The problem statement... a solution to a runaway meeting.

A meeting can be defined as a gathering of two or more people that has been convened for the purpose of achieving a common goal such as sharing information, reaching agreement, etc.* - With that said, meetings are one of those business topics that are easy fodder for opinion, which more often than not, isn't flattering.

Dave Barry, the Pulitzer-Prize winning humorist said, "Meetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other organizations habitually engage in only because they cannot actually masturbate". I myself can still remember a meeting where a team, after 45 minutes, had still not come up with a name for themselves, I truly don't know if they ever did, as I just left to go do something more productive... see how easy it is to take shots. It is not my intention to spend any time on the "six easy steps for a more effective meeting", as the Internet can serve you very well that way. I did however, want to spend a minute or two on how the "Problem Statement" can be used to effectively stop a runaway meeting. 

A while back, I found myself in a "we have to fix this meeting"... six or seven people around the table brainstorming and as you may appreciate, it was a free for all with conversation from every direction. About ten minutes into the meeting, a very wise financial leader asked a very simple question that brought the meeting to a very abrupt and silent halt.

"What is the problem statement we are trying to solve for?"

It was very apparent we really did not know what we were there to discuss, let alone solve for. After about five or so minutes of reflective comments and open thoughts, we rallied around a half-baked problem and finished the meeting. I actually don't know if we had another meeting on the subject, but then again, I may have blacked it out.

As a quick definition, a problem statement is a concise description of the issues that need to be addressed by a problem solving team and should be presented to them (or created by them) before they try to solve the problem*. Asking what the "problem statement is" comes in handy as a galvanizing question in meetings when the objective is to solve a problem - It is also useful to sort out meetings that don't seem to have an objective.

This brings me to another point... all meetings should have articulated objectives:

  • A meeting to share information.
  • A meeting to plan (includes meeting to take advantage of an opportunity).
  • A meeting to solve a problem.
  • A meeting to reach agreement and manage next steps.

In my opinion every meeting should begin with the meeting's objective and the problem statement that the meeting is trying to solve for. But again, everyone has opinions on meetings.


* definitions are from Wikipedia

In search of creative problem solving... a case study.

The following is the original and the rewrite can be found by clicking here.

The topic of meetings came up the other day, as well as the love-hate relationship we have with them. When managed well they are a great forum for transferring information, leveraging the power of a group and driving the implementation of initiatives; when they are not, they are a desert of great despair and frustration. One of the greater challenges is time management, particularly if you are dealing with a number of meetings back, to back, to back, to back... for me, meetings start on time and are managed to an agenda. With that said, let me set the stage.

There was a time when I was the lead for a training program that involved the hiring, training and strategic deployment of entry level sales professionals into the field; high potential people with little or no experience in the business world. Most, if not all, were Millennials*: well educated, technologically savvy, strong sense of self worth, work-life balance expectations and full of an infectious energy. On day two of a particular training program, it was time for lunch and I make it clear that we start the meeting back up at 1:00 "sharp"... stressing the importance that everyone be back on time. After the room empties, I mention to a colleague that I will not be surprised if some of them are late. He smiles and I do not.

I want to pause for a moment to offer some thoughts on "problems". Problems and challenges come with all situations and we regularly identify what problems may lie ahead; we then tend to stack rank these problems so we can deal with the most important ones first. The thing about problems though, is they tend to be connected to other potential problems that can actually have more impact. Now circling back to my little drama, the "face value" issue with being late for lunch was a small problem as the agenda gets pushed back by 15 minutes. However, there was a much bigger problem lurking if it is not dealt with - A slippery slope would be created that would lead to compromising the authority structure, erode credibility, and ultimately devalue the core foundations being taught to ensure success. It would end up being a long four months for sure.

  • Identify actual and potential problems that you are going to have to deal with.
  • Remember perceived smaller problems can lead to larger problems if not dealt with appropriately
  • Stack rank these problems so you can deal with them in the most efficient manner
  • Remember problems have a mind of their own, so sometimes they never appear and sometimes they leave you little time to deal with them.

My watch says 12:50 and some people are back in the room; by 1:00, only half of the class is back. I had been mentally working on a number of solutions to my small, but potentially, big fat problem, and landed on this one. I simply said to the people in the room, "Well it looks like we have to wait for the others and I'm wondering, do you think their time is more valuable than your time?" Loaded questions are so much fun, as the answer I got back was "no" - And rightfully so!

As we waited, and as people filtered in, I deliberately asked them to stay standing. It was here that I was struck with a little bit of creativity to ensured my problem went away. I waited for all but one of the stragglers to arrive and I started discussing quietly the value and importance of people's time and waited. As the last last person entered the back of the room I very dramatically put up my hand and said " STOP RIGHT THERE! IS YOUR TIME MORE VALUABLE THAN THEIR TIME!" (accompanied by the appropriate hand gestures). To that he answered quietly, "No sir". I then emphatically reviewed the value of respecting people, time, and what we are doing. I let them all sit down and at 1:15 started up again. It was 15 minutes well spent in my mind.

  • More often of not, there are a number of solutions to a problem; work with the one you believe will be the most effective.
  • In my experience creativity does come with a "flash like" entrance. Go with it when it does.
  • Deal with a problem. Don't avoid it. It will not go away and will just become bigger and more complicated.

If you are wondering, no one was ever late again and I had solved my little problem. But you know, there will always be another, and so there should... this is how we learn, grow and thrive. Now let me tell you about the time someone thought it was a good idea to bounce a basketball outside my office door...


* Millennials, also known as the Millennial Generation or Generation Y are the demographic cohort following Generation X. There are no precise dates when the generation starts and ends. Researchers and commentators use birth years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s (Wikapedia). I have spend many years hiring, training, coaching and working with Millennials. They are great fun and have taught me so much !