Mentor Lessons: Give Them Something To React

“What do you want to do this weekend?”, or “Where do you want to go for lunch?” are two common questions you could ask your significant other when you have some free time in your hands. Then, a few minutes go by without really knowing what to do or where to go. You scour through the lists of recommended places to grab brunch, just to see if you could try something new. After a few minutes, you end up ordering the same thing you always do, not without first feeling the hunger pangs starting to creep up.

Does this situation sound familiar? Even if it hasn’t happened to you personally, this situation is all too common, and not just for lack of weekend brunch ideas. It happens whenever you are faced with an open-ended question, including going into business meetings. It happens because of one simple thing: cognitive load.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Two different mentors of mine with a similar piece of feedback in two very different realms of my life made it click for me. One of them put it this way: “Give them something to react” or offer feedback — after all, it’s much easier to edit something than to write it from scratch. This simply means that even if you’re wrong and/or not a Subject-Matter Expert (SME), you should propose a hypothesis, a presentation, a document, or any kind of material with a statement. Then, it’s up to the group to discuss the nuances of that proposal, offer you feedback, and make progress towards a goal. Even if the meeting is a brainstorming session, you still have to provide the group with a basis to part from.

On the other hand, even if you set a meeting agenda but only come up with open-ended questions, folks are faced with an immensity of possibilities, i.e., that dreadful cognitive load. It makes it hard for them if they don’t have a directed lane of thought to offer relevant solutions, and there goes your precious meeting time. No wonder folks hate meetings — they feel like a waste of time instead of feeling the dopamine surge after feeling productive and useful.

This is the first piece of the ‘Mentor Lessons’ tidbits that I’ve learned along the way, and hopefully, it’s helpful for you as well. With that in mind, let’s take a look at three (oversimplified) examples of business meetings: one where you go in with open questions, another with an agenda plus open questions, and another where you “give them something to react”.

Side note: I recommend you read a useful quick book to help you lead effective meetings: “How to Write an Email” by Justin Kerr. Don’t let the title mislead you; it offers great, crisp tips on how to be effective via email and meetings.

Meeting # 1: Open Questions

Meeting host: “Hi everyone, thank you for being here. Today we wanted to talk about how we can solve problem X. Any ideas on how to start? What is your best recommendation?”

Group: Folks shift around in their seats. Some of them clear their throat. One of them decides to go for it with a statement. “I think we should do Y”.

The rest of the group starts reacting with different ideas, but not really landing on a common thread. Time goes by and the meeting is over. You decide you need more time to reconvene. Your project deadline is coming in hot, and you’re still nowhere near delivering what you need.

Meeting # 2: Agenda with Open Questions

You send out an agenda ahead of time that describes the topics you will be covering with strict time allocation to each one. This time you’ve prepared so that attendees know what they’ll be dealing with before arriving.

Meeting host: “Hi everyone. Thank you for being here. I’ve sent out an agenda ahead of the meeting, so let’s take it step-by-step. For the first block of the meeting, we want to know what your recommendation is to solve problem X. What would be the recommendation and first step to getting to it?”

The group shifts around in their seat once more. Sure, they see the set times, but they are still faced with open-ended questions that get the group nowhere.

Meeting # 3: Agenda with a Proposal

You send out an agenda ahead of time that describes the topics you will be covering with strict time allocation to each one. You also include a small presentation with a few questions and answers to those questions — hypotheses and proposals.

Meeting host: “Hi everyone. Thank you for being here. I’ve sent out an agenda ahead of the meeting, along with a few hypotheses that I wanted to run by the group. Let’s go one bullet point at a time, and let’s take turns to offer your feedback.”

Group takes a few minutes to read through the content. Once they’re done, the host opens it up for feedback. — Note: this format might sound a bit familiar if you know about the document-read at Amazon. There are other formats that can be used, not necessarily a document.

Meeting host: “OK, let’s open it up for feedback. What do you think of the first point? Is it accurate to say X hypothesis?”

Attendee 1: “I think it’s valid, but you’re missing one perspective. In my opinion, you should do X + Y.”

Note that even if you’re wrong with your hypothesis, it’s completely fine. That’s why you’re in that meeting, to hear feedback and stir the group in the right direction.

You gather gathers all perspectives and adjust where necessary. Add the feedback to your proposal, rinse and repeat.

These examples might feel tactical, and they are. If you zoom out though, each meeting is a piece of tactic that is either useful and productive for your overall strategy, or it isn’t. Your entire strategy will be as successful as your weakest tactic, just like a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Work backwards from your end goal, and ask yourself, what needs to hold true for you to be successful? Break it down into steps — each step needs to be carefully planned. Of course, you will have to adjust these steps as you go — it’s meant to be that way, else, it only means that you’re not asking the right questions or doing your homework to really solve the problem.

And for that next weekend brunch: write down two to three options ahead of time. Offer them to your significant other or friends that Sunday morning and rejoice at a hearty meal with no hunger pangs.

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Rocio del Moral

Product manager, globetrotter, polyglot, runner, bookworm, geek, amateur violinist, Google, ex-Amazonian. Alles mit Maß und Ziel.