Meetings remind me of the opening lines to Charles Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Poor meetings can meander, last too long, and drift into irrelevance. On the other hand, effective meetings can be tremendously productive. For example, meetings produced the U.S. Constitution and its amendments.

Whether you are in charge of meetings or just attending them, you can take steps to level-up your meeting performance. Here are three tools to consider: planning, paper, and problem perception.

Tool #1: planning

Without planning, a meeting can easily fall off-track, with less powerful meeting attendees potentially helpless to speak up to improve the situation. As a result, the host organization may waste resources and ultimately cause the customer to receive a lesser quality product or service.

Meetings never have to be that way. They can accomplish necessary objectives, guided by a flexible agenda and with only necessary personnel in attendance; and at the end of the meeting, attendees can be empowered with responsibility for the resulting followup action items.

The key words above are objectives (what to accomplish) and agenda (what to talk about). Defining and distributing these elements to all attendees before a meeting, along with relevant preparation materials, can strengthen meetings beyond measure and instill a confidence in everyone present. Action items (what to do after the meeting is over) are also key.

Here is an example meeting invitation using this meeting framework:

Objectives

  • Identify 3 ways to improve lemonade stand performance

Agenda

  1. Welcome
  2. Customers
  3. Quality
  4. Pricing
  5. Additional

Action Items

  • (TBD- compile these during the meeting and include task, owner, and due dates if possible/appropriate)

With an invitation like that, everyone knows what and what not to expect. Everyone can come prepared. The meeting facilitator - responsible for planning, execution, and everything else about the meeting - does their team a great service when they prepare adequately.

Meeting attendees can do their part by preparing to participate and contribute to the meeting meaningfully and follow-up on any relevant action items. These two responsibilities translate into three meeting attendee guidelines, of which the third is the most important and italicized for emphasis:

  1. Come prepared
  2. Stay engaged
  3. Note any relevant action items during the meeting

Preparation is key for anyone who wants to level-up their meetings. Prepare sufficiently as a facilitator, and follow these three guidelines as a meeting attendee, and you are likely to be effective.

Tool #2: paper (or substitute)

Our best thinking is often not done alone or just with other people. It is also done with writing tools, like pen and paper. In fact, some thinking is practically impossible to do without writing, like physics calculations to send a rocket to space.

Fortunately, there is no need to visit a faraway space center to understand the value of paper. Just visit any school, where students typically use a paper across all subjects. In science and history, they use to it to record their notes, preserve their observations, and write their reports. Language and literature students use it to write and edit their work before producing a final essay. Mathematicians use paper to think through their proofs and calculations, only the rare mathematician can do quality work without it.

Students might not need paper for an improvisational comedy troop, sports team, or improvisational jazz ensemble, where spontaneity and interplay are key. But these sorts of activities are primarily non-academic. In the classroom, they probably have pens or pencils in hand.

Certainly, paper is not helpful for every cognitive activity. For example, it will not help someone to swerve to avoid an obstacle in the road because there is not enough time. But writing tools can do wonders for the slower type of thinking that Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. For careful thinking in business or in life, a piece of paper and a pen really can make a huge difference.

And, the writing tool does not necessarily have to be a pen and paper. Substitute tools like word processors, spreadsheet applications, e-conferencing applications, blackboards, and whiteboards can do the same job under certain conditions. Mainly, it is important to have something, just to avoid being like a chef without a cutting board or an auto mechanic without a lug wrench. If thinking carefully is the game, writing and objects are part of a winning strategy.

Life can force us to think deeply and critically at unexpected times. In those moments those around us deserve our very best effort, and that means being prepared to write - especially in meetings.

Tool #3: problem perception

The third key is the most abstract and may to be the rarest: always know the difference between problems and solutions.

Imagine we are holding the lemonade stand meeting using the agenda we saw earlier, but with an added "Attendees" section:

Attendees

  • Me, Bob, and Sue

Objectives

  • Identify 3 ways to improve lemonade stand performance

Agenda

  1. Welcome
  2. Customers
  3. Quality
  4. Pricing
  5. Additional

Action Items

  • (TBD- compile these during the meeting and include task, owner, and due dates if possible/appropriate)

After welcoming everyone to the meeting, the conversation goes like this:

You: "So of course, our goal is to increase lemonade stand performance. The next item on the agenda is to talk about customers."
Sue: "Yes, customers are key to selling more lemonade. The Thomas family just moved in down the street, and I think we need to try to reach out to them."
Bob: "Yes, that is a great idea. We can invite them to our lemonade stand next weekend and give them a coupon."
...

This meeting went off-topic, fast. It jumped straight to the Thomas family idea without any justification of whether talking to them is a wise use of our time or not. It is a little bit like giving the answer "4" without knowing whether the situation is asking for "1+2=?" or "2+2=?".

We cannot be certain that talking with the Thomases is wise, but it is 100% certain that many possible actions were left out of the discussion. What about putting flyers on customers' doors? What about distributing a survey? What about checking prices of nearby competitor lemonade stands? Etc. Any one of these unexplored solutions could be better that speaking with the Thomases.

Experienced facilitators try to understand the problem before talking about solutions in order to help ensure that they consider enough possible courses of action. What exactly is the problem with the lemonade stand's service to customers? Are not enough coming? Too many? Or is everything going just fine? Define the problem first, and you have a totally different conversation, for example:

You: "So of course, our goal is to increase lemonade stand performance. The next item on the agenda is to talk about customers. Do we have any problems in this area?"
Sue: "Yes, I noticed that we are losing repeat customers, and even though our neighborhood is growing our levels of new customers are flat. This suggests we may have problems in marketing and satisfaction."
You: "Terrific analysis, Sue. What have we been doing to understand and improve marketing and satisfaction?"
Bob: "We have a number of initiatives underway. ..."

In this second dialogue, the problem is understood: the lemonade stand is having difficulty attracting new and repeat customers. And after the problem is defined, targeted and relevant solutions start to flow.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that all meetings must follow this same conversational flow. Different situations call for different approaches. For example, sometimes it makes sense to spend more time analyzing options to increase the chances of perfection (choosing the best option), and sometimes it makes sense to spend less (choosing the first satisfactory option). At other times, it may make sense to conduct lots of small, cheap "fail fast, fail often" pilot projects to see what sticks, without thinking too deeply about "problem." Depending on your situation, there may be multiple ways to decide on a workable or innovative courses of action.

The point here is that no matter your decision process, problem perception is a valuable skill. It is all to common to confuse problems and solutions, resulting in a waste of resources. For example, it happens every time someone buys a gym membership that they do not end up using, or whenever someone buys a new piece of software based on how easily it comes to mind instead of what it can accomplish. (See solutionism.) Thinking about desired outcomes and goals before committing resources can often prevent waste.

In particular, being able to quickly distinguish between problem and solution can help you keep meetings short, effective, and on-topic, for the benefit of both your team and your customers.

Header photo by STIL / Unsplash