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| November 17, 2015

by Jim Bruce

We all attend too many meetings.  Some are initiated by others and we attend to contribute.  And some are our meetings, designed to further our team’s work.  Some of them are productive and some are not.  And, everyone I’ve talked to yearns for fewer of them.
This week’s Tuesday Reading is drawn from Amy Gallo’s essay The Condensed Guide to Running Meetings.”  Gallo, a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work, draws on the work of Paul Axtell author of Meetings Matter:  8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations and a personal effectiveness consultant, and Francesca Gino, Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and author of Sidetracked:  Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How we Can Stick to the Plan.
In the essay, Gallo makes seven suggestions for making meetings more effective:
1.  Keep the meeting as small as possible.  Gallo suggests no more than seven people.   However, no specific number is really magic.  Keeping the number small is, however, beneficial.  As the number of people in the room increases, it becomes harder to track, and pick-up on, body language.  And, as the group gets larger, it is harder to give everyone an opportunity to make meaningful contributions.  Axtell says that in his experience limiting attendance to four or five people is the only way to make sure that everyone has a chance to talk in a 60-minute meeting. 
In large meetings in addition to not everyone having an opportunity to talk, many won’t see a need to talk.  Gallo reports “Social psychology research has shown that when people perform group tasks (such as brainstorming or discussing information in a meeting), they show a sizable decrease in individual effort as compared to when they perform alone.
Sometimes, large meetings are unavoidable.  You need to plan more carefully for these meetings and to have a skilled facilitator to help you lead them.
2.  Ban laptop computers and handheld devices.  Using such devices distracts the person who turns his or her attention to it.  And, it distracts others in the meeting.  Multitasking has been shown by many researchers to be a mythical activity.  “Studies show that a person who is attempting to multitask takes 50% longer to accomplish a task and he or she makes 50% more mistakes.”  Gallo also writes “we feel annoyed when others are on their devices during a meeting.”  And, “we fail to realize that our actions will have the same effects on others when we are engaging in them.”  So, if they actually reduce our own productivity and annoy each other, why do we do it?
3.  Keep the meeting as short as possible – preferably, no longer than an hour.  Research suggests that while groups stay more focused if the meeting is shorter, you shouldn’t rush over your agenda.  Adjust the length of the meeting to permit the work to get done.  If the meeting is to talk through an issue, make sure that the meeting is long enough for each attendee to voice his or her ideas, to build on one another, and to reach a conclusion.  It’s important to avoid truncating important conversations.
4.  Stand-up meetings are productive.  Data demonstrates that stand-up meetings really work.  Allen Bluedorn and his colleagues at the University of Missouri concluded that stand-up meetings were about 34% shorter than sit-down meetings and equally as productive.  You may want to try a short stand-up meeting with a single, relatively short agenda item.
5.  Make sure everyone participates;  cold-call those who don’t.  Some individuals want to speak but for any one of a number of reasons will only speak if they are called upon.  Such individuals may have the best perspective so they need to be asked to contribute.  Gallo notes that this is good for the meeting and good for the development of the individuals you call upon.  “Just by asking people in the meeting for their opinion, you’re going to raise their commitment to the issues being discussed.”  (If you know someone is likely not to speak unless called upon, warn them that you plan to call upon them because you believe they have something important to contribute to the discussion.)
6.  Never hold a meeting just to update people.  Don’t hold meetings just to transfer information.  That can be just as effectively done by email.  Meetings consume an individual’s “executive resources,” those resources necessary to commit to, focus on, and make decisions about a course of action.  Since these resources are finite, we should not cause them to be unnecessarily consumed.
7.  Always distribute an agenda that makes clear the purpose of the meeting and the work needed to be done to prepare to attend.  Designing the meeting, identifying the preparation required, and sending out an agenda in advance are all necessary components of a successful meeting.  Doing this work gives you, the person calling the meeting, the unique opportunity to clarify your intentions and think through the forces that could make it difficult to accomplish your goals.
Everyone I meet tells me that they spend too much time in meetings.  You have the responsibility to make sure that your meetings are designed to make the best use of everyone’s time as you reach a conclusion to the issues you hope the meeting will address and resolve.
Do everything you can to make this a great week.  .  .  .    jim