Why is this meeting on my calendar?

Every gathering needs a purpose, says Priya Parker, author of 'The Art of Gathering.' Here's how to find it

We’ve all been in bad meetings. But the hard truth is, a successful meeting isn’t as simple as putting time on a calendar. Our series Meeting Heroes invites you to learn how to save the [work] day with your next gathering. You’ll never have to hear the phrase, “This meeting should have been an email,” again.

In our offices, we spend our days in back-to-back meetings, many of which could be replaced by an email or a 10-minute stand-up meeting. There is nothing terrible about going with that flow, about organizing a monthly staff meeting whose purpose is to go through the same motions as every monthly staff meeting before it. But when you do, you are borrowing from gatherings and formats that others came up with to help solve their problems. To come up with the formats they did, they must have reflected on their needs and purposes. If you don’t do the same and think of yourself as a laboratory, your gathering might not be as effective as it can be.

Practical tips on crafting your purpose

When clients or friends are struggling to determine their gathering’s purpose, I tell them to move from the what to the why. Here are some strategies that help them do so.

Zoom out

Why are you really meeting? Think big picture. For example, a chemistry teacher might tell herself that her purpose is to teach chemistry. While teaching is a noble undertaking, this definition does not give her much guidance on how to actually design her classroom experience. If, instead, she decides that her purpose is to give the young a lifelong relationship to the organic world, new possibilities emerge.

Drill, baby, drill

Take the reasons you think you are gathering—because it’s our departmental Monday morning meeting—and keep drilling below them. Ask why you’re doing it. Every time you get to another, deeper reason, ask why again. Keep asking why until you hit a belief or value.

I was once advising a publicist who was hosting a book event. I asked what the purpose of the event was for her—what she wanted out of it. And she said something to the effect of “To make it the best book of the fall.” If we had stopped there, it wouldn’t have given her any guidance on how to design the book event. So we kept digging. Why does this book matter so much to you? She thought about it for a second and lit up, and said something like, “Because it’s a powerful rendering of how a story can completely change based on whose perspective it is.” Aha. That was both meaningful and an insight she could begin to design an event around.

Reverse engineer an outcome

Think of what you want to be different because you gathered, and work backward from that outcome. That is the formula of Mamie Kanfer Stewart and Tai Tsao, who set out some years ago to improve the work meeting. Stewart grew up working in her family enterprise—which is behind the hand sanitizer Purell. The meetings she attended, Stewart told me, were “the absolute best part of the day.” It was only when she set out into the world and discovered other companies’ meetings that she realized how awful most of them are. That inspired her to study meeting behavior and how to fix it, and led her to start a business called Meeteor to help companies meet better.

Stewart and Tsao’s big idea is that every meeting should be organized around a “desired outcome.” What, they might ask, do you want to achieve from discussing the quarter’s results? Figuring out your desired outcome brings focus to a meeting, and it does one more useful thing: It allows people to make better choices about whether they need to be there. It may even help a host decide whether a meeting is necessary for that outcome or whether an email will do.

When there really is no purpose

If you go through these steps and find that you still cannot figure out any real purpose for your get-together, then you probably shouldn’t be planning the kind of meaningful gathering that I am exploring here. Do a simple, casual hangout. Or give people their time back. And plan your next gathering when you have a specific, unique, disputable purpose that helps you make decisions about how the event should unfold.

Purpose is your bouncer

The purpose of your gathering is more than an inspiring concept. It is a tool, a filter that helps you determine all the details, grand and trivial. To gather is to make choice after choice: place, time, food, forks, agenda, topics, speakers. Virtually every choice will be easier to make when you know why you’re gathering, and especially when that why is particular, interesting, and even provocative. Make purpose your bouncer. Let it decide what goes into your gathering and what stays out.

Read more of Priya Parker’s tips for having productive, purposeful meetings.

Adapted from The Art of the Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker, published by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Priya Parker.

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