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What’s the Intent of your meeting?

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This post is an excerpt from” Will there be Donuts? Better Business One Meeting at a Time” (published in the U.S. by HarperCollins, October 2013, available at Amazon and B&N), by David Pearl.

What’s the Intent of your meeting?

“Why are we meeting?” you ask, and people will usually tell you what the meeting is for; the objective. Knowing the objective is important but not sufficient. Not if you want to really meet. It is possible to have a perfectly plausible objective and still completely waste your time. Once you know the objective, you want to be asking yourself and others the real question: why is that objective important/useful/valuable/worth doing?

Or in other words, what is your intention?

You may have a meeting where the objective is to discuss sales figures. But discussion is not the ultimate intent. It’s there so that you make great decisions, or navigate the next year well, or protect your investment or … or … or …

We are so used to collapsing intention and objective together we sometimes forget there’s a difference. When you buy a lottery ticket, your objective is to win. Your intention is about what you will do with the winnings.

To discover, or uncover, the true intent of a meeting I suggest clients use the question “so that …?” to dig down into the objective to find the true intent buried beneath. It’s what I like to call the “why of the why.”

Let’s work through a practical example.

Imagine a weekly team meeting. Let’s say the objective is to share information. To help you identify the intent, I’d ask you to consider the value in doing that.

Me: You share information so that …?

You: So that people all have the same information.

Me: OK. And what happens if they all have the same information?

You: We will all be on the same page?

Me: Hmmm. So that …?

You: We can avoid errors, feel better connected, make better decisions …?

Me: And if you did all those things what would that give you? So that …?

And we keep descending the so that … ladder until you hit what feels like the bottom, a why that sums up the heart of what you are doing and, most importantly, satisfies you.

You: To learn fast. Quicker than our competitors!

Me: Nice intent. Why not tell your colleagues that, next time you have your weekly meeting? Just before you get into the “stuff,” remind people that this meeting is there to help you learn quicker and outthink your competition. I think you’ll find that perks people up more than a plate of HobNobs.

Here’s another example, a real life one. I was working with a client, an auditor for a major bank, who described his monthly audit meeting as boring. His colleagues apparently felt the same way. We tried to excavate the deeper intent without much luck. He was getting stuck and I was getting frustrated. Then I remembered he had talked about his 18-year-old son and, on a hunch, I asked him if the boy drove a motorbike. Anton paled. He was clearly not happy. Why, Anton? “Because it’s a dangerous world out there,’ he replied with real passion. Anton was clearly very intent on being a good dad as well as a good auditor.

“So that …?”

“So that I can keep things safe in a dangerous world!”

By a roundabout route we had uncovered the deeper intent of Anton’s meeting and, possibly, his working life.

Which would you rather attend, a boring audit meeting or one that was going to help you keep your company safe in a dangerous world?

When you do this exercise you will find there are many ways down the ladder. And you can discover many different intents for the same meeting. In fact, I’d encourage you to refresh and renew the intent to keep the meeting alive. The important thing is to lift the manhole cover of the objective and start climbing down to find an intent you can tap into.

Intention Powers People as well as Meetings

“Knowing why” is also a key feature of successful teams and individuals.

Often a team meeting seems to lack power because the team itself is unclear about its reason for being. It doesn’t know why it’s there. If you think that’s the problem, it can be very useful to ask the group the following question: What is the work that only we can do? Have a conversation about the unique contribution that only this precise collection of people can make to the business or organisation. If you can’t find one, it’s maybe time to redesign the team, not the team meeting.

It’s just as true for individuals. In this fast-moving, multimatrixed, endlessly restructuring world of ours it’s increasingly common for people to know the job they have but not the job they have to do. Roles are no longer as clear-cut as they were in the days of the baker, the blacksmith and the cobbler. CEO, COO, CIO, director, manager, assistant — today’s titles are so broad and generic you can fi nd yourself unsure of what you are really doing and why. I do like the three questions Peter Drucker suggests you ask yourself:

What am I doing that does not need to be done at all?

What am I doing that can done by someone else?

What am I doing that only I can do?

Once you have boiled your core activity down to its essence, I would ask a fourth question: “… and why?” When you are clear about the why of your actions, your actions will have real meaning and power. So will your meetings.