So many meetings and discussions – from a board meeting to a quick chat in the hallway with a colleague – get sidetracked and bogged down. Sometimes that’s fine – a little chitchat to build relationships can build relationships and spark ideas.

But that can’t be the norm in your meetings. Because that’s what kills organizations, if meetings take forever and decisions drag on and nobody knows how long this is going to take and why are we talking about this again?

Because I’m an external consultant these days, I don’t just show up at meetings like I used to at a big company, where sometimes I had the luxury to just flop down into a chair and wonder passively what was going to happen. (I went to a lot of meetings, in my defence.) Now I work on a project basis, and I’m not an insider. So that provides more structure to the meetings I have with clients and the interviews I have with stakeholders.

And certainly when I’m leading a board meeting, I am acutely aware of the need for productivity and effectiveness.

But it’s easy to let meetings lose focus, and I sometimes see how that comes about in the different organizational cultures I work with.

Here are some quick, hopefully memorable reminders of how to run – or participate in – a meeting so that it’s as effective as possible.

You can use these questions to chair a meeting by trying to anticipate the answers. And you can use these when you’re a meeting participant too, to maximize your ability to keep the conversation on track and answer the question you’re being asked. These are applicable to large interagency meetings in huge conference rooms, and likewise to quick update chats with your supervisor.

It may seem basic, which may be a sign you’re on the right track. But even you smart people sometimes need a reminder to focus on the key question. Which is:

What are we talking about today?

Let’s take this simple question – “What are we talking about today?” and break it down to its components.

What exactly is the WHAT that we’re talking about?

What are the boundaries of this discussion? Whoever introduces it should sketch out the topic under discussion, and give you a sense of what it is – and is not. Why do we care about this? What’s the relevance?

We should also get a sense of the boundaries. Are we talking about national issues, or just Saskatchewan? The whole organization, or just this one program?

Why are WE the ones who are talking about it?

What is our role here? Do we need to decide something, do we provide some general consultation based on our perspectives, do we make a specific recommendation that we want others to approve?

Who else in our organization – or elsewhere is talking about this?

What do we mean by TALKING?

What is the purpose of this conversation? Is there a decision to be made? Are we being given some context, just for our information? Are you looking to run it by us so we can start thinking about it?


What’s the time factor here? Is this something far off, or is it urgent? Do we get to put our feet up (metaphorically) and blue-sky some stuff, or do we need to talk about what gets done as soon as everyone hangs up the phone?


Not all of these answers will be all that clear at all meetings. Sometimes we do need to have the conversation to know how to have the conversation. And we don’t want to bludgeon each other with our tightly controlled agendas.

But keeping in mind that we should know “What are we talking about today?” We don’t follow this every single time, me included, but now you’ve got an open invitation to remind me the next time I don’t, OK? And I’ll try to do the same.

If you’d like to have a conversation about effective board conversations or other strategic issues, please get in touch.


Photo by Richard Rutter via flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.