Are you frustrated with meetings? The view that meetings, even when they yield few results, are an unavoidable part of business is surprisingly widespread – especially among meeting organizers.
In this book summary of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance, organizational psychologist Steven G. Rogelberg challenges this assumption with ideas on how to stop wasting time and energy by facilitating better meetings. Rather than cancelling meetings, he says, improve them by being mindful and skillful about their design and delivery.
Save time and energy by facilitating better meetings. (Hint: the best ones are 48 minutes long.)
Management, Leadership, Business Communication, Business Management, Running Meetings and Presentations, Organizational Behavior
Many managers regard inefficient, unproductive or boring meetings as an unavoidable business flaw. Professor Steven G. Rogelberg challenges this assumption with ideas on how to stop wasting time and energy by facilitating better meetings. He bases his advice on research, best practices and surveys. Rather than cancelling meetings, he says, improve them by being mindful and skillful about their design and delivery. He suggests short “standing meetings,” which offer health benefits, satisfaction and efficiency. To improve your meeting culture, try his smart strategies.
- Acknowledge that meetings can cause a lot of frustration, and assess your meetings to seek improvements.
- Rather than getting rid of meetings, solve your problems with them by applying science.
- Critically evaluate your meeting facilitation skills: Are they as good as you think they are?
- Holding a meeting for 48 minutes will catch your colleagues’ attention.
- Carefully craft meeting agendas. Make participants “directly responsible” owners of their agenda items.
- Invite fewer participants to reduce “social loafing”; encourage input before and after from “secondary stakeholders.”
- Walking and standing meetings add variety to your meeting culture and ensure that people “don’t get too comfortable in that chair.”
- “Deflate negative energy from the start” and create technology-free meeting zones.
- Encourage silence to bring out every team member’s input.
- Pay special attention to audio-only telephone conferences.
Acknowledge that meetings can cause a lot of frustration, and assess your meetings to seek improvements.
Everyone needs to meet for team discussions, interdepartment alignment and group decision making. But everyone needs to meet effectively. Meetings can cause frustration, especially when they waste time and energy due to a bad meeting culture.
“Bad meetings should never be accepted as an organizational norm.”
Think of the opportunity costs: While you’re stuck with your colleagues in a meeting, you all could be spending time doing real work. When your company manages meetings effectively, meetings add to productivity and organizational cohesion. And when it doesn’t, they add to cost. In 2014, meetings cost the United States’ economy about $1.4 trillion – roughly 8% of the nation’s GDP that year.
Rather than getting rid of meetings, solve your problems with them by applying science.
Employees have no lack of cynicism when it comes to meetings. Yet getting rid of all meetings is not feasible. Without meetings, you would lose contact with your colleagues, disconnect from other departments and become single-minded about difficult problems. Rather than eliminating meetings, improve them. “Meetings science,” the study of meetings and their dynamics through surveys or experimental studies, can help.
Critically evaluate your meeting facilitation skills: Are they as good as you think they are?
Start by reflecting on your skills at running meetings: How would you rate your meeting facilitation abilities? Judging from the “Lake Wobegon Effect” – named for radio commentator Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town “where all of the children are above average” – most people believe they are better than the average facilitator, which is statistically impossible.
“A leader’s experience of the meeting appears to be fundamentally different from the experiences of other meeting attendees.”
Rather than overestimating your skills, accept that you might have room for improvement, and strategically seek out opportunities to improve. You can, for example, gain input by asking meeting participants for feedback. If you feel that approaching them in person would bias the results, consider sending around a short, anonymous survey. Collecting data and being open to that information will increase your awareness of issues, which is the first step to improvement. Look for the following signals when assessing your meeting effectiveness:
- Are participants on their phones or other devices, attempting to multitask?
- Are a few participants talking all the time, while others aren’t speaking at all?
- Are you, as the leader, dominating the meeting?
“What differentiates successful meeting leaders from the unsuccessful ones is the willingness to pick the right tool for the job at hand.”
Collect meeting feedback through different instruments, including your annual employee engagement survey. You could also make meetings part of any 360-degree feedback instrument that applies to leaders in your company.
Adopt a “servant leadership” mind-set and buy into an idea by Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton, that you should be a “giver” who actively assists others and disseminates knowledge without expecting anything in return. Companies with strong servant leadership and giving cultures perform better across all business indicators.
Holding a meeting for 48 minutes will catch your colleagues’ attention.
How long should a meeting last? “Parkinson’s Law” reminds you that a meeting will fill in the time you allot it. When you schedule a meeting for 60 minutes, it will most likely take 60 minutes. Your tasks as a meeting leader include making a conscious choice about the meeting length. Consider your objectives, agenda items and number of participants to determine the best length for a meeting. Once you have an accurate estimate, reduce that estimate by 5% to 10% to add the extra time pressure that makes meetings more effective. Going forward, hold meetings that last 25 minutes instead of 30 minutes, or 50 minutes instead of 60. Or set an arbitrary length of 48 minutes to inspire participants’ attention.
“Like playing dominos, how the meeting starts shapes the rest of the meeting.”
In sports, coaches and team captains commonly use the term “huddle” to describe a brief team gathering before or after a practice or game action. Many companies, including Ritz Carlton, Zappos, Dell and even the Obama White House adopted this practice as a meeting format. Huddles last no longer than 15 minutes and take place at the same time every day. Teams often hold their huddles in the morning.
Carefully craft meeting agendas. Make participants “directly responsible” owners of their agenda items.
The trainer at any “Meeting 101” business course will say you must have an agenda. However, research shows that merely having an agenda doesn’t yield more effective meetings. Instead, be intentional in the process of creating a meeting agenda, including customizing it to meet team needs and approaching team members to ask them to add their agenda items in advance. The rule of thumb is to prepare for an internal meeting as carefully as you would prepare for an external client meeting.
“Short meetings with a focused agenda, facilitated effectively, can have tremendously positive effects.”
Place important discussion items near the top of your agenda. The same holds true for items that participants have generated. Even if you convene the meeting, you don’t have to own every item. Increase accountability by assigning agenda items to participant-owners up front. In line with the advice from Death by Meetings author Patrick Lencioni, present the most salient and demanding items early. These topics usually will require more intensive exchange and alignment time. It’s most functional if you kick them off no later than 10% to 15% into the meeting time.
“Adopting a strategy where agenda items are simply listed in the order received…or without critical thought, is highly counterproductive.”
Make sure your agendas do not become obsolete or dull. Refresh them every time you meet. Encourage people who don’t participate to own a future agenda item, so some of them can become, according to Apple’s practice, a “directly responsible individual,” or “DRI.” Agendas are “a hollow crutch” unless you fill them with life.
Invite fewer participants to reduce “social loafing”; encourage input before and after from “secondary stakeholders.”
Is bigger always better? Or do bigger meetings become less effective and make things worse? You could argue that having more participants increases the wealth of ideas, diversity and resources. However, research from Bain & Company shows that seven participants per meeting hits the sweet spot. With more participants, decision-making effectiveness decreases by roughly 10% per additional participant above seven. Reasons for this decrease include logistics, coordination and social issues.
“Never forget the one thing people dislike more than meetings: not being invited to a meeting.”
How do you keep the number of participants low, while not offending colleagues by not inviting them? To strike this balance, revisit your meeting goals and determine who among your potential participants is absolutely indispensable to achieving those goals. In conjunction with this exercise, think about a “timed-agenda approach,” in which you invite certain participants to specific sections of your meeting. Alternatively, consider consulting with additional participants beforehand to collect their input. Take the best meeting notes you can, and share them afterward with secondary stakeholders. This is a best practice straight out of the Google playbook.
Walking and standing meetings add variety to your meeting culture and ensure that people “don’t get too comfortable in that chair.”
Most people are creatures of habit. That means that after you set up a routine meeting with a group, everyone will sit in exactly the same seat during every subsequent meeting. This can foment a stale meeting culture. Counteract this by introducing fresh ideas and subtle changes in the set-up:
- Change the seating arrangement – Actively ask participants to sit in a different seat, change the table set-up or switch to another venue.
- Conduct a “walking meeting” – Take the meeting agenda and your participants outdoors or on a circular walk through your building.
- Hold your meeting standing – Participants in “standing meetings” gain health benefits and appreciate the efficiency of this shorter meeting format (15 to 20 minutes maximum).
“Deflate negative energy from the start” and create technology-free meeting zones.
Meetings enlivened with humor and laughter lead to more supportive team members, more constructive group dynamics and higher team performance. Negative comments lead to “mood contagion” that lowers performance. Paying attention to the emotions in your meetings is part of successful meeting leadership.
“The research is clear on the concept of emotional contagion: Moods travel quickly.”
How do you create positive moods in your meetings? Greet participants, offer refreshments or snacks, and play an upbeat song as they enter the room. Discourage multitasking. Some companies also create “technology-free zones,” banning personal laptops, phones and smart devices from meetings. Facilitate vivid team interaction, for example, by asking a participant to play the “devil’s advocate role.” This helps advance your project through critical thinking. Pay attention to and create space for positive energy and “mindfulness.”
Encourage silence to bring out every team member’s input.
One plus one can equal three when you create synergies among team members. Especially in the more creative phases of teamwork – for example, when generating new ideas and thinking creatively – hearing every voice and including every person is essential. This may seem paradoxical, but creating silence to elicit all team members’ input can work wonders. Consider the following idea-generating techniques:
- “Brainwriting” – Ask meeting participants to be silent and jot down their ideas before sharing them with others. Your objective is to generate unique ideas and to avoid “groupthink.”
- “Silent reading” – Assign 10 to 30 minutes of silent reading for a new proposal and conceptual piece rather than having a person present the idea. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos promotes this technique, followed by discussion, at Amazon. This ensures participants evaluate a proposal on its merits and not on the eloquence of the presenter.
“Banning technology works best if the meetings are short and focused.”
“Silence can be golden.” You don’t need to inject silence into every meeting, but it will improve your outcomes and participant satisfaction.
Pay special attention to audio-only telephone conferences.
What you’ve read so far is good for face-to-face meetings, but what about the “technology-related meetings” that are taking over the workplace? As much as you might crave a new formula for good meeting techniques in those circumstances, the same rules still apply to purpose, participant selection, agenda generation, meeting facilitation and follow-up.
“When someone is on mute, multitasking becomes almost a foregone conclusion.”
Because audio-only meetings are tricky to lead, pay special attention to your format. The absence of social controls tempts participants to perform other tasks or embrace distractions while on the call – reducing meeting efficiency immensely. To counteract those shortcomings, ban the mute button at audio-only meetings and increase engagement by actively addressing participants by their names.
“If I die, I hope it’s during a staff meeting because the transition to death would be so subtle.”
If your audio meeting includes more than five people, consider forming smaller breakout teams who work on a certain task together and report back during the conference call. A variation of that approach is to use “intervals” in which you first hold a brief audio-only meeting of 15 minutes, and then work on the task collectively over a number of days using a “shared document.” This approach is effective for brainstorming and decision making. Mastering audio-only meetings is difficult, and you may feel great satisfaction when you lead them well.
About the author
Steven G. Rogelberg is professor of organizational science, management and psychology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He researches, teaches and consults with large organizations on meeting science.
Steven G. Rogelberg is Chancellor’s Professor at University of North Carolina, Charlotte, for distinguished national, international, and interdisciplinary contributions. He has well over 100 publications and recently won the highly prestigious Humboldt Award for his research on meeting science. His work has been profiled in the Harvard Business Review, CBS News, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, NPR, Guardian, National Geographic, and Scientific American Mind, among others. In addition to his research and teaching, he consults for small and large organizations, including IBM, TIAA, Procter & Gamble, VF Corporation, Family Dollar, Siemens, and others. Dr. Rogelberg founded and currently directs large outreach initiatives focusing on nonprofit organization health and effectiveness with over 500 nonprofits served.
Table of Contents
SECTION I: Setting the Meeting Stage
Chapter 01: So Many Meetings and So Much Frustration
Chapter 02: Get Rid of Meetings? No, Solve Meetings Through Science
SECTION II: Evidence-Based Strategies for Leaders
Chapter 03: The Image in the Mirror is Likely Wrong
Chapter 04: Meet for 48 Minutes
Chapter 05: Agendas Are a Hollow Crutch
Chapter 06: The Bigger, The Badder
Chapter 07: Don’t Get Too Comfortable in That Chair
Chapter 08: Deflate Negative Energy From the Start
Chapter 09: No More Talking!
Chapter 10: The Folly of the Remote Call-in Meeting
Chapter 11: Putting it All Together
Epilogue: Trying to Get Ahead of the Science—Using Science
Tool: Meeting Quality Self-Assessment
Tool: Sample Engagement Survey and 360 Feedback Questions on Meetings
Tool: Good Meeting Facilitation Checklist
Tool: Huddle Implementation Checklist
Tool: Agenda Template
Tool: Guide to Taking Good Meeting Minutes/Notes
Tool: Expectations Assessment
Available at a lower price from other sellers that may not offer free Prime shipping.
A recent estimate suggests that employees endure a staggering 55 million meetings a day in the United States. This tremendous time investment yields only modest returns. No organization made up of human beings is immune from the all-too-common meeting gripes: those that fail to engage, those that inadvertently encourage participants to tune out, and those that blatantly disregard participants’ time.
Most companies and leaders view poor meetings as an inevitable cost of doing business. But managers can take heart: researchers now have a clear understanding of the key drivers that make meetings successful. In The Surprising Science of Meetings, Steven G. Rogelberg, researcher and consultant to some of the world’s most successful companies, draws from extensive research, analytics and data mining, and survey interviews with over 5,000 employees across a range of industries to share the proven practices and techniques that help managers and employees enhance the quality of their meetings.
For those who lead and participate in meetings, Rogelberg provides immediate direction, guidance, and relief, offering a how-to guide to change your working life starting today.
Video and Podcast
One of the ten Leadership books to watch in 2019 – The Washington Post
One of the top business books everybody will be reading in 2019 – Business Insider
As seen on “CBS This Morning” “In workplaces around the world, meetings are where productivity and creativity go to die. Steven Rogelberg is the world’s leading expert on how to fix them, and here he shares the best evidence on how we can stop wasting time and falling victim to groupthink.” – Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take
“Some of the suggestions in the book are easy to implement. Playing music or offering snacks can be a simple fix to lift mood before the meeting begins. Some, on the other hand, require some more effortful reflection, like reviewing attendee feedback on meeting quality. Fortunately, Rogelberg spares
readers from the grunt work by providing templates with survey questions and response scales. What the reader needs to do is dedicate time to using those tools… In short, this is a book written for anyone who needs to run a meeting. The benefits you extract from it will depend on the amount of
effort you put into applying the recommendations and the amount of buy-in you get from your meeting attendees. Even if you’re not surprised by the science presented, it reminds you to re-examine the habitual aspects of meetings that normally go unquestioned.” – Vanessa C. T. Nguyen and S.
Bartholomew Craig, Department of Psychology, NC State University, Raleigh
“You know what might be more useful than sitting through an hourlong department meeting? Taking that hour to read a book about why most workplaces are doing meetings all wrong.” – Business Insider
“Pointless, exhausting meetings are the bane of most employees’ existence. But it does not have to be this way. In The Surprising Science of Meetings, Steven G. Rogelberg, a meetings science researcher with two decades of experience, draws from studies, corporate surveys and success stories to share
how you can make meetings actually useful.” – The Huffington Post
“If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to spend less time sitting in or leading useless meetings, this book is for you.” – Washington Post
“In workplaces around the world, meetings are where productivity and creativity go to die. Steven Rogelberg is the world’s leading expert on how to fix them, and here he shares the best evidence on how we can stop wasting time and falling victim to groupthink.” – Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take, Originals, and Option B with Sheryl Sandberg
“To achieve bigger impact in your work tomorrow, you can start by making simple changes today. By highlighting the ways that we waste our own and others’ time without even thinking about it, and offering solutions for transforming our workdays, Steven Rogelberg shows you how. A game-changer for
leaders, this book is unlike any other written about meetings. It is intriguing, highly informative, insightful, and fun to read.” – Tasha Eurich, New York Times bestselling author of Insight and Bankable Leadership
“Contrary to what most people experience every day at work, meetings actually can be efficient, productive and successful, and Steven Rogelberg uses years of data, analytics and interviews to show how we can make better use of time spent in meetings.” – Arianna Huffington
“Steven Rogelberg has done the nearly impossible: translated solid organization science into a well-organized, readable, and often humorous book filled with evidence-based actionable steps that individuals, managers and leaders alike can apply to improve their own lives, their meetings, and
ultimately the effectiveness of their organizations.” – Alexis Fink, Senior Director of Talent Management, Intel
“This book is a must read for anyone who wants to be more effective at work, especially leaders and managers. It offers practical advice on how to harness the power of meetings while avoiding many common pitfalls. I learned some very useful tactics that I will put into practice immediately.” – Janine Waclawski, SVP of Human Resources and CHRO, Global Functions and Global Category Groups, PepsiCo
“Non-stop meetings can often be the bane of any corporate employee’s existence. Steven Rogelberg’s evidence-based book offers practical tips for turning these “necessary evils” into efficient and productive interactions that engage the hearts and minds of leaders, teams, and organizations. This book
is a great resource.” – Robin Cohen, Head of Human Resources, Global Finance, Johnson & Johnson
“One of the ten Leadership books to watch in 2019” – The Washington Post
“One of the top business books everybody will be reading in 2019” – Business Insider
“Finally! Evidence-based, actionable advice about improving the quality and impact of meetings. Rogelberg has written a tour de force. If you put his sage advice into action, your teams and organizations will accomplish more.” – David G. Altman, Chief Operating Officer, Center for Creative
“If anybody has a claim on the role of meeting scientist, it’s Rogelberg. He has been researching meetings using field surveys, laboratory studies, and experiments incorporating planted accomplices for 15 years. In this book, he weaves his findings and the research of others into an evidence-based
approach to meetings that is sometimes eye-opening.” – Strategy + Business
“This book is a must read for undergraduates in all majors and (especially) graduate management and business students. It will also be a worthwhile professional development resource.” – CHOICE
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
Meetings are not in and of themselves problematic. Meetings are essential to teams and organizations. Without meetings, organizational democracy, inclusion, participation, buy- in, communication, attachment, teamwork, coordination, and cohesion would all be compromised. What we need to rid ourselves of are bad meetings, wasted time in meetings, and unnecessary meetings. This book is about solving these problems.
Meetings consume massive amounts of individual and organizational time, with a recent estimate suggesting there are fifty-five million meetings a day in the United States alone. The costs of this meeting time are staggering when weighted with the average salary data of attendees. It is estimated that the annual cost of meetings in the United States is a whopping $1.4 trillion—or 8.2 percent of the 2014 US GDP. Furthermore, this tremendous time investment yields only modest returns. “Too many meetings” was the number one time-waster at the office, cited by 47 percent of 3,164 workers in a study conducted by Salary.com focused on workplace time drains. Translating this into dollars, one reasonable estimate is that over $250 billion a year is wasted by having too many bad meetings. And these estimates do not include the indirect costs of bad meetings (e.g., employee frustration and strain).
Sadly, most companies and most leaders view poor meetings as inevitable because they don’t know of better ways or they try new methods that don’t stick, as they really are not founded in any scientific evidence of success. Also, bad meetings beget more bad meetings as dysfunctional practices become normative across the organization. Taken together, poor meetings become accepted as a way of life and a natural cost of doing business, like rain is a way of life in London. But, unlike the weather, meetings can indeed be improved.
Drawing on over fifteen years of original research I have conducted on the topic of meetings with my team, surveying and interviewing thousands of employees from hundreds of organizations, as well as drawing from a large number of evidence-based sources, my goal with this book is to translate the science of meetings to bring direction, guidance, and relief to those leading and participating in meetings. While many people I meet are surprised to hear that there are social and organizational scientists who study meetings, this research has produced large numbers of scientific publications, conference presentations, book chapters, dissertations, and extensive media coverage. And, of most relevance here, this science has produced insights and practical applications that can directly benefit executives and organizations by promoting efficiency, productivity, increased innovation and employee engagement, superior decisions, enhanced commitment to initiatives, better communication, and a greater sense of camaraderie across the workforce.
I wrote this book for any individual responsible for calling and leading meetings at work. This includes team leaders, supervisors, managers, directors, and senior executives across organizations and industry sectors. It is for learning and development professionals, executive coaches, and other educators who train and advise people on teamwork and leadership. It is for HR leaders and senior organizational leaders working to change the meeting culture at their organization.
Each chapter in this book goes into depth on a particular vexing meeting derailer as a way of setting up evidence-based solutions. As a general approach, I bring light to the types of dysfunctions at hand in meetings, and then provide a set of specific best practices and solutions to help you recover wasted time. I make these recommendations on the basis of reasonable extrapolations from the evidence, and also by examining what cutting-edge organizations like Google and Amazon are doing.
What counts as a meeting? Meeting sizes and meeting purposes can vary tremendously. In general, the focus here is on the most typical types of meetings found in organizations. They vary in size from two to fifteen attendees and generally are ostensibly about coordination, communication, decision- making, and monitoring. I cover everything here from the weekly meeting, to strategy meetings, to planning meetings, to task force meetings, to troubleshooting meetings, to brainstorming meetings, to debriefing meetings. That said, I can’t imagine a meeting type or situation that would not benefit from learning about what works and what doesn’t. Try applying what you learn here to a full-day retreat. Or to organizational training. Or to client meetings. Or to your community meeting, religious meeting, or PTA meeting. Every situation involving two or more people coming together for discussion, communication, coordination, or decision-making can benefit from a thoughtful evidence-based approach—an approach that truly honors the time and commitment of all parties.
Bad meetings can drain the life out of individuals and organizations. But meetings done well, leveraging evidence- based solutions like the ones we’ll explore in this book, can be transformative and hugely positive. The cascading positive effects of improving just one meeting each day, across people and across time, yields not only tremendous organizational benefits—from cost savings to better organizational strategy— but also individual feelings of satisfaction, engagement, and accomplishment. At the same time, leaders and future leaders mastering meeting leadership skills are uniquely positioned to elevate their own career progression and personal success as they become highly adept at working with others, building relationships, unleashing others’ full potential, and achieving team wins. Conversely, without these meeting leadership skills, one joins the ranks of so many others who bear the responsibility for the meeting “problem” and are the cause of so much frustration in the workplace.
Section I SETTING THE MEETING STAGE
Chapter 1 SO MANY MEETINGS AND SO MUCH FRUSTRATION
“I have way too many meetings.” – Joe Nearly Everybody, employee in Nearly Every Company, Inc.
Once I tell most anyone that I do research on meetings, I typically hear in response what I call the “meetings hell” lament. This lament usually includes comments such as (1) “All I do is sit in meetings”; (2) “If you want to know about bad meetings, follow me for a day”; (3) “We even have meetings on meetings”; or (4) “You need to study my organization, it is a case study for meeting dysfunction.” Relatedly, popular press headlines abound expressing similar sentiments—take, for instance, the article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Stop the Meeting Madness.” In fact, out of curiosity, I googled “too many meetings”: there were over two hundred thousand hits.
This raises the questions: How many meetings do people attend each day? Has that number increased over time? While the simple answers are “a lot” and “oh, yes,” let’s unpack those answers in a more diligent manner. First, to be able to count something, we have to define it. By defining what a meeting is, we can start tabulating the actual number of meetings that occur across the globe more systematically. With that, a work meeting is defined as a gathering of two or more employees for a purpose related to the functioning of an organization or a group (e.g., to direct, to inform, to govern, to regulate). The gathering can occur in a single modality (e.g., a video conference) or in a mixed-modality format (e.g., mostly face- to- face with one participant connected via telephone). Typically, meetings are scheduled in advance (some notice is provided) and are informally or formally facilitated by one of the attendees. Meetings can be extremely brief (five minutes) to a full day in length.
According to Elise Keith—cofounder of the software firm Lucid Meetings, who extrapolated information from the most commonly referenced meetings databases collected by Verizon, Microsoft, Fuze, and others—every day in the United States there are roughly fifty-five million workplace meetings. Yes, fifty-five million meetings a day in the United States alone. Forty plus years ago, in 1976, Antony Jay reported in the Harvard Business Review that there were approximately eleven million meetings per day in the country. Clearly, a massive increase in meetings has occurred over time.
Now let’s take a look at how these massive numbers translate into the day-to-day experiences of individuals at work. Elise Keith’s analysis, consistent with my research, suggests that non-managers attend eight meetings per week on average, while managers enjoy twelve meetings per week on average. These numbers would certainly be higher for particular job types (e.g., white-collar jobs), and meeting demands increase as we move up the organizational hierarchy, with those in the upper echelons of management spending most of their days booked solid with meetings. As for this level of managers, there is some intriguing work coming out of the Executive Time Use Project—a group of professors from the London School of Economics and Columbia and Harvard Universities studying how CEOs spend their time. In one study looking at 94 CEOs of top Italian firms and 357 corporate leaders in India, they found that 60 percent of CEOs’ working hours and 56 percent of corporate leaders’ working hours were spent in meetings, and these figures did not include conference calls!
To help put these numbers in context, I asked a set of executives each to tell me about a typical “day in the life” as it relates to meetings. I started with two CEOs. The first, a chancellor of a leading state university, reported that in his typical day he had seven meetings totaling nearly five hours.
CHANCELLOR OF A STATE UNIVERSITY
SEVEN MEETINGS TOTALING FOUR HOURS AND FORTY-FIVE MINUTES
8:00–9:00 a.m. Routine status meeting with direct report with chief of staff present
9:00–9:30 a.m. Routine status meeting with direct report with chief of staff present
9:30–10:00 a.m. Routine status meeting with direct report with chief of staff present
11:30 a.m.–12:00 p.m. Phone meeting with two other leaders to discuss ADA issue
1:00–2:00 p.m. Meeting with candidate for the oversight committee
2:00–3:00 p.m. Rehearsal for new student convocation
3:15–3:30 p.m. Meeting about the search for a new director of a center; three attendees total
The CEO of a large national advocacy nonprofit also provided me with a typical day. The day involved eight meetings lasting a total of six and a half hours.
CEO OF A NATIONAL ADVOCACY ORGANIZATION
EIGHT MEETINGS TOTALING SIX HOURS AND THIRTY MINUTES
9:30–11:00 a.m. Meeting with Executive Leadership Team (ten people in this meeting)
11:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m. Meeting with Counsel re: litigation (four people in this meeting)
12:00–12:30 p.m. Meeting with CFO (two people in this meeting)
1:00–1:30 p.m. Call with Executive Committee of External Board (seven people in this meeting)
1:30–2:00 p.m. Meeting with SVP of Human Resources (two people in this meeting)
3:00–3:30 p.m. Interview with iHeart Radio
4:00–5:00 p.m. Meeting to discuss international communications strategy and fundraising (six people in this meeting)
5:30–6:30 p.m. Meeting with a national journalist
Next, I discussed meeting load with a senior vice president and chief human resources officer at one of the largest global food and beverage companies in the world. The day she shared with me, which she indicated was typical, involved six and a half hours in meetings, with a number of her meetings on this particular day dedicated to preparing for a future meeting: an annual succession planning meeting with a sector CEO.
SENIOR VP OF A HUMAN RESOURCES AND TALENT MANAGEMENT AT A GLOBAL FOOD AND BEVERAGES COMPANY
SIX MEETINGS TOTALING SIX HOURS AND THIRTY MINUTES
8:00–9:00 a.m. Meet with business leader and three direct reports to prepare for annual succession planning meeting with sector CEO
10:00–11:00 a.m. Discussion meeting with two direct reports around strategy for an executive assessment program
11:00 a.m.– 12:00 p.m. Meeting with another business leader to prepare for our succession planning meeting with our sector CEO (five people at this meeting)
1:00–2:00 p.m. Meeting with five business leaders to make sure our slates are all aligned for our upcoming succession planning meeting with the sector CEO (six people at this meeting)
2:30–4:30 p.m. People planning prep—meeting another business leader (SVP of Sales) to prepare for succession planning (four people in this meeting)
4:30–5:00 p.m. External partner meeting—phone call with external strategic partner to discuss employee transition project (six people on this call)
Why Are There So Many Meetings?
Clearly, there is a great deal of meeting activity going on at work, especially for those toward the top of the organization. This again raises the question why are there so many meetings. Putting aside the fact that some leaders may overuse meetings given their personal proclivities (e.g., an unwillingness to make a decision; a desire to “appear” active to others), the answer to this question is multifaceted and in many ways reflects a changing societal and organizational zeitgeist around work. Beliefs around the value and benefits of employee inclusion, of empowerment, of teams, of employee buy-in, and of employee engagement are more prominent than ever as efficient ways to achieve short-term and long-term organizational survival and success. Meetings are a key mechanism to express these values.
Relatedly, democratization has penetrated deeply into organizational life, with “command and control” leadership models becoming less dominant. Instead, organizations have become flatter and less hierarchical. Again, all roads lead to more meetings—the mechanism to bring people together, gain input, promote discussion, promote synergy, provide voice, explain things, coordinate, foster ownership, and learn and grow as a unit. In the Harvard Business Review article mentioned at the start of this chapter, a senior executive from a pharmaceutical company noted:
I believe that our abundance of meetings at our company is the Cultural Tax we pay for the inclusive, learning environment that we want to foster . . . and I’m ok with that. If the alternative to more meetings is more autocratic decision- making, less input from all levels throughout the organization, and fewer opportunities to ensure alignment and communication by personal interaction, then give me more meetings any time!
While in Chapter 2 I will argue that the elimination of meetings in and of themselves is absolutely a false goal—the goal should actually be to eliminate ineffective and bloated meetings—it is still important to take stock of what meetings are implicitly and explicitly costing an organization, and what the return is on that investment.
How Much Money Are We Investing in Meetings?
The most basic way of calculating meeting cost considers time and salaries. For each attendee, calculate the amount of time in the meeting multiplied by his or her hourly salary. Then, add each attendee’s sum together. For example, say there is a director-level staff meeting with seven people that lasts an hour, with an average yearly salary of $120,000 per attendee (approximately $60 an hour). That meeting alone would cost $420. If this staff meeting occurs every week for a year, the total annual cost is about $21,000 for just that one meeting. Or, consider a more senior leadership cabinet meeting with twelve attendees, two hours in length, and an average attendee salary of $240,000 (approximately $120 an hour): each meeting would cost $2,880. If this happens once every two weeks, the overall cost for the year would be approximately $74,880. It is easy to see that as the number of meetings compounds across people, layers of management, and time, the costs become tremendously high. Now, let’s extrapolate even further by viewing the issue from a corporate perspective. Xerox, for example, estimated the immediate costs of meetings in their twenty- four-thousand-person manufacturing and development unit. In terms of meeting time and employee pay, costs were estimated at $100.4 million annually. Other studies suggest that 15 percent of the personnel budget is spent on meeting time. Finally, going to a societal level, Elise Keith’s analyses estimate the cost of meetings in the United States at $1.4 trillion spent per year—or 8.2 percent of the 2014 US GDP.
Interestingly, these figures are actually underestimating the costs of meetings. In addition to not using “fully loaded” salaries, which include employee-benefits costs, the estimations ignore the direct costs associated with the meeting space, meeting equipment, and potential travel costs of attendees. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, these estimates do not take into consideration indirect costs associated with bad meetings—meetings deemed a poor use of time by attendees. Indirect costs include opportunity costs: time that could be spent elsewhere productively, even if this is just quiet time to explore thoughts and generate new ideas (i.e., to just catch one’s breath and stop to reflect and think). Then there are the potential psychological costs associated with employees suffering through bad meetings. This includes erosion of employee engagement, employee frustration, the draining of employee spirit, and time spent ruminating and grousing over bad meetings. Finally, there is the concept of “meeting recovery syndrome,” which refers to the time spent winding down after a frustrating meeting. This recovery process not only affects the frustrated attendee but also potentially zaps the energy of those around the individual upon hearing the complaints and providing support.
When you take into account all the direct costs and potential indirect costs, the investment in meetings is incredibly significant. If you liken a meeting to a type of communication technology, could this actually be one of the largest unidentified line items in an organizational budget? I can say with confidence that there is no other single investment of this magnitude that an organization makes that is treated in such a cavalier manner; where so few resources are allocated to assessing, evaluating, and working to improve meetings, both locally and enterprise-wide.
What Does the Science Say? Are Meetings Working? Are They an Effective Use of Time?
Scientific reports on meeting effectiveness vary a fair amount. On the one hand, there is extensive evidence that meetings are draining the life out of individuals, teams, and organizations. For example, in 2005, Microsoft surveyed close to forty thousand people about productivity and work-related practices. They found that 69 percent globally, and 71 percent of workers in the United States, indicated that meetings were not productive. Then, a 2012 survey conducted by Salary.com, regarding time-wasters at work, revealed that “too many meetings” was the number one time-waster at the office; in fact, 47 percent of the 3,164 workers reported this answer. Finally, in 2014, Harris Poll conducted a survey for Clarizen, a project management company, involving over two thousand working adults. The focus was on what they referred to as “status meetings,” which are defined as meetings with updates for team members on completed and in-progress work activities. Nearly three of every five workers reported that they multitask during status meetings. Almost 50 percent of respondents indicated that they would rather do any unpleasant activity (e.g., go to the Department of Motor Vehicles) than attend a status meeting. Overall, 35 percent of respondents indicated that status meetings are a “waste of time.”
These data certainly look bleak with regard to meetings. I can also say these data are quite consistent with what I observe when I speak to leaders at training sessions. Namely, often I will do an exercise with attendees, asking them as a group to give me some insight into the quality of their meetings. I tell them, “I want to know what percentage of your meetings are not a good use of time.” I then name percentages and ask them to clap if the percentage stated aligns with their experiences. Almost unequivocally, “50 to 70 percent of meetings are a waste of time” receives the most applause, regardless of whether I ask this question of an audience in South America, Asia, Europe, or North America.
Now, with all this said, there are some data suggesting the evaluations of meetings are not as depressing. Verizon surveyed over a thousand “heavy meeting goers.” When participants were asked about meeting productivity, the results were more favorable than earlier data shared:
- 22% indicated their meetings were extremely productive
- 44% indicated their meetings were very productive
- 27% indicated their meetings were somewhat productive
- 6% indicated their meetings were not very productive
- 1% indicated their meetings were not at all productive
And in a study I conducted with over a thousand employees and managers, I asked participants to evaluate the quality of their meetings in general. The results were fairly similar to those of Verizon’s study:
- 17% rated their meetings as very good to excellent
- 42% rated their meetings as good
- 25% rated their meetings as neither good nor bad
- 15% rated their meetings as poor or very poor
So, What Is the Truth?
Taken together, the “truth” is likely an average of all the data just presented, which would result in a generally negative assessment of meetings, but with a good number of useful meeting experiences thrown in (likely tied to certain leaders who truly are good at running meetings). However, even if you fully identify with the somewhat more positive meeting data presented here, it is still obvious that (1) there is much room for improvement in meetings, and (2) there is a ton of frustration being expressed. Relatedly, the research on meetings is certainly clear about the existence of a wide range of problems that we must work to overcome (e.g., the meeting being dominated by one or two people). That said, the most important truth is your own local truth—what truly matters most is your organization’s return on its meeting investment. To help you identify the truth for your team, your department, and your organization, I have provided here a meeting-quality self-assessment.
Self-Assessment: Are You Maximizing Your Return on Investment from Your Meetings?
At the end of the book, a variety of tools are provided to help you better understand your meeting experiences and, most importantly, to improve them. One tool is called the “Meeting Quality Assessment—Calculation of a Wasted Meeting Time Index.” In this tool you are asked to indicate the percentage of time that certain “negative things” happen or are present in your meetings. This assessment covers the following:
- Meeting design
- The meeting itself: time dynamics
- The meeting itself: interpersonal dynamics
- The meeting itself: discussion dynamics
A scoring metric is then provided. The grand average percent that is calculated represents wasted meeting investment. In other words, this grand average is a wasted-time index. Here is a guide to interpret your grand scores, based on my work with organizations:
- If your scores are between 0 and 20 percent wasted meeting investment, your meetings are really quite productive. While there is room for improvement, your scores are above what is typical.
- If your scores are between 21 and 40 percent wasted meeting investment, your meetings are generally hit or miss. Plenty of time is being wasted. Improvements need to be made, but your scores are (sadly) typical of what we find in organizations.
- If your scores are above 41 percent wasted meeting investment, your meetings need substantial improvement. Your scores are considerably below average.
Taken together, the data are clear that meetings are a ubiquitous activity filling calendars and days. We can easily argue that meetings are accounting for years of time in one’s professional work life. In considering typical evaluations of meeting quality and the return on meeting investment, we should be highly motivated to solve the problems with meetings. In the next chapter we queue up a path forward.
- The amount of time we are spending in meetings is increasing, especially when we look at those involving upper management. Although the statistics vary, it is important to realize that meetings take up an increasingly large amount of time in employees’ days.
- The amount of time spent in meetings translates into big money for today’s companies—at the societal level, one estimate comes in at a cost of $1.4 trillion. These costs are underestimates, as they do not include opportunity costs and employee frustration.
- Although there is evidence to suggest that meetings are a waste of time and are negative experiences for employees, there are also data to suggest that meetings can be productive and meaningful. This provides hope that we can truly solve the meeting problem.
- Take the time to do the Meeting Quality Self-Assessment, provided at the end of the book, to assess your meetings’ return on investment. It’s important to do this self-assessment from time to time to ensure that your meetings are positive and productive (and encourage your coworkers to do the same)—remember, your organization has a meeting culture that reflects how everyone runs meetings.
Chapter 2 GET RID OF MEETINGS? NO, SOLVE MEETINGS THROUGH SCIENCE
A roast is an event where a particular person is subjected to an avalanche of jokes, at his or her expense, to entertain the broader audience. Let’s imagine for a moment that the particular person roasted is not a person but instead a thing: MEETINGS. It would not be difficult to roast the concept of meetings. Leveraging quotes from journalists or authors (e.g., George Will), economists (e.g., John Kenneth Galbraith), and a host of anonymous sources, the routine might sound something like this:
“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be meetings.”
“A meeting is an event where minutes are taken and hours wasted.”
“We will continue having meetings until we find out why no work is getting done.”
“If I die, I hope it’s during a staff meeting because the transition to death would be so subtle.”
“I’m pretty sure the dinosaurs died out when they stopped gathering food and started having meetings to discuss gathering food.”
“Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”
“Our meetings are held to discuss many problems that would never arise if we held fewer meetings.”
“Football incorporates the two worst elements of American society: violence punctuated by committee meetings.”
Would eliminating meetings make the world a better place? Was the great management guru Peter Drucker correct when he said, “Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer meetings the better”? The answer is an emphatic “no.” The solution is not to dramatically reduce or eliminate meetings (although occasionally reducing meetings is reasonable and appropriate when there is no compelling purpose to meet). Abolishing meetings is a false solution. Schedules with too few meetings are associated with substantial risks for employees, leaders, teams, and organizations. In this chapter, we will look at the evidence for why it is inadvisable to stamp out meetings. Following this, I will try to convince you that the genuine solution to excessive bad meetings is applying the science of meetings to fix them.
We Need to Meet, and We Need to Meet Critical Needs
Not holding enough meaningful meetings will likely derail employees, leaders, teams, and organizations. Holding too few meetings robs employees of essential information and feelings of inclusion, support, voice, and community. Meetings help employees build attachments to others and recognize that they are not alone in silos but instead are part of something bigger than themselves. Meetings make it possible for individual attendees to connect in a highly human way, serving to build relationships, networks, and, most important, support. Meetings serve as vehicles to efficiently bring together ideas, thoughts, and opinions and should enable each person to perform his or her job in a better, more coordinated and cooperative way. Meetings help both leaders and employees to better “make sense” of organizational life, challenges, ambiguities, and opportunities— to create a shared understanding that promotes efficiency and teamwork. Meetings foster commitment to goals and initiatives that connect jobs, as well as commitment to broader departmental and organizational aspirations that may not be explicitly stated in any individual job description. Meetings bring individuals together as a coherent whole. As a result, this coherent whole can be more adaptive, resilient, and self-directing, especially in the face of crisis.
Meetings can be stages for leaders to truly lead, share their visions, be authentic, and inspire and engage their team. At the same time, meetings are a form of localized democracy where ideas and innovation can emerge through employee interaction—even the smallest voices have the opportunity to be heard and to be given life and influence. Perhaps most importantly, meetings are sites for promoting consensus, thus serving as a focal point for collective drive and energy.
In so many ways, meetings are the building blocks and core elements of the organization: they are venues where the organization comes to life for employees, teams, and leaders. Finally, let’s not forget that humans are inherently social creatures who crave interaction and belonging, not isolation. For instance, in some research I have done, employees were asked a simple question: “If you could design your ideal work day, what would it look like”? In these private and reflective surveys, respondents consistently advocated for meetings as part of their day. In fact, a day without meetings was not considered desirable.
Taking all this information together, it is clear that the elimination of meetings is a false solution. Instead, we must work to make meetings better. The meeting problem can indeed be “solved” through the application of meeting science, rather than with speculative wisdom. This evidence can break the cycle of bad meetings: meetings that beget more bad meetings as dysfunctional practices become normative across organizations.
A Brief Introduction to the Ways Scientists Study Meetings Meeting science is the study of meetings themselves, including what goes on before, during, and after meetings. It examines meetings not only as a critical workplace phenomenon affecting individuals, leaders, and organizations, but also as a context or container of sorts to study groups, their processes, and their success or lack thereof. Hundreds of studies relevant to meetings exist examining a range of topics, from pre-meeting talk, to lateness, to meeting design, to meeting processes, to decision-making, to cohesion, to meeting success predictors. Although there has been an explosion of research on meetings in this past decade, historical work on team effectiveness from more than sixty years back connects readily to the topic at hand. Meeting science is conducted using a number of methodologies, including field survey studies, lab studies, and experimental research involving confederates. Let me share some exemplars to illustrate the different approaches used in meeting science to provide a better feel for just how the research is carried out. The findings from these studies—and so many others—will be used throughout the book to better inform meeting practices.
Field Survey Studies In one of my first projects on meetings, we surveyed nearly a thousand managers and non-managers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. We used a daily and gen eral field survey approach to answer the following research question: “How are employee job attitudes influenced by meetings and does this depend on the person, the nature of the job, and the nature of the meeting?” Participants completed either (1) a single end-of-day survey asking about their meetings and job attitudes that day, or (2) a general survey where they discussed their meetings overall and their job attitudes. In both surveys, we also collected demographic information about the respondents and their jobs.
Field survey studies can also be used to collect data over periods of time. Joe Allen, one of my former doctoral students and now a leading scholar on meetings, conducted a longitudinal-type field study of 319 working adults. He aimed to examine how their managers ran meetings at one point in time and employee engagement at another point in time to address the question, “How do managerial meeting leadership practices relate to an employee’s overall job engagement?” Employee engagement is a highly desired outcome for organizations, given its relationship to employee performance, innovation, and even customer satisfaction. The next two examples are of controlled laboratory studies done on the topic of meetings.
Laboratory/Experimental Studies Allen Bluedorn and his colleagues conducted an intriguing experiment on stand-up meetings, a popular, relatively new form of employee meeting without seating. They used this laboratory study to answer the question, “How are meeting outcomes affected by conducting a meeting standing in comparison to sitting?” The researchers brought students into a lab setting to form five-person groups with the task of solving a problem. Groups were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: (1) a “sitting around a meeting table” condition (fifty-six groups), or (2) a “standing-up meeting” condition (fifty-five groups). The group’s solution to the problem was scored. In order to address the research question, the researchers measured both the group’s performance and the amount of time the group spent working. Sometimes in an experimental study, a researcher uses a confederate (a person who appears to be involved as a participant but, unbeknownst to others, is part of the research team). Sigal Barsade, a professor at Yale University, employed a confederate to examine the concept of emotional contagion—the transference of mood states among meeting attendees—and how that affects actual meeting processes associated with success. The research question that drove this study was as follows: “How are individual moods and emotions in meetings affected by the confederate and, if there is contagion, how does that affect group cooperation, conflict, and perceived task performance?” Twenty- nine teams of business school undergraduates were formed; each attendee took on the role of a department head in a simulated leaderless group discussion. Included in the meeting was a confederate. The confederate conveyed either positive types of emotional behaviors (e.g., cheerfulness) or negative types of emotional behaviors (e.g., irritability) throughout the meeting. The researchers coded whether the emotion spread; group performance was assessed, and participants then answered a survey about how they were feeling to see if it matched the behaviors displayed by the confederate. Interested in what these research studies found? Keep reading; the answers will be revealed later. In fact, throughout the book, insights from meeting science will be integrated with the ultimate goal of fully realizing the potential of meetings. Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, was passionate about seeking to improve meetings. He once wrote, “Just as you would not permit a fellow employee to steal a piece of office equipment worth $2,000, you shouldn’t let anyone walk away with the time of his fellow managers.” A poorly conducted and unnecessary meeting is indeed a form of time theft, a theft that can be prevented.
Takeaways 1. Although there is evidence that the number of meetings is increasing and there are plenty of bad meetings, doing away with meetings is not a good or viable alternative. Meetings help employees connect, voice their opinions, tackle problems, and create a shared understanding. 2. Instead of eliminating meetings, we need to improve them using what we know from meeting science, which is the study of meetings themselves and everything and everyone involved in meetings. 3. Meeting science can take many forms—from general one-time or daily surveys, to longitudinal surveys and even laboratory studies. These different, yet complementary approaches help researchers answer questions and generate knowledge about different aspects of meetings.
Section II EVIDENCE-B ASED STRATEGIES FOR LEADERS
Chapter 3 THE IMAGE IN THE MIRROR IS LIKELY WRONG
“Self-awareness gives you the capacity to learn from your mistakes as well as your successes. It enables you to keep growing.” Larry Bossidy, former chairman and CEO of AlliedSignal
“If you lack self-awareness you can’t change. Why should you? As far as you’re concerned you’re doing everything right.” Jim Whitt, author and founder, Purpose Unlimited
There is compelling evidence suggesting that we are poor judges of our own leadership skills when it comes to meetings. Namely, we have an inflated view of our skills. This inflated perception, in turn, results in a sizable blind spot that likely prevents us from developing, improving, honing, and maximizing our ability to lead meetings. Given how essential meeting leadership is, the “victims” in this narrative are the meeting attendees themselves; they are the ones who experience the consequences of unproductive leadership practices. Furthermore, these unproductive practices have the potential to become the norm across the organization (“this is just how we do things”) and consequently spread to other managers and their meetings, infect new leaders, and ultimately define the meeting culture of the organization. In other words, we must not ignore the risk that poor meeting leadership skills will beget poor meeting leadership skills in others. In this chapter, I will share how I reached these conclusions about our misaligned self-perceptions. Then I will discuss what we can do to promote accurate self-awareness of our meeting skills—to align the image in the mirror with reality. And, perhaps most importantly, we will discuss the target image in the mirror: the image leaders should aspire to see.
Human Bias in How We Perceive Ourselves A Prairie Home Companion was a live radio program introduced in 1974 on Minnesota Public Radio. The show was set in Lake Wobegon, a fictional town. The town was described as a place where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” From this, psychology professor David Myers coined the term the “Lake Wobegon Effect,” which refers to the robust human tendency to overestimate—relative to others—one’s knowledge, skills, abilities, and personality traits. In other words, most people believe they are well above average, which clearly is a statistical impossibility. One of the first studies on this effect was conducted by researchers at the College Board, the publisher of the SAT exam. They attached a research survey to the SAT exam asking students to provide self-ratings on a variety of personal characteristics, such as leadership and the ability to get along well with others. Seventy percent of the students rated themselves as being above the median on leadership. With regard to the ability to get along well with others, 85 percent indicated they were above the median, and a whopping 25 percent indicated they were in the top 1 percent! One reaction to these data is to assume that this is just another example of the warped and narcissistic teenage mindset and that these results would not extend to more grounded adults. Well, not so fast. Faculty at the University of Nebraska were surveyed about their teaching ability. Over 90 percent rated themselves as above average, and 68 percent indicated that they were in the top 25 percent. Another research project looked at self-perceptions of driving skills relative to others’. When asked about driving safety, 88 percent of a US sample indicated they were in the top 50 percent of drivers. Most recently, a unique study was conducted with prisoners in England, the majority of whom had been convicted of either violence against people or robbery. The participants were asked to compare their standing, relative to other prisoners and non-prisoners, on nine traits, such as kindness, generosity, self-control, morality, and law-abidingness. In light of the other results presented here, it should come as no surprise that the vast majority of participants rated themselves as “better than the average inmate” on all traits. What is most interesting is that when the inmates compared themselves to non-prisoners, they still rated themselves as better on all dimensions, with one exception: they rated themselves as equal to non-prisoners on law-abidingness. For our international readers who may think this does not apply in their country, research has found this “better-than-average bias” in diverse sets of samples from Germany, Israel, Sweden, Japan, and Australia.
Focusing Back on Meeting Leadership Although direct tests of the self-inflation bias with regard to meetings do not yet exist, a host of related evidence paints a not-so-rosy picture. In multiple studies my colleagues and I conducted, we found that meeting leaders consistently rated their meetings more favorably than non-leaders. Thus, a leader’s experience of the meeting appears to be fundamentally different from the experiences of other meeting attendees, with leaders thinking things were, well, quite glorious. Additional research provides some insight into this finding. For example, in a study I conducted with Sophie Tong, a professor from Peking University, we found that the amount of participation or involvement in meetings correlated positively with perceptions of meeting effectiveness and satisfaction. In other words, if you talk a lot, you are more likely to think the meeting experience was a good one. Well, guess who typically talks the most in meetings? The leader. Finally, referring back to the Verizon telephone survey of more than thirteen hundred meeting- goers that was mentioned in Chapter 1, as you may expect, respondents rated the meetings they themselves initiated as being extremely or very productive (79 percent). Meetings initiated by peers, in contrast, were evaluated as being significantly lower in productivity, with 56 percent of the meetings seen as extremely or very productive. Taken together, leaders seem to have an overly positive sense of the meeting experience compared to that of meeting attendees. This inflated optimism ultimately diminishes self- awareness and the ability to truly recognize one’s own developmental needs. Hence, the premise of this chapter: the leader’s image in the meeting mirror is likely wrong.
What an Organization Can Do to Improve Leader Self-Awareness The path to meeting enlightenment is multipronged. Before talking extensively about what each leader can personally do, it is important to recognize that organizations themselves can develop systems and practices that promote self-awareness (and accountability) among their leaders more broadly. These systems and practices take a few different forms. First and foremost, to facilitate self-awareness, leaders need meaningful meeting skills and facilitation training. After all, if you don’t truly know what excellent meeting behaviors look like, you don’t have an internal standard of sorts to compare yourself to. This type of training is essential, especially as it is rare to see this content domain addressed in bachelor’s-level business programs, standard MBA programs, or on-boarding programs, let alone among the millions of liberal arts graduates who enter the workforce. Andy Grove was arguably one of the greatest CEOs in modern history and was so passionate about the importance of meetings that he required every new employee— literally everyone, regardless of position—to take Intel’s course on effective meetings. He was so devoted to this ideal that, for many years, he actually taught the course himself. The second major prong to promoting self-awareness is feedback. A company’s annual employee engagement and attitude survey must contain content on meetings in order to provide data on how leaders are doing. To date, I have identified only a couple of Fortune 500 companies engaged in this practice. This really is unfathomable—how could a frequent organizational activity like meetings not be a topic on these surveys? Without such content, organizations and, more importantly, individual leaders are left in the dark about whether their meetings are working as well as they think they are. In turn, they remain blind to employee suggestions on how to improve meetings. Another opportunity for leader development and accountability is to conduct 360-degree feedback surveys that contain some content on meetings. With 360-degree feedback, a leader receives aggregated anonymous feedback from key groups of individuals: their peers, their direct reports, and their boss. Typically, organizations outsource 360-degree survey efforts to consulting companies. I have yet to find one consulting company that includes any content around meetings in its assessment. Given the amount of time spent in meetings, it is hard to imagine a bigger oversight in our leadership development toolbox. To facilitate these feedback efforts, I have provided sample engagement survey questions and sample 360-degree feedback questions in the “Tools” section at the end of this book. Taken together, when it comes to organizational practices to promote feedback about meetings to leaders and accountability for being a poor meeting leader, we are in the dark ages. However, it is not all doom and gloom—there are some nice examples of innovative meeting evaluation practices in certain companies. Take, for instance, efforts exercised by Weight Watchers at their New York headquarters. They installed touchscreen tablets outside their conference rooms to capture anonymous feedback about the meetings just completed there. They keep the feedback quite simple: meeting attendees rate the last meeting on a five-point meeting-quality scale using emojis. Weight Watchers leverages the ratings to identify if interventions are needed and to ultimately assess the effectiveness of interventions attempted. For example, after installing agenda whiteboards—one of the suggested interventions— meeting dissatisfaction dropped from 44 percent to 16 percent. That said, perhaps the biggest value of an initiative such as this is actually more subtle in nature. By engaging in this practice of rating meetings and making improvements based on feedback, Weight Watchers is creating a culture that elevates the importance of meetings.
How Can Leaders Take Control of Their Meeting Leadership Skill Development? When I’m working with executives and managers who want to make their meetings more effective, I recommend that they start by truly “seeing” their own meetings. Specifically, there are signals that, if we look carefully, inform us about meeting leadership abilities.
- If attendees are on their phones throughout the meeting multitasking, that is likely a negative reflection on our leadership.
- If attendees are engaging in a host of side conversations, that is a negative reflection on our leadership.
- If we are doing most, if not all, of the talking, that is indeed a negative reflection on our leadership.
- If one or two attendees are dominating the meeting discussion, it likely suggests that we did not construct an agenda highly relevant to all, that we have not created a psychologically “safe” setting in which folks can engage, or that we are not actively facilitating the meeting—all of which are not a positive reflection on our leadership.
These signals serve as feedback. If they are present for you, it’s time to consider some change. Putting this informal scanning of cues aside, the best practice for you, as a leader, is to evaluate your standing meetings every three months or so. The evaluation should be quick and easy: a survey given to all attendees containing just a handful of questions. Let me share with you an assessment with some results collected from RSC Bio Solutions, located in Charlotte, North Carolina. The CEO implemented daily fifteen-minute meetings (aka huddles) with his commercial team to improve communication and coordination. A couple of months later, he administered the following short assessment to evaluate the huddles, shared here along with the annotated results.
COMMERCIAL HUDDLE CHECK-IN SURVEY OCTOBER 18, 2016, 7:25 A.M. EDT
Q1: Overall, how useful are our Commercial huddles to you?
A little useful/0.00%/0
Q2: With regard to promoting communication, teamwork, and coordination, how effective do you feel our Commercial huddles are overall?
A little effective/0.00%/0
Not effective at all/0.00%/0
Q3: Overall, are you glad we are having Commercial huddles?
Q4: What do you think is working well about the Commercial huddles?
“Cross-communication and awareness have been good; much more cooperative effort, prompts action.”
“Collaboration and overall better communications throughout the Commercial team.”
“Delivers a level of accountability and brings up areas where teamwork can be effective.”
“Keeping everyone in the loop and feeling part of a team. Keep moving things forward.”
“Sense of urgency is increasing. I see the huddles initiating collaborative work outside the huddle that wouldn’t otherwise happen. People are made aware of key things faster. We are removing obstacles as a result.”
Q5: What do you think we can do better/differently to make our Commercial huddles more effective?
“Continue to remind people to focus on key items and roadblocks. Still get into the weeds too often.”
“1. Everyone must stay focused and concise (60–90 sec) for daily report-out— i.e., Roadblocks; Wins or Movement; Top Priority for the day. This would leave more time for questions/clarifications, suggestions/tips, and BRIEF beneficial discussion. 2. Every other day vs. every day?”
“I find that daily huddles can be somewhat distracting, it seems that mornings tend to be my most productive time. I suggest trying two or three times a week versus daily. I think we’d have the same results.”
“Less about all of the tasks . . . more focus on bigger issues and opportunities. Would love to see us sharing more wins/successes/accomplishments.”
The CEO was pleased that the huddles were well received and that folks derived value, but he acknowledged there were opportunities for improvement. Instead of reducing the frequency of the huddles as some suggested, he wanted to first see if they could make adjustments to the meetings to increase quality. He noted that a number of comments alluded to feelings of monotony and a lack of tightness around conversation. To address these concerns, he created additional huddle discussion prompts to try periodically. They also started rotating huddle leadership responsibilities and encouraged daily leaders to experiment with new prompts to spark energy and important insights. Before some meetings, he reminded folks what to avoid during huddles: just a long accounting of day-to-day activity (this serves to set expectations). After another assessment, they will see what effect these changes have had and then determine if it is best for the frequency of huddles to decrease. You can adapt this survey for your own meetings or just go with a very basic, three-question stop, start, and continue survey:
- What am I not doing so well as the meeting leader (need to stop doing)?
- What should I start doing that I am not currently doing?
- What am I doing well as the meeting leader (need to keep doing)?
A survey such as this can be administered using an anonymous online survey platform (e.g., a free Qualtrics or SurveyMonkey account). The survey directions provided to participants are key. Here is an example: I want to be the best possible leader I can be. I want our meetings to use time effectively. To achieve these goals, I need your candid feedback. Please answer the following questions as honestly as possible. I will summarize the overall themes in the results, report out to all, implement actions to promote positive change, and then resurvey down the road to see if it helped. Instructions like these serve to reinforce a climate of excellence, of continual learning, and of inclusiveness. Notice that I recommend reporting findings to the team as part of those directions—this is key, too. After others take the survey and you have compiled the data, summarize the major themes and specific actions you are going to take moving forward. Share your observations at a future meeting or via email.
Ultimately, meaningful evaluations of meetings and meeting leadership start to align what we see in the mirror with reality. This raises the next critical question: what image should we aspire to see in the mirror?
What Image Do You Want to See? The image you want to see—that is, the type of meeting leader you want to aspire to be—is one closely aligned with servant leadership. By elevating and helping others, a servant leader experiences success for him- or herself, for others, and for the organization. This type of person makes the needs of others a priority and works to meet them and, more broadly, aims to help others grow. By doing so, others maximize their potential and abilities, and they feel “safe” fully engaging at work. As a result, the promise of a team and a meeting is more readily realized as the collective talent is unleashed. This latter point is key, as leveraging the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the attendees is often a main reason for creating teams and assembling people together. This is in sharp contrast to an egocentric, “leader-first” leadership approach, designed to elevate leaders themselves, drive the accumulation of power, and use that power for self-centered gain. The servant leader is comfortable sharing power and derives satisfaction and success when others prosper and the organization thrives. This type of leadership approach is a core part of the values and development process at many of the most successful global organizations. For example, it is the core leadership paradigm at SAS, The Container Store, Whole Foods, Zappos, and Starbucks. This servant leadership style is highly consistent with the research described by Wharton professor Adam Grant in his book Give and Take. Grant discusses how employees make daily decisions on whether to act like givers or takers. Unlike takers, givers actively assist others and share knowledge— they do this without seeking a quid pro quo arrangement. The giving is done because it is just the “right” thing to do.
Research suggests that organizations in which giving is the norm among employees experience robust business outcomes around profitability, productivity, efficiency, employee satisfaction, and customer satisfaction. The question for us is how to apply what we know about servant leadership and a giver mindset to running effective meetings. A leader with a servant-and-giver mindset recognizes his or her unique responsibility to make the meeting a good use of time. The meeting is not about the leader personally feeling the meeting had value; rather, it is about deriving value more broadly. Such leaders recognize that, as leaders, they must truly own others’ experiences of the meeting. They think carefully about the design and execution of the meeting, from soup to nuts—they never just “phone it in.” Instead, they plan and design the meeting experience they are orchestrating. This planning could take just a few minutes, but it is a sincere pre- meeting reflection on the agenda, the goals, the order of topics, potential problems, dynamics, and useful strategies to try. It further includes creating a psychologically safe environment where people can share genuine comments, concerns, and feedback. Let me illustrate one potential manifestation of this mindset in action. True story: A highly respected leader created an implicit rule for himself in some discussion and decision-making meetings where folks tended to defer to him; he restricted his comments to just one or two sentences and, when possible, held back until discussion among attendees had occurred. The aim of this approach was to ensure that participants’ thinking could evolve and that his comments wouldn’t prematurely influence the discussion. This simple rule is very significant. Yes, it is quite extreme and not always practical, and this particular (servant) leader used this technique only when it fit the situation at hand. But engaging in a servant leader action like this led to rich, engaging, inclusive, and unexpected conversations. Overall, leaders like this are focused on meeting dynamics; they truly are keyed in on facilitating a good meeting experience, rather than elevating and promoting themselves. Being plugged in to managing group dynamics is, after all, the leader’s role, as others will find it difficult to jump in to do this type of task given that it is not the norm for them to do so. Some of the facilitation behaviors aligned with servant leadership are listed next. These are sample facilitation behaviors; a complete list can be found in the Good Meeting Facilitation Checklist in the “Tools” section at the end of the book.
- Keeps track of time and paces the meeting effectively, given the big picture of the agenda.
- Does not rush through an emergent issue that truly needs to be discussed. Able to recognize if an issue raised would be best addressed at a subsequent meeting.
- Keeps conversation flowing (e.g., recognizing a tangent and pulling it back in to what needs to be discussed).
- Keeps clarifying and summarizing where things are and collects people’s input so that everyone understands the process and the discussion at hand.
- Listens carefully for underlying concerns and helps bring them out so that they can be dealt with constructively.
- Keeps engaged with the note-taker so that issues, actions, and takeaways are recorded and not lost. Confirms with attendees that all is correct.
- Encourages conflict around ideas (e.g., “any concerns with this idea”), and then actively embraces and manages the conflict so that positive benefits for performance and decision-making ensue.
- Maintains an environment where people are comfortable disagreeing (e.g., thanks people for sharing divergent points of view). Invites debate.
- Deals with disrespectful behavior quickly through redirection, comments around staying constructive, and reminds attendees of the meeting ground rules.
Ensuring Active Participation
- Actively draws out input from others. Keeps mental track of who wants to speak and comes back to them.
- To keep an attendee from dominating the conversation, uses body language (e.g., a subtle and small hand movement to indicate the need to stop speaking) and transition statements (e.g., “thank you for that”).
- Keeps side conversations at bay by reigning folks in when they lose focus.
Pushing for Consensus
- Tests for agreement and consensus to get a sense of where attendees are at, but does not unduly and unnecessarily pressure others to reach a conclusion when not ready (unless there is a time urgency).
- Knows when to intervene assertively in the meeting process and provide direction (e.g., the group lacks focus and is talking over one another) and when to let the process run as it is.
- Is an honest broker of the conversation at hand and does not privilege his or her viewpoint or ideas in the discussion.
Works to remain impartial. Makes it clear that his or her opinion is just one opinion to be discussed. Although these facilitation techniques are consistent with servant leadership and can certainly promote meeting success, none of this precludes a leader from being direct and assertive and moving the discussion forward actively if needed. In fact, jumping into the meeting fray and taking control might be exactly what is needed from the meeting leader. Or, it may be the case that the leader truly is the subject-matter expert at hand and being firm with her or his input is critical to success. With a servant-and-giver leader approach, however, this action is experienced as more genuine by the attendees who have experienced the leader’s track record of inclusion and support. Overall, servant-and-giver meeting leaders take pride in being excellent stewards of others’ time and recognize that this is the path to their ultimate success, the success of others, and the success of the organization. This is a giver mindset. This is a servant leader mindset. This is the image you want to see in the mirror. And, ultimately, it leads to personal happiness. Namely, research regarding giving behaviors suggests that one of the most robust predictors of life satisfaction is helping others. A great quote by author William Arthur Ward captures this theme well: The adventure of life is to learn. The purpose of life is to grow. The nature of life is to change. The challenge of life is to overcome. The essence of life is to care. The opportunity of life is to serve. The secret of life is to dare. The spice of life is to befriend. The beauty of life is to give.
Putting It All Together In this chapter, I discussed why meeting leadership that we see every day may not be optimal, most notably how leaders’ perceptions of their skills appear to be overinflated and exaggerated. Leaders are just not as skilled as they often think they are. This problem is left unchecked because of inadequate assessment of the meetings themselves and of those who lead them. A study by Green Peak Partners and Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations examined leader success among seventy-two executives at public and private companies. The conclusion was that high self-awareness was an exceptional predictor of overall success. Those with high self-awareness did a better job hiring subordinates and, perhaps most importantly, leveraging the talent around them. The tools in this chapter can help you gain more self-awareness, which, with training, the right mindset, trial, error, and more feedback, will improve the way you work with your team and lead meetings.
- Realize—and embrace—the fact that you are likely not quite as good at leading meetings as you think you are. Evidence shows that we are likely to overestimate our abilities; accepting this reality is key to self-awareness and making improvements.
- Given that we are likely to overestimate our abilities, take a pulse of your meeting leadership. How do others act in meetings? Are there side conversations? Are people on their phones? Have you tried administering a quick survey? Data like these will increase your self-awareness and give you more of an accurate picture than your perceptions alone.
- Make increasing meeting leadership an organizational priority: start by suggesting that meetings be part of your 360-degree feedback for leaders; add a section to your yearly employee engagement survey on meetings. Do not try to make these improvements all on your own—make it a focus for everyone in order to create positive organizational change.
- Try to adopt a servant leadership and giver mindset in order to unleash collective talent in a meeting and to foster buy-in. Ultimately, servant leadership will serve you well in and outside of meetings.
Chapter 4 MEET FOR FORTY-EIGHT MINUTES
Cultural norms abound. They influence how we think, how we speak, what we do, how we engage with others, even how we raise our children. Take, for instance, the concept of the tooth fairy. While many cultures do not have such a concept, in France, Spain, and Colombia, the tooth fairy is a mouse. In Greece, the child throws the tooth on the roof of the house instead of putting it under the pillow—this brings good luck and strong teeth. In Turkey, the parent buries the tooth near a location of meaning or future hopes (e.g., if the parents want their child to be a professor, they might bury the tooth near a university). In Russia, the child will often place the lost tooth in mouse holes. The mouse, in turn, will give the child a strong tooth as a replacement. In Malaysia, children bury their baby teeth, as they believe that teeth, being part of their body, should be returned to the earth. In looking at these various traditions, it is clear that what becomes the status quo for tens of millions of people within a country may be considered odd, perhaps even downright bizarre, by those outside the country. In the way that organizations work, and with meetings in particular, there are a number of examples of this cultural diversity. In the Middle East and Latin America, for example, it is not at all unusual to start meetings nearly an hour late. Or, consider the length of meetings: the majority of workplace meetings are exactly one hour long. Think about this for a moment: despite the fact that meetings vary greatly in purpose, scope, history, communication modality, and the number of attendees, they often are exactly one hour in length, and the sixty-minute meeting has been a cultural norm for decades. In fact, it is such an accepted norm that when calendar software programs like Microsoft Outlook were developed, sixty minutes was the default setting when a meeting was scheduled. The norm begets the software default, and the default software setting reinforces the norm. In this chapter, we will explore the concept of meeting length, why the sixty-minute norm can be counterproductive, and some alternative approaches to the standard meeting length. Namely, I will discuss a set of practical recommendations given the pernicious effects of Parkinson’s law.
Have Time, Will Fill It In 1955, The Economist published a humorous essay titled “Parkinson’s Law.” The first paragraph reads as follows: It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and despatching [sic] a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil. This notion of work expanding to fill time voids prompted much research—most of which provided empirical support for the concept. Parkinson’s law has been documented in many populations. In a classic study, management researchers Judith Bryan and Ed Locke conducted an experiment in which college students were asked to complete a fixed set of very simple arithmetic problems. Sounds easy enough, but here is the rub: some participants were assigned to an “excess time” condition and others were put in a condition where they had just the “right” amount of time for the problems at hand. Lo and behold, those in the excess time condition took significantly longer to complete the problems; it appeared that the students who had more time than they needed expended less effort and felt less urgency to complete their tasks expediently— Parkinson’s law in action! Similar sets of findings have been found in other populations, from pulp mill workers to NASA scientists. Parkinson’s law manifests in non-time related ways as well. An intriguing study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice examined jail capacity and incarceration. It found that a large increase in jail capacity in Orange County, Florida, led to an increase in daily incarceration levels beyond what would be expected on the basis of police activity and preexisting incarceration. Stated differently, if we have space, we fill it. As humans, we seem to consciously or unconsciously strive to fill voids. This applies to meetings as well. If the meeting is scheduled for sixty minutes, it will generally take sixty minutes. John Morris, cartoonist for fifty-two years for the Associated Press, illustrated this in poignant fashion. In one published cartoon a conference table is surrounded by a set of meeting attendees with blank stares on their faces. The meeting leader exclaims, “There’s no way we can come to a decision yet—this meeting has only lasted thirty minutes.” The fact that the work of a meeting generally expands to fill whatever amount of time you allot presents us with an opportunity. How much time can you reclaim for yourself and your coworkers by trimming and pruning your calendars? In the rest of this chapter, we will look at ways to more effectively set a meeting time so that it not only fits the task at hand but also creates reasonable pressure and poses a challenge the meeting attendees can rise up to. Finally, I will provide exemplars and discuss how companies can have super-speedy meetings without sacrificing effectiveness. Ultimately, decreasing a meeting’s length not only returns time to the attendees but also creates a positive form of pressure, in turn sharpening attendees’ focus and interest.
Decreasing Meeting Times Thoughtfully Thomas J. Watson, founder of IBM, posted a simple slogan throughout company offices that read: “Think.” This simple rule of thumb can have endless applications for managers. One of these applications is in the determining of meeting times: with a given set of meeting goals, how much time is really needed to complete them? A meeting leader should take a minute to think and make an informed guess based on some key factors: the nature of the meeting’s goals, the people invited to the meeting (discussed in a later chapter), and an analysis of past meetings. The same leader can also, at times, ask others for input and thoughtfully use that feedback, which only serves to engender attendee buy-in to time limits once they have been established. After considering these variables, don’t be wary of scheduling meetings with odd lengths. For example, a forty-eight-minute meeting is just fine if that is the right fit. These odd times attract attention and curiosity and may even be a little fun. The survey research company TINYpulse, for example, starts a daily staff meeting at 8:48 a.m. Not only does this practice raise eyebrows because of its uniqueness, but also, as an added bonus, TINYpulse reports almost zero tardiness to these meetings. Once a good time estimate is generated, consider dropping it by 5–10 percent. A little bit of pressure can often serve a meeting well. The Yerkes–Dodson law, which maps the relationship between stress and performance, is well established in psychological research. This relationship is one of an inverted U.
Namely, performance is optimal when some level of stress exists, and performance is lowest in the absence of stress, as well as when there is an abundance of stress. This pattern of findings exists for both individual and team performance, across both work and sports contexts. So, by dropping 5–10 percent off the well-considered estimate, you are potentially introducing a healthy amount of stress, which promotes task- related focus, stimulation, energy, and engagement. If you typically have a sixty- minute meeting, push it down to fifty minutes if that seems doable. If you typically have a thirty-minute meeting, push it down to twenty-five minutes. This clearly works to counter some of the negative effects of Parkinson’s law. Plus it saves time, which compounds across participants. Finally, slightly decreasing meeting length has an added benefit of helping with transitions between meetings. As we saw in Chapter 1, it is not atypical to have back- to-back meetings. Without any type of transition time, the chance of meeting lateness increases. My colleagues and I have conducted a host of studies on meeting lateness and we’ve learned that meetings seem to start late around 50 percent of the time. Meeting lateness by and large leads to frustration among those who are not late. Most worrisome, this frustration appears to spill over into the meeting itself. For example, we observed that when meetings started ten minutes late, besides creating frustration, members were more likely to interrupt one another throughout the meeting. Taken together, it is not surprising that meetings that started late resulted in lower-quality outcomes such as fewer new ideas and fewer good ideas. Dropping five to ten minutes off the meeting length allows for transition time and helps mitigate future meeting lateness. While transition times are typical in school settings, Google may be responsible for starting this trend in corporate settings. At the very least, Google has given the practice a great deal of momentum. Larry Page, Google’s cofounder and former CEO, returned to the company in April 2011. In one of his first memos to employees, he argued that hour-long meetings must allow for a bathroom break in between. This started the fifty/ twenty-five rule I described earlier: one-hour meetings shortened to fifty minutes, and thirty-minute meetings shortened to twenty-five minutes. Since that time, this rule has been adopted by a host of companies across industries. One employee from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) whom I interviewed told me that the company implemented a campaign initiative called “PwC has gone Google.” “There was definitely more of an attitude of ‘let’s try to have a fifty-minute meeting,’” she said. The employee continued, “Also, I personally felt (and noticed others do this too) that I could legitimately excuse myself at the fifty-minute mark when I needed to travel to another meeting/ prep for the other meeting, etc.” If you are interested in exploring this strategy, here is some good news: Google is making these speedier meetings easier than ever for non-Googlers to carry out. Now when you use the Google Calendar application, you can go into settings and actually change the default meeting length. There is a toggle switch for “speedy meetings” with a description reading, “encourage meeting efficiency and get to your next meeting on time.” New meeting requests will then default to twentyfive-or fifty-minute increments. Although scheduling in this fashion will indeed speed up the meeting, I am also enthusiastic about a new concept bubbling up in more and more organizations—the super-speedy meeting.
The Super-Speedy Meeting A ten-or fifteen-minute meeting is another tool for a leader to consider. These types of meetings are quite common in high- stakes workplaces like military, emergency (e.g., fire departments), and hospital settings. In these environments, short meetings are often used to debrief or actively reflect on an event or occurrence like an accident (e.g., what worked and what didn’t work and why). The research on these types of meetings is enthusiastically supportive of their ability to enhance future individual and team performance and the safety behaviors of attendees. Short meetings with a focused agenda, facilitated effectively, can have tremendously positive effects. Plus, these short meetings align with research on limited human attention spans and fatigue. Short meetings are spreading among companies quite rapidly. Percolate, a global technology firm, has set their default length for meetings at fifteen minutes. While they may adjust it up or down, they are committed to making fifteen minutes the typical meeting time. Similarly, Marissa Mayer, formerly a senior executive at Google and president/CEO of Yahoo, was famous for her short meetings. She would create large time blocks filled with ten-minute meeting windows. While this would often result in seventy meetings per week for her, this practice allowed her to be highly responsive to employee needs, it made getting a meeting on her calendar much easier, and it helped projects and initiatives to keep pushing forward without delays. She also claimed that by limiting the meetings to ten minutes, employees came in with a tight and highly focused agenda that promoted success. Highly focused and short are also the hallmarks of a final type of short meeting I want to profile: the huddle. In sports, a huddle is a common activity that may be planned or spontaneous and that occurs before or after an action. At RSC Bio Solutions, a company whose practices we looked at in Chapter 3, the huddle is a gathering of the team to strategize, discuss, monitor, motivate, or celebrate. The concept of the huddle is being applied more than ever in a range of organizations, from Apple, to Dell, to Zappos, to Ritz Carlton, to Capital One. It was also used in the Obama White House. Logistically, a huddle in the business realm typically:
- Is ten or fifteen minutes in length
- Occurs at the same time each day (or every other day)
- Starts and ends on time
- Is done in the morning
- Occurs in the same place
- Involves the same people
- Mandates perfect attendance: if folks can’t attend in person, they attend remotely
- Occurs standing up, if possible
Although each leader (or other attendees if serving in the role of facilitator) can customize a huddle according to the needs of the organization and team, it is often the case that one question from one or more of the following categories is used:
- What Has Happened and Any Key Wins
- What did you accomplish since yesterday?
- What did you finish since yesterday?
- Any key wins for you or the team that you can share?
- Any key client updates?
- What Will Happen
- What are you working on today?
- What is your top priority for the day?
- What is the one most important thing you will get done today?
- What are your top three priorities for the day or the week?
- How are we doing on our company’s top three metrics?
- How are we doing on your team’s top three metrics?
- What obstacles are impeding your progress?
- Any “stuck points” you are facing?
- Any roadblocks the team can help with?
- Anything slowing down your progress?
You can also tailor your questions on the basis of emergent priorities and needs. For example, a company I worked with was trying to promote more cross- departmental teamwork. Thus, each week, one huddle was designed to explicitly align with that goal. This took a few different forms. For example, attendees might discuss roadblocks, such as work processes that may be hurting teamwork. Or, they may focus on the positive and ask attendees for examples of how others helped them and displayed teamwork. Or, they may ask each attendee to specify an emergent need he or she needs help with. Taken together, the organization was able to reinforce the current initiative and even monitor progress. When you implement the huddle, all attendees should quickly answer all questions posed by the facilitator, unless of course there are extenuating circumstances. The meeting leader should make it clear that employees’ answers should be succinct, to promote efficiency. It is also important for the meeting leader to stress that the huddle is not about reporting to the leader (this can be emphasized by rotating facilitator responsibilities). Instead, the huddle is about the team members communicating with one another, pulling together, learning together, and seeking ways to support each other. Relatedly, given the tight time limits of huddles, it is important to recognize that huddles are often about setting the table for additional conversations between team members offline. While quick suggestions and guidance can be shared during the huddle from attendee to attendee, if the issue involves a small subset of attendees, they can continue the conversation after the huddle is done. In fact, the walk to and from the huddle often turns out to be a rich opportunity for communication. Or, if the issue is substantive and involves most of the attendees, this issue can be taken up in a separate meeting. Inc. magazine did a nice feature in 2007 called “The Art of the Huddle,” highlighting how various leaders are leveraging their huddles. Let me share a couple of examples they profiled.
Bishop-Wisecarver, a $20 million maker of machine components Huddles were initiated to improve communication across silos and departments (people were not talking enough to one another). The CEO reports that teamwork improved greatly once information sharing in huddles became routine. She indicates that snafus have been averted, with different managers making adjustments and offering support as they learned about issues and challenges in other departments.
Advanced Facilities Services, a $10 million facilities management company The CEO initiated huddles with his top managers to keep all of them focused on strategic long-term issues. Each manger takes less than a minute to indicate what he or she will do to advance the quarterly and yearly goals, progress made the previous day, and roadblocks being encountered. These conversations keep the team moving forward and allow the CEO to see if someone is off course or if any misunderstandings are occurring. Overall, huddles promote a sense of unity, facilitate coordination, get needed information out there quickly, enable problem-solving, promote accountability, reveal blind spots, sharpen collective focus, foster action, promote better communication, enhance understanding of goals, and stimulate attendees to help one another achieve success.
Short Meetings Come with a Few Warnings One worry often associated with the daily huddle is that people are just too busy to engage in this practice (e.g., they find it hard to find time on a daily basis for something like this). I can certainly see where this is coming from: if you are swamped with work, finding time to meet frequently is a genuine challenge. From my experience implementing huddles at organizations and examining data on their effectiveness, however, they are actually small-time investments yielding big returns. By improving coordination and communication among the members of a team, time is ultimately saved in the form of less rework, more teamwork, more support, and fewer miscommunications that need to be resolved. That being said, there are two important hazards to actively guard against when engaging in these practices. The first hazard is creating yet more time spent in meetings. Shorter meetings are designed to replace some longer meetings. In other words, the hope is that some current longer meetings can be dropped as a result of these frequent and effective huddles. Keeping that in mind, it is certainly acceptable and appropriate to schedule additional meetings in response to topics that emerge in huddles and topics that are not completely discussed. One organization I know instituted something called “magic time.” Basically, this was a standing meeting hour that the team kept open, no matter what, every other week (e.g., every other Monday at 10 a.m.); if a critical issue emerged in a huddle that needed substantive discussion (e.g., a key manufacturing challenge), all team members knew that this time was available for follow-up. Thus, the huddle did not run over the scheduled end time, which brings us to the second hazard. A second key hazard to avoid is not honoring the shorter meeting times. Running over the scheduled huddle end time is highly problematic. Our research suggests, in fact, that running late may have more negative consequences on attendees than starting late: it serves to negatively affect any scheduled activities post-meeting, and by ending late, the meeting is breaking an implicit time contract of sorts with attendees. Breaking this “contract” results in stress, dissatisfaction, and frustration among attendees, which not only affects them personally but also can spill over to how they interact with others. By honoring the end time, you work to mitigate these issues. Beyond this benefit, the increased sense of urgency from a short meeting, with a hard stop time, will decrease rambling and unproductive, off-topic conversation. A number of organizations take the practice of ending on time very seriously. Google often features a giant timer on the wall. The timer counts down the time remaining for a particular meeting or topic and is visible so that all know it and see it. O3 World, a design and product development agency, leverages technology they created, called Roombot, to keep meetings from ending late. This technology will warn attendees as the meeting’s end time approaches and will even start dimming the lights. Of course, there are effective interventions to keep meetings on track that are not so technologically advanced.
Many companies tend to take a more humorous approach to getting meetings to end on time. At Tripping.com, the meeting leader must contribute to the team beer jar if the meeting does not end on time. Or, even more extreme, at Buddytruk, if the meeting runs over, the last person talking has to do fifty push- ups. It is clear that these companies recognize the benefits of ending on time, and recognize the importance of gaining buy- in from the attendees. To help you get started conducting huddles, a Huddle Implementation Checklist tool is provided at the end of the book.
The Final Argument for Adding Short Meetings to Your Toolbox As we have seen, there are so many reasons to leverage shorter meetings. If you’re still not convinced, then try short meetings for your health. This is a bit of a leap, but there is a kernel of truth here. Research on physical meeting spaces was conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on behalf of the US Department of Energy. To no surprise, as people exhale, carbon dioxide readings in confined spaces like meeting rooms increase. Researchers found that exposure to carbon dioxide for extended periods of time actually resulted in a decrease of constructive meeting processes like taking initiative and thinking strategically. Granted, they found that these negative effects did not kick in until after two and a half hours, but if you’re looking for a physiological rationale for shorter meetings, it’s there. Let me close this section with a final piece of advice right out of the Steve Jobs playbook, one that I firmly believe in. The meeting leader should never be afraid, no matter the length of a meeting, to end a meeting early: (1) when it looks as if the meeting goals have been met (no need to drag it out), or (2) when the attendees seem to be just spinning their wheels and are not being productive. In the case of the latter, sometimes just stopping and regrouping at a later time or using a different communication medium (e.g., email) can be just what is needed to ultimately turn a losing effort into a winning one.
- Parkinson’s law states that work expands to whatever time is allotted. Keep this in mind with regard to meetings, and take the time to conscientiously choose the length of your meetings (based on the goals, agenda, attendees, etc.). Perhaps even consider a nontraditional meeting length or start time, like the forty-eight- minute meeting, to push the envelope.
- Consider shortening your regular meetings by five to ten minutes (instead of thirty or sixty minutes, try twenty-five or fifty). Not only will this create a little added pressure, which is shown to make attendees more effective, but also it will reduce lateness to meetings and allow for breaks between meetings.
- Consider the idea of implementing daily or weekly short meetings or huddles. These ten-to fifteen-minute meetings should have a focused agenda, involve lots of concise interaction among attendees, and be facilitated effectively using some of the key questions I have included in this chapter.
- Although short meetings or huddles can be very effective, it is important to keep two things in mind: (1) certain emergent topics may need their own dedicated meeting time outside the huddle context, and (2) always start and end these quick meetings on time to maximize their effectiveness and attendees’ satisfaction.
Chapter 5 AGENDAS ARE A HOLLOW CRUTCH
Throughout history, you can find examples of a traveling “merchant” coming into town selling ointments, pills, elixirs, and objects promising quick fixes to problems concerning health, love, wealth, enemies, or even bad bosses. Sales were good for these merchants. Customers are reliably drawn to quick fixes to complicated problems. After all, quick fixes do not require deep thought, careful analysis, or nuance, nor do they require hard work. The other hallmark of a quick fix is the rarity of it actually working. The volumes of books and articles that claim they will help you improve your organization’s meetings typically have one key idea in common—they espouse the “must do” advice of having an agenda and claim this as a cure-all. Unfortunately, relying on a meeting agenda is a quick fix, and not one that on its own will make a difference. It is hard to find a business book on meetings that does not start with the importance of creating a meeting agenda. However, the research on agendas is far from enthusiastic. Two studies I published early in my career examined the best ways to design meetings. In both studies, a leader’s decision to have an agenda was a very minor predictor of attendees’ perceptions of meeting effectiveness. More pessimistically, other researchers found no positive relationship between attendees’ evaluation of meeting quality and having a written agenda. Taken together, the conclusion is that agendas in and of themselves do little to improve meetings. Furthermore, it is often the case that agendas are recycled from meeting to meeting. In 2003, Marakon Associates and The Economist Intelligence Unit studied top management teams across 197 companies worldwide. These were large companies with sales of at least $500 million. They reported that in half of the companies they studied, the agendas from top management teams were either exactly the same from meeting to meeting or they were created in an ad hoc, spontaneous fashion. In reflecting on my own client work, I have seen so many instances where the only thing changing agenda-wise from meeting to meeting in a department was the date in the upper left corner. In the rest of this chapter I will discuss ways to avoid the generic-agenda pitfall. I will cover the process of constructing an agenda from a number of strategic vantage points, including implementing a goals and decisions focus, how to order items, how to engage others in the process, the notion of directly responsible individuals, and other key topics in agenda creation. Ultimately, this chapter is about moving beyond just having an agenda and instead creating an agenda that truly can be transformative—an agenda heeding the sage advice of Ben Franklin, “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
Planning a Wedding Meeting An agenda is an event plan. When planning an event, we think carefully about the details, the flow, the experience, and the approach. The same mindset and process should occur when planning a meeting. In fact, the notion of thinking of a meeting as an event is really not a stretch. It is not unusual for a meeting to cost between $1,000 and $3,000 in attendee time and salaries, which many would likely say is a fairly expensive event warranting careful planning. Related to this, as a meeting leader, you are in the unique position of being a steward of others’ time and experience. We would never go to a client meeting unprepared, nor would we conduct a workshop for others without planning; the same focus should be brought to a meeting. Prepare for an internal meeting like you would prepare a client event, even for just a few minutes. This starts with thinking through what truly needs to be accomplished for the meeting to be successful. Meetings should be called to address issues that require genuine interaction among and engagement with attendees. While meetings can certainly have an “update” component, which is only natural, this should be a small part of the meeting, relatively speaking. If the topic does not require interaction, another communication medium would likely be more efficient (e.g., a memo, webinar).
Agenda Construction: What Should Be Included in the Meeting? The following are some examples of topics particularly well suited for a meeting; these are the types of interaction-requiring topics you would like to see on an agenda: • Identification of key risks or challenges the unit is facing or will be facing • Identification and discussion of key metrics to assess progress • Evaluation of key processes or changes made • Discussion of what is going well and not so well—areas of improvement • Dissemination and interpretation of key information or policy changes • Calls to action and planning or strategy activities • Solving important problems and making collective decisions • After action, reflection and discussion of key learnings • Discussion and celebration of victories and individual and collective excellence • Short-range and long-range forecasting
• • • • •
Identification and discussion of new opportunities Dialogue around coordination of efforts Budgetary planning, issues, and adjustments Key talent issues, both positive and negative Presenting a new product or idea and getting feedback
In addition to this list, ideas for the agenda should also bubble up from the attendees or team members themselves. After all, a meeting is a shared experience, and it seems only appropriate to allow all parties to have some level of input. Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, whom I mentioned in Chapter 3, once said, “The most important criterion governing matters to be talked about is that they be issues that preoccupy and nag the subordinate.” Research strongly supports the notion of “voice” in work-related activities. That is, when employees are encouraged to share their thoughts and ideas in a genuine manner and those ideas are truly heard, they tend to feel a greater sense of commitment to and identification with the team and the organization. This translates into a meeting setting in the form of an engaged attendee, one who is fully plugged into the meeting itself. By adding employee input to the meeting agenda, you are increasing the chances of hitting topics of critical importance to all who are present. This all can be executed simply by sending an email three to five days before the meeting asking for topics to include on the agenda (I sometimes recommend having attendees include a reason why this agenda item should be included). While asking for your team’s input, it is important to keep in mind that you are ultimately in charge of the meeting. What employees propose should certainly be considered and taken seriously. However, if you deem the suggestion not to be a good agenda item for the upcoming meeting, you should either (1) address the issue with the employee or subset of employees outside the meeting or (2) move it to a future meeting. The only thing you should not do is pretend you never received the suggestion; some form of closing the loop is needed. After identifying the potential topics and goals of the meeting (emerging both from self-reflection and from others’ input), as the meeting leader you need to carefully reflect on the importance of the goals and whether each is adding true value—value beyond opportunity costs (i.e., time that could be spent elsewhere). Drop content that does not make the cut. Also, drop content if the goal is only relevant to a small subset of attendees; in this case, it is best pursued in a different context.
Agenda Construction: Flow Matters The next step in agenda creation involves the critical task of ordering the topics, which is essential to the success of the meeting. A nice study on agenda order was conducted by psychology professors Glen Littlepage and Julie Poole from Middle Tennessee State University in the early 1990s. These professors conducted an experiment involving twenty