We live in polarizing times — whether it’s politics, sports, or Wall Street, opinion tends to split down the middle with half the population supporting one view and the other vehemently defending the alternative. But differences of opinion vanish when you bring up meetings. Most people agree they’re of questionable value, and have plenty (to put it mildly) of room for improvement. Need some proof? In a recent survey of 182 senior managers from a range of industries:
- 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient
- 65% complained that meetings keep them from completing their own work
- 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking
In another study, 90 percent of people reported daydreaming in meetings and 73 percent admitted they use meeting time to do other work. Finally, that same study proclaimed the existence of the very malignant sounding “meeting recovery syndrome.” It suggests the effects of a bad meeting can linger for hours in the form of participant grousing and complaining.
We could fill this entire book on statistics that outline the many grievances associated with meetings. But, let’s be honest, meetings aren’t going anywhere. Every day here in the United States there are about eleven million of them taking place, so it’s difficult to envision a future in which we don’t convene to discuss matters of mutual interest.
Are meetings all bad? We don’t think so, and in fact we’ll go so far as to say they play a critical role in the achievement of goals. To discover why, we need to burrow down a bit of a neuroscience rabbit hole. Researchers tell us that when it comes to goals, our brains work on a very fundamental premise: discrepancies must be reduced. The goal is where we want to go, what we want to achieve. Luckily for the striving mammals we are, our brains can quickly determine the gap between that desired end state and our current position. It then wants to take necessary actions to close the gap, thus reducing discrepancies. And what is one of the critical ways it does that? By analyzing feedback on those actions. It’s pretty much impossible to achieve any goal without a sense of how we’re doing, how we’re progressing. And, coming full circle now, meetings are an outstanding forum for providing, discussing, and analyzing feedback on goals, whether corporate, team, or individual.
Hopefully, you can now see the potential of good meetings. Try these three tips to improve your next gathering:
- Create and stick to a focused agenda
Everyone wants to be efficient with their time, but you simply can’t cover everything from strategy reviews to monthly operating results to the latest IT initiatives in one sitting without sacrificing quality dialog for speed. That’s the meeting equivalent of multitasking, but recent research on brain science is shedding new light on the long-accepted virtues of multitasking. Turns out we can’t do two things at once, and attempting to do so actually harms productivity. Your first responsibility in bringing your colleagues to the table for a meeting is to have a focused agenda that concentrates on a limited number of related subjects, or maybe just one, allowing time for analysis, discussion, and learning.
- Listen more, talk less
When we sit in on client meetings it sometimes occurs to us that everyone around the table is just waiting, very impatiently, for a chance to speak. When that time comes, based on the new direction in which they spin the conversation, it’s pretty obvious they didn’t really hear a word the previous speaker uttered, and are simply intent on getting their point across. In your next meeting, we encourage you to take the time to really listen to your colleagues’ point of view and, as Benjamin Franklin once noted: “Gain knowledge by use of the ear, rather than the tongue.” Before providing your own opinion, share what you believe you heard others say and don’t progress until you can express it to their satisfaction.
- Score the meeting’s effectiveness
After the meeting, ask participants to rate its effectiveness on a number of predetermined criteria. The dimensions you choose to measure are up to you, but consider the following to get your creative juices flowing: Did the meeting begin and end on time? Were materials provided in advance? Did the facilitator review the agenda? Did the facilitator guide the discussion effectively? Was there active participation from all participants? Were actions recorded? Keep track of responses over time to determine whether or not your meetings are becoming more effective as judged by participants. To keep things really simple, try giving everyone a single piece of paper at the end of the meeting, have them record their thoughts, and drop the paper in one of two buckets, “Cheers” or “Jeers.”
The comedian Dave Barry has this to say on the topic: “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.’” Harsh words, but funny. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Follow the steps above to get your meetings back on track.