What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

“Some meetings are good – but most aren’t.”

By Charles H. Green

Most meetings meander along, doubling back, following vaguely circuitous routes, going down frequent blind alleys. And this kind of meeting is truly destructive.

Of course it wastes time – the time of many people. On top of that, this kind of meeting creates frustration, as well as genuine confusion, as people get pulled into thoughts of only secondary or tertiary importance. 

How can you stop bad meetings like this? 

I have found there is one particular thing you can do that is not only effective, but simple.

Just say – What problem are we trying to solve? 

Let’s unpack just why these seven words are so effective.

  • First, it is not an attack on anyone. Most additions to bad meetings are implicitly or explicitly approving or disapproving of others. These seven words don’t take sides.
  • Second, it overtly speaks to problem definition. Most problems fail to be solved not because of the lack of solutions, but because the problem wasn’t properly defined in the first place. These seven words go to the heart of the issue.
  • Third, it is phrased in the form of a question. It is an open invitation to all to contribute, rather than a declaratory position statement.
  • Fourth, if you say it with the right affect – head cocked to the side, a querulous tone, emphasis on the word ‘problem’ (not on the word ‘solve’), conveying genuine curiosity – you will instantly improve the collaborative tone of the meeting. 
  • And finally, it focuses everyone on a common goal; everyone agrees it’s important to have a shared agenda and problem definition. The word “we” is in there for a reason – not “I.”

Give it a try. Next time you’re in a meeting, wait for that moment when things have begun to spin out of control, veering off track and lurching side to side, and remember the seven words:

“What problem are we trying to solve?”



About Charles

Charles is an author, speaker, consultant and seminar leader. When it comes to Trusted Advisor, he wrote the book– literally. 

That is, He co-wrote The Trusted Advisor, its follow-up The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, and authored Trust-Based Selling. He works to build trust-based business relationships of all types. 

Charles got a BA in Philosophy (while driving a NYC taxi), a Harvard MBA, and 20 years in general mgt consulting. 

He works with clients in accounting, consulting, wealth management, investment banking, commercial banking, systems development, law, commercial real estate. 


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