above all else, clarifies the purpose for coming together.

Get the purpose right and you’ll have the right people in the right room at the right time to make measurable progress. And with that, meetings become stepping stones on the path toward a goal rather than boulders that hinder forward motion.

Think about the meetings on your calendar and which one you have the opportunity to improve. Then, ask yourself the question…what will be different as a result of bringing people together for this meeting? What sort of progress will be a fair trade for the time they are about to spend with you?

Build your agenda from there and then observe. See how your meetings begin to change. Feel the energy of your team shift when steady progress becomes the norm. And notice the difference in the way people show up, participate, and engage in the process.

Better Meetings, Better Work

Simple as it sounds, better meetings result in better work. And better meetings start with better planning.

One question. Every meeting.

Here’s to doing productivity differently!

If you’d like more on this topic, pick up a copy of my Start With Better Meetings book. It’s a quick read that’s chock full of step-by-step guidance for transforming your meetings. Pair it with the Better Meetings Toolkit to jumpstart your efforts with done-for-you templates and guides.