07/09/2014 10:32 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2014

Meetings in Wonderland

Getty Images

Co-authored by HuffPost blogger Shani Harmon

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" asked Alice.
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where -" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"- so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

-- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Written 150 years ago, this memorable exchange perfectly describes why so many meetings in the corporate world today can feel as surreal as the world inside the rabbit hole.

Many meetings, even ones with a good agenda and good protocols, suffer from Alice's fate. Rather than viewed as part of a journey from point A to point Z, meetings are seen as an end unto themselves, as a destination. Once the meeting is scheduled, we can declare success!

Sounds harmless, but have you ever found yourself in a meeting where the group is trying to solve a problem but keeps reverting back to what caused it? Or is under a tight deadline yet spends time on peripheral conversations? There is no one today who isn't suffering from overwork and feeling overwhelmed. Yet we meander through aimless meetings with the belief that eventually, they will lead us somewhere...

The underlying root cause here is a failure to map out work -- not at the micro-detailed project plan level -- but at the major conversations/decisions level. By doing so, you chart out your meetings as a series of progress accelerators, rather than places you just stop by.

Imagine a team has been asked to develop a line extension or new offer. Mapping out the series of sequential conversations might look something like this...

Conversation 1: Why is this offer needed? (e.g., shifting customer expectations, new competitive pressures, etc.) This conversation is essential to knowing what problem we're solving.

Conversation 2: Generating a broad list of options and beginning to narrow in on the most attractive ones.

Conversation 3: (Can often take several meetings) Weighing the pros and cons and analyzing the data around each option.

Conversation 4: Making a decision based on potential market impact.

Once a new offer is decided upon, another series of conversations may be required to decide how to implement, price and position it. Each conversation may require a different set of participants who represent new perspectives. Some are exploratory. Others are analytic. Some meetings require the decision makers. Others do not.

Too often, however, we embark on the journey like Alice -- with only a vague destination in mind and no sense of the path it will take to get there. And then, because it feels like forward momentum, we schedule a bunch of meetings. We're moving now, aren't we?

Instead, in every meeting, make sure everyone sees the broader context and understands the specific goal of this particular conversation. Reminding everyone of what work was done "upstream" and what will need to be done "downstream" provides critical orientation and keeps the conversation focused. More importantly, it will ensure you leave the meeting having made actual forward progress.

Toward the end of Alice's adventure, the King gravely says to her "Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop." Perhaps a new meeting mantra?