Making Meetings Less Terrible

Studies estimate that we spend an hour or more each day in meetings or preparing for them. On the one hand, it’s good that humans are communicating, making decisions and solving problems together. On the other hand, unproductive meetings can be a major disruption to our productivity and mood.

A recent Freakonomics Radio episode titled How to Make Meetings Less Terrible addressed this issue. Anyone who finds themselves leading terrible or even just unproductive meetings from time to time should check out this episode.

The program offered several practical pieces of advice for making meetings more productive, organized here as a Top 5 list

1. Set aside the right amount of time. Not every type of issue, discussion topic or decision fits neatly into a calendar bucket of one hour.

2. Connect people to each other and the to the purpose of the meeting.

3. Open the meeting by talking about “roses and thorns”. These are things that went well or didn’t go well from the day, the week or the previous session. This makes the discussion more honest, personal and real.

4. Make meetings problem-focused discussions instead of falsely positive ones.

5. Encourage a healthy conflict of ideas rather than a conflict of personalities.

One debatable piece of advice from the radio program was spending the first part of the meeting to review the preparatory material with all participants. On a practical level, this ensures that everyone is on the same page. It also assumes and tacitly accepts that a significant number of people will not have done their homework. This would seem to reward the wrong behavior and disrespect the people who put in the work.

Some organizations have a “no meeting” policy. This seems too drastic. Most likely, time is being wasted and decisions are being made poorly by other means or discussions. They’re just not called meetings. Leaders not capable of having well-run meetings should fix that first, before abandoning meetings altogether. The problem is you, not the meetings themselves.

On the other end of the spectrum are organizations very eager to engage people in discussion, based on the assumption that the group will have better ideas than a few individuals. To some degree, this is part of Lean dogma. It’s not unusual for continuous improvement journeys to experience diminishing returns as suggestion systems, QC circles, kaizen events or other team-based activities gradually yield fewer ideas and less impact. Other approaches are needed for problems that can’t be addressed readily through group discussion.

This last point may be supported by findings of researcher Ike Silver, interviewed in a Knowledge@Wharton article. Citing something called “the illusion of effective discussion”, Silver said, “[…] people will sometimes have undue confidence in the power of discussion to improve their judgment.” In fact, the typical meetings and discussions are likely to produce a better outcome only 20 percent of the time, compared to decisions “produced by the best individual in the room.” Sometimes the crowd is not wiser than the wisest few.

The interesting question raised in this article is this;

From a managerial perspective, how can we train people to know when it’s a good idea to ask your employees to engage in discussion versus when it’s a better idea to say, “Give me your independent answers. I’ll aggregate them in some simple way, and that will be enough wisdom for whatever it is that I’m trying to do.”

What’s the nature of the problem we’re trying to solve? What type of knowledge, thinking and perspectives are needed to grasp the situation properly? When does this rely on a diverse group of people and when on a small team of experts? If both, in what order? It seems we need a discussion to first decide whether the topic merits further discussion.

In the Lean approach to problem solving we call this first step “clarifying the problem”. It’s not necessarily a meeting. It is a series actions to collect evidence, discuss the situation with those affected, describe the issue in terms of current reality versus the ideal, view the problem from a common and customer-centered way, and so forth until we can draft a good problem statement. This can be accomplished via a structured meeting of minds, via individual problem-solving efforts or as a learning exercise guided by a coach.

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