Want to Get the Most Out of Every Meeting? Ask This 5-Word Question Before You Leave the Room

I’m convinced that two things will be the death of us all.

Number one: death. Number two: meetings.

There’s an overwhelming amount of data on how meetings are not only not much of a productivity enhancer, but they’re also a big time detractor. I’ll pick just one source, an article from fellow Inc.com columnist Peter Economy, in which he cites a study from Doodle’s 2019 State of Meetings report that showed just how much time and money are wasted in unproductive meetings. Hold on to your hats–in the U.S. alone, bad meetings are predicted to end up costing almost $400 billion in lost productivity, and that’s just during 2019.

When I attended or heard about standing meetings (like a weekly leadership team meeting, for example) in which people consistently walked away without direction or clarity, I went into action. I pulled the team leader aside and asked them to run an experiment. I simply asked them to embrace the spirit of five powerful words, one simple question, at the end of their next 10 meetings, and then report back to me on any impacts to productivity.

First, the five-word question.

“Who’ll do what by when?”

Yes–it’s good ol’ fashioned action planning, but incredibly, it’s often bypassed at the end of a meeting. Before I tell you why this phrase is so powerful, I should share that I consistently got back reports of clarity, direction, and overall productivity of meetings doubling (or more in some cases) when a pattern was established that these five words would be asked at the end of every meeting.

Now, why does it work so well? First, using these five words gets everyone on the same page, taking away the same thing, and it brings accountability to the table. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen “meeting drift,” in which after a meeting everyone’s memory turned fuzzy of what was discussed. And it would turn out that not everyone had the same takeaway from the same meeting, which exacerbated the ensuing lack of clarity and feeling that the meeting had been an hour (or more) of your life that you’ll never get back.

When you consistently assign names to actions at the end of a meeting, it also dramatically increases the extent to which everyone is paying attention during the meeting. You don’t want to get assigned a task without knowing why and what’s expected of you.

Asking “Who’ll do what by when?” also forces decisiveness and clarity of thinking because you have to decide on what, exactly, it is that needs to be done next. Many times, I’ve been at the end of a meeting where we begin discussing the “what” that will be done and we realize we haven’t really finished our discussion and come to alignment on the issues or opportunities that would lead up to a “what.” Committing to action forces you to get clear on the rationale behind that action.

As for the “by when” part, it forces actions to be time bound. People squirm when you assign a date to something they own, especially when you do it in front of others–but it drives accountability.

Overall, these five words tend to enhance the entire flow of a meeting. When it’s established that each meeting is going to end with this five-word inquiry, it changes not only engagement levels (as I mentioned) but also improves quality of thinking, preparation coming into the meeting, and a spirit of collaboration and volunteerism, as no one wants to be consistently left off the “who” list.

So let’s practice this phrase now that this article is drawing to a close: “Who’ll do what by when?” You will apply this tactic at your next meeting. Agreed.

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