Start Us Up Now: America’s New Business Plan is an initiative of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based philanthropy that works in the fields of education and entrepreneurship. Kauffman and Alley worked together to rapidly design and launch a site to disseminate the particulars of the policy plan, support a targeted communications campaign in several states, and garner support from organizations who can join the Start Us Up Now coalition through the site.
Technology is changing rapidly and penetrating every aspect of our life. Everything is new, and every idea seems possible. “You could change the world,” technology whispers to us, “if only you choose the right idea.”
But most ideas fail. Some fail because they’re not good. Even more fail because there is no realistic plan for implementation. When leaders ideate without the voices in the room who know how to make something work, staff spend hours spinning their wheels on a solution that is impossible or so technically difficult that the costs far outweigh the benefits. Or, they solve the wrong problem, and build a solution that doesn’t meet the needs of the user.
Many of these ideas start in a meeting room. So how do you, as an implementer, stop yourself from going insane in meetings and keep your coworkers from killing you for squashing their ideas?
Many frustrating meetings follow one of two patterns.
The first set focus on a very specific idea of what should be done or built. These meetings usually start with “I want to do x, how quickly can we make that happen?” There can be little context on what success for the project looks like or what the desired outcome is, and the focus is almost entirely on details.
The second set are meetings with an agenda like “discuss how we can reach new audiences.” Most of the time will be spent on ideas based on gut feelings or how one stakeholder does things. You’ll hear statements like “when I’m online, I do x,” or “This stakeholder has told me that they have issues with y,” or “I think we should just implement z and see what happens.” These meetings generate lots of ideas, but those ideas frequently aren’t feasible or tied to organizational goals, and meeting attendees may leave with no clue on what to start with and why it matters.
There is hope, though. You can help your company and ease your frustration by creating a situation where you walk out with goals and actionable ideas. All it takes is a little bit of prep work, and some stakeholder management skills.
Whatever product you work on, you need to know how it works and why, what pain points exist for users, where previous projects have been tripped up and why. You also need to be aware of what’s going on in your industry, including what other people are testing and working on, and current best practices.
If you have advance knowledge of the exact topic of the meeting, you should spend some time prepping on that topic. This prep work can take different forms, including doing industry research, gathering all the data you have access to on the topic, and working with stakeholders in advance. You want, if possible, to have facts to help guide the conversation away from gut feelings and towards data-based decisions. That can include information on your actual users from your own testing and analytics, or case studies and best practices from sector leaders or other subject matter experts.
This research ensures you are armed for the meeting, but you can also use the data to begin stakeholder management before the actual meeting. Talk to your manager, your counterparts, or other implementers about the meeting and any concerns or ideas you have for it. If others know your concerns and the reasons for them, they may go do their own research or simply be prepared to support you in the actual meeting.
Reframe and refocus the conversation.
No one wants to have an idea that goes nowhere. No one wants to be a part of something that isn’t successful. But people get trapped in the weeds or wrapped up in their own ideas, and can’t see pitfalls or issues. You can help them by reframing the conversation.
The best way to do this is to ask as many leading questions as it takes to get to the heart of what your stakeholder is trying to do – something similar to the problem-solving technique known as the 5 Whys.
In meetings focused on discussing a specific idea, you should make sure you are digging into the real problem you’re trying to solve or the main goal you’re trying to accomplish. In product speak, you need to move people from the solution space back into the problem space.
For example, say a leader comes into the room and says, “I want to build this widget!” You know that that widget is going to be complicated to build and difficult to support. It may add to the work of the editorial team. It may go against UX best practices. But saying this can cause the leader to dig in her heels, and the meeting shifts to her defending her idea, ending with an edict and everyone unsatisfied with the outcome.
But, if you start with questions about what metrics the widget should improve or what the issue is that the widget will solve, you’re both getting valuable information that you’ll need to implement any solution and guiding the conversation in a direction where you or other team members can offer alternate solutions.
In meetings focused on broad goals, guiding the conversation is harder, but still doable and important. And you’ll still ask lots of leading questions to help focus the conversation. “What would success look like?” is a great place to start, as are “What goal are we trying to advance?” and “What metrics do we want to increase?”. These help funnel ideas toward ones that are both tied to your organization’s overarching strategies and measurable. They also allow you to ask further leading questions to redirect the conversation from ideas that are not strategically sound by referring back to the answers.
Throughout both meetings, you should be prepared to provide further advice and guidance based on your knowledge and prepwork. Use that data to frame your leading questions or present your ideas, which will subtly give you more authority and lend your ideas or questions more weight.
These techniques won’t fix all your problems, but by practicing the above, you can slowly guide the meetings you’re in to a more productive space for discussion, while still allowing coworkers to be heard and leaders to lead.
What other challenges do you face when you’re trying to make sure your organization is moving forward on the right track? We’ve helped many organizations get to the root of what they’re trying to do, and build the right tools for the right time. Reach out, and maybe we can help you too.