Using Google Forms to Streamline Meetings (and Prevent Singularity Events)

The supermassive black holes are all that rema...
What started out as a harmless meeting quickly turned into a supermassive black hole. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the most part, meetings are the black holes of the office universe. They start out as a galactic dance of massive egos – gaseous bodies spinning around each other – and eventually converge into a single gravitational force. Soon, the gravity of this cosmic abomination begins to suck into itself time, space, and every productive person within ear shot of the conference room. Once you’re in, there is no getting out. You’re stuck: Trapped in a vacuum of eternal blackness, accompanied only by your coworkers and a never-ending supply of PowerPoint slides, “humble opinions” and white board notes, each floating by just out of reach of reality. You have been caught in the office singularity eventand your only hope now is that the host will get hungry soon.

Needless to say, I hate most meetings. But I realize that they are an invaluable part of the organizational process; not all meetings turn into violent, astronomic events.

80% of meetings are violent black holes, 19% are just ‘good,’ and about 1% approach greatness…

Some meetings – the really good ones – are actually very productive. In fact, a good meeting is probably the best way to communicate concepts, confirm that everyone is on the same page, and make well-informed, real-time decisions. Heck, on occasion you might even have the chance to be in a great meeting, a place where people work together to come up with innovative ideas and clever solutions that would otherwise not be possible. In keeping with the astronomy metaphor, those great meetings are where stars are born (i.e. Adwords, the iPhone, or even Justin Bieber). The problem is, 80% of meetings are violent black holes, 19% are just “good,” and about 1% approach greatness – not the best odds.

The Meeting is a Business Process

Regardless of how dismal they can be, meetings are invaluable tools in a successful organization. Although Basecamp, Salesforce, Evernote, and every other collaboration tool will try to tell you differently, a meeting – I’m talking real human interaction – is the most powerful form of communication possible. Discussing a problem or idea with other people in a real-time dialogue is exponentially more powerful than disguising monologues in fancy PowerPoint presentations. The best collaboration happens when people talk (remotely or in the same space).

Anti-Justice League
Anti-Justice League held very productive meetings. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Profile of a Productive Meeting

Before I show you how Google Forms can help you improve the odds of having a successful meeting, let’s break down what a productive meeting looks like.

  1. Everyone that is involved in the meeting has something to say or something to learn. One of my pet peeves when entering a meeting is seeing unnecessary participants. Every single person in a meeting should either have something to contribute or should need to know every detail of the meeting – unsolicited opinions are for pundits and fashion bloggers.
  2. At least one decision must be made or a problem must be solved. Why invite six people into a room (that doesn’t include cocktails) if you don’t absolutely need their input to make decisions or solve problems. Before a meeting starts, know what decisions you have to make and what input you need in order to make those decisions.
  3. The meeting should have a clear, well-defined agenda. Every single participant should be – well before the meeting begins – aware of the agenda and raison d’être of the meeting.

The solutions to 1, 2, and 3 seem pretty self-explanatory. One, don’t invite everyone and her secretary to your meeting – this is not a bat mitzvah; two, be ready to make some decisions and solve some problems; and three, think of what you want your meeting to be about and make sure is clear to everyone involved. All of this seems easy enough, but what it requires is a great deal of preliminary work. In fact, the work you do setting up a meeting is just as important as the actual meeting itself.

Meetings are NOT Lectures, Everyone has an Agenda

At some point in the last 10 years, “setting up a meeting” began to mean sending out calendar invites. As if having everyone in the same room would be enough to generate some cosmic levels of productivity. Well, the birth of a black hole is definitely a cosmic event, but it’s not very productive for an organization. In order to have a highly focused and productive meeting, you need to have a highly focused and productive agenda. That’s easier said than done.

It’s not always easy to know what the true  focus of a meeting will be. Sure, you might have your agenda, but once you put five opinionated people in a room, a whole lot of new agendas suddenly appear. For an occasional narcissist like myself, this is completely unacceptable. Not to mention, it’s very unproductive . So, how does one manage to create a focused meeting with an agenda if the agenda is not easily predictable?

The Pre-Meeting Questionnaire

First, let me say that the “Pre-Meeting Questionnaire” is not necessary for every meeting. Sometimes, you know your colleagues well enough (and you’re all professional enough) that a meeting plays out like a John Coltrane jam session – each attendee hits his or her notes at all the right times, and beautiful music is made. Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case.

English: A portrait of John Coltrane by Paolo ...
John Coltrane held some pretty cool meetings (Photo credit: Paolo Steffan, Wikipedia)

Usually, you end up in a meeting with a bunch of amateurs and all you can do is pray that you’ll eventually be released from the vortex and get back to the business of working. For those occasions,   a “Pre-Meeting Questionnaire” might just save you from such a catastrophe.

The idea behind the questionnaire is very simple: send out some questions to those that you wish to invite to the meeting, and get a feel for what their agenda might be. This sounds simple enough. The hard part is making sure to have questions that do not insult potential attendees but do get them to reveal their agendas.

I like to use a simple introduction to my questionnaire that explains the need for such a document and then I jump right into the questions. Here is sample:

Hi everyone,

I’m looking forward to our meeting tomorrow. In order to put together an agenda for the blah blah blah meeting this afternoon, I’ll need some input from all of you. Please answer the following questionnaire so that I can make sure to account for any specific  concerns or ideas. 

At this point, I usually have a link to an online questionnaire that they can use to keep track of their responses. Why the questionnaire? Well, if meetings are a business process, then we should treat them like important ones. The online questionnaire tracks and simplifies this preliminary step. More importantly, it adds gravitas to your meeting.

Using Google Forms to Discover the True Agenda of a Meeting

Firstly, you should know that Google Forms is free. This is an important distinction because I don’t like paying for things if I don’t have to. To use the product, all you have to have is a Google account and a web browser. Simply log into your Google account here: www.google.com/drive. If you you don’t have a Google account, you can sign up for one there.

Once you’re in, simply press the “Create” button on the upper, left-hand side of your browser. Select to create a new “Form” and voila! You’re in the the new form wizard. From here, you can easily add questions to your form, save your form, add text to the top of the form page, and send a link to your form to anyone that you wish.

Some Canned Questions I Like to Ask in my Pre-Meeting Questionnaires

  • Does “project/decision/process/problem/outcome” affect your team/department? If so, how and how often? (Usually, this is a resounding “yes!”)
  • Does this  “project/decision/process/problem/outcome” work the way it’s supposed to? Why not?
  • Based on your judgement, is this “problem” getting worse?
  • Based on your judgement, is this “solution” working?
  • How does this “project/decision/process/problem/outcome” impact our organization as a whole?

Obviously, you would have to change the “project/decision/process/problem/outcome”  to reflect the subject of your meeting, but the idea is pretty straightforward. At first, you might get some push back, but eventually, people will appreciate having more effective meetings. I like think that everyone, like me, loves an efficient meeting. Every minute you save by finishing early, is a minute you’ve earned to be unproductive elsewhere. After all, nba.com does not check itself.