Four Questions to Ask before Every Meeting

hands-1202488_640by Dan Hotchkiss

If you dread meetings, don’t despair! Four key questions can help almost any meeting to be better focused, more satisfying and productive. You can ask these questions in advance—or you can ask them shortly after the meeting has begun.

Here are the four questions:

1. What is the purpose of this meeting?

A meeting with an unclear purpose often is an aimless meeting. Stating a meeting’s purpose in advance can help shape almost everything about it: the agenda, the invitation list, the information to collect ahead of time. Best of all, a purpose statement helps you know when you are finished and can go home!

One way of thinking about a meeting’s purpose is to identify what you hope the meeting will produce. Most meetings fall into one of several categories, based on the desired outcome. Ideally, each meeting should belong to just one category, even if the agenda consists of several items.  That way, the “mood” of the meeting will be more or less consistent from start to finish.

  • Some meetings happen for the purpose of making decisions. For a decision-making meeting to succeed, it helps to have a statement of what is to be decided. Authority for making the decision may belong to one person or to the group as a whole. Either way, the necessary authority must be in the room, or the meeting will end inconclusively. Relevant information should be gathered and distributed—preferably in advance. In this kind of meeting, a decision is the product—and the meeting is complete when the decision has been made and responsibility for next steps clearly assigned.
  • Organizing for action is another reason for a meeting. The product of an action meeting is a plan. A task force to clean up the church basement, for example, might hold a pre-cleanup organizing meeting. Action meetings start with a mandate to act—an action meeting is not the place to decide whether the basement should be cleaned! Only people who are ready to engage in action—or to contribute to a plan—should be invited to an action meeting.
  • Some meetings happen for learning and reflection. These meetings can be some of the most satisfying—or the most divisive, depending on how they are planned. To avoid frustration, it helps to announce the purpose of a learning meeting in advance, so participation can be truly voluntary, and so no one is confused and thinks agreement is the goal. Learning is enhanced when the pressure to make decisions and organize for action are deliberately removed from the agenda. A good way to convene a learning meeting is to say, “We will not be making any decisions in this meeting. Our purpose is to learn.”

There may be other reasons to get people together, such as “To share information,” or “We like each other.” To me, it is a stretch to call such a gathering a meeting because these purposes are better served in other ways: by email, or by throwing a party! The worst “purpose” for a meeting is that bylaws or other documents require a certain body to meet. If no one can think of a more focused reason for a meeting than that, it’s time to amend—or simply to ignore—the bylaws.

2. What is our plan for this meeting?

Meetings are more fun when they have a plan, especially a plan that fits well with the purpose. If the meeting organizer has not prepared a plan, it’s up to the participants to make one. A good procedure is to work backward from the meeting’s purpose. If the purpose is to make decisions, a clear statement of the scope of what is (and is not) to be decided can save lots of time. Planning separate steps like sharing information, praying silently, exchanging views, and putting your decision into words can help the group to stay on track.

A good meeting plan includes clear expectations of participants. Reminding everyone at the beginning of the meeting about the importance of listening and mutual respect helps to avoid having to enforce rules after they are broken. Some groups have rules about using electronic devices. It’s no longer realistic to prohibit them entirely, but many groups ask participants to avoid unrelated email, web browsing, or social media.

3. Who will be responsible for next steps?

Many meetings get bogged down trying to draft language. Tedious group wordsmithing often can be avoided by appointing someone to carry the work forward after the meeting. Then, rather than attempting to write an exact statement of a decision, plan, or another outcome, the meeting leader simply asks, “Do you have what you need from us in order to take this to the next step?”

The carry-forward person (or small team) can then take the results and translate them into a motion to be voted on at the next meeting, a plan of action to be carried out, or a reflection on the conversation as a starting point for the next meeting.

4. When will we adjourn?

While it may seem a bit discourteous to ask, before a meeting starts, when it will end, believe me: it’s even ruder to ask halfway through! A variation is simply to announce when you plan to go home—and say you hope the meeting can accomplish its purpose by that time. The result, as often as not, is that the meeting becomes so much more efficient that everyone heads home at the same time!

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Dan Hotchkiss consults with congregations and other mission-driven groups from his home near Boston. He is the author of the best-selling Alban book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, which has helped hundreds of churches, synagogues, and non-profit organizations to streamline their structure and become more mission-focused and effective. A revised and expanded edition of Governance and Ministry is now available using the discount code 4S16HOTCH.
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