5 questions to ask before your next meeting

Look at your calendar for the upcoming week.  How much of your time is already booked with meetings (1 on 1 or as a group), and how much of your time is free?  In my last job, meetings dominated 75% of my calendar, and colleagues interrupted the remaining 25% looking for impromptu meetings. Most days I was lucky to have 1 hour where I could be productive, and that precious time still had to be split across answering emails, working on my personal projects, and addressing the strategic priorities of my department and my overall organization.

And this imbalance of meeting time versus individual work time only gets worse at higher levels.  Most managers have calendars that are closer to 95% meetings and 5% individual work time. CEOs are even worse. Somehow CEOS fill their calendars with closer to 120% meetings. It is no wonder why a lot of leaders work in the evenings and on the weekends.  There is just no time to sit in all these meetings and do all the work that is expected of them. 

Obviously one solution is just to say ‘No’ to more meetings, but having fewer meetings might not be possible for your situation.  If you cannot say ‘No’ or delegate your meetings, then you can still save your precious time by improving the effectiveness of your meetings. And I’ve found that the best way to hold effective meetings is stop having ad hoc meetings. Instead, you need to ask these 5 questions and create a more effective meeting agenda.

5 Questions to ask before your next meeting

1) Why do you need this meeting?

What is the purpose of this meeting?  What do you want to achieve out of it?  Too often people set meetings without having specific outcomes required from the meeting.  If you don’t know what you are trying to achieve, then most likely you are wasting your own time and the time of the other participants.  Your meeting agenda needs to have a clear purpose. Without a clear purpose a meeting might not be required, and maybe an email will suffice.

There are generally 3 different reasons to call a meeting (Informing, generating ideas and discussions, and making a decision.  Sometimes a meeting requires all 3, as you will want to update the participants on the progress of some parts of the project, make a decision on the next step of the project, and generate ideas for the final steps in the project. The 3 purposes of a meeting are:

  • Informing – You need to have everyone understand a problem and be aligned on what is being done to resolve it.
  • Generating ideas and Discussion – You need people to give their inputs and ideas on how to resolve the issue.

Unless you understand the purpose of your meeting, you will never be able to truly prepare for an effective meeting.

5 Questions to ask before your next meeting

2) Who needs to be at the meeting?

Too many meetings get set with little thought on who needs to attend.  Often we just invite the usual suspects, without thinking about the benefits of inviting new perspectives into the discussion.  Sometimes we keep inviting people that we know will derail the meeting. If the purpose of the meeting is to generate new ideas or bring in new discussion points, then maybe you want to reevaluate who should be in the meeting. 

For most teams, every week it is the same people who attend the weekly meeting, and that means most likely they are not hearing different voices in those discussions.  Most teams would benefit from sometimes bringing in non-team members of the business to hear their opinions, bringing in frontline employees to get an end user perspective, or even hear direct input from a customer about their experience with the company.

5 Questions to ask before your next meeting

3) Where should you conduct the meeting?

From my own experience, meeting location was really just a decision on what meeting room or office was available.  I know I never gave it much thought, and I can bet that the majority of you haven’t spent a lot of thought on it either.  But this is a missed opportunity, because there is a lot of research that shows that different ways of conducting the meeting have different impacts on effectiveness.

For example, there is a lot of research that shows that meetings conducted while standing are conducted faster than meetings with chairs.  The simple pressure of standing in a meeting makes people want to be more efficient.  One study found that standings meetings were completed 34% faster than sitting meetings, even though both achieved the same quality outcomes.  If all of the meeting rooms in your company follow the same conference table / chairs layout, then maybe it might be worth converting 1 of the rooms into a standing only layout.

It isn’t just standing or sitting that impacts meeting effectiveness.  There is a lot of research that shows generating new ideas are improved when done outside of the traditional office.  Sometimes this might mean doing an offsite meeting, or sometimes it can be as simple as taking a walking meeting.  If you want to get someone’s ideas on your proposal, talking through your proposal as you walk around the block might generate different perspectives as compared to sitting in your office.

5 Questions to ask before your next meeting

4) What topics should you discuss?

An effective meeting has a strong agenda that is built off the purpose of the meeting.  A good agenda is built from the following components:

Clarity about content

Each agenda point should not only be clear about what will be discussed, but also what kind of outcome needs to be achieved.  I recommend that you identify the desired results in your shared agenda, this way the participants have a clear idea of what is going to be expected from them.

Clarity about procedure

When you are building your agenda, you should identify the different methods of discussion or decision-making you will require.  Not everything needs to be an open discussion, sometimes you will benefit from other facilitation techniques, like splitting the group into smaller discussion groups or by having the team give feedback through placing Post Its on large posters of your proposal. There are many different styles, and by planning out different ways to drive the discussion you will not only have a more effective meeting, but you will energize your team.

Clarity about order

Sometimes the meeting has a natural flow, and topics build off of one another.  Other times the topics have no natural order.  Either way you should carefully plan the order of your discussion points.  When there is a natural build up of topics, then that is the order.  But when there is no natural order, we recommend prioritizing your topics, and addressing the most critical one first.  That way if you run over time, then at least you didn’t waste time on non-critical issues.

Clarity about timing

Setting a time limit for discussion points is critical if you want to address everything on your agenda.  You can’t be spending 30 minutes discussing an issue you expected to take 5.  The expected timing of the topics will also impact the order in which you discuss them.  If you think one non-critical topic has the potential to go over time, then you should place it last in the agenda.

5 Questions to ask before your next meeting

5) Who is my support in this meeting?

Before your meeting, it can be valuable to get the input on your proposed agenda and start gathering some of the main concerns from the participants.  Obviously you cannot do this with every invitee, but you can do it with a few key stakeholders.  If these stakeholders feel like their input was received and incorporated into your agenda, then they are more likely to help drive the meeting to its intended conclusions.  The feel shared ownership of the meeting, and that will lead them to be more constructive during the discussions.

5 Questions to ask before your next meeting

Preparing before meetings means more time for the important things

Your time is precious.  The more time you are wasting in inefficient meetings, means the less time you have for the important things. For some that might be visiting more key clients or planning next years strategy. But for others it might be coaching your top talent or spending more time with your family and friends.  Efficient meetings start with an efficient meeting agenda. 

But this change won’t happen on its own. You need to be setting the standard for efficient and effective meetings.  You need to be role modeling the planning of meetings, and giving your people a focused agenda that runs smoothly.  Only after role modeling the behaviors yourself, can you then ask your people to start living them.  As more people start planning more effective meetings, your calendar will begin to free up, and you will be able to do the critical things you want do.  Think about that next time you walk into a meeting unprepared.

I would also like to give credit to the company who is the inspiration source of research for this series on conflict.  I have had the pleasure to work with the international training company Mind Gym, which specializes in integrating best in class practices, science, and energetic activities into 90 minute training modules.  You might not think you can learn a lot in 90 minutes, but you would be wrong.  Mind Gym has created some of the best material I have ever worked with, and that is based on my experience leading the training and development for 2 Fortune 500 companies.  Their website in

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Cary Bailey–Findley has built High Performance Cultures within three Fortune 500 companies, and was awarded the ranking of #1 development organization in the world by the Association of Talent Development. He is currently the Talent Manager for SimCorp, but spends his free time helping startups scale up the the talent they need to succeed.

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