How to run the “we have no clue” meeting

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As a leader, either as a manager or an individual contributor, you’ll experience the meeting type that I call “we have no clue what we’re doing” meeting. The meeting where you are brought in as a leader or a resource on a project. And it’s clear in this meeting that no one has a clue about what people should be doing, what they should achieve or what actions need to happen next. The disorganization is clear, obvious, and there is no continuity in the discussions.

No clue.

There is a specific process to address the issues in this particular type of business meeting. It comes from the Getting Things Done book by David Allen. He calls it the “natural planning model.” It’s a good description. Let’s take a look at it.

Define the purpose

This is the “why are we doing this?” question that no one has asked. Because no one knows why we are doing this stuff, there is no purpose and people go all over the map in what they talk about. Plus, if there is no purpose to doing the work, why would anyone want to do any work to get it done?

For those who saw the movie Apollo 13, the most succinct description of “defining the purpose” came when they showed a bunch of engineers throwing a bunch of stuff that was on the shuttle down on a table so they could build a carbon dioxide filter. The purpose? If we don’t build this, the astronauts will die.

Very clarifying. Gets everyone on the same page. Gets everyone focused.

Define the outcome

Now that we know we need to do something so that the astronauts don’t die, what is the end game for what we’re doing? In the movie, throwing down all that stuff in the space capsule (including duct tape!) on the table brought something close to this statement: “We need to build this (a box filter to get rid of carbon dioxide) using only this (the stuff on the table).

Unless one understands the outcome of the work, lots of work will take place…all of it not helping to achieve the goal.

As an employee, doing a bunch of work that means nothing is totally frustrating.

Brainstorm the work that needs to get done

Now that you know the purpose (the “why”) and the outcome (the “what”), it’s time to brainstorm the work that needs to get done (the “how”) to get to the outcome.

All the brainstorming rules here apply — all ideas are good, collect all of them no matter how weird, and put them in a place so that the group can see the ideas because it will trigger more ideas. Do that in a defined period of time.

You can’t brainstorm, though, unless you know the purpose and the outcome. Otherwise, the ideas have no focus and won’t contribute to a solution.

Organize the work

After getting enough ideas, it will soon become clear that the ideas fall into categories. A natural organization will start to take place if the ideas are visible to the group.

In this step in the process, the people in the meeting need to organize these ideas into groups that make sense.

Define the next actions to take

Once the work is organized, you’ll end up with something like milestones. Statements like “we need to procure the equipment.” “We need to get resources to help with the work.” “We need to determine a marketing plan to sell the product.” You might get stuff more specific than those, but much of what you’ll get in the organizing stage will be these bigger statements.

The key attribute about these statements is this: they are not actionable. You can’t give them to someone (“Sue, we need to procure the equipment”) and have them know what to do next. Instead, they need to take that statement and break it down into something a lot more: getting the equipment means defining the makes and models of equipment needed, if we currently have vendors that supply the listed equipment, with multiple vendors defining who should get the business, and figuring out delivery dates.

“Sue, we need an equipment purchase list.” Let’s assume Sue knows what equipment is needed; there may be even more work to get the list so that statement is done.

Take each of the organized categories and define at least one action to take next. Assign that action to a person and a time frame to accomplish the task.

The results?

It may take more than one meeting to accomplish these big steps. That’s okay — it’s worth the time to define the why, the what and the how. Where most of these meetings fail — and the work around them then fails — is not defining the next action to take and assigning that action to a person to accomplish. Without that last step, everyone thinks someone else is working on what everyone else thinks you are working. More confusion, no results. Very frustrating.

Getting to the next action is incredibly powerful. There is purpose, there is an outcome, there are a group of tasks to do and you know exactly what your next thing to do is to accomplish the outcome.

This sounds very formal, but it’s really how we all operate in real life. We figure out why we need to do something, what we want to accomplish, think of a bunch of ideas to get it done, organize the ideas, and then write down what we need to do next to accomplish it.

Business is no different. The difference is that few managers practice what should be natural planning to accomplish a goal.


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