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 (, 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  (