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The beauty and clarity of asking what’s next

10. 23. 20

The drama that’s unfolding south of our border here in Canada… thankfully now in its final days… has me missing the favourite President of my lifetime.

It’s not Obama or Reagan, though I was a big fan of both.

No, for me it’s the former Democrat governor of New Hampshire.  Two-term president in the White House.   The man high in integrity – with the fierce intellect and quick wit.

I’m referring, of course, to Josiah (“Jed”) Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen on The West Wing from 1999-2006.   And I have to believe our friends in the U.S. could really use his steady hand right now.

What I loved most about Bartlet’s leadership was his decisiveness.  He surrounded himself with smart people, listened to their input (what a concept!), then acted swiftly.  But it was what followed every decision that became Bartlet’s true calling card.  If you Google the catchphrase made famous on The West Wing, two words always come up first.

What’s next?   

Bartlet first asked this question early in season two, when he and his team were discussing strategies for securing his nomination for the presidency.  One of his advisors was slow in moving off a topic, and Bartlet finally snapped:  “I understood the point…. when I ask, ‘What’s next?’ it means I’m ready to move on to other things.  So, what’s next?”  

Writers on The West Wing used this phrase frequently over seven seasons as a signal to viewers that one storyline was wrapping up and a new one was beginning.  But President Bartlet’s words have added meaning to me now, in the midst of this ongoing pandemic – and the challenges we all face in staying focused and productive.  

In the absence of meeting face-to-face like we used to, we’ve had to learn new ways of communicating, collaborating and making decisions.  There’s been a big spike in video calls, in particular.  One day this week, I had three Zoom calls, two Microsoft Teams meetings, and one Google Meet, all in a span of about seven hours.  I’m not unique.  Many of you are doing the same thing.

It’s worth asking — is it all working the way we’d like?  Are we moving on to our own what’s next with focus, efficiency and momentum, which is why Bartlet regularly asked the question in the first place?

Here are a few of my own observations from the past few months:

We might not even need the meeting at all.
Have we asked ourselves if we need to get multiple people on a call to begin with?  People far smarter than me have weighed in on this question.  Often the topic at hand can be decided over a short e-mail exchange or two, can’t it?   It could be as simple as:  (1) here’s the situation  (2) … and our plan to address it  (3) any concerns?  and  (4) … all in agreement?  This won’t work in all situations (depending on the topic) but probably more often than we think – and without the hassle of coordinating multiple calendars.

It doesn’t always have to be on Zoom or Teams. 
Thanks goodness for these platforms – they’ve served, in many instances, as the next best thing to being there.  And also (at times) damn them.   Before COVID, I did a tiny bit of Zoom, a lot of face-to-face, and a lot of good old fashioned conference calls.  Now, it’s almost all video calls.  I like video platforms for when it’s critical to see multiple people, look into their eyes and truly “engage” – as well as for reviewing documents together.  But do I really need a video call for a quick status update or nailing a simple decision with one or two people?  I don’t think so.

Most meetings can be shorter.
Why do many meetings default to an hour?  Why can’t they be scheduled in 30-minute increments – or even shorter, if the topic permits?   Shorter meetings would mean saving our chit chat about sports and politics and the weather to the end of the call instead of leading with it.  They’d also demand we be “crisper” in our thinking and behaviour.  My own business coach, Adele Tevlin, has emphasized the concept of “clearing” things and moving on.  She means getting to the real heart of the matter, deciding things swiftly, and pushing forward.  Being succinct.  Not belabouring.  Get on with it.  A lot of meeting time is chewed up by talking too long on one topic.  Here’s a suggestion – book the meeting for a bit less time than you think you’ll need, and then work crisply to that timeframe.

We can make our meetings better.
Okay, we’ve agreed we need a meeting and that it’s going to be on Teams.  Can we follow a few key principles that help make it a good use of everyone’s time?  Specifically:

  • declaring the purpose ahead of time (this helps identify the right participants);
  • re-affirming this purpose at the start of the meeting so everyone is clear before we dive in;
  • circulating anything worth reading (that helps the conversation) ahead of the meeting;
  • starting on time, not waiting for latecomers – so that we respect everyone’s schedules;
  • ensuring one person clearly “owns” the meeting and runs it;
  • being succinct – speaking with clarity and brevity, focusing on “clearing” topics and moving on; and
  • ending on time – with a strong What’s Next? bias.

I think we can do it.   We’re capable.

And now a mea culpa.

I contribute to all of the above as much as anyone.  We’re creatures of habit.   We all get stuck in ruts.  And it takes time (and practice) to get out of them.  I’m learning to.  We all are.

It recalls, for me, a story often told of the sign that hung in Steve Jobs’ office at Apple headquarters.   It was both directional and a bit of an ominous warning to whoever entered.

“Be brief.  Be brilliant.  Be gone.”

So ask yourself:

  1. What’s the crispness factor in your own meetings?
  2. How good are you at “clearing” things?
  3. And are you asking What’s Next?