The 4 Question Business Meeting: You Can’t Be Brilliant Alone

Conference Room 4 Question MeetingThere is a cartoon I recall seeing “if you are lonely, call a meeting.” Given the meeting madness of many organizations, there appears to be a lot of lonely people in companies. People estimate they spend approximately 2-3 days of their work week in meetings. Doing some back-of-the-envelope math, and using salary data from Glassdoor.com (www.glassdoor.com), the weekly cost of meetings for a 10-person team is approximately $23,760. If you have 100 people in your company, this comes to almost a quarter of a million dollars per week spent on meetings. This price tag does not factor in the opportunity cost of not accomplishing other tasks, missed sales calls or lost customer face time.

Meetings are here to stay. This we must joyfully embrace. Well-organized meetings have real value.  They stimulate dialogue, create fresh thinking and move the business forward. The discipline to conduct them effectively must be developed as a core competency of your team. The question is… given the resource impact and cost, how can you quickly improve the probability of having a successful, productive meeting?

A successful meeting ensures the right people are invited and the material is presented as effectively and judiciously as possible. It is respectful of your time and enables you to contribute in a meaningful way or makes you smarter. Too often this is the exception than the norm, which put me on a quest to identify a quick process to improve the odds.

business team at a meeting

The answer lies in asking four questions.

  1. What is the purpose — decision, information sharing or brainstorming?
  2. What is the issue…in five words or less?
  3. Who has already weighed in and what did they have to say about it?
  4. What will surprise me in this meeting?

1.       What is the purpose of the meeting?

Defining the type of meeting is a critical but often missed first step.  It guides the organizer—regarding the format, information needed, and who should be invited — and sets expectations for the participants. Typically, meetings can be classified into one of three types:

  •  Decision-making meeting: The goal is to produce a final decision. It is not the time for new information or to request additional analysis. In this meeting, you will finalize the path forward—i.e., yes or no, and if yes, how. Prepare: Brief deck or memo for pre-reading (e.g. less than 10 slides).
  • Information sharing meeting: Here the meeting host means to share new, interesting, relevant facts and figures. There is no call to action and no preparation on the part of attendees required. Initially everyone but the presenter is in listening mode; once the presentation is complete, the presenter asks for questions of clarification. Prepare: Short deck or memo (11- 25 pages).
  • Brainstorming meeting: Perhaps the most anticipated but difficult meeting where you expect to generate ideas via a working session. At this phase, data synthesis is incomplete and report content is a work in progress. Ideally, everyone should be involved in the back-and-forth.  Prepare: Varies depending on lifecycle of the project.

2.       What is the issue…in five words or less?

To quote William Shakespeare, “Put your discourse into some frame.” One of the biggest skill gaps is the ability to conceptualize the problem or frame the issue.  Start your next meeting with a quick exercise, have each person articulate in five words or less what you are trying to solve. If you get inconsistent answers or long replies there is lack of clarity on why you are meeting.  By clearly articulating the issue, you will get a good idea of the information you need, the people you should talk to and will ensure everyone is working towards the same goal.

3.       Who has already weighed in and what did they have to say about it?

This gives your meeting request credibility. Assuming you talked to the right people and perhaps secured stakeholder feedback and support in the process, it makes it easier for those attending the meeting to engage in the dialogue. It also exposes if you missed inviting a key person or if there are interim steps you need to take before meeting.   It reduces revisiting existing conversation and moves the dialogue forward.

4.       What will surprise me in this meeting?

Surprises are wake-up calls to your brain. Surprises are bias killers. People want meaningful dialogue and want to hear new information. Asking “‘what is surprising” in a meeting will spur new discussion and uncover fresh learning. The secret to uncovering these answers is to apply a prism to the discussion in a meeting. Just as a prism separates a light into parts, the question “What surprised you?”’ serves as a prism to separate meaningless information to expose new learning from relevant numbers. The reason is simple: The question exposes outliers in the data, draws connections between seemingly unrelated conclusions and opens new avenues of discussion with your colleagues.

Finally, a word about meeting duration. Today’s e-mail and calendar applications usually set meetings to a :60 min default. Think about what that means.  One hour is roughly 10% percent of the average businessperson’s workday. So, the question becomes: Is the meeting truly important enough for you to ask everyone to give up such a large chunk of their workday? Furthermore, one-hour meetings are harder to schedule. So, think it over carefully, to determine if an entire hour really needed, or could if you achieve the objective in :30 minutes or via e-mail.

The ideal meeting begins before anyone sits down at the table.  The next time you receive a meeting request ask the four questions, it will save you time and help you manage the fire hose of requests.

Christopher J Frank is Vice President in Global Marketplace Insights at American Express. He is co-author of Drinking From the Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions in a Data Overloaded World  (www.firehosethebook.com).

EventDay: Smoother Events, Greater ROI

Event Day Logo Microsoft Bizspark Featured Startup

Editor’s Note: Microsoft BizSpark is a global program that helps startups succeed by providing technology, business and technology consulting, access to its vast marketing and partner network, and fostering a BizSpark community. This article is part of a special series that features some of the 45,000-plus startups that have joined the BizSpark program with an eye toward creating successful businesses, jobs and superior value.

Virtual events haven’t replaced in-person events, but they’ve upped the pressure to deliver superb value to attendees, sponsors and organizers. Microsoft BizSpark One startup EventDay uses Windows Azure and mobile technologies to help ensure that the benefits of meeting in person justify the physical effort and time commitment for attendees.

“If you want to know where someone’s deepest interests lie, look at the events he or she attends in person,” says Scott Mitchell, EventDay’s CEO and co-founder. EventDay founders set out first to identify why attending events in person is important to people, then to provide event organizers with the tools to better market, manage and monetize their events.

Whereas most event management companies rely on less-efficient approaches, EventDay from the beginning built its solution on cloud technologies, specifically Windows Azure, coordinated with smartphones and other mobile devices, to provide rapid scalable responsiveness.

For its two primary types of clients — medium-sized organizations holding events with a large number of attendees and organizations running big-ticket, elite events for a few VIP participants — EventDay saves enormous amounts of time and stress for planner and attendee alike through microsites, ticketing and registration, a mobile app, digital signage, archived event content, and lead generation for future events. Its services translate into more efficient, successful and profitable events. The ability to quickly and efficiently fashion effective post-event engagement with attendees is a core value of the system and key to growing a strong customer base that provides excellent return on investment for events.

“Whether it’s a big event to launch a new consumer electronics product, a select gathering for top executives of Fortune 50 companies or ongoing registration of up to 1,000 people a day at a Florida timeshare hotel, EventDay creates value for everyone involved,” says Scott Cate, co-founder and CTO of EventDay.

From Annoying to Smooth and Successful Events

“Event management traditionally is annoying, and so many things can go wrong the day of an event,” says Mitchell. “Our main focus, regardless of the scope or the size of an event, is to reduce the amount of time participants spend standing in line to check in. We also work to add value to everyone: the organizers, sponsors, participants and speakers.”

EventDay check-in happens in about three seconds, which is the time it takes the EventDay software to scan a quick response (QR) code from a participant’s smartphone and transfer the data via Azure to an onsite printer that prints out the participant’s badge.

“Instead of the bottleneck we’re all accustomed to seeing at an event’s registration desk, EventDay keeps lines of attendees moving continuously as they approach the desk and receive their badges,” says Cate. “People can’t believe how fast we handle this traditionally tedious process.”

The foundation of EventDay’s approach to event management rests on participant identity: knowing who’s who and what they’re doing before, during and after the event. This focus informs a full range of activities, including printing badges and digital signage on demand, promoting greater connections among participants and with sponsors, triggering post-event marketing workflows, and boosting organizers’ return on investment through improved efficiencies as well as revenue streams from follow-on content distribution.

“One recent EventDay client reported three times its return on investment from using our software because content presented at the event was archived, ready for download and available to re-monetize within 24 hours,” says Mitchell. “For every dollar this client invested in its event, it generated three dollars in revenue — from videos and other content purchased by participants at the in-person event and from offering a companion virtual event to people unable to attend in person.”

Windows Azure and Mobile Technologies Power EventDay

“Windows Azure is an essential ingredient in our superfast check-in,” says Mitchell. “And we were lucky that the maturation of the Windows Azure platform coincided perfectly with when we started EventDay, enabling us to be cloud-based from the ground up.”

Clients using the EventDay software platform begin with a simple “create a new event” process that leads to a true microsite encompassing an event’s sessions, topics, timing, speakers and logistics. The EventDay software automatically creates mobile applications, which are based entirely on native code, that contain this same information. Changes made at any time up to and during the event are reflected instantly on both the microsite and the mobile apps.

One recent EventDay client reported three times its return on investment from using our software because content presented at the event was archived, ready for download and available to re-monetize within 24 hours.

Scott Mitchell, EventDay co-founder and CEO

When a participant arrives at the check-in desk, EventDay turns a complicated task into a smooth experience that takes only seconds. Its software scans the attendee’s QR code on his or her mobile device, sends a message to a Windows Azure service that logs the credentials for storage, and then publishes the card verification number. From there, the service broadcasts the message down to a printer at the check-in desk to create badges, digital signage and other materials. The software can also use radio frequency identification, though most organizers choose QR codes. The process creates a secure and organized system that provides several benefits to customers.

“Windows Azure provides true platform-as-a-service (PaaS), as opposed to merely infrastructure-as-a-service,” says Cate. “This PaaS approach takes care of so many details that we don’t have to spend time specifying in the software. It also allows us to scale up and down at will, which is invaluable for a business such as ours, where we might have multiple huge events one day, then nothing for a week.”

BizSpark Supports EventDay’s Fast, Organic Growth

The BizSpark One program identifies a small number of high-potential companies in the Microsoft BizSpark program composed of more than 45,000 startups from over 100 countries around the world. Microsoft works closely through a one-to-one relationship with these companies, providing customized engagement plans to accelerate their growth.

“Our BizSpark One cloud portfolio director, Karun Bakshi, is really working on our behalf and is clearly on the same team,” says Mitchell. “Through the BizSpark One program, we gain contact with the right people at Microsoft, especially in marketing and thought leadership, who can help us with both information and guidance as well as introductions to additional resources. For example, when we might be ready to seek outside investment, we have already been introduced to several leading venture capitalists through BizSpark.”

When EventDay was invited to join the BizSpark One program, the founders were interested from a strategic business standpoint. Participation in the program provides access to the latest Microsoft technology, mentorship and solid business advice.

“It’s really great to have smart people working on our behalf, and the BizSpark feedback is invaluable for building our company,” says Cate. “Because EventDay has grown totally organically, using all our own money, we focus our decisions on a few key criteria: does it work? Is it efficient? And what’s the impact on our wallets? Our BizSpark advisors help to amplify our business and marketing efforts so we can continue building on our early success, and the Windows Azure technology base allows us to put our precious personal dollars toward software development rather than systems administration. These things are a really big deal to a startup like EventDay.”