Running effective meetings

Evidence and potential

In large organizations, up to 75% of a manager’s time can be spent in, or preparing for, meetings. (Small organizations get by with far less – only 10% of your time if you work in an organization of 10 people or less).

And time is money. You can get an approximate cost of your meeting by adding up the annual salaries of the attendees and dividing that number by 1000. That gives you the approximate cost per hour of your meeting1.

Research also finds that, on average, people rate one in three of the meetings they go to as ‘poor’2, and this has a significant impact on their overall level of job satisfaction.

So, meetings can be an expensive waste of people’s time. But they also have the potential to lead to better decision-making and to help people feel more engaged at work. Google, for example, locate team members right next to each other so they can communicate easily and reduce the need for formal meetings.

What does the evidence tell us about how we can reduce the cost of meetings and make sure this time and money is well spent?

Meetings have certain characteristics that distinguish them from other group discussions:

Let's take these one by one.

Purpose

One way or another, a meeting’s primary task is normally to make decisions or have discussions.

Meetings also have social impact – they can support, engage or frustrate team members, and build or fragment a sense of community. This is often an ‘unintended consequence’ of the main task discussion and how it is handled, but some teams build a social task explicitly into a meeting’s purpose. An example would be a short slot at the beginning of a weekly team meeting where people are invited to share a brief personal or work-related reflection.

The measure of success of your meeting is whether the appropriate decisions get made, constructive discussions are held, and the overall social impact is positive. Clear objectives improve performance, so the objective for each item should be clearly stated.

Making decisions

The decisions made in a meeting can arise from a wide range of sources – from regular reviews of performance, to solving specific problems, to planning next month’s work – but the hallmark of a decision item is that a decision to take action can, and will, be made at the meeting. For example, the decision may be to change a process in order to improve performance, to delegate responsibility to a team member to solve the specific problem, or to consult with customers on a potential new product. But it cannot be a decision item if the person authorised to make the decision is not present.

Discussion

This can be anything from an early stage discussion of an emerging opportunity or threat, a creative problem-solving discussion, through to a team leader inviting the team’s views on a decision that will be made somewhere else. In practice it also often covers a ‘catch-up’ information exchange where team members give a quick review of what they are working on.

Social impact

There is clear evidence that active participation in decision-making and discussion influences how effective people feel the meeting was, and improves people’s engagement and job satisfaction.

People are also more likely to get involved if they feel the meeting has been set up and is being run well.

So two fairly simple actions that we discuss below can improve both the effectiveness of meetings, and their positive psychological impact – organize the meeting effectively, and make sure you encourage everyone to contribute. You do not want ‘first and loudest’ syndrome, with the same voices dominating the meeting each time and the same people staying silent. 

It is worth noting that the larger the meeting, the lower the levels of involvement and effectiveness people report, so if you are going to involve more than ten people you will need to find specific ways to engage them. Larger groups just cannot function effectively as decision-making teams in the normal sense of the word, and it may well be seen as dishonest to suggest they are, giving the pretence of influence over decisions when in reality there is none.

Who should attend?

To make the decision-making or discussion as effective as possible, have only the people you need in the room. (Big Silicon Valley companies famously have a “Two pizzas feeds everyone” rule). That will keep costs to a minimum, too.

In very general terms, research suggests 5 – 8 people to be an ideal number in order to bring in the expertise and diversity of thinking you need without incurring the ‘transaction costs’ of a larger group.

You may want your meeting to have a social impact beyond just efficient decision-making, though, so you will need to balance the desire to include some extra people against the cost and potential detriment to effective decision-making that the extra members might bring.

For how long?

No clear picture emerges from the evidence on how long an ideal meeting should last. An open discussion with team members about the ideal length of time for your particular meeting is possibly the best way forward. Sticking to stated start and end times does increase people’s perceptions of effectiveness, though.

There is a current fashion for keeping meetings short, sharp and to the point (eg 5 -10 minute ‘micro-meetings’; setting the default time in the organization for meetings to 15 minutes; Google’s timer clock visible in the room counting down to the meeting’s end). But these guidelines could be specifically appropriate to Silicon Valley or digitally-focussed businesses.

However, short meetings clearly cost less than longer meetings, and there is evidence that ‘stand-up’ meetings shorten meetings by 25% with no perceived deterioration in decision quality.

Structure

There is clear evidence that having an agenda for the meeting, and sending it out in time for people to prepare before the meeting improves the meeting’s effectiveness. The objective of the item, whether it is for decision or discussion, and any background papers should be included. (Amazon have an interesting way to make sure the agenda and material are read before a meeting – the first thirty minutes of the meeting are spent in silence while people read the background papers).

Running the meeting

Your aim is to have a meeting that is effective from the task point of view – ie a decisions are made and/or a constructive discussion takes place - and has a positive social impact – ie people feel satisfied with the meeting. Research shows that if people think the meeting has been effective from the task point of view, that goes a long way to helping them to feel psychologically satisfied too. But you can increase their satisfaction further by showing fairness, respect for all team members and encouraging people to contribute.

Sending out the agenda beforehand, meeting in a suitable place, starting and finishing the meeting on time, with all the agenda items covered have all been shown to lead to more active involvement and greater satisfaction.

You have four key tasks:

Introducing each item

This should be taken care of in the circulated pre-meeting agenda and any background papers that you have organized, so will just need a one-line introduction from you. If not, it can be done here, but you should not state your own views on the topic at this stage as research shows that will discourage an open discussion. Disagreement, well-handled, is essential for effective discussion.

Facilitating the discussion

Facilitating a discussion well means taking the team through a systematic process of exchanging information and ensuring everyone can contribute what they know. It is quite a skill to make this happen in a way that means you don’t just get a few people speaking with everyone else holding back. You can find out how to do this in the section on effective teamwork.

If the item involves creative problem solving it helps to know a few specific evidence-based techniques that will help the team – brainstorming, Six Thinking Hats and so on. You can find descriptions of six great techniques at the creativity and innovation section.

If you are going beyond the discussion and actually making a decision, outlining the criteria for your decision is important as a first step, followed by the exchange of information and an evaluation of the options identified, again with everyone contributing. You can find out more about this in the good decision making section.

Finally, you should clarify who will make the decision. Will this decision be made by the team leader after listening to the team discussion? Is it delegated to the most expert member on this issue in the team? Is it a vote? All of these methods can work in the right situation. You can get more help on which method might be right for you from the sections on consultation and delegation and choosing the best solution.

Timekeeping

A simple, but essential, task. Starting and finishing on time and achieving agenda expectations influence people’s view of the meeting’s effectiveness and their satisfaction with it.

Ensuring actions, responsibilities, timelines are agreed

Finally, ensure that decisions are recorded, and responsibility for implementation allocated to a single person, with timelines for follow-up. You may want to identify some people to act in support, and others who need to be consulted or informed about progress. The section on allocating roles and responsibilities will help you to do this well.

Conclusions

1. Given the large number of meetings most employees attend, their expense, and influence on job satisfaction, making even modest improvements will likely pay substantial dividends.

2. Knowing how to set up and lead meetings effectively is an essential leadership skill.

3. Meeting ‘mechanics’ – having a clear purpose for each item, a decent room, having only the people you need in the room, circulating an agenda and information beforehand, starting and finishing on time - make a big difference to effectiveness and satisfaction.

4. Being skillful at managing team dynamics, and using the best evidence-based processes for making decisions and creative problem-solving with your team, will make a big difference to effectiveness and satisfaction.

Quick Tips for teams

Reduce the cost of your meetings

For each meeting you are responsible for, ask yourself or your team:

1. What is the purpose of this meeting?

2. Do we need it? If it's a regular meeting, do we need it so frequently?

3. What is the cost? Could we sensibly reduce the cost? Reduce the length of the meeting? Reduce attendees? Do we need everyone there every time? (Some teams have a regular core group, and invite others in when their expertise is needed.)

Do I need to go?

For each meeting you are invited to, ask yourself:

1. Do I know the purpose and what is required of me?

2. Am I really needed? For the whole meeting, or just a part?

Reviewing your meeting's effectiveness

Review each of your meetings with team members. It is important to involve your team in the review. Team leaders tend to have a rosy view of how effective the team find the meetings! (And, yes, that is research-based.):

1. Is the planning good enough - agendas and papers circulated before the meeting, timings kept to?

2. Is the discussion handled well enough so that the meeting is not dominated by a small number of 'first and loudest' members?

3. Do you make decisions well together?

4. Do you solve problems creatively and well together?

5. Are actions, responsibilities and timelines agreed? Are they systematically followed up?

'No meetings' days

Is it worth experimenting with specific days of the week when meetings are allowed, and days when they are not?

 

1The number of hours we typically spend at work is approximately 35 hours per week for 47 weeks of the year (1645 hours). The full cost to the organization for a staff member is somewhere between 1.4  to 1.9 times their salary (to include tax, pensions etc). If we say, for convenience, it is 1.645 x their salary then their cost per hour to the organization is their annual salary divided by 1000.

2See Allen, Lehmann-Willenbrook and Rogelberg (Eds) The Cambridge Handbook of Meeting Science, Cambridge University Press 2015 for a recent compendium of research on meetings