Sometimes when people come together to solve a problem they can be like a herd of wild buffalo, charging around in all directions, creating a lot of noise and confusion.

This situation is very common when a major problem is affecting the ability of the business to meet its objectives, usually causing tensions to rise and feelings to take control of outcomes. There are likely to be multiple theories on where the problem lies, what caused it, and how it should be resolved. Diverse agendas can also hijack a meeting, taking it off track, wasting time and possibly end up with people heading full speed in the wrong direction.

In order to avoid this, I suggest you hold a pre-constraining meeting where we bring the key people into the room to sit down to specify and scope the problem, giving us some boundaries to work within and a direction to begin investigating. Fencing the issue this way can really help drive down the time it takes to resolve an issue as it focuses the room and all SMEs right away when the actual problem-solving session begins.

I can just hear the sighs as I write this, surely I am not suggesting a meeting to plan a meeting! Do we not have enough meetings to deal with? When are we going to get down to the real work of solving the actual problem?

In theory, such a scoping meeting may seem to be counterproductive, taking up valuable time that could be used to do ‘real work’, but a small amount of time, spent up front can be used effectively to work out five key questions that you should know before the session:

Who needs to be in the room?
Who are the affected stakeholders?
What information do we have? What is the expected ‘should’ for this object? What is the object at now? Which facts have been verified? What “facts” are actually opinions?
Does everyone actually understand the scope of the problem we are working on? What are the boundaries for discussion? What topics are known errors that we will not discuss or try to solve today?
What is the priority of the meeting? To solve the problem and understand root cause, decide on a course of action for a workaround to reduce immediate effects or both? How and who will implement our recommendations? What restrictions are being imposed?

1) Who needs to be in the room?

When you really get down to the work of finding your technical and root causes, who actually needs to be there? Probably not as many people as you think. If you do your pre-planning for the meeting adequately the only people who need to be there are the ones who are able to add some clarity to the situation. These are the people who have been involved already in attempts to resolve; people who really know the operation of the affected service; who understand the underlying infrastructure.

Filling the room with people who are not directly affected by the problem, who are simply anxious to get it resolved, is not going to help you get where you need to be. All the information they are able to provide should have been collected prior to the meeting. Their perspectives will be historical and unchanging. Sometimes you must have people present for buy-in or political reasons, this is fine, as long as you ensure they are not distracting from discussions.

The more people you have in the room, the more noise there will be and the longer it will take to get your answers. Keep the numbers to a minimum, while still ensuring that the people who are likely to have the answers are there.

2) Who are the affected stakeholders?

Understanding who is being impacted by the problem you are working on is important. While these people may not need to be directly involved in your problem meeting their requirements need to be considered, their opinions will have been collected and their frustrations will be understood.

A clear understanding of who your decision makers, influencers and implementers are will ensure that you have reached out to all affected parties and will have all the information needed before your meeting begins.

3) What information do we have and have all our facts been verified?

Do you have all the information you need to help you find cause of the problem? This might seem like a very obvious question, but it is worth spending a bit of time discussing this in your scoping meeting. Collect facts and ask who provided them what evidence they have that this is true, and not simply an expert opinion based on their knowledge, experience, and assumptions. Are you completely satisfied that these are totally accurate? If there is any doubt about the veracity of your data, then have someone go back and confirm the key facts. Too often time is wasted working on inaccurate assumptions that are accepted as fact, and good pre-planning will avoid this issue. Before holding a full problem-solving meeting you should have a clear object, verified the normal behavior, verified the actual behavior and ensured that you have made an apples-to-apples comparison of the should to the actual to form a clear deviation.

4) Is everyone on the same page?

It is surprising just how often you can get into a problem meeting and discover that people have completely different ideas about what the problem is that we are working on. Getting the correct focus on exactly where and what the problem is is essential. Symptoms can often masquerade as problems and without careful scoping, it becomes all too easy to find you have multiple people working on different levels of the same problem. The time you spend in this meeting will focus everyone at the right level.

Often times, some individuals in the room may feel that the problem-solving meeting will be a time to discuss known errors and try to improve previous shortcomings of the product being discussed. A pre-planning meeting helps surface these potential landmines of discussion and avoid the distraction later during the focused problem-solving session.

5) Understand the priority of the meeting, and the ideal outcome

Not all problems need to be solved. Many issues that surface simply need the fire to be put out and customers satisfied again. In these cases, the priority of the meeting should revolve around the discussion of objectives, alternatives, and risks of deciding on, and taking an action to restore services.

If the meeting truly needs to be around finding cause and taking corrective actions, ask questions to understand what resources you will have, who you will forward your recommendations to, and what restrictions may be imposed as this will help focus your decision making after finding cause.

Summary: A clear focus makes all the difference

A short, sharp meeting of key people will allow you to properly structure your problem meeting and its efforts. Armed with the questions in this article you will be able to clearly focus energy and thought on the real issues that need to be solved and go into your full session meeting with confidence and clarity. The bonus? You will not waste the time of others while getting on the same page and over time resources will respond to you positively for future meetings recognizing you as someone well-organized and able to facilitate effectively.

Happy hunting!