5 Questions to Ask in a Big Idea Meeting

Asking the wrong questions rarely leads to right answers.

Too often in meetings that I have attended, (OK, let's be honest, meetings I have led too), the focus has moved quickly to evaluating a new idea by asking the wrong questions. These questions are not about why or why not to proceed. They are not about value creation or risk mitigation. These questions often involve turf wars, scenarios of failure, and competing priorities. And they are one of the fastest ways to derail a meeting and kill productivity. As one of my old mentors used to say: "Let's not worry about what size everyone's piece is until we figure out if we even have a pie to slice."
In meetings where new ideas are on the table, like sales presentations, strategic planning sessions, re-organization/right-sizing discussions and other pivotal executive sessions, the quality of the questions have a huge impact on the quality of the answers.

Here are five questions that increase the quality of the dialogue, focus the minds of the attendees, and increase the potential of real traction during important meetings:

1. What outcomes are we looking to change?

2. How will we know that we have won?

3. Who will be affected by these changes, short and long-term?

4. When is the soonest that we can begin and can we affect that timeframe?

5. Why won't this work?

Let's take these one at a time.

1. What outcomes are we looking to change?
The Cheshire Cat from "Alice in Wonderland" is famous for saying that if you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there. Whether we are presenting in a sales call or an executive meeting, the reason to take action on a new idea is to change results or outcomes. When you're considering ideas, you have to start with the value of the implementation's result. Ask this.

2. How will we know that we have won?
When do we pop champagne corks? What's the measure of the effort? Initiatives that have no measure usually lose support, and organizations who cycle through ideas du jour without finish lines for accomplishments wear out the culture of their people. Those people see the fireworks of a new initiative launch and instead of saying "oooh" and "aaaah," they think, "oh no, not again."

3. Who will be affected by these changes, short and long term?
These are the new idea's constituents. They will vote with their feet -- in favor or in resistance, but vote they will. If you are selling, these people will decide the speed of implementation, size of subsequent purchases and your ability to expand your offerings in that client. You have to ask this question to make certain that you have the right people baked into the initiative up front. Recruit them early or risk fighting them in the tall grass later.

4. When is the soonest that we can begin and can we affect that timeframe?
Time kills all deals. This maxim is true regarding sales but it is just as true on all new initiatives. I don't want to go on a "the world is changing so fast" rant -- you get it. Speed is important for getting traction. Either begin or don't. Deciding to begin some day in the undefined future is distracting. Indecisiveness weakens your credibility as a leader.

5. Why won't this work?
Get it out on the table. There are always reservations. Many of those reservations have merit, if for no other reason than consideration in the planning phase. By asking this question you can break through "group think" risk and create some safety for real evaluation of a course of action.

I use these types of questions in sales presentations all of the time. Asking a prospect to make a change in vendors or to change their approach to a problem is very similar to forming and moving forward an organizational initiative. Using these questions to shape the conversation gives direction and energy to a conversation and keeps it on track. Try these questions at your next meeting and you will see a change in the quality of the outcome.

Flickr photo courtesy of Eleaf, cc 2.0

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