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Sometimes meetings that look promising before they begin, fail unexpectedly. Four primary causes of meeting failure deserve your attention. They sneak up on groups, ill-prepared to anticipate or mitigate them. Participants need your awareness about these meeting failures as their meeting leader and facilitator.

First of Four Meeting Failure Causes: The Problem with Solving

First, what is a “promising meeting”? When the session leader has confirmed a solid and necessary deliverable from the meeting participants but fails to develop an appropriate method or agenda, most meetings will flounder or fail. North Americans, in particular, are subject to an “over-confidence” bias. They show up expecting to develop the right method, ask the right questions, or conduct the appropriate analysis “on the fly”. Some have called this meeting syndrome, “solving”.

Second of Four Meeting Failure Causes: Over-Confidence Bias

meeting failure

Meeting Failure Causes

The same over-confidence bias causes many to skip the analysis and jump immediately from the problem to the solution. As a result, they frequently ask pertinent but impossible questions akin to “How do you solve global hunger?” or “How do you boil the ocean?”. While the participants may have a vested interest in solving the hunger issue or resolving a technical issue, the session leader has not made it easy for them to arrive at a consensual solution because the method has failed to break it down into manageable pieces.

Third of Four Meeting Failure Causes: Question Precision

One of the surest ways to get a group of vested participants to go silent is to ask a meaningful question that is so broad as to be unanswerable.

Participants become numb about how to respond. Note with the “hunger” problem as an example. Hunger remains a function of food development, food distribution, food storage, nutrition absorption, etc. By narrowing the scope a bit and providing a focused question, a facilitator can make it a lot easier for a group to respond, such as “How could we improve food storage capacity in Somalia?” With a precise question, and narrower scope (ie, Somalia versus the entire world), it becomes much easier to provide answers such as “converts those old rail cars” or “use the abandoned mine shafts”.

Fourth of Four Meeting Failure Causes: Question Sequencing

Not only should the overriding question be broken into discrete questions, but the questions need to be sequenced as well. For example, the big question “So, what is the marketing plan for 20xx?” is better served with discrete discussions around segmentation, targeting, positioning, messaging, media, etc. Most marketing experts suggest identifying the target audience before going further into the analysis or plan development.

Likewise, when building a home, a residential architect needs to know “What color do you want the grout to be in the secondary bathroom?” That type of question, however, while demanding an answer, is probably best saved for the end of development, after agreeing on the purpose of the home, location, size, traffic flow, etc. These additional topical areas become natural agenda steps that increase the robustness of the method behind the meeting, also known as an agenda.

No one wants another meeting, especially a non-productive session.

To ensure that your meetings are anticipated, respected, and more productive than the meeting your participants came from or the meeting they are headed to next, embrace the following suggestions to correct why meetings fail.

Why Meetings Fail

Meetings Fail — Here’s How to Stop It

Start on Time

Do not penalize people who are on time by waiting for people who are late. Few irritants get a meeting started poorly than a wavering start time. Ask participants to notify you in advance if they might be late. If they arrive late, do NOT consume others’ time by reviewing what has transpired. Instead, pair them off with someone else and ask them to go in the hallway to provide an update.


If it was not documented then it did not happen. Meetings without documentation suggest that nothing worthwhile happened. Optimally, add context and rationale for all topics and decisions made. Take any decision to a steering team or decision review board and their first challenge will be “Why?” Carefully leave a paper trail for the reasons.

Time Sensitivity

While participants should typically share a few laughs, real meeting success is judged by finishing on time, or better yet, ahead of schedule. Be careful about taking on strategic issues during a brief meeting, they should be logged and set aside for a longer forum. Do not allow participants to go into too much detail, that others find irrelevant. They can build and provide concrete details on their own. Remember too, that ‘standing’ meetings (ie, meetings held regularly at the same time every week) were originally intended for participants to stand and not sit. By the way, ‘standing’ meetings complete much faster than ‘sitting’ meetings.

Agenda Control

Stay vigilant about following the agenda. In other words, stay in scope. Sometimes arguments about the project, the organization, or other issues beyond control dominate a meeting. Participants that talk about what they want gives rise to the concept of people “who have their own agenda.” Stick to your agenda and monitor progress carefully.

Visual Support

Stimulate participants and discussion with the proper use of easels and supplementary visuals. Do not however rely on a deck of slides. People can read and challenge slide decks on their own, they do not need a meeting for that. Build slides that share causal links and supplement with visuals that stimulate. A visually dynamic meeting offers ‘sex appeal’ compared to others.

Secure Feedback

Get audible agreement, beginning with ground rules. Document decision points, preferably on large-scale poster size paper or white boards. As you build consensus, emphasize that consensus implies a quality decision that ALL participants can support, but NOT one that necessarily makes everyone happy. Consensus is something they can live with, and not disrupt in the hallways after the meeting.

Careful Review

Upon conclusion, carefully review and confirm that everyone understands next steps. If the meeting changes nothing, why meet? Make the change or assignments visible and consider using a RASI chart for support. For any and all follow-up meeting(s), confirm future dates, times, and locations. Most importantly, conclude on time, or preferably, early. Before they depart, secure additional feedback on what you could have done to make the meeting even more successful. For solid and anonymous feedback, use our Post-it© note approach combined with the T-chart called Plus-Delta. They provide more meaningful input than offered openly in public. Participants do not want to “embarrass” you with their criticism.

Why meetings fail? By following the suggestions above you can circumvent the three most common complaints about meetings, namely:

  1. Disorganized (ie, uncertain output or outcome)
  2. Length (ie, wasted time)
  3. Predetermined decisions (meetings are a poor form of persuasion)

Convert Why Meetings Fail Into Meeting Success

The lesson to be learned? Break it down. Speak with experts and study additional reference material. Take any significant reason or question behind a meeting and determine the various questions that could be answered in support. Find the natural groupings and create a topical flow. Now you have at least a basic agenda that will help prevent you from asking such a broad question that it could lead to meeting silence, or even failure.


Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH  professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.

Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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