Avoid Those Large, Lousy Meetings By Asking One Simple Question

Avoiding the most common cause of large, lousy meetings: trying to solve a problem with more than five people in the room

Bad Meetings Can Be Demoralizing For a Team

We’ve all been in a large team meeting where — within 10 minutes — we can tell that this conversation is not going to get anywhere productive before the meeting ends.

Even worse, if we’re the one organizing the meeting, our optimism or sense of obligation to the attendees may prevent us from seeing or acting on the inevitable waste of time that is unfolding. So, we keep on trying to push forward toward the unreachable goal of the meeting.

We have these meetings because there’s a topic we need to discuss that will benefit from everyone participating, yet when the meeting is happening, it feels impossible to get to the outcome we desire because there are too many people in the meeting!

So how can we avoid these doomed meetings and still efficiently accomplish the goal at hand? It turns out, we can regularly avoid this large waste of time by asking one simple question: Are we creating alignment or looking for a solution?

We have these meetings because there’s a topic we need to discuss that will benefit from everyone participating, yet when the meeting is happening, it feels impossible to get to the outcome we desire because there are too many people in the meeting!

Are We Creating Alignment or Looking For a Solution?

If we’re trying to find a solution to a problem that everyone can agree to, the odds are strongly stacked against us if we attempt this in a large group setting.

If we’re looking to solve a problem, it’s best to have a small, motivated group to examine various solutions separately. Once they have a proposal, they can bring their conclusion back to the larger group for feedback.

So, once we determine whether we’re looking to solve a problem or not, we can setup the right type of meeting.

Effective problem solving requires a small, focused, and motivated group of no more than 5 people

Need to solve a problem? Create a problem-solving committee of volunteers!

  • Ask for 2 to 5 volunteers who are motivated to investigate potential solutions to the problem. Their task (should they choose to accept it) is to come up with a proposed solution and bring it back to the team.
  • Inform everybody else there will be a follow-up meeting to review and share feedback on a proposed solution. Ensure the larger group knows a decision is not being made and the opportunity to weigh-in will be coming later.
  • Once the problem-solving committee has met and agreed on a proposed solution, we’ll then be looking to create alignment (see alignment meeting)

If you get a group of volunteers who are motivated to solve a problem, you’re probably going to get a creative solution quickly. Having a real-deal solution to bring to an alignment meeting will give people something to react to instead of getting lost in the land of the theoretical.

Groups can converge on consensus or rejection real quick if a thought-out solution is prepared beforehand

Creating alignment? (spoiler alert) Have an alignment meeting!

  • Schedule a meeting with all those who will be impacted. Let them know we’ll be sharing information with the goal of creating alignment and finalizing a decision.
  • Write up all the information in a shareable form and make it available to the group at least one full day before the meeting. Encourage everyone to read the information and prepare their feedback, questions, or concerns before attending the meeting.
  • If at the end of the meeting, no decision altering issues have been raised, we’re good to go! Finalize the decision and move forward.

If we’re sharing information on a proposal or decision to collect feedback and create consensus, we can do this quickly via one, large meeting. Provided people have time to digest everything beforehand, and no blocking issues come up in the discussion, we can treat this as a group agreement and move forward!

Smaller Group = Creative Solutions, Quickly

Why Does Treating Problem Solving Differently Help?

A productive conversation can only be maintained if 5 or fewer people are involved

If more than 5 people are involved, not everyone is able to actively participate in the conversation and the increasing group size will hinder the openness in brainstorming. The ability to collaborate and make effective decisions will fall apart quickly if more than 5 people are involved.

To propose creative solutions, people need to make suggestions, brainstorm, collaborate, compare, contrast, or any of those other highly-productive and highly-communicative activities.

Some people have strong opinions AND are not motivated to propose alternative solutions

It can be quite frustrating when the folks with the strongest opinions speak up to disagree with a proposal and yet don’t seem interested in providing any alternatives. This can significantly hinder the ability to think through solutions and experiment with ideas. However, if we move the problem-solving to a smaller, independent group, we can avoid this hang-up.

People in this defiant mindset still provide significant value when examining the downsides to a proposal, so we definitely want to include them in the alignment meeting. The great part is, if we ask for volunteers to solve the problem upfront, this audience is likely to opt-out of that exercise; as long as they’re confident they’ll have the chance to weigh-in before the final decision is made.

Fear reduces creative thinking

When the time comes to make a decision that will impact people, fear or anxiety can often enter the equation for both the decision-maker and those impacted by the decision.

The decision-maker may fear making the wrong decision, and thus invite as many people as possible to the discussion to reduce uncertainty and risk.

The impacted people may experience FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and thus attend a meeting they might not need to be part of to reduce their uncertainty and risk.

In both cases, this fear of failure will increase tunnel-vision, which inhibits creative problem-solving.

By making the problem-solving be isolated and separate from making the final decision, the stakes are reduced significantly in the ideation process. Those who volunteer to help are energized and free to think creatively, which will lead to finding better solutions.


Signs That A Smaller Problem-Solving Meeting May Be Needed

Here are some observations I’ve made from large meetings. They were tell-tale signs that we needed to stop and create a problem-solving committee.

  • At least 1/3 of the people in attendance aren’t paying attention at all.
  • At least one person continually voices their disagreement via an alternative idea they feel the group is not considering.
  • Some of the people we feel are critical to making the decision aren’t paying attention or simply chose not to come.
  • One or two people seem to “hijack” the meeting by continually disagreeing with each other, sometimes in aggressive or combative ways.
  • Most attendees are only there because they’re afraid to miss something important, and thus don’t have any opinion about what the decision should be.

Don’t Be Afraid To Speak Up!

Whether in the middle of a meeting or before the meeting occurs, it’s always a good idea to gut-check whether the group is too large to be effective and thus won’t be respectful of people’s time. The earlier we speak up and ask whether we’re trying to solve a problem, the more we can save time and avoid the pain for ourselves and everyone else on our team!



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