Ask the important questions first

Have you ever hosted a meeting with a big list of things to discuss, probably more than you have time for? Or have you ever approached a colleague or mentor with a big list of questions, perhaps more than you have time to ask? How do you choose which discussion points or questions to ask first? In what order do you proceed with your points so that you get the most out of the meeting?

The approach that works best for me

I have tried several different approaches, and the approach that has worked best for me so far is to ask the most important questions first, and then proceed to the less important points in descending order. In previous years, I would go into a meeting or to a mentor and try to systematically work my way through my list of discussion points or questions in the same order they occurred in whatever document or code I was currently working on. This was partly because I was fortunate to have several mentors that were consistently patient enough to let me go through my questions in whatever order I chose. Later I realized that most of the rest of the world wasn’t so patient, and this was especially true of very busy people.

A while back I believed that asking the least challenging items first was best, because I thought that this approach eased everyone into the conversation, and increased the chances of getting to all questions or points on my list. I thought this because I assumed if I started with the easier stuff, the answers to harder questions would not as easily consume the entire meeting, forcing out the easier issues due to time limitations. But with this approach I would frequently run out of time for the harder questions, and those were often the more important points, so I eventually realized that it is better to get the answers/discussion to the more important stuff first.

Most important items first

This is similar to the concept of getting to the most important (which often corresponds with the most challenging) tasks of your day first thing in the morning. You tend to be the most fresh (unless you are really not a morning person) and the most efficient when you tackle these items ASAP after starting to work. It’s the same with meetings or sessions with a colleague or mentor: you are the most fresh when you first start talking. After a while, most people’s brains start to turn to mush after discussing challenging topics (or even easy topics), so it’s definitely better to get to the important stuff when everyone’s mind is in a pre-mush state.

What are the important points or questions?

How do you select what points or questions are the most important though? I would say that those questions or discussion points that are most critical for advancing your work or the work of others are the most important. So if you have a question that is primarily out of curiosity, that item should be saved for the end of the discussion. Whereas if you have a discussion point that must be addressed so that an agreement can be made before 10 people can proceed again with their work, that should be addressed first.

Challenging versus important

Often the harder questions correspond to the more important questions, but not always. A discussion point or question may be far more challenging to discuss than the rest, but if it is not important to the work of the people in the discussion, then it shouldn’t be allowed to suck up the time and energy of everyone before getting to the important stuff.

Obvious?

This concept of “important stuff first” may seem really obvious, but I have been to countless meetings that have no direction and seem to accomplish very little, and in the end the meeting is either far longer than it should have been, or time runs out before the critical stuff can be addressed. And I have approached many people with a list of questions, and as I start going down my list we either get interrupted or run out of time because one of us has to run to a meeting. So while this concept may seem obvious, it is not applied nearly as often as you would think.

Setting an agenda

One way to help ensure that you do get to the most important stuff first is to make an agenda for every meeting. This does wonders to keep people on track, as they can see what should currently be under discussion, and how many more points need to be addressed before time runs out. And if people need to leave the meeting early (which I feel is slightly more common than people showing up significantly late), then they will know based on the agenda what they missed. They can then ask someone later about these agenda items, especially if they are critical to that person’s work. Also, by placing the most important items at the top, these early-leavers are less likely to miss the critical stuff.

Other factors

Of course you may face situations where other factors dictate the order of discussion points or questions. For example, if some colleagues can only attend the first 30 minutes of a 2 hour meeting, you may need to address the points that concern them first. Working within constraints like this, you can still select the most important topics first and work your way down. So for this example, you should cover the most important topics for these particular colleagues in that 30 minute window, and then after they have left, start with the most important topics for everyone else.

What if I don’t know what is most important?

You may face situations where all topics appear to be equally important, or where it’s very unclear what issues are the most important. If this is the case, one idea is to approach someone who is more knowledgeable than you in this area (if such a person exists and you can access them easily) and ask them what points are the most important to discuss first. This may be a lot easier for them than you would expect.

Another approach is to start a meeting with one of your equally important discussion points, and pay attention to the content of people’s comments: that can provide a clearer understanding of people’s concerns and what they probably consider more important. With this approach, it can be very easy to find the correct order because you can use the comments of others as transition points into the next discussion points. This also results in the meeting flowing nicely and feeling like a conversation rather than a strict march down a list of points.

Try it

In the end, you should address your points or questions in the order you are most comfortable with. But I would highly recommend trying to start with the important stuff and working your way down, at least for a few meetings to see how you like it. I think you’ll find that your meetings become significantly more productive.

What do you think of this approach? Do you use something similar or something totally different? Feel free to share below in the comments.