Your company probably holds several meetings each week. Here's the question: Are these meetings actually helping you? It's not an easy question to answer--especially if you're the one leading the meetings. 

Of all the meetings-related tools and techniques in Let’s Stop Meeting Like This, the fantastic new book by consultants Emily and Dick Axelrod (a wife-and-husband team), perhaps the most important one is the 12-step assessment questionnaire. By answering these questions--and asking your colleagues to answer them too--you'll quickly gauge what's working (or not working) in all of your meetings. Here are those questions, along with insights from the Axelrods, whom I recently interviewed about their book and their techniques.

1. Everyone present at this meeting understands the meeting's purpose.

  • Agree
  • Neither agree nor disagree
  • Disagree

It might be tempting to convey the purpose by emailing a report or a presentation to the group prior to the meeting. Not so fast, argue the Axelrods. Yes, it's efficient to send out a report or slideshow in advance. The problem is, it's not actual communication. It's a one-way street. And what you're trying to create is a shared understanding. The only way to do that is through real-time conversation and repetition--not a one-time, one-way communique.

And remember: Even if you state the meeting's purpose in a one-way message, that doesn't mean that your team grasps the purpose. Nor does it guarantee that your team will remember the purpose when the day of the meeting comes around. 

A smarter approach is to ask each attendee the following question: "When it comes to this meeting's purpose, what do you care about and why?" After everyone has answered, you'll have a firmer understanding of whether the group has a shared understanding. 

2. Of all the times this meeting is held, what percent of the time does the meeting advance the work of your organization?

  • 100%
  • 75%
  • 50%
  • 25%
  • Less than 10%

This question can help you avoid those feel-good "update meetings" where nothing gets done--and where conflicts remain undiscussed. "Board meetings that serve as update meetings are simply a waste of valuable time," notes serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist Mark Suster. Of course, escaping the comfort zone of update meetings isn't easy. "You feel good about yourselves because you escape the board meeting with no controversy," observes Suster.

It's nice to feel good, but that's not why you have meetings. You have them to discuss complex problems. So don't settle for the feel-good vibe of mere update meetings. Instead, use this question to assess if your meetings are actually serving the organization's larger purpose. 

3. Of all the times this meeting is held, what percent of the time are the right people included in the meeting?

  • 100%
  • 75%
  • 50%
  • 25%
  • Less than 10%

4. What percent of this meeting's total time addresses issues that pique your interest?

  • 100%
  • 75%
  • 50%
  • 25%
  • Less than 10%

One way to make sure the right people are present--and that everyone present is interested--is to make attendance voluntary.

On its surface, the idea sounds radical. In reality, it can provide you with superb feedback about the way your organization conducts meetings. The Axelrods learned this technique from Eric Lindblad, vice president and general manager of Boeing's 747 program. "If people stopped showing up to a particular meeting and Eric believed there was a need to meet, he then asked what people needed to make the meeting more effective," they write. 

Elliot S. Weissbluth, founder and CEO of HighTower, a 300-employee financial services company based in Chicago, is a big fan of making meetings voluntary--especially conference calls. "A manager needs to empower you to say, 'Hey, folks, this is not a good use of my time. I'm dropping out,'" he told me. He added that this was a common occurrence at HighTower. The result? Often it meant fewer participants. But those on the line were fully engaged.

5. Of all the times this meeting is held, how often does valuable learning occur?

  • Very often
  • Often
  • Rarely
  • Never

How can you make sure "valuable learning" takes place? The Axelrods suggest the "four questions" exercise: At the start of any meeting--even before the leader explains the purpose--participants pair off. They ask each other four rudimentary questions. For example:

  • What brought you here today?
  • What future possibility gives you energy?
  • How will our work impact others?
  • What difficult choices are you facing?

By conducting the "four questions" exercise, attendees will--at the very least--have gained valuable learning about a colleague's perspective. 

6. Do you feel welcome in this meeting?

  • Always
  • Sometimes
  • Rarely
  • Never

7. Do you feel connected to this meeting’s task?

  • Always
  • Sometimes
  • Rarely
  • Never

To make sure everyone feels both welcome and connected, the Axelrods recommend another brief opening exercise, which they call the "two-minute drill." Here's how it works: Each attendee briefly responds to the question: "What do you need to do or say so that you can be fully present in this meeting?"

Incidentally, the answer doesn't have to be business-related, notes Emily Axelrod. "I've heard people say things like, 'The traffic today was really horrible,'" she told me. "I like for people to name whatever it is that's bugging them."

Of course, in many cases the answer will be business-related. Participants will confess that they're antsy about being away from their desks, missing calls and correspondence. But both Axelrods have observed that the antsiness tends to abate once attendees get it off their chests. 

8. Does the time spent in this meeting discovering the way things are fit our task?

  • Always
  • Sometimes
  • Rarely
  • Never

9. Does the time spent in this meeting eliciting people's dreams fit our task?

  • Always
  • Sometimes
  • Rarely
  • Never

These questions can help you gauge if individual goals are aligned with the meeting's purpose. They also give participants a chance to vent. In the same way Boeing's Lindblad used his voluntary-attendance policy to research how he could make meetings more compelling, you can use feedback from these questions to learn why your meetings aren't engaging your employees' emotions. 

10. Of all the times decisions occur in this meeting, what percent of the time is the decision-making process clear to everyone present?

  • 100%
  • 75%
  • 50%
  • 25%
  • Less than 10%

11. When issues arise in the meeting that prevent the group from achieving its purpose, how often does the group work to resolve these issues?

  • Always
  • Sometimes
  • Rarely
  • Never

12. Of all the times this meeting takes place, how often does the group discuss whether this meeting is time well spent?

  • Always
  • Sometimes
  • Rarely
  • Never

Question 10, notes Dick Axelrod, is especially crucial for leaders who are not consensus seekers. "Most people can deal with the fact that the leader will make the final decision if they know it up front," he told me. "What they don't like when they feel manipulated and their time has been wasted."

In other words: If you're holding a meeting to canvas the opinions of your staff--but you know there's a strong chance you'll disregard those opinions--let them know early on. The deception of democracy bothers them more than the transparent absence of it. 

The last two questions are related to your ability to course-correct in midstream. They provide a simple reminder to continually assess your meetings by asking: Did we spend our time wisely? The Axelrods suggest that you take the last 10 minutes of every meeting to assess the meeting itself. 

And in between meetings, you can ask your team to answer these 12 questions. Compiling the results is only the first step. Then comes the tougher task of discussing the results with the group--and implementing changes based on those discussions. "We suggest changing only one thing at a time, rather than addressing all the potential areas for improvement at once," write the Axelrods, at the very end of their superb book. "You already know enough to improve the next meeting you walk into."

Published on: Sep 9, 2014