There comes a moment in every project when a leader needs to shift the direction from collaborating on great ideas to consensus on a decision point.
When you’re managing projects and juggling everything from line items to launch plans, you’re likely experiencing this kind of moment frequently, sometimes at breakneck speed.
And that’s exactly why it helps to have a trusty system that you can rely on in an effort to avoid the decision fatigue that can lead to poor outcomes, fractured relationships, and flawed strategies.
What Makes a Good Discussion
Let’s step back and start much earlier in the process; the part where we engage in discussion within the team to determine what the next steps will be.
Good discussions are crucial to good decisions. First, they have a clear purpose and objective so you know where your focus needs to be in order to get things done.
Next, they include the right people for the right stage of work. Meetings do not magically become more important by increasing the number of attendees. Stay focused and let your invite list reflect the work to be done.
And finally, they utilize good meeting math. Planning a good discussion requires allocating ample time for the work at hand. Good meeting math ensures that the discussion will flow in a somewhat predictable way from broad to narrow to choices, and ultimately consensus.
When Good Discussions Get Stuck
If it was as simple as clear purpose, appropriate attendees, and functional meeting math, we’d all be running and attending wildly efficient meetings that are consistently energizing and fulfilling.
This has not been my experience. And I’m willing to bet that, by and large, it’s not yours either.
Good discussions typically start off with good intentions of reaching consensus. But, you know what they say about good intentions.
Without a plan for how to move the discussion along and key milestones to reach along the way, good discussions have a tendency to stay exactly that…good discussions. They’re full of great ideas. They generate some spark and enthusiasm.
And then they go absolutely nowhere.
Why? Because good discussions, without a plan for how to move toward next steps, results in what I call The Runway Meeting where the team is unable to launch or land. The team has the same meeting over and over again, with the same scenery passing by the window. Circling and circling, but never making progress.
Sure it keeps everyone busy, but what does it actually accomplish?
Turning Good Discussions Into Better Ones
When you need to move your team from decision to discussion, better meetings can be a helpful starting point. Typically, there are three categories of meetings that can be used to outline effective agendas: Update & Inform, Discuss & Decide, and Approve & Move.
When you’re leading a Discuss & Decide type of meeting, there are a handful of very small adjustments you can make to level up a good discussion into a better one that will have an immediate impact.
First up, the purpose. Good meetings have a clear purpose. Better meetings have a clear purpose that is openly shared with everyone in attendance. This creates a shared set of expectations that immediately gets everyone rowing in the same direction. It has the added benefit of helping your team understand what “done” will look like so they can recognize it when they see it
Next up is the people. Know who you need in the room for this stage of the project and invite accordingly. To move from good discussions to better ones, take another pass at your invite list and consider these two questions.
Does your list include people with a wide range of perspectives and experience who will thoughtfully and respectfully challenge the status quo or is it an echo chamber that reflects the comfortable normal?
Think a few steps further. Does your invite list include anyone from the next stage of the project who may be directly impacted by the decisions reached during this discussion? Could they provide vital input that will keep things running smoothly instead of encountering wholly avoidable hurdles?
Finally, good discussions get better when your meeting math gets better. Cultivate a realistic relationship with time and it will serve you well in every aspect of your life.
In discussions, start with the heart of what the meeting is about. If your team is discussing whether to use the Oxford comma or to be completely on the wrong side of grammar, you probably need just a short amount of time.
But, if solving the mismatch of program benefits and the intended beneficiaries is on the agenda, ensure that the conversation is given an allocation of time that matches the gravity of the content.
Flowing from Discussion to Decision
Now that you have the general map of your meeting laid out for everyone, it’s time to focus on the actual flow of the discussion and how to move from the early stages of brainstorming to decision points that result in actionable next steps.
For that, I recommend a GORP approach. I spent a good chunk of my career at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy where this would definitely have been recognized as Good Old-fashioned Raisins and Peanut Butter.
It’s not. But, it’s equally as simple and effective at crafting better discussions as the original is to providing useful and yummy sustenance.
Quality trail mix and my disdain for peanut butter aside, moving from discussion to decision gets easier when you implement Gather-Organize-Rank-Prioritize.
Gather: This is the brainstorming portion of the discussion. Get all the ideas the group has to offer. Look for quantity at this point as you’ll narrow down the list later. Get their creative juices flowing with a 10 for 10 exercise or if they’re already bursting at the seams, simply start collecting ideas and placing them in a shared workspace. And, as Ted Lasso says, “don’t bring an umbrella to a brainstorm.” Let the ideas flow and leave the discussion and refinement for the next two steps.
Organize: As you gather ideas, begin sorting them into categories or themes. It’s a simple process, but one that makes it infinitely easier for the group to visually take in the options that are available for moving forward.
Rank: Once you have a robust collection of ideas that are conveniently sorted by category, it’s time to narrow the options a bit. It can feel counterintuitive to offer fewer choices, but this study on consumer behavior is helpful in understanding the psychology between the relationship of fewer choices and decision-making. So, narrow your list of ideas by having the team rank them by impact and importance. I like to do this in a silent, blind vote. It gives everyone the same power to influence the ensuing discussion, regardless of their engagement style. In essence, it levels the playing field across your team and yields the truest version of what the team views as the top priorities.
Prioritize: Using the top three ideas from the ranking step, initiate a discussion of which idea is likely to have the biggest impact on next steps, as well as the project as a whole. You can use an Impact/Effort Map to help guide the discussion or a round-robin exercise to make sure everyone has a chance to voice their thoughts.
And Always…Next Steps
By the time you have finished the prioritize step of the GORP approach, it should be clear to the team where you’re headed and why.
Now, firm up that understanding by identifying exactly what happens next, by who, and by when. Who-What-When exercises should be ingrained into the last 15% of every meeting. This simple ‘to-do list’ type of wrap-up makes it clear to everyone that the meeting was useful, that progress will continue, and that accountability is firmly in place.
At it’s core it is the answer to the essential meeting question, “what will be different as a result of this meeting?”
Better Discussions Lead to Better Decisions
When you can successfully cultivate and guide better discussions, the outcomes can’t help but be better as well.
Better discussions make space for transparent conversations that highlight a multitude of paths forward and are genuinely inclusive of every voice at the table.
You’ll get better ideas, better engagement, and ultimately arrive at better decisions that reflect the very best the team has to offer.
If you’d like more on this topic, pick up a copy of my Start With Better Meetings book. Included along with it is free access to my Meeting Makeover Series Mini-Course with nugget-sized tutorials on improving the three most common meeting mishaps.