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7 Questions That Make You The Smartest Person In The Meeting

Forbes Forbes 3/05/2015 David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom

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Often tagged as ‘boring,’ ‘pointless,’ or just ‘wastes of time,’ we wondered why some meetings fail to offer any value, while others actually inspire, and make us feel energized. Is it the content of the meeting that makes the difference between good and bad? Or is it the people in the room that make the difference? 

Meetings, of course, are a necessary aspect of work. According to the National Statistics Council, the average employee in America spends 37% of their time attending meetings. Other studies show that managers attend an average of 60 meetings each month. And although a study commissioned by Verizon and conducted by Meetings in America revealed that 39% of employees admit to dozing off during meetings, a whopping 92% of those surveyed suggested that “successful meetings may be a contributing factor for employee job satisfaction.”

Curious, the two of us began monitoring our meetings (by phone and in person) to see if we could pinpoint activities, structures, personality styles, or any other criteria that would differentiate insightful and energizing meetings from boring and unproductive meetings. What we noticed was interesting. First, most meetings began with a similar straightforward, ‘this-is-why-we’re-here’, nature. And although some meetings continued and concluded with the same humdrum tone, others ignited into passionate discussion when and if one of the attendees asked a thought-challenging question.

Some of the most game-changing questions we heard that created the most insightful meetings include some variation of the following questions.

1. “Just so we’re all clear, how does this support our purpose?” 

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Asking this question during a meeting shows you’re focused on the bigger picture. Author David Lappin, in a recent podcast interview, explained how a clearly defined purpose makes decision-making easy—the purpose acts as a filter. And a recent survey by  Deloitte   revealed businesses that rank high on purpose-based qualities are positioned better in areas like: brand strength, customer loyalty, revenue growth, and agility. 

2. “Are we asking the right questions?”  

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Think hard about this question and what it can accomplish. For instance, consider the day Marty Cooper was tasked by his company to create the first car phone. He didn’t hesitate from diving into the project. However, he did have one nagging question: “Why are we calling places (homes, office, and cars) instead of calling people?” Questions like these during meetings challenge the very reason you’re in the meeting, but they also lead the discussion to areas far beyond the current thinking—like to the invention of the very first cellular phone. 

3. “Whom else have we talked to about this?”  

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This question holds a secret power. Think about it. How often do you find yourself in a meeting with the exact same people you spend time talking to during an average day. The marketing department has meetings with the marketing department. Accounting with accounting. Productivity in meetings can skyrocket when you ask for outside opinions—either by bringing fresh ears, eyes, and ideas into the meeting, or by challenging your coworkers to go talk to people outside their inner circle. Research actually shows that 72% of award-winning projects involve conversations with people who may have a totally different viewpoint, opinion, or perspective. 

4. “Do we know how this will be received by the end-user?”  

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The point behind any meeting is to discuss what has changed, what needs to change, and what will change. But so often people don’t look far enough down the path to see how those changes impact everyone. For example, downsizing a product’s packaging might be a great green initiative. But if you’re primary customer is elderly and can no longer read the smaller label, you’re facing a new problem. So how can you predict how any change impacts all people involved? Go see the change or the work being received in its environment. People are actually 17X more like to be passionate about their work when they see how it is received. 

5. “I’m curious, could we get your opinion?”  

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This question we heard a few times, asked a few different ways. What’s interesting is that it had the biggest impact when it was directed at people in the room who may have been quiet, or may feel like their input isn’t as credible as other people in the room. And it makes sense why it had an impact. A recent survey by the Cicero Group asked people what factors would cause them to produce great work. The number one answer (37%) was “Recognize me.” Sitting through meetings where you feel your ideas and opinions aren’t welcome can be torture to the human spirit.    

6. “Is there something we could add or subtract that people would love?”  

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So often we all get stuck thinking that what is, just is. And this concept remains true with meetings as well. We believe we know why we’re there. We believe we know what the outcome should be. But what if we looked at every intended outcome as if it was never fully complete. Consider what happened when Kraft decided to add noodles to its existing powdered cheese product. Kraft Dinner was born. Tinker and twist the intended outcome of your next meeting with this question. Work is 3X more likely to be called “important” when someone has added or removed an element to make a significant change. 

7. “Are these ideas sustainable, scalable, and can we stick to our plan?”  

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Asking this question led meeting participants into great conversations where they not only discovered pitfalls, but also realized opportunities to expand ideas. Of course, how many meetings have we all attended where the ideas never get implemented? It’s a common problem.But as shown in the largest ever study of award-winning work, 90% of great work projects include employees who remain involved through implementation.

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