Improve Planning Sessions with Four Questions

Like death and taxes, planning meetings in business are unavoidable. But do they have to be so frustrating?

We’ve all been in planning meetings where circular conversations seem unending. As the group meanders, goes on bird walks and turns down every cul-du-sac we watch the clock and pray for a swift wrap-up. Eventually, the planning session ends and little has been planned. How can we avoid wasted time and effort and keep planning meetings focused and effective?

The secret to any planning meetings is having the right process to harness your team’s brilliance.

One of the most powerful group planning processes I rely upon in my meeting design and facilitation work is the “Focus Discussion Method.” The Institute for Cultural Affairs created this process to support organizations in developing mutual understanding, then move to agreement and action. The process is very flexible and can be shifted to achieve the specific outcome for your group. The process is made up of four sequential questions. Each question helps individuals access a different thought center (gut, heart and head). The question sequence is as follows:


Objective: Question number one asks for the facts - information that everyone can probably agree upon. Essentially, this question asks,  “What?” - What did you hear? What caught your attention? What happened? Another intention behind this question is that is allows everyone in the group to speak.  There is no exact science behind the first question, it just needs to help the group focus on factual information and be broad enough to allow for everyone’s input to be included.  


Reflective: Question number two asks for the reactions that group members had to the topic in focus. The intention behind this question is to create space for people to express their perspectives without needing to agree with each other too soon in the process. During this stage in the process, the questions look something like this: What did this remind you of? What surprised you? When XYZ happened, how did you feel? These types of questions support participants access their “gut” thought centers and express their feeling and reactions in a safe space because no one can disagree with their colleague’s feelings.


Interpretive: Question number three asks for the specific meaning members made/are making from the topic in focus. Essentially, this question asks, “So what?” – What makes this important? What results do we want? What might be the impact of doing this? At this step, participant’s interpretations, their significance and implications drive the conversation from individual reflections to building shared understanding among the group. The interpretative question provides the opportunity for participants to provide their input to listen to other’s ideas. It is important to note that this stage is not meant to build agreement, but to share input. 


Decisional: Question number four, the final question, is intended to build consensus about next steps or action. The final question also serves to bring a close to the discussion and ensure people understand what will come next. This question asks, “Now what?” – what did we learn from this? What recommendations do you have going forward? What are the first steps we might take? What else needs to be discussed? Notice that no hard decisions are being made, so there is no room for disagreement. The final question helps generate ideas for action, but is by no means the action plan. An additional process or is required to figure out exactly who will do what by when. That being said, many times the group energy will naturally build towards consensus and an idea generated from this step will become the agreed upon route forward.


Whether helping philanthropic leaders envision the future of philanthropy, guiding a task force to develop a communications plan for the school district, or facilitating seventh grade boys through a meaningful day at a ropes course, I use the Focused Discussion Method to move groups of differing perspectives from unclear to generating ideas and making decisions is 20 minutes or less. This is a powerful tool and one that can be easily adapted to significantly improve the planning efforts of your teams.