The 4 P’s: Saving 25% of Meeting Time

By John Sutherland

Ineffective meetings are the bugbear of many organisations. In this article, John Sutherland, Director of Strategic resource introduces and discusses the 4 P’s model. He advises that setting out the 4 P’s – Person, Purpose, Process and Product for any form of teamwork or organisational meetings promotes efficiency, productivity and focus.

Do you sit in meetings that just seem to ramble on, whilst your life strolls by and other important work mounts up? Ineffective meetings are the bugbear of many organisations. Our clients tell us that using the 4 P’s adds structure, focus, and ownership and increases productivity. On average they report being 25% more efficient in their meetings. Interested?


The 4 P’s
Of all the models I have developed in my 25 years of consultancy work, to date, this is the most straightforward and the most impactful. Whenever you are about to engage in meetings, or any form of teamwork, it pays to set out the 4 P’s.




You always need to know who is ‘holding the pen’ for each meeting. If the pen is going to pass between team members it is particularly important to clarify when the pen passes and whether it is passing back to you for the next agenda item. Just having a clearly identified leader marshals activities enormously. When Neil volunteered to be the Person for his team’s first discussion using the 4 P’s the unanimous feedback was that it was the most productive meeting they had ever had, in 13 years, primarily because there was someone designated as the main driver.

The other job for the ‘Person’ is to clarify who needs to be involved in each part of the agenda. Far too many meetings have team members sitting around waiting for their turn to present, when they could be getting on with other priority work. There is a natural discomfort for many in simply stating who needs to be involved, and therefore who does not, for fear of having people feel excluded. My advice is to take a risk and check.

“Hey Regit this next item does not really involve you so why don’t you pop back at 12:00, when we come to the piece on financial planning?” Not too hard to say and frees up time for Regit. It also gives more space for discussion amongst the key players. You want the people who can add value to this piece of work to take up the air time. No others.

Some people are better at being the ‘Person’ than others. They are more accomplished at drawing out different voices, holding the verbal ramblers in check, keeping the work on track and summarising where ‘we have got to’. The ‘Person’ does not have to be the agenda owner, team leader or even the subject expert. Just someone who is good at setting and keeping a focus.


Businesses are prone to the malaise of the rolling agenda. The common picture being that every, say, Monday at 10:00 the team meets for an hour to go through a set agenda, working hard to keep it to an hour. Typically, the meeting over-runs, covering only the urgent operational matters and seldom the more transformational, forward looking needs of the business. Teams frequently spend too much time working in the business and not enough time working on the business. To check this tendency the Purpose question provides a strategic analysis of what you need to be working on, at the team level, in order to achieve your business plan. It is a relevance check and helps to maintain a balance in teamwork. If your meetings are not focussed on the most pertinent questions what are they for?

Far too many meetings have team members sitting around waiting for their turn to present, when they could be getting on with other priority work.

Sometimes the answers the Purpose question throws up can be surprising. Take Darryl, who decided to review the Purpose of their monthly Board preparation cycle. When he and his team fearlessly explored what they were asking the International regions to do they realised they had been getting the, already over-stretched, regional managers (and their teams) to do work that would be mostly repeated a week later. They had been doing this for 5 years. The resulting saving in time was immense and positively impacted the wider organisation. Of course, not all Purpose discussions produce such dramatic results but, routinely, the 3-5 minutes taken to ask ‘Why’ helps to bring clarity, priority and a sense of ownership into the meeting.


The Process you use to achieve your Purpose will be driven by the nature of the Purpose. And this is where most teams go wrong. They simply ‘do what they do’ when working as a team, with the vast majority using a combination of operational reporting and project update Processes in all meetings, regardless of the Purpose. Useful in their own right but never designed to, for example, assess the Total Addressable Market in your sector or identify the learning that emerges when you look across your business division’s performance. If you know you need to come to a decision use a decision making process. If you need to discover best practice use an inquiry process, and so on.  As an aid to thinking about mapping Purpose to Process here are four continuums we have recently developed, through our work with client teams.(See Teamwork Process Map below)





Is your Purpose more strategic or more operational? Are you looking to set or refine direction (strategic) or report on progress or deviations against plan (operational)? Even most senior team meetings are weighted towards an operational focus, not giving enough oxygen to the unfolding work of strategy. And this is why they often end up being so tedious. When challenged, teams say that there is never enough time to debate strategy, because of the busyness of the urgent and important operational matters. But, of course, if the only Processes you deploy are designed to focus on operational matters you will never ‘find time’ to work on more strategic issues. You have not equipped yourself with the right Process tools.

Processes for working with Strategic purposes are, of course, different from Operational ones. Some are very well known, such as the (over-used) SWOT analysis. Others are less frequently used, such as a Stakeholder analysis or running a future scenario planning exercise. Sometimes you need a process that starts out Strategically and move down the continuum to become more Operational. For example, the use of a KPI ‘dashboard’ highlights the critical areas to dig into at the operational level, in order to achieve the plan. Others move intentionally from Operational to Strategic. For example exception reporting means reporting only those items of current performance that have strategic implications.


Does your purpose mean you need to open up debate (Divergent) or bring a wide range of views to a single point of agreement (Convergent)? Divergent processes are good at bringing in new ideas, perhaps through brain-storming or inviting an external advisor to give input. They are also ideal for wide ranging strategic debate. By contrast all forms of decision making, be it an options paper, a consultation process or team decision, are natural convergent Processes. Many teams are better at the divergent end, spawning endless debate, than the convergent end, bringing it all to a conclusion.

Some Purposes are best served by first working Divergently before funnelling down to a Convergent conclusion. Many team discussions can be described in precisely this manner. It is a core Process. However, it helps if everyone knows in advance what the ‘game plan’ is, so that when it comes time to funnel down they start looking for connecting strands and summaries rather than new avenues for exploration.


Does your Purpose lead to a need to gather and share information or is the core Purpose to transform and improve the organisation? Informational processes include sharing updates on competitor, market, or sector activity and may require a Process specifically designed to gather intelligence and determine the relevant ‘signal from the background noise’. Other processes, for example running a team development session, are by design transformational in their Purpose. As before, you may start with an informational process, e.g. how is the team currently performing, before moving to a transformational process, such as an exploration of useful additional team work processes to drive team work efficiency.


This is the one that catches most people out. Over half of us are wired to organise work through Linear structured Processes, such as project management with clear stage gates. The rest of us prefer to organise work through an Iterative learning process, getting nearer our goal through each new phase of activity. Some Purposes lend themselves to a more Linear approach, for example compliance control. Others lend themselves to a more Iterative approach, for example software development (agile project management). If you are like most people you will have an in-built bias one way or the other and will need to check that you are flexing the Process you select based on the actual needs of the Purpose and not just on what suits your preference as a person. Tricky.


A Process Exercise

• Take 20 minutes with your team to think back over the previous 3 meetings. What team work Processes did you use?
• Take a further 10 minutes to think ahead to your next meeting. When you examine the intended Purpose behind each agenda item what new Processes could you import that would be a credible match for the work in hand?
• Finally, think through how you could describe the ‘rules’ of each Process to your team, so that they know how to work efficiently towards your intended outcome. Each Process has its own set of ‘instructions’.

If you want some prompts take a look at the team work sampler, to stimulate your creative juices. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list; we work with a library of over 60. But it will give you a reasonable starting point. The aim is to grow your own unique library, matching the needs of your unique organisation.




The final P, and in many ways the most important one, is having ‘the end in mind’. If the Purpose is at the strategic level (the ‘Why’) the Product is at the Operational level (the ‘What’). What will we achieve as a result of this agenda item and the meeting? If you cannot specify the ‘Product’ at the start of the meeting the chances are you will not arrive at a clear destination. Meetings can then become a vacuum, sucking up energy, time and morale. By contrast repeatedly achieving a clear ‘Product’ is incredibly motivating and, more importantly, gets your team into the healthy habit of making regular tangible progress.


Putting it All Together

Repeatedly achieving a clear ‘Product’ is incredibly motivating and, more importantly, gets your team into the healthy habit of making regular tangible progress.
The power of the 4 P’s is in putting them all together. Our experience is that it can feel awkward at first but stick with it and very soon you and your team will start to prompt each other on when and how to use the model. One of our energy sector clients has made the 4 P’s into large posters that adorn all their meeting rooms, in their offices around the world. The senior team lead by example and expect to see the 4 P’s in active use in all meetings. They are now working on making the 4 P’s ‘pop up’ in the software they use to book meetings. The more they use it the better the results they get and the better the results they get the more they use it.

One way to start would be to share this article with your team and experiment together.   Reading about the ideas is not enough. Then all you have to decide is what to do with the 25% of the time you will save. Pack more into your meeting or finish early? Your call.

About the Author
john-sutherland-webJohn Sutherland is the Director of Strategic Resource, which assesses and develops senior teams in order to support them achieving their business plan. He is also the Director of the Leadership Initiative, which provides bespoke in-house programmes focussed on the specific skills required for each unique organisation.




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