Meetings are fascinating. They are never just about whatever is on the agenda. For starters, we bring our cultural norms as to what forms of interaction are necessary or desirable. For example, most meetings I attend start with some form of chit chat so that the group can bond. This can be kept short, but something feels off when it is completely eliminated in the interests of efficiency.

Nevertheless, given the time and energy dedicated to meetings it may be helpful to start thinking differently about why each meeting is truly being called and whether there are alternatives. The above question could thus be recast as:

  • What is the desired outcome?
  • Is there another way of getting to that outcome?

Unless you know what you want to come out of the meeting, how can you know who should be at the meeting, what should be discussed and how long should be spent on each item?

For me that “Why are we here?” is paramount. We only have so much energy and attention in a day, so it is fair to ask yourself how this meeting is going to contribute to the larger vision. Even meetings with a clear purpose and agenda can be highjacked if participants spend too long discussing some minor point that ultimately doesn’t really matter. In many instances, these can be more about status and power dynamics or bring to light a clash in thinking styles (strategic vs. tactical).

I’m not going to offer you any answers because in my experience every culture, organisation and even chair runs meetings in slightly different ways. Instead, the invitation is just to get curious about every aspect of your meeting experience starting in particular with curiosity as to the desired outcomes and whether they can be accomplished in a more effective manner. Equally important is clarity on decisions and action items. What has been decided? And is there a name attached to each action item?

With that in mind, here are some additional questions to ask yourself around general meeting practices and norms within your organisation:

  • What are the reasons meetings are called?
  • Might different forms of meetings be appropriate in different contexts?
  • Why is each person being invited? What are they expected to contribute? Is there another way to get their contribution?
  • How much time is spent on chit chat? How important is this?
  • How are the meetings run? Might they be more efficient or effective? Less efficient, meaning more time to explore different ideas?
  • Do we have clear agendas?
  • Is the time spent on each item weighted according to its importance?
  • Does everyone have to stay for the whole meeting?
  • Can people leave if the meeting goes off topic?

Questions in the Image:

  • Why are we having this meeting?
  • What value is being added?
  • What value is being destroyed?
  • Is there an alternative?

Want to Read More Around This Topic?

3 Types of Meetings — and How to Do Each One Well by Amy Bonsall (link to HBR.org). The author explores meetings in a post-pandemic world, suggesting how we might best redesigns meetings for optimal outcomes depending on the type of gathering to be held. This is an intriguing way of thinking about meetings.

Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day. In meetings, I am always curious, asking myself What else is going on in this meeting outside the agenda? Who is it serving? Who is it not serving? How is it benefitting the organisation? What are the tangible outcomes?

About Tom O’Leary

My mission is to help others think differently – meaning more broadly and deeply – and thereby make better decisions. The key to thinking differently lies in our curiosity.

The more we question, the more possible answers we uncover, and the more we expand what we thought possible. Life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential.

And yet, in a culture obsessed with efficiency and productivity, the paradox is that much energy and resources are wasted by a bias towards action over contemplation. If you are answering the wrong question, it doesn’t matter how ‘hard’ you work, you are still answering the wrong question.

That is why I am a big advocate of nurturing curiosity and innovative thinking at all ages, particularly amongst leaders because of the impact they have on us all. In my vision, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are curious, open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning.

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