Plan ahead to give yourself confidence in your results. Read ahead to make the best of whatever situation you find yourself in. Or you could wing it and wonder why it didn’t work.

If a piano player cares about a performance, they learn the music in advance and then practice like crazy so they go into that performance with knowledge and muscle memory that combine into confidence.

Failing it that, an accomplished musician can generally play reasonably well by reading ahead. They’re reading the next measure of music while playing the current measure. This doesn’t give them the knowledge, muscle memory and confidence they’d gain from hours of practice, but it does allow them to anticipate tricky bits.

You can always tell when a musician is winging it, reading and playing the notes at the same time. The notes don’t flow. There are awkward pauses. Complex passages get fumbled.


Application to business meetings

People that really care about the results of a business meeting plan ahead. They consider the context of the meeting in the broader journey as a point along the ever-evolving path. They get key players aligned around a single objective for the meeting — the change to make or the problem to solve and why that matters in the broader journey. Then they get all aligned around meeting principles, give them pre-work to prompt thinking in advance and clarify expectations.

The best meetings are like improvisational jazz. While there may be a central theme, players are encouraged to try new things. Thus even with the best preparation, those leading meetings need to be reading ahead to anticipate and manage through the inevitable tricky bits. A lot of this has to do with phrasing and sensing when to let a conversation run and when to move it on to the next subject.

Unfortunately, most people just show up at meetings and try to react real time. You can always tell when they are winging it, listening and talking at the same time. Their thoughts don’t flow. There are awkward pauses. They miss things.

Even worse are the people that show up, but aren’t really present because they’re multi-tasking. We’ve all noticed people doing something on their computers, tablets or phones while others are talking. Even those not visibly disengaged may be thinking about something completely different. It is impossible for these people to contribute to the meeting to the best of their ability.


Implications for meeting leaders

If you’re leading a meeting, plan ahead. In an earlier article, I laid out a methodology for curating business meetings. That will help you with how to plan ahead. The point here is about differential uses of your time.

• If the meeting matters enough, invest in planning.

• If the meeting is routine, but still important, you may not have to invest in planning, but you will still need to read ahead in the meeting itself.

• If the meeting is not all that important, consider either canceling it so no one wastes any time or delegating it to others to manage.


Implication for meeting participants

Planning ahead matters for meeting participants as well. Use a similar framework for the differential investment of your time.

• If the meeting matters enough, invest in going through the pre-work. Perhaps do a little extra research or work, talking to the leader about his or her expectations and other meeting participants and your team to get ahead of the curve. It’s always helpful to take some time and think about the subject matter of the meeting in advance.

• Even if the meeting is a routine, regularly scheduled update, your contributions to the meeting may not be routine. Prepare for your part of the meeting so you understand the context for what you’re trying to do, what you’re trying to accomplish and how you’re going to manage that.

If the meeting is not all that important, consider excusing yourself from attending, briefing others on your part in advance of the meeting.