The Surprising Science of Meetings
Cover & Diagrams
How can you lead highly engaging meetings that unlock creativity, effectiveness, and dynamism? While meetings are often tiresome and unproductive, they are a huge part of everyday corporate life. Managers attend 12 meetings every week. Over 55 million meetings take place every day in the United States and they cost an incredible $1.4 trillion annually.
The Surprising Science of Meetings draws on extensive cutting-edge research to give you proven tactics to lead highly productive and engaging meetings. With these meeting leadership skills, you can create better team wins, ensure career growth, and create organizational value.
Top 20 insights
- In less than forty years, the number of meetings that take place in a day has jumped from 11 million to a stunning 55 million in the United States. These meetings cost an incredible $1.4 trillion, or 8.2% of US GDP annually.
- The number of meetings increases as one moves up the corporate ladder. On average, non-managers attend 8 meetings per week, while managers attend 12 meetings. Senior management spends most of their time in back-to-back meetings.
- In a global survey by Microsoft, 69% of respondents felt that meetings were not productive. A recent study found meetings to be the single most significant cause of workplace time-drains. Bad meetings are estimated to cost $250 billion a year in wasted time. No other corporate investment of this scale is treated so casually.
- Meetings cannot be eliminated. Time spent in meetings is the ""Cultural Tax"" an organization pays for creating inclusion, participation, teamwork, communication, and cohesion in the organization. What must be reduced is time wasted in unnecessary or poorly organized meetings.
- Organizational focus on meeting effectiveness can unlock significant performance gains. As Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel said: ""Just as you would not permit a fellow employee to steal a piece of office equipment worth $2000, you shouldn't let anyone walk away with the time of his fellow managers"".
- Cognitive biases make leaders prone to thinking more favorably about their meetings than other attendees do. A Verizon survey found respondents rating meetings initiated by them as extremely or very productive 79% of the time, as opposed to just 56% for meetings initiated by others. Organizations must provide training in meeting facilitation best practices and include quality of meeting parameters in their 360-degree feedback surveys.
- Collecting attendee feedback on meetings can be valuable in evaluating meeting quality and measure the effectiveness of interventions. Weight Watchers did this by installing a simple touchscreen outside conference rooms where participants could rate meetings on a five-point scale.
- Research shows that meetings start late 50% of the time leading to employee frustration and poor outcomes. Use Google's 50/25 rule to shorten hour-long meetings to 50 minutes and 30-minute meetings to 25 minutes. This gives employees transition time to avoid being late to future meetings.
- Huddles are quick ten-minute, stand up meetings that happen every day in the morning. They are used to discuss work done the previous day, establish tasks for the day, and take stock of progress on key goals. The time spent can avoid hours of rework.
- Meetings can cost between $1000 and $3000 in attendee time and salaries. Leaders must prepare for meetings the same way they do for a client meeting or a workshop. Meeting agenda items must be carefully ranked based on strategic importance. Research shows that early agenda items receive far more attention in meetings.
- It is a great idea to seek potential agenda items from attendees. It creates greater feelings of inclusivity, engagement, and participation. An excellent way to do this is to send an email a few days before the meeting. If an item does not fit, the leader must address this personally with the attendee or move it to a future meeting.
- Keep meetings small. Research shows that over 50% of meetings have two or more extra attendees than required for the meeting agenda. Larger meetings have poorer group experiences, more passivity, and higher instances of negative behaviors. Data from Bain and Company shows that for every person added beyond seven members, decision making effectiveness is reduced by 10%.
- Before calling a meeting, the leader must carefully choose a particular meeting technique. The typical method of group discussion on each agenda item is one of many possible ways. Meeting success depends on selecting the mode best suited for the agenda.
- Design of meeting rooms matters. Amazon uses an empty chair in meetings to represent the customer. This serves as a physical cue to make attendees be customer-centric in their decisions. The empty chair can be used to represent other absent stakeholders as well.
- Walking meetings are great for short discussions with less than four attendees. They break barriers, enhance communication, and improve creative thinking. An Inc. magazine survey shows that 90 days of walking meetings can lead to higher energy levels, improved focus, and greater engagement. Stanford's research showed an 80% jump in creativity when participants were walking than when seated.
- Consider creating technology-free meetings where attendees deposit their phones outside. This improves focus and prevents multitasking. Longer meetings can include quick technology breaks.
- Brainwriting uses the power of silence to generate creative ideas. Participants silently write ideas on sheets of paper. The ideas are then organized into buckets, and the important ones are further discussed vocally or by writing comments. The process takes one-third the time of traditional brainstorming meetings while generating nearly 41% more original ideas.
- Amazon replaces the presentation of ideas with silent reading. The first part of the meeting is reserved for silently reading a detailed proposal. A vigorous discussion then follows. This approach removes the need for pre-work, brings everyone on the same page, and results in more in-depth discussions.
- Avoid call-in meetings as they create significant communication and engagement challenges. When unavoidable, they must be kept short and focused on outlining key challenges. This can be followed by offline activities like small group discussions or brainstorming on platforms like Google Docs. Finally, another short meeting can be called to determine the way forward.
- Research shows that breaking meetings into two parts prevents attendees from seeking premature consensus. This leads to better quality outcomes. Companies like Boeing and Cadbury have made this a part of their culture.
Attending meetings can often be a frustrating experience. In a recent survey, 3164 workers rated meetings as the single most significant cause of workplace time-drains. Bad meetings are estimated to cost $250 billion a year in wasted time. There are also psychological costs in terms of employee frustration and time spent winding down after a poor meeting. But the amount of time spent in meetings is only rising. In the United States, over 55 million meetings take place every day.
Meetings cannot be eliminated. They are the "Cultural Tax" an organization pays for creating inclusion, participation, teamwork, communication, and cohesion. Organizations can avoid the pitfalls of poor meetings can be avoided by applying insights from cutting-edge research.
Evidence suggests that leaders consistently perceived their meetings more favorably than other attendees did. A telephone survey by Verizon found that 79% of respondents rated the meetings initiated by them as being extremely or very productive as opposed to a mere 56% for meetings started by peers.
What organizations can do
To help overcome these biases, organizations should provide leaders with quality training in meeting facilitation. The annual employee engagement surveys and 360-degree feedback surveys must include parameters on the quality of meetings. This is rarely done even in Fortune 500 companies. Some companies do take meeting quality seriously. Weight Watchers installed touchscreen tablets outside conference rooms where employees could rate meeting on a simple five-point scale. This helped them assess the quality of meetings, design appropriate interventions, and measure the effectiveness of interventions in improving meeting quality.
Leaders must keep an eye out for informal cues like attendees multitasking on phones and side conversations to sense that the meeting dynamics are not ideal. It's best to do a periodic assessment of meeting quality every three months using an anonymous short survey. One simple set of questions could be:
- What should one stop doing as a meeting leader?
- What should one start doing that is not currently being done?
- What is working well and should be continued?
The survey instructions must clearly communicate the intent of the leader to improve meeting quality. The results of the survey must be shared along with specific actions to address these issues. This serves to make meeting excellence a part of organizational culture.
Adopt servant leadership
Servant Leadership is a powerful way to create a conducive meeting environment where the knowledge, talent, and skills of all attendees come forth. A Servant Leader values the time of others and recognizes this as central to personal and organizational success. This requires careful planning and design of the agenda, goals, sequence of topics, and meeting strategies.
Ideal meeting facilitation behaviors include:
- Keeping track of time and pacing the meeting effectively.
- Consistently summarizing the discussion to ensure everyone is on the same page
- Surfacing underlying concerns through attentive listening
- Encouraging debates and managing conflict around key ideas to drive better decision-making
- Periodically checking for consensus without pressuring the attendees
- Remaining impartial without privileging one's own viewpoint in the discussion
Time meetings differenty
A meeting leader must plan the duration based on the meeting goals. Shortening meetings is an excellent way to create positive pressure and retain attendee focus. Research shows that meetings start late 50% of the time leading to employee frustration and lower-quality meeting outcomes. Reducing meeting lengths by 5-10 minutes creates time for breaks and avoids lateness in future meetings. Google follows the 50/25 rule: hour-long meetings are shortened to 50 minutes, and thirty-minute meetings are shortened to 25 minutes.
Huddles are short ten-minute, full-team meetings that happen at the same time in the morning every day. This mandates perfect attendance and is usually done standing up. Huddles are used to quickly catch up on critical wins and work done the previous day, establish priorities for the day, and take stock of progress on essential goals and address obstacles. They improve communication across silos, enable quick problem-solving, promote accountability, and improve coordination among team members. This short time investment can save hours of work in solving miscommunication and avoiding rework.
Here are two essential things to remember while facilitating huddles:
- Huddles should enable the team to eliminate some longer meetings. Otherwise, it becomes yet another meeting.
- Huddles must be kept tight and end on time. If it ends late, it will disrupt post-meeting activities and lead to employee frustration.
Leaders should end a meeting early when meeting goals have been met or when employees are not productive.
A meeting costs between $1000 and $3000 in attendee time and salaries. This must be handled as an event that requires careful planning. Leaders must prepare for meetings the same way they do for a client meeting or a workshop. Meetings should only include topics that require discussions and engagement. Good examples of these are identifying key risks and opportunities, evaluating progress, and identifying new opportunities. Topics that do not need this can be communicated over memos and emails. It is a good idea to get agenda items from the attendees to create engagement. This can be done by sending an email three days before calling for topics. If an item is not included, it must be addressed with the employee or a small group outside the meeting or moved to a future meeting.
Design the meeting flow
Therefore, the order of agenda items clearly matters. Research found that the first items on the agenda receive disproportionate time and attention. Meeting goals must be ranked based on strategic importance. Agenda items should include not only immediate problems, but also long-term goals. Leaders can consider beginning meetings with the most compelling and contentious issues to create genuine debate and engagement. Meetings must always end with a few minutes to cover takeaways, follow-ups, and even a quick Q&A.
Use a timed agenda
Allocating time for each item in the agenda can be a useful tool when leaders find discussion going into tangents. It can also ensure that key items get the attention they require.
Assign directly responsible individuals
Leaders can share leadership by assigning each meeting task to an attendee. Apple designates a Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) to all agenda items. The DRI is responsible for facilitating the discussion and handling post-meeting follow-ups. This makes meetings more engaging, fosters skill development in leading meetings, and increases accountability.
It's best to circulate an agenda a few days before the meeting. If there are no compelling issues to discuss, cancel the meeting.
Make meetings lean
Studies show that over 50% of meetings have more than two extra attendees beyond what the agenda required. While this is done with the intent to be inclusive, bloated meetings can be suboptimal. Data from Bain and Company shows that for every person added beyond seven members, decision making effectiveness reduced by 10%. Further, employee engagement reduces when they attend meetings that are not relevant to their job.
Meeting leaders must attempt to make a meeting as lean as possible. For Google, the maximum number of attendees is 10. Amazon uses the "two-pizza rule" - two pizzas should be enough to feed all attendees. For decision-making and problem-solving, the ideal meeting size is 7 or 8 people. With outstanding facilitation skills, a leader can manage up to 12 attendees. Having less than 15 attendees is perfect for huddles, brainstorming, and agenda-setting.
Choose the right attendees
Here are some questions for each meeting goal that can help leaders choose the right attendees:
- Who has subject knowledge for the goal?
- Who are the key stakeholders and decision-makers?
- Who needs this information?
- Who will implement the decisions taken?
Mitigating hurt feelings
Employees see meeting invitations as a sign of being valued. Therefore, excluding individuals from meetings could lead to feelings of rejection and burnt bridges. Here are five ways to handle this:
- Split your agenda into two smaller meetings with different attendees:
- A timed agenda can enable different attendees to attend only relevant parts.
- Seek ideas and inputs from non-attendees and discuss them in the meeting. This can be done by a simple mail seeking feedback before the meeting and a subsequent mail sharing key takeaways.
- Share detailed meeting notes with other stakeholders to seek inputs and expertise.
- Ask some attendees to represent stakeholders who are not present. The representative will get in touch with these stakeholders, keep them in the loop on discussions, and ask for future inputs.
These techniques reduce meeting size while promoting feelings of inclusivity among a larger group of non-attendees.
Create new rhythms
Meetings can become repetitive due to starting and ending at the same time, meeting in the same room and usually with the same agenda. Breaking these patterns can create fresh dynamics and make for more engaged meetings.
Leverage seating design
Research indicates that seating positions influence effectiveness, communication flow, decision-making, and creativity. People seated at the head or foot of the table are likely to speak more and be listened to. The meeting leader must actively design seating to create the right social dynamics. This can be done by making people change seating positions every meeting or even shifting rooms. Amazon uses an empty chair in meetings to represent the customer. This serves as a physical cue to make attendees customer-centric in their decisions. The empty chair can be used to represent other absent stakeholders as well.
Walking meetings can help break barriers and improve communication. It also makes multitasking difficult, resulting in increased focus. Stanford University's research shows that 80% of participants were more creative while walking than when seated and at their creative best when walking outdoors. These meetings are ideal for small gatherings of up to four attendees. These work best when the agenda does not require technological tools or supporting material.
Stand up meetings improve collaboration and increase engagement with others' ideas. Research shows that standing meetings generally take 34% less time than sitting meetings. While they can work for larger groups, it is essential to keep these meetings short.
Set the right moods
Research shows that groups in a positive mood outperform those in a neutral mood in creative tasks, team engagement, and constructive conversations. Since meetings are usually perceived as an interruption in the workflow of an attendee, attendees may come with negative baggage. To create positivity, the leader must greet attendees warmly, make eye contact, and facilitate introductions. The mood state of the leader strongly influences the mood of attendees and is a predictor of group performance.
Here are some ways to improve the mood in the meeting:
- Playing music before the meeting can set the right mood
- Serving snacks can build camaraderie and influence mood
- Creating technology-free meeting zones to prevent multitasking and ensure focus. More and more companies are asking attendees to deposit phones at the door. If meetings are long, consider adding technology breaks.
- Using clicker quizzes to do quick surveys on key questions. The results can be instantly summarized, visualized, and displayed on the screen. This brings in a bit of fun, along with increased engagement.
- Making attendees discuss key issues in pairs for a few minutes before the meeting starts. This makes everyone involved, brings new ideas to the table, and makes it easier to overcome inhibitions.
Group thinking can dominate meetings, while unique insights remain buried. Therefore, it's important to create ways to bring diverse and contrary perspectives on the table. Approaches based on silence can be surprisingly effective in accomplishing this.
Brainwriting leverages the power of silence to generate diverse ideas. Attendees silently write down their responses to a meeting goal on paper without adding their names. The papers are then placed face-down in the center of the table. The facilitator groups similar ideas, and the attendees vote on the key ideas to be discussed. This discussion is done in writing with participants adding comments to each ideas sheet. The entire process takes one-third the time of traditional brainstorming meetings while being inclusive and engaging. Studies show that brainwriting groups produced 20 % more ideas and 42% more original ideas than traditional brainstorming.
Amazon uses silent reading to improve meeting effectiveness. The presenter has to write the proposal thoroughly in a standard format. The first part of the meeting is given to the silent reading of the proposal. This ensures that no meeting pre-work is needed and everyone is on the same page. Since attendees can read faster than a presenter can speak, the same time is used to study the idea more extensively. This leads to much more in-depth discussions.
Avoid call-in meetings
Call-ins encourages multitasking, a lack of engagement, and poor communication due to missing nonverbal cues. Whenever possible, it is best to make attendees join via video. If this is not possible, here are some ways to steer the meeting:
Leverage offline activity
When meetings involve more than five people, they must be supplemented with offline activities. After a quick initial meeting, each challenge is allocated to a sub-team to be discussed offline. Later, sub-team representatives meet with the meeting leader to discuss and make decisions. This approach shifts a lot of work offline and keeps meetings focused and minimal.
Employing some of these meeting techniques in your organization can fix the current broken state of meetings. Your attendees will thank you for valuing their time. This will bring in fresh energy, break communication barriers, and unleash higher productivity. Ultimately, successful meetings can inspire others and become a part of the organizational culture.