Five Keys for Great Meetings, Part 3: Problem Solving

This week I’m continuing with the five-part series on creating more engaging, meaningful, effective and impactful meetings through these five keys:

1.   Start and Finish on Time

2.   Be Clear on the Question (or Agenda)

3.   Don’t Solve Problems (other than the problem that’s the focus of the meeting)

4.   Finish with “What Did We Decide?”

5.   Always Establish Clear Ownership and Next Steps

Today we’re diving into the topic of problem solving in meetings and the ways that attempting to solve problems in most meetings is not only ineffective, but adds to the dysfunction of those meetings.

Let’s start with this important principle – in most cases, do NOT attempt to solve problems in a meeting unless the meeting is scheduled specifically to solve a particular problem. You might think that solving problems is the purpose of meetings, but it’s not true. The purpose of meetings may be to identify problems and issues, but unless the meeting is specifically scheduled to solve a problem, the meeting is not the time to attempt to solve it.

You all know what I’m talking about. Think about how often you sit in meetings where a problem or issue is identified or discussed. In many cases, it’s not the first time for the discussion, and you likely get tired of the same problem or issue being repeatedly discussed without any resolution. The thing is that we like (too much) to talk about problems and issues, so we discuss them over and over and over, but we do not do what needs to be done to move towards a resolution.

Another challenge we have is that when we talk about a problem or issue, we thinkthat we are solving it or at least moving towards resolution, but this is a false perception. Talking about a problem is just that – talking about it – and problem solving is far beyond talk. In fact, a rule of thumb to remember is that talking about a problem without a specific focus on resolutionis a waste of time. How about that truth – every minute you talk about a problem is a waste of time unless and until you shift into solving mode.

With that said, the only time to attempt to solve a problem in a meeting is when the meeting is scheduled for the express purpose of solving that specific problem. If not, do NOT attempt to solve problems when they inevitably come up in the meeting. You know how it works – a problem or issue pops up in a meeting, and suddenly the meeting is diverted to a discussion of the problem, but without any resolution or even clarity on what the next steps are towards a resolution. In addition, you typically end up discussing the problem or issue with everyone in the meeting when only a very few people need to be part of the discussion. This ends up wasting the time of everyone else and causes them to disengage, which is one reason we talk about death by meetings.

Here’s the secret sauce when a problem or issue comes up in a meeting. First, quickly decide if the problem can be solved with a brief (less than five-minute) discussion. If yes, solve it. If no, do not attempt to solve it. Second, if you cannot solve the problem in less than five minutes, then instead quickly do three things: 1. Decide who will take ownership of the process of solving the problem; 2. Identify (if necessary) who else needs to be part of the solution process; and 3. Determine the priority level of the solution for this problem. That’s it – just these three decisions, and then get back to the meeting agenda.

There you have it – do not solve problems or issues in a meeting unless that meeting is specifically intended to solve that particular issue. Make some quick decisions and then move on to the intended purpose and agenda for the meeting. Your team members will love you for this shift, and your meetings will quickly shift into high engagement, effectiveness and impact.

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