Get something on paper first – only then start talking

There are three types of meetings and interactions with people (I’m sure the official literature has more, but for me, it comes down to these three critical archetypes):

  1. Brainstorming – You have no idea what to do, and you need as many ideas as possible from everyone.
  2. Making decisions – You have a plan or are pretty close to a plan and just need to get over the final step of making a decision.
  3. Informing – This is presenting out. All options have been evaluated, and now it’s only about reporting out on those.

…and then there’s the fourth variety: the unstructured “let’s just talk it over” meeting where you go wild across all types, everyone talks, and no one listens, and with all likelihood, the group will spend most of the time in a deep rat hole on a minor topic, completely missing the bigger picture (while 90% of the attendees tune out).

Let’s not have that last type of interaction; it’s not fun.

We all know how to run “Informing” meetings: you collect all the facts you can remember, organize them into a logical story flow, and build a nice PPT to walk folks through the evolution of thoughts that got you where you are. Bonus points if you make it look good (design matters) and throw a fun joke or two in there to lighten up the mood.

Most of us also know how to do “Brainstorming” meetings: you need a lot of Post-Its, a big white wall, a framing question, and off you go. Make sure to collect inputs and avoid getting locked in any one of the ideas – you want to go quick to gather a wide perspective instead of dwelling in deep details. Also, make sure that you proactively include quieter participants. Easy peasy and always fun as no one needs to make any commitments at this stage.

But how about “Making decisions”, when we do need to get people to make commitments?

This is harder as most people would much rather talk about inconsequential ‘What-ifs’ than making a decision that will lead them to commit and being accountable for outcomes. In the “making decisions” phase, meetings have a high propensity to be derailed by semi-related questions that come out of the blue or by digging into very deep discussions on very small subjects until all available time is spent.

A good – if not the best – way to keep decision meetings focused, structured, and moving forward, is to bring written content to the meeting. The written word has gravity, and seeing a document keeps everyone on topic. Of course, you need to share this document in the meeting so that everyone sees it on the screen as you guide through discussions, and everyone can also see how decisions get added to the document as the discussion progresses. That visibility and documentation allow you to keep people moving forward and to dwarf any attempts of going back to things that were already decided. It takes time and energy to prepare a strong written document, but the effort will pay off many times in decision-making meetings.

If you want to convince, you need to start writing!

A word of caution: this approach and this type of meeting are focused on narrowing down an information funnel and coming to decisions. Employ them at the right time(s) of a project. It’s not an effective way to gather as many ideas, questions, and concerns as possible – for that, you need to have a brainstorming meeting, and you need to hold yourself back from the temptation of providing initial ideas.

A blank page creates ideas. A written (draft) plan focuses discussions.

Widen the funnel with brainstorming meetings, shrink it with decision-making meetings. Never mix up the two!! You cannot do both in the same meeting.


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