Don't Use Meetings to Make Decisions

Last Updated Mar 24, 2011 12:37 PM EDT

What? Don't make decisions at meetings? Why even have meetings, then?

In a post on HBR.org, Stever Robbins relates that his first boss gave him the following advice, and it has stood the test of time:

"Never call a meeting to make a decision. Work with people one on one, and then call the meeting to let the group share and own the decision that's been made."

In other words, prepare the group to be productive, focused on action, and not pulled apart by side issues and competing interests that inevitably pop up when a big decision is on the agenda.

Robbins offers up a roadmap on how to lay the proper ground work ahead of time.

In pre-meeting discussions with each participant, identify areas of disagreement and agreement on three key questions. Ask what each person thinks the decision should accomplish, what criteria is most important, and what options should be considered. Work on achieving alignment during these meetings, so that on meeting day the group comes together in a "celebration of the decision that has already been made."

Of course, disagreements will likely arise. The meeting moderator, armed with the objections before hand, can then use the group meeting to first highlight areas of agreement and then work through obtaining agreement on purpose, criteria, and options.

"By laying the right pre-decision groundwork one on one, you can greatly speed up your decision-making meetings by arriving with clarity around the three conversations underlying the decision," writes Robbins.
I don't think you need to go through this process for all meetings, but is a great tool for achieving focus and agreement on the big decisions.

Read Stever's full post, Preparing for Decision-Making Meetings.

What's your advice for getting the most out of business meetings? Do you have a favorite technique?

(Meeting image by ghindo, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.